Daniel Radcliffe found fame playing the eponymous wizard in Harry Potter.

Harry Potter at 20: how the magical wizarding world changed us all – for better or for worse

Posted by for Film

As Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone celebrates its 20th anniversary, we take a look back at how the franchise shaped a generation.

“So, what’s your Hogwarts house?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count – and one I’ve posed myself more times than I care to admit. In fact, my very first date with my partner saw us bond almost instantaneously over our shared Hufflepuff connection. Oh sure, we may have preferred to be a glamorous Gryffindor (me) or an oh-so-edgy Slytherin (him), but we knew in our heart of hearts that we hailed from the most down-to-earth of the Hogwarts houses. And thus a romance blossomed, and a lasting relationship was born. 

Of all seven Harry Potter novels (and the stage play), Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone is the most popular of JK Rowling’s books by a pretty hefty margin. In fact, the first book in the franchise has sold approximately 120 million copies around the world – and that number just keeps going up as the years creep by.

The film adaptation – starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron, and Hermione respectively – was also incredibly well received when it hit the UK box office all those years ago on 16 November 2001. 

In the UK alone, it remained at number one for five weeks, making £66.1 million and becoming the country’s second-highest-grossing film of all-time (after Titanic), with similar results achieved across the world. It was, to put it bluntly, one of the biggest movie moments of that year. 

Strike that, actually: it was one of the biggest movie moments of that decade.

Harry Potter immersive dining experience London
Harry Potter may be over 20 years old, but fans remain obsessed to this very day.

Just last year, too, Philosopher’s Stone was re-released in several countries, clocking up a cool global total of $1.002 billion. The appetite for the franchise’s OG story, it seems, is still very much there. Indeed, to quote the late Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape, it seems it will be there “always”.

Why, though? Why are so many of us still addicted to a franchise that’s well over two decades old? 

The psychological impact of Harry Potter

“There are a multitude of reasons why so many people remain committed and connected to these stories,” says psychologist, TV presenter, writer and expert media commentator Emma Kenny.

“They provoke nostalgia, which is a powerful emotion to experience and one that has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety – something which will undoubtedly have been important to many of us during the events of last year.

Nostalgia also makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. And this powerful state of reflection is particularly useful when encountering emotionally difficult periods.”

Now, in the past, theorists tended to think of nostalgia as a bad thing – a retreat in the face of uncertainty, stress or unhappiness. In 1985, psychoanalytic theorist Roderick Peters described extreme nostalgia as debilitative, something “that persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances.”

However, there is also no denying that nostalgia can be a stabilising force, too. As Krystine Batcho, a licensed psychologist and a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York who researches nostalgia, puts it: “When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down.”

“It’s comforting,” she adds. “It’s analogous to a hug from your mom or dad or being cuddled. [And it harkens] back to what we might, even erroneously, perceive as a simpler time in our life with fewer responsibilities and obligations and fewer worries.”

This makes a lot of sense to me, quite frankly; I’ve found myself re-listening to the Harry Potter audiobooks a lot over the past year, and I imagine this is almost… well, almost a comfort blanket for the mind, helping to shield me from all that’s happened over the past two years.

The millennial generation’s enduring love for Harry Potter

Even before the whole Covid thing, however, there’s no denying that the mythos of Harry Potter has seeped into many of our everyday lives. As such, countless millennials remain thoroughly obsessed with the franchise – it’s one of the many, many, many things that Gen Zers mock us for on an almost daily basis. Not that we care, mind you.

“So many of my friends share my love for Harry Potter,” says Christine, 33. “In fact, my first ever conversation with one of my closest pals was about the Harry Potter books after I spied them on his university bookshelf. It immediately made him friend-worthy, in my estimation!”

Emmy, 30, recalls the big moment when she first met the ‘Boy Who Lived’, noting: “I read my first Harry Potter book when I was nine, and was immediately hooked. I stood in long midnight queues for the latest release, then stayed up flicking through pages until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I read and reread until the bindings fell apart and the front covers fell off.

“In many ways, my love of Harry Potter formed who I am today. In my professional career, I am an entertainment writer and editor – with plenty published on Wizarding World – and the series will always have a special place in my heart.”

Meanwhile, Moya, 29, tells me: “I’d say I was a medium-level Potterhead. I’ve never written Grindelwald fanfiction or got a Hedwig tattoo, but I could tell you the name of the man who ran the ice cream parlour on Diagon Alley, and I have done the Pottermore quiz – humiliatingly, I remain slightly proud of being a Gryffindor. I still listen to Stephen Fry’s readings of the books on Audible when I’m feeling stressed or sad, too – they’re just so intensely comforting.”

Slytherin is the most underrated Harry Potter house
The Harry Potter Studio Tour London opened to the public in 2012 and has since welcomed up to 6,000 visitors a day during peak times.

Elsewhere, Rowan, 31, says: “Harry Potter is the series that was with me from the age of 10 right up until I turned 18. It’s literally woven into the fabric of who I am for that reason. I feel exactly the same way now as I have always felt about it. It’s home in my head.”

Another die-hard member of the global Harry Potter fanclub (who prefers not to be named) tells me that she “fully began to mistrust my colleague when I learned she’d been sorted into Slytherin,” admitting that she genuinely does judge people based on the results of their Pottermore personality test results. Bex, 29, says she rewatches all of the Harry Potter movies every single Christmas – in costume and clutching a bowl of Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavoured Beans, no less. And 32-year-old Tamara – who can still remember the exact moment she came face-to-face with Harry Potter – says the series has become part of her family.

“Every single time I go home, we watch the Harry Potter films,” she says. “It’s the only film my whole family will sit and watch together, even though we’ve seen it so many times.

“I think I love that they’re just a bunch of misfits,” she adds. “And it still makes me cry, because the lessons it teaches us apply so well to adult life, too. Even something as simple as having a little bit of courage. So, if I ever had kids, I would get them the books. I would show them the films. I would take them into that world with me.”

Honestly, I received countless more responses to the ad I took out in the Daily Prophet (fine, the post I shared on social media) calling for grown-up Harry Potter fans to tell me just how much the franchise still impacts their lives. Indeed, a good visual representation of the messages that poured in would undoubtedly be that iconic scene from the first film. 

You know, the one where owls and letters begin pouring into 4 Privet Drive via every single nook and cranny, prompting Harry to jump around excitedly in a bid to snatch one up? Rather than, y’know, pick one up off the floor like any sensible Ravenclaw would’ve in his position? That one.

People have fed me the quotes that have stayed with them well into adulthood, the movie-inspired holidays they’ve taken. They’ve told me about the arguments they’ve had over perceived plot holes, and the seemingly never-ending supply of oh-so-relatable memes. They’ve shared sweet stories about the friendships they’ve formed with fellow fans, and the fallouts they’ve had with those people who “just don’t get it.” They’ve confessed to taking HP tours all over the world; tours that they’ve paid through the nose for.

Above all else, they’ve revealed that a sneaky part of them believes (just as a tiny kernel of them still believes in Father Christmas) that the magical wizarding world is… well, that it’s real, somehow. That their Hogwarts letter got lost in the post. That there’s still a chance they will lean, ever so casually, against the wall at King’s Cross and fall through it onto Platform 9 ¾.

Understanding Harry Potter’s unique staying power

Why, though, has Harry Potter remained such a staple part of a millennial’s makeup? Well, Kenny explains that it’s not so much about the magic, and way more about the timing.

Harry Potter gave us a timeless world where it seemed anything was possible and where good inevitably triumphed over bad eventually,” the psychologist tells me.

“When the books became blockbuster movies, fans were able to literally grow up with Harry, Hermione and Ron. And, because there was something incredibly relatable about these characters, many fans felt and still feel an enduring connection.”

396869 12: A view of the banner for the premiere of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" November 4, 2001 in London. (Photo by UK Press/Getty Images)
The first Harry Potter premiered to rave reviews in November 2001.

Kenny adds: “It’s also important to remember that Harry Potter was released at a unique time in our history; social media was in its infancy, enabling fans all over the world to connect over their shared love of the novels and films. Whole communities sprung up, allowing those who joined them to feel a part of something greater than the single self.

“Connectedness and belongingness are incredibly important for positive mental health and wellbeing and these groups offered and continue to offer solace to many.”

Separating the art from the artist

But there is, of course, an elephant in the room – or perhaps that should be a Hippogriff in the pumpkin patch – which needs to be addressed: the conflicting emotions that so many millennials feel about the franchise in the wake of JK Rowling’s controversial comments on gender identity.

“Like many, I have found involvement in the fandom a challenge in recent years following ill-advised comments from the very person who created the magic in the first place,” says Emmy regretfully.

“It seems so sad that someone who taught young readers everywhere that you can be brave enough to do what’s right, smart enough to choose the right side, loyal enough to stand by your friends and ambitious enough to achieve whatever you set your mind to would then share opinions that I believe are so very different from what she once taught. I hope the messages of her stories are the ones that stay in people’s minds, to be honest.”

Christine agrees with Emmy’s take on the situation. “Rowling has saddened and disappointed me in recent years with her statements on trans people,” she says.

“It hasn’t taken away my love of the books, but it has taken away the fun of sharing this joy – there is now that association there.”

Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter Opening - Roaming Inside
After two decades, many adult Harry Potter fans are now sharing the stories with their own children.

Moya, meanwhile, tells me: “As someone who doesn’t believe that trans rights and women’s rights are contradictory, of course I have complex feelings about continuing to engage in JK Rowling’s work. But as a general rule, I believe it’s possible to separate the art from the artist.

“I also have a real soft spot for Harry Potter And The Sacred Text – it’s a podcast where the hosts read each chapter of the novels as though it’s a section of a holy book, analysing its themes and questioning its messages. They provide a really good model for how you can love something while still thinking critically about it, and without endorsing all the beliefs of its creator.”

And Rowan says: “Whatever is going on now will never negate the huge effect that the Harry Potter franchise has had on me.”

When I ask Kenny her thoughts, she notes: “Even with the controversy over JK Rowling, fans have mostly been able to separate the characters from their creator, which is a good thing; cancel culture can be dreadful, particularly when it demands the eradication of an entire community whilst failing to recognise all the good that it has created.

“The whole premise of the Harry Potter novels is to remind the reader that every single human being is unique and more powerful than they dare to imagine. Rowling ensured that none of her characters were perfect, and many fans have afforded her – or, rather, her published works – that same compassion.”

Personally, I am of the opinion that, once a writer releases their work into the world, it is no longer theirs; it belongs to the readers. And, as one of the children lucky enough to appear in the background of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone all those years ago (look for me in the Great Hall; I’m stood between Harry and Ron in the Sorting Hat scene, and sat swooning next to Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy during the first feast of the franchise), I don’t think I will ever be able to separate my world from that of the wizarding one. Not fully, anyway. 

And, at the very grown up age of 32, I’m not sure that I want to, either. Because, while real life has proven less than magical over the last few years, Harry Potter has reminded me, time and time again, that “happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

And if that makes me “cheugy” to Zoomers everywhere, so be it.

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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