If you lived through the Age of Enlightenment, you probably didn't know it. Likewise, the Age of Reason. Or the Age of Innocence. But the Age of Harry? For Muggles not to know they've been living through the Potter Era would be like not noticing a Hogwarts' commencement exercise marching through their living room. Or the noseless Voldemort sitting in the breakfast nook.
When "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" opens July 15 (actually midnight July 14 at many theaters), it will mark the end of something -- though probably not entirely the enchanted Pottermania that has made the series the most popular in film history. And which has helped sell 450 million copies of the seven J.K. Rowling novels on which the movies are based. Certainly, when the second half of the last movie is finally released -- in 3-D, which was still more or less a novelty when the inaugural "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was released in 2001 -- it will free Daniel Radcliffe (age 21), Rupert Grint (22) and Emma Watson (21) from the characters that have defined their young lives (and made them, one hastens to add, financially independent). It will mean more free time for a big bunch of older British actors (see sidebar). And it will make finite, in a way, the Potter Generation: kids, many of whom are no longer kids, who read the books, saw the movies, were disappointed when they turned 11 and didn't get an invitation to Hogwarts Academy, and will see the conclusion of the films as a bittersweet punctuation point on the entirety of their childhoods.
It's been 15 years since the whole thing started (with the books), 10 since the movies began, and while David Yates hasn't been on it that long, he seemed ready to leave the wizards behind. When the last installment was "98 percent in the can," the director -- the fourth to take on "Potter" (after Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell) -- said he often met the same kind of question. " 'With three directors before you, a book, other source material, what is it that you DO?' And I say, 'A lot, actually!' But it goes back to that notion that it doesn't belong to anybody. I can truly say this belongs to the audience; that's what it feels like to me."
Audiences would agree: The movies -- which have made a tidy $6.4 billion for Warner Bros. -- have 28 million Facebook friends; the books have been translated into 60 languages. Rowling recently unveiled a website called Pottermore (pottermore.com), intended to develop characters and plot lines already in books and allow readers to interact with and navigate the wizardly world of Harry Potter, about which there are already 18,000 new words on character histories and the houses at Hogwarts school, for example. Pottermaniacs reportedly can register on the site July 31, Harry Potter's birthday.
"Deathly Hallows" was originally intended as one movie but later split in two -- ostensibly because the narrative was so fat (but no one missed the point that two movies are far more profitable than one). In it, Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger continue to search out horcruxes -- objects that contain a fragment of a soul, and which the evil Voldemort (aka You Know Who, aka He Who Must Not Be Named, aka the Dark Lord) is using to both attain immortality and achieve total control of the Wizarding World. What "Deathly Hallows Part 2" promises is an apocalyptic battle between the forces of dark and light, several untimely deaths and a denouement that will bring full circle Rowling's subtle Christian allegories and politically nuanced metaphors about torture, "blood purity" and the corrupting effects of power.
Will Harry have a lasting effect on the culture? Undoubtedly. Fans have learned all sorts of terms specific to the seven novels -- "hippogriffs" and "kneazles" are creatures, an "animagus" and a "mudblood" (though derisive) are people. But the characters themselves have been so well-defined we feel we know them -- and people like them: Few young women would be insulted by being referred to as a "Hermione"; not everybody wants to be a "Weasley" (the perpetual second fiddle, despite his occasional act of bravery). Similarly, if you want to insult someone, call him or her a Dursley (them, and their family).
The idea of Muggledom, too, is fraught with mixed interpretation: To be a Muggle means to be an outsider in the world of wizards, a forever-inferior creature who can never truly belong with Harry and his ilk. And yet, who ever felt that way about it? One of J.K. Rowling's gifts is that she can create a world in which the exclusionary, magical nature of her characters -- the thing that should have distanced them from their nonmagical audience -- is the very thing that made the audience feel that it belonged. Harry could never vanish entirely, not even if he and his movies were somehow wrapped in a Cloak of Invisibility. But the pang that hits the Potter People, when that final movie rolls to a close, will probably feel a lot like homesickness.
What characters those 'Potter' actors are
BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday
The insistence by J.K. Rowling that the "Harry Potter" movies be cast with British or Irish actors has been a bonus for followers of the film series: Some of the best character actors in the world have made their way through the seven previous movies, including Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Shirley Henderson, John Cleese, David Thewlis, John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Zoe Wanamaker, Toby Jones and Miriam Margolyes. Here's a guide to some of the Brits (and one Scotswoman) you'll see in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2."
JIM BROADBENT (Professor Horace Slughorn) -- "Deathly Hallows Part 2" isn't the first "HP" for the beloved Broadbent; he was also in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" -- and seemingly every other movie of recent years that's been cast with Englishmen. A regular in the films of Mike Leigh, most recently "Another Year" (2010) but perhaps most memorably in "Topsy-Turvy" (1999) -- in which he played the Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan -- Broadbent is among the screen's more versatile actors, playing kings and vagabonds with equal aplomb, and eccentricity.
MAGGIE SMITH (Professor Minerva McGonagall) -- A six-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner (for 1969's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and 1978's "California Suite"), Smith plays the imperious Hogwarts instructor with the same authority she has brought to the stage and screen since her acting debut in the mid-1950s.
GEMMA JONES (Madame Pomfrey) -- A vet of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," Jones is a familiar face to fans of PBS-imported Brit fare -- she was in "The Duchess of Duke Street," "Inspector Morse," the P.D. James adaptation "Devices and Desires" and "MI-5." Another much-respected and versatile English actress, she also appeared in the two "Bridget Jones" movies, Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) and Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" (2010).
JULIE WALTERS (Molly Weasley) -- Americans of a certain age may associate Walters with her Oscar-nominated performance in "Educating Rita" (1983), but the actress-comedian is beloved in the U.K. for consistently putting flesh and blood on English working-class characters. One of the more delightful aspects of the "Potter" casting has been the opportunity to see Walters create, and re-create, the role of the Weasley matriarch.
KELLY MACDONALD (Helena Ravenclaw) -- She did wonderful things for a girls-school uniform in "Trainspotting" back in 1996, and since then has appeared in the very British "Elizabeth" (1998), "Gosford Park" (2001), "Finding Neverland" (2004) and "Tristram Shandy" (2005). The popular Scot actress also paired up neatly with the very New York-accented Michael Rispoli for Raymond De Felitta's "Two Family House" (2000) and was Josh Brolin's doomed wife in "No Country for Old Men." She's received critical acclaim as the mysterious, ambitious widow Margaret Schroeder in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."