The name Harry Potter in 2017 is inescapable. If you haven't read the books, you know something about his journey to Hogwarts and all of the misadventures that he has gone on. It helps that the movies were so successful that they inspired a spin-off series, which looks to expand the franchise for several more years. Its impact cannot be overstated, as it has changed the cultural zeitgeist in ways that may seem fleeting in a digital era. With over 500 million copies sold, it is the best selling book franchise in history. It's also one of the last truly influential series to hit bookshelves, appealing to young and old while becoming a household name instantaneously. While it seems like it'll never go away, it's hard to realize that it's been around for only 20 years. On this date in 1997, the boy who lived landed on the Dursley's doorstep. History was made, and the world was never the same.
The story behind "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (or "The Philosopher's Stone" in Europe) is almost as inspiring as its legacy. Author J.K. Rowling was a single mother who was struggling to make ends meet. She put her effort into writing this story about a boy who went to wizarding school that seemed a bit silly, especially as a series that would be expanded over seven books. Not since Stephen King's "Carrie" has a career had such lowly beginnings that what follows seems all the more impressive. When someone took a chance on Rowling's work, it ended up paying off. The book sold 107 million internationally, and in the process spawned one of the most lucrative franchise of the 21st century. There would be merchandise, movies, plays, and even theme parks made about Harry Potter. He was a phenomenon, and it all came from one writer's dream to dream bigger.
It's tough to discuss "The Sorcerer's Stone" without discussing everything that came since. It's in large part because everything that came later arguably improved upon the original. Whereas the first book had roughly 300 pages, the final book ("Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows") had around 760 pages. The series expanded with its audience, maturing with its readers while tackling tougher issues. In a way, Rowling's biggest genius was managing to show the evolution of character maturity over those seven books along with showing just how secretly layered with important information the early books were. It only makes the first story seem a bit more juvenile by comparison, in large part because it is. It's the story of a young boy who is discovering the world for the first time. It has to be full of wonder by default.
What's most impressive is how assured the first book is. The first chapter is wrapped in a mystery before Harry Potter is old enough to speak. Why is he being delivered to this world by a shape-shifting witch? Why is it important that he lived against He Who Must Not Be Named? While the evolution from there happens gradually, it does lead to some powerful scenery. Harry can talk to snakes. He meets the delightful Hagrid after banishing to an island. There's a sense that no matter how much his repressing relatives try to keep the inevitable from happening, it does. He is a wizard, and years of bullying won't stop him from fulfilling his career. From there, it's a journey into Diagon Alley and Hogwarts itself, where he meets the magical world that he will call home for years to come.
It would be easy to merely reference every great moment in the first book. Rowling manages to fill the world of magic with a strong curiosity that is somehow tangible. The Mirror of Erised in particular works beautifully on the page to show Harry's deeper desires. His teachers range in personality, though Professor Snape in particular is written in such a deceptive way that he gets a rewarding third act twist. For a book geared at children, it manages to be full of great prose that keeps the plot going and makes one desire to live in this world. By making a world of joy full of memorable characters, Rowling managed to make Harry (or any of the additional characters) feel familiar. It was a novel about school, but with a twist. It was about a student who could have a powerful impact on the school. It was emotionally rich even at its most silly.
Considering how memorable the majority of these characters become in later books, the set up is surprisingly strong. It does a great job in making us understand the bumbling nature of Ron Weasley, the book smarts of Hermione Granger, and the dastardly Draco Malfoy. Each of these characters evolve in more complex ways, much like the rules of Hogwarts. But for the first book, they are all just students with a bright future ahead of them. It's up to them to set the path in the direction that they wish to go. Still, it's hard to find a book with so many characters that are so charming that it lead to inspiring a generation of children to read while also getting adults hooked as well. It even lead to 504 million copies being sold internationally, and several controversial book bans in schools due to its depiction of witchcraft.
Still, it's tough to judge based on the first book how successful the franchise would become. It was a silly story full of inspired journeys. There's plenty that is iconic about Harry Potter's very appearance (lightning bolt scar, jet black hair) that it just sticks with the reader. However, it is the thrill of discovery that draws the reader in, and makes them want to know more about this curious new place. What journeys will this boy go on? What's incredible is that the payoff was actually well received and showed unprecedented success for a series that expanded beyond three books. It remains a phenomenon that will never go away as long as people dream of mixing magic with angst and adventure. That alone explains why the books are so successful, and why "The Sorcerer's Stone" started off this franchise on such a powerful first step. 20 years later, it seems quaint. But in 1997, it was the beginning of unexpected riches.