It's hard to remember a time when words like "cauldron," "flying broomstick" and "witch" invoked thoughts of the Dark Ages, Halloween or a Shakespeare play; a time without words like "muggle" or pre-teen heartthrobs in blue jeans fighting evil with magic wands. That's because for over a decade, the "Harry Potter" phenomenon has swallowed up our imaginations when it comes to magical things.
The franchise (seven books, soon to be eight movies, eleventy-bajillion fans) first entered the world in 1997 with the publication of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone." The first part of the final film adaptation, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," has entered theaters. But here's the thing I wish more people asked about "Harry Potter" — is it a fantasy, or is it a 1990s period piece?
The franchise, both in print and on film, has always managed to maintain a relatively timeless quality. However, by dates established throughout the book series, Harry was born in the year 1980, and first attends Hogwarts after his 11th birthday, in 1991. The events of the final book occur over the 1996-1997 school year; if he were a real person, Harry would have turned 30 years old last summer.
This is only a big deal when you compare the magical world depicted to that particular era in the real world. For what "Harry Potter" showcases is that the 1990s can be defined not by what it had but what it didn't. No anachronistic attitudes towards race or gender, no outlandish fashions (besides a slight flannel addiction). With the exception of Monica Lewinsky, the first Iraq war and the dawn of the Internet age, the 1990s were pretty damn dull.
It's that Internet thing which proves key, and showcases just how much technology has changed the world we live in today. Take, for example, Harry Potter's owl Hedwig. Hedwig is a pet and faithful companion, but Hedwig is also Harry's primary means of communication, as she transports messages and packages between Harry and other wizards.
From an early '90s viewpoint, having a personally dedicated communication device at one's disposal as an alternative to the postal service is pretty impressive (even if sometimes it brings you the occasional half-dead rodent). Hedwig is even technically a mobile device, as she travels with Harry from place to place and has little trouble tracking his location.
But this all seems a lot less magic when you have a small plastic box that fits in a pocket, sends and receives messages and doesn't require feeding. A small plastic box that makes communication instant, wing-less.
Telephones in general are absent from the wizarding world, as are films, television, computers and the Internet — there's a radio network, but no modern technology beyond World War II has made much of an impact on their society. Synthetic materials are largely absent: Protective gloves are made from dragon's skin, cauldrons from iron, quills from real feathers — quills which they dip in bottled ink in order to write on parchment.
There's almost something medieval about the Harry Potter world, something determined to ignore modern advances. Wizards barely understand electricity: The explanation given in the fourth book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," being that highly magical places interfere with electronic devices. The implication of this is that wizards have no need to pay attention to the vast changes in technology made over those last fifty years, because magic fills in the gaps for them.
And you can see their point when it comes to much of the magic occurring at Hogwarts, which is well beyond what's possible today: Humans who can transform into animals, love and luck potions, flying broomsticks … Well, that one could be somewhat solved by jet packs, if only science would get off its ass about that.
That's not to say that there aren't crossovers between today's tech and Rowling's more magical ideas. For instance, in "Goblet of Fire," Harry and his friends attend the Quiddich World Cup, and their viewing of the wizard sporting event is assisted by magical goggles that allow the viewer to pause, fast-forward and rewind the action.
Sound like TiVo, but in real life? Sure — but "Goblet of Fire" was published in July 2000. TiVo and other DVR devices didn't enter the consumer electronics market until the year 1999, and TiVo itself wasn't available in the United Kingdom until 2000. While it's entirely possible that Rowling heard about TiVo during the course of writing the book, the implications DVR technology would have for watching live sports were still in their very early days, making it seem far more likely that the idea came to her independently.
There are also the magical photos and portraits which, while printed on paper, have the appearance of life to them. This gives the wizard newspaper The Daily Prophet an iPad-esque edge of multimedia, while the talking paintings at Hogwarts offer a glimmer of what Microsoft Kinect and other video chat solutions might offer.
Oh, and scientists have almost created an invisibility cloak — just like Harry's. Do these things mean that the wizarding world is in fact much more futuristic than I'm giving it credit for? Nah. For while isolated instances like these are proof of how expansive Rowling's imagination is, the general attitude of the wizarding world perhaps purposefully reflects the time period that the stories inhabit — a time when there was only the barest hint of how fast things were going to change.
This muddled quasi-archaic/quasi-futuristic approach wouldn't normally be so fascinating — after all, it's a fantasy series. Except that for as retro as the wizarding world might want to be, the film adaptations of "Harry Potter" books do try desperately to keep one foot in reality.
In "Prisoner of Azkaban," Alfonso Cuaron had the child actors wear their own clothes. In "Deathly Hallows, Part 1," the action is set not in a far-off castle, but on the streets of London, the kids fighting for their lives. And in all the films, the setting is kept deliberately generic, the background scrubbed clean of any indication that this is a world where magic is possible through scientific development as well as wands.
"Harry Potter" on the screen has managed to ground the fantasy elements of the story not just in the emotional realities of the storyline (it sucks to be without parents, it sucks to be poor, it sucks to have the boy or girl you like ignore you) but in a decidedly modern feel, largely by using appropriately-aged actors, real locations, and wardrobe that, without indicating any fashion trends, still manages to look modern.
Except that it isn't modern; it's a muddle of old attitudes and ideas about the role technology plays in our everyday lives, seen through the magical looking glass of the 12th richest lady in the United Kingdom.
The stories told by J.K. Rowling and adapted by Warner Bros. are full of adventure and humor and imagination — that's why they've engaged such a following. But at some point very soon, we're going to have to start calling "Harry Potter" a period piece. Because otherwise, when my children load these stories on their hover-Kindles, they're going to be pretty unimpressed.