Great expectations

IN THE FULL-COURT press of postmodern marketing, one might wonder if any event or person or piece of art could possibly live up to its hype. Hard-sell media saturation can boost hopes to the stratosphere only to crash into disappointment when one finally confronts the real thing.

Just consider the "It" scooter, the latest Star Wars films and the majority of Super Bowls over the years.


But pop culture lovers hit gold twice in 2003, first with the work of a single mind, then with the work of 2,400 single-minded filmmakers.

Thousands of eager readers young and old crowded bookstores at midnight on a June Friday to grab the first sales copies of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; thousands of eager movie fans crowded select theaters for the late-night weekday opening of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Millions followed, and few have voiced disappointment.


Both works demand a lot of time and attention: The latest Harry Potter is nearly 900 pages, the latest Rings film nearly 3 1/2 hours long. And both reward the effort, with well-drawn characters bravely facing internal and external foes and trying to make the right choices to save their worlds. While the "smaller" story, focused on one teen-ager, the Harry books have turned millions of kids into readers, no small success when books compete with video games, TV and DVDs and other short-attention-span fare. The "war of the world" story, the Rings films have drawn older children and parents to talk about such topics as the power of one person, the nature of sacrifice, and the courage to fight for good when there is little hope of success.

Both works offer escape and pleasure, and perhaps insight and inspiration. Quite a few youngsters and adults are writing "fan fiction" Harry Potter stories, little pieces based on the characters, and posting them on Web sites, where Rings fiction (based on the J.R.R. Tolkien originals) has long been a fixture. Some moviegoers said they felt energized to make their own art, and make it better, after seeing such a masterful piece.

Each of these works transcends its genre, reaching out to people who just love well-told stories and believable portrayals of genuine emotion. They can survive close scrutiny and will draw debates and discussion great and small.

They will be enjoyed again and again - and we will be better for it.