When I look back on the eight “Harry Potter” movies, the first of which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, what strikes me most about the experience isn’t what was happening on screen — it’s what was happening in the seat next to mine. As the Seattle Times movie critic, I was lucky enough to attend advance screenings for the films, and for all but the first one my nephew Tyler accompanied me: a squirmy little boy for the first one, a tall young man by the end. It seemed to happen instantly, like the wave of a wand — just like that, a kid grew up.
That’s essentially what the Harry Potter story, originally created by J.K. Rowling as a series of books, is about: that journey of growing up and learning who you are, and realizing that it means more when you have friends by your side. For a moment of sweet nostalgia, take a look at the original 2001 “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” trailer: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, all 10 or 11 years old when cast, just look so very small. Now in their 30s, the actors are pretty much stuck in our consciousness as teenagers — but here, they’re just little kids, still learning the rudiments of acting (though they became very skilled as the films went on) and looking as dazzled as we were.
But they weren't quite as little as Tyler when I began to bring him. He didn't join me for the first film; for that, I hosted a group of kids who won a Seattle Times writing contest — the prize being a spot on our "Harry Potter Panel" and a ticket to attend the screening with me.
For the second film on, it was all Tyler and me. He was 7-years-old when I surprised him on a Saturday morning (his parents, in on the plan, told him he had to get up and dressed to go to Home Depot) and whisked him off to an advance screening of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” We chatted last month about it; now 26, he remembered “some sort of trickery” before going to the film but was too young then to recall much about the exact event now, other than being thrilled. He was already, at 7, a proud citizen of the Potterverse — they were “the first thick books that I read,” he said, remembering reading the books in first or second grade. “They just felt like serious books,” he said. “The stories were incredible.”
From that "Chamber of Secrets" screening, I remember Ty watching some of the film with his arms stretched out in the air as he sprawled across his seat; very relaxed and very engrossed. And I remember our movie snack tradition beginning there: As Tyler was there as my unpaid assistant, he was entitled to whatever he wanted from the snack bar — which usually meant a large popcorn drowned in "butter" and studded with Raisinets. "I'm sure it was disgusting and appalling," he said now, laughing. (No, he doesn't eat like that anymore. I still love movie popcorn, though.)
For the rest of the series, he was always my "Harry Potter" plus-one; others asked, but Tyler had first dibs and he always said yes. (There was one other Times contest midway through the series, with another group of kids winning tickets to join me for the film, but by then I was firm that Tyler got to come too.) By the time of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," the last movie in the series, he was a very tall 16-year-old. I had wondered if, as a teen, he might grow tired of going to movies with his aunt, but it had become a tradition for us.
Tyler remembers those movies, coming roughly once a year or so, as signposts in his life — "another year passed, another Harry Potter movie. Obviously I grew up alongside the movies in terms of age, so it definitely felt a little bit like a check-in. It was always super-special." It was his first blockbuster franchise, and "it felt very exciting every year to go see a new one."
Ty and I haven't gone to a movie together in a long time; he went to college on the East Coast and settled there after graduation, so he isn't in Seattle much anymore. But I still love talking to him about movies — he's now a serious film buff (who still enjoys occasionally re-watching the "Harry Potter" movies with friends) — and I'll definitely text him when I watch the reunion special. Because I can't think about Harry Potter's journey without thinking of Tyler's and mine: that quiet magic of transformation — a child becomes an adult; an adult, looking on, still fondly sees the child — that takes place every day.
"What happened to that little boy you used to bring to these screenings?" a colleague asked at the "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," screening, as if scripted. I pointed to Tyler's head, high above mine: "He's still here."
Moira Macdonald (email@example.com) is an arts critic for the Seattle Times, where this piece originally appeared.