Coming soon: Harry Potter and Movie's Curse?

Ten-year-old Hannah Dischinger knows Harry Potter's world as well as she knows her own. In fact, she has read J.K. Rowling's three blockbuster books so many times - 21 readings of the first book alone - that her mother finally took them away and told her to read something else.

"I think I really do see Harry Potter's world," says Hannah. "I see through Harry Potter's eyes when I read those books."

Like millions of children, Hannah will be waiting to snap up a copy of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" the moment she can get to a Denver bookstore July 8, the book's official release date in the US and Britain. But it may be the last time she will ever see the magical world of Hogwarts School through Harry's eyes - or her own imagination.

As the publishing world celebrates an unprecedented first-run printing of 5.3 million copies (3 million more than the average John Grisham novel), Harry Potter merchandising agreements and a movie (expected in 2001) mean that soon children's imaginations will be flooded with somebody else's images of their beloved wizard and his wonderfully wacky world.

And that, say many children's advocates, is a shame.

They argue that, while there's no turning back what one observer calls the "Disneyfication of Harry Potter," it's worth taking the time - in homes and classrooms - to consider the costs of commercializing the experience of childhood reading.

It's especially worth doing, they say, in the case of the Harry Potter books, which have been credited with getting huge numbers of children to discover the pleasures of reading.

"It's really important to think about this, and to talk about this," says Diane Levin, an expert in child development and media and the author of "Remote Control Childhood." "When kids read a book, they bring what they know to it. They create their own pictures and images. In some ways it allows them to bring their own agenda to what they're reading.

"But once all the images are given to them," says Ms. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, "it becomes much harder to do that. It makes them less creative, less imaginative."

Child-development experts like Levin say children learn best when they play games that allow them to use their own creativity to solve problems and develop a sense of self.

It's the kind of play that many children have engaged in as a result of reading the Harry Potter books - taking on the identities of Harry and his friends and acting out games of their own imagining.

"What is really so astonishing about Harry Potter, is that it became a popular phenomenon as a book, as nothing more nor less than a book," says Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center at the Judge Baker Center for Children in Boston. "It came at a time when the purveyors of pop culture are saying that children have no attention span, that everything has to have bells and whistles, that to get kids to read, they need to watch television. And Harry Potter proved them wrong."

Don't save her a seat at the theater

Nine-year-old Maggie Thulson, who attends the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning with Hannah, says she and her friends often play Harry Potter games.

Sometimes, she says, they make up characters of their own - even creating a twin sister for their hero. Maggie's already made up her mind that she won't be seeing the movie.

"I want to keep my own imagination," Maggie says. "In movies you see pictures, instead of getting to make them up in your own mind. I don't like looking at the cover of the book because it shows what Harry looks like. I have all these weird pictures [in my mind]. Like a character that's really blue, and I see it as orange."

Although many children's books have been made into movies - "Stuart Little," "Harriet the Spy," and "Madeline" among them - those books generally had been around for decades before they were transferred from print to screen.

In the case of Harry Potter, that transformation is occurring before Ms. Rowling even finishes writing the seven books.

It's a commercial intrusion, say some experts, that's worth resisting.

"This is an excellent opportunity for parents just to put their foot down at this commercial exploitation of children," says Ms. Linn, whose daughter is an avowed Potterite.

"I recommend they just don't buy the products. I don't think people have thought about this," says Linn. "Ask parents: 'What is your child going to gain from this? How much more will all this stuff enhance your child's pleasure of reading the book?'

'What's wrong with a movie?'

Not everyone, however, is alarmed by the prospect of Harry Potter coming to life in other forms.

Some observers speculate that the movie may lead some children to read the book. And there's no way, they say, that a movie could ever encompass all the plot twists and details of Rowling's books.

"It's easy to have a cynical response, to say that people are exploiting this wonderful book for every penny," says Catherine Devereaux, a contributing editor to the children's section of Publisher's Weekly magazine in New York. "But if kids want to play with Harry Potter glasses, I can understand that. In fact, having Harry Potter props maybe can add to some children's experience of the book, by letting them live more in the book.

"But I would hate to see the movie limit the ability of a child to imagine the book for himself," Ms. Devereaux adds. "That's the only risk."

Maggie Thulson's older brother Fred, who is 12 and has read all three books, says he's willing to take that risk.

He says he'll stay away from most of the merchandising - although he might buy a poster. He's planning to see the movie, too, but Fred thinks it might not be such a good idea for people who haven't read the book first to go.

"It will probably alter [my image of Harry Potter's world] a bit," Fred says. "It might mess me up a bit, but I think I can go right back to where I was before."

The creativity the book provides is something Jennifer Wood, a fourth-grade teacher at the Rocky Mountain School for Expeditionary Learning, plans to preserve. "I'm hoping that the pureness, the joy of the book, can be maintained," says Ms. Wood, who reads the books aloud to her students and plans on keeping Harry Potter merchandising out of her classroom. "But that's pretty tricky."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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