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How Daniel Radcliffe helped shape a generation


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It’s been twenty years since the first Harry Potter book, the Philosopher’s Stone, came out. It’s been ten years since the last book, the Deathly Hallows, was released on the 21st July 2007. It was also two days later that Daniel Radcliffe turned 18, essentially entering adulthood. Understandably, in the minds of a generation that grew up reading and watching the unfolding of the Harry Potter franchise, Daniel Jacob Radcliffe and Harry James Potter are inseparably linked in global consciousness.

A survey conducted this year in Britain found that four in five of 18 to 24-year-olds identify as fans of the Harry Potter books and films. Part of this success is due to Daniel Radcliffe’s bringing Harry Potter to life through the big screen. These characters from the already-popular books weren’t just invisible friends anymore, eagerly pursued through lines of text on white pages.

Radcliffe transformed Harry into a real-life boy, coming of age right alongside our generation, learning similar lessons we did and facing obstacles we could somehow relate to. And yes of course he was acting, but in many ways, he was doing far more than that. Most people of this generation will agree that it’s difficult to separate Harry from Radcliffe, that the two are so similar in our minds that Daniel Radcliffe feels as much like a friend to us as Harry did.

Future generations will, and are, falling in love with Harry Potter also. Yet their experience will never quite match the experiences had by the Potter generation, those who truly grew up experiencing the anticipation and frenzied excitement of waiting for the next publication, the next film release, and to grow up alongside the actors and characters.

Radcliffe brought a tangible magic to the scrawny, spectacled boy; even whilst he gave Harry a new autonomy, independent from the corners of children’s imaginations, he somehow still preserved the sense that Harry belonged to us. He let us keep feeling that special connection to the character, because he wasn’t merely acting the part of Harry. He was Harry Potter.

Generally, people enjoy contemptibly pointing to millennials and labelling them cynical, self-absorbed, and selfish. They forget that it was this very generation that fell in love with and popularised an epic tale about the struggle between good and evil, the victory of love over hatred and fear, whilst also teaching that life and morality are often too complex to fit into a black or white dichotomy.

Rowling herself has said that Harry Potter was an “argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry”, and it likely has played a small role in why our generation is the most accepting of disenfranchised, marginalised groups. It’s nothing new for literature to impact readers’ social and political judgements, but such a wide-reaching message delivered through popular media has unquestionably left a mark on this generation, and all for the better.

To carry this message ever more powerfully, we grew up watching Daniel Radcliffe practising what his character’s story preaches, through his involvement with such organisations as the Trevor Project which aims to promote awareness of gay teen suicide prevention, donations to and support for youth helplines, declaring himself a feminist, and publicly highlighting the lack of top roles for women in the industry.

He brought progressive and tolerant attitudes argued for in the franchise, and applied them to real issues our societies face. Essentially, he did his best to show a generation of teenagers what they could do to impact their world for the better.

Likewise, Harry Potter helped a generation understand and interpret the difficult and shifting society we were living in. The franchise has often been criticised for ignoring more complex truths, of presenting everything as either wholly good or wholly evil, when that often isn’t the case. The Spectator once went as far as to say that this created a generation “childish in their politics” who would “divide the world between tolerant progressives and wicked reactionaries”.

Labelling left-leaners as naïve and delusional is an old, and frankly cheap trick. Yet this still displays a thorough misunderstanding of the series; some of the fiercest debates amongst fans are over whether Snape was an entitled misogynist or a tortured hero, whether Dumbledore was good or morally compromised, whether the wizarding world is a utopia or a statist dystopia. Part of the power of Harry Potter is its ability to draw readers into complex inner and outer debates, to question assumptions and learn important lessons they may carry with them for long to come.

For instance, the truth that the innocent, the heroes, can die meaninglessly, that bad things happen to good people, is reflected in the reality of growing up during the War on Terror, of witnessing 9/11 and the 7/7 attacks. Harry Potter’s universe, with its strict social hierarchies and subsequent discrimination is mirrored in the increasing prejudice against Muslims and other minorities, and helped a generation comprehend this seismic shift in the socio-political climate.

Yet despite the stories getting darker, developing from fights with the school bully to wars of racial cleansing, the tone of Rowling’s writing often keeps its playful innocence, one that worked in the first books but that betrays the darker themes of the latter ones. The films however put real people, people with whom we connect, into truly dark situations without being offered relief.

Daniel Radcliffe, in his heart-wrenching performances and in integrating himself into our lives from a young age, could make us all feel the horror and fear he did, and seeing it on the screen rather than being able to take breaks from the pages, is a far more immersive and transformative experience.

Daniel Radcliffe is often first to jump up and downplay his work as Harry Potter, preferring instead to focus on his later roles, ones which he believes he had ‘earned’. This belief he has that he somehow established his career by luck, that his acting was poor, that he was undeserving of the fame, he has voiced in many interviews.

Well here, and on his birthday, is as good an opportunity as any to let him know this: Thank you, Daniel Radcliffe. Your Potter family thanks you from the bottom of our hearts for bringing our friend to life, and transforming our lives for the better, whether or not you understand how.



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