What jump scares are to horror, fan service is to nostalgia. We live in an age when both are being (over) used by storytellers as currency to bribe themselves out of creative ruts, and to appease audiences that are being slowly conditioned to be less demanding. Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts, HBO Max’s clunkily named reunion special that is available in India on Amazon Prime Video, avoids making the same mistakes that have cursed so many franchises, including the Wizarding World itself.
Over an hour-and-a-half, the special evokes not just fond memories of the books and films, but more importantly, of what life was like two decades ago. That is the true power of nostalgia. Far too often these days—and nobody is more guilty of this than JK Rowling—writers and filmmakers are satisfied with simply dropping a name, or a familiar tune, and calling it a day. They think that jolting old memories from the depths of our subconscious is better than allowing them to slowly bubble to the surface. But the mind is a powerful thing, mysterious and wonderful in equal measure. When mine, for instance, heard Emma Watson’s brittle voice in the reunion special, it was reminded not only of her performance as Hermione Granger, but also of the smell of fresh ink on paper. How curious.
I was reminded that the Harry Potter books had a rather unique smell. And after having dusted them off the shelf, I discovered that they no longer smell like they used to—they’ve evolved, just as I have. I was 10 years old when I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; I was 19 when the final film was released in 2011. I grew up with these stories. During that decade, I must have read the books at least eight times from start to finish, and watched the movies more times than the word ‘scar’ is mentioned in them. To this day, not a single winter evening passes without inspiring a strong urge in me to re-read at least one page of Rowling’s stories.
That is the true power of nostalgia. I also grew up with the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, but was barely able to sit through the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home, a film that had, as Hermione would say, the emotional range of a teaspoon. Having delivered on the promise of uniting three different Spider-Men on screen, it stopped abruptly in its tracks as it tried to figure out what to do with them. And then, of course, it defaulted to chucking them all into a mess of CGI action. How forgettable. Perhaps the film’s most effective attempt at eliciting nostalgia is one that you might not have noticed at all. And that is precisely why it worked. When composer Michael Giacchino resampled Danny Elfman and James Horner’s old Spider-Man themes, he succeeded at evoking emotion on a metatextual level. This is so much better than, say, having a character blurt out the words, “With great power comes great responsibility,” moments before dying.
Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald, a film co-written by Rowling, had the gall to think that a soap opera-level twist—Aurelius Dumbledore!—would be enough to please fans. But wouldn’t it have made more sense for a Harry Potter prequel to tell us more about someone we’re already familiar with, someone we genuinely care about, instead of introducing a character who’d never been mentioned once in over 4000 pages of lore? Couldn’t Aurelius have been Ariana Dumbledore instead?
And the less said about Ghostbusters: Afterlife the better. It’s a film that exists purely to provide fan service, but in a truly baffling turn of events, ends up paying homage to several films except the one that it was supposed to.
But there’s a reason why this cultural shift is happening with early-2000s properties. Even the youngest millennials, you will be disappointed to know, are now old enough to have children of their own. And as you get older, you begin to latch on to whatever sliver of youth that you can, even if that means introducing your kids to stories that you enjoyed as a child yourself.
“I’ve had kidney stones and a baby, I feel my age,” Rupert Grint, who played Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies, said in the reunion special. Daniel Radcliffe, sitting across from him, let out a silent laugh of disbelief. We’ve all grown up, but some of us have aged.
I might have forgotten what Harry Potter means to me, but as I soon discovered, some things can’t be forgotten; they’ve shaped your personality. As I watched the reunion special, I found myself silently completing sentences that I’ve heard probably dozens of times before. “Now, Harry, you must know all about muggles,” Mr Weasley said in archive footage presented in the reunion, and my mind automatically finished, “What exactly is the function of a rubber duck?” If I had a plate of breakfast in front of me, I’d have probably shoved a forkful in my mouth for effect, just like Mr Weasley does in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Unlike so much of this algorithm-driven ‘content’ designed to tug at your heartstrings, the Harry Potter reunion feels necessary. This is the right time. Watching the cast, particularly the central trio, it feels like they were struck by this realisation as well. A lot of us, especially the ones who grew up on Potter, have forgotten in these past few years as we were overwhelmed by adulthood and pummelled by the pandemic, what magic felt like. We’ve experienced a loss of innocence. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
People who didn’t have friends had Harry Potter. People who came from broken families had Harry Potter. And in their loneliness, they found each other. Not all of those friends might still be in your life and your parents might be dead, but the memories you shared, because of Harry Potter, will remain. And then there are those that you haven’t met yet. Future spouses and future colleagues, Harry Potter fans with whom you will have so much in common. You don’t know them, but they exist, on the horizon, people to look forward to. You are a part of the same story. It began on a dull, grey Tuesday.