Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone turns 20, and the films are still pure magic

Commentary: I was late to the Harry Potter craze, but that hasn't made the books and movies any less enchanting.

Abrar Al-Heeti Video producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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Abrar Al-Heeti
4 min read

Fans of Harry Potter watched the characters -- and actors -- grow up across eight films.

Warner Bros.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first film in one of the most beloved pop culture franchises around, turns 20 today. My own obsession with the series, though, didn't start until quite a bit later. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who's read about my very late expeditions into the worlds of Marvel and Lost.) 

Despite my delayed interest, the  Harry Potter  books and movies quickly became favorites. They've provided much needed escapism and a sense of wonder, especially in recent months as the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a long shadow over our very nonmagical lives.

My fixation on all things Harry Potter began in the early evening of July 14, 2009. My family and I were driving through our small Illinois town, past the local movie theater on our way to grab ice cream at the nearby Dairy Queen. I looked out the window and saw a line of about two dozen people outside the theater, dressed in long black robes, chattering excitedly. 

"Oh, I guess that new Harry Potter movie must be coming out," I said nonchalantly. I'd seen the first movie, which landed in the US on Nov. 16, 2001, when I was the ripe age of 7. But I wasn't inspired enough to keep up with the series, let alone read any of the books. "They're really lining up already for the midnight premiere?" I asked with amazement. It was 8 p.m.

But deep down, as we drove past the eager moviegoers, I felt a surprising envy brewing within. I wanted to be part of the excitement. I wished I'd read the books so I, too, could excitedly line up hours early with my friends, decked out in costume, for the premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. At that moment, I made a resolution: I'd read all the Harry Potter books before the seventh and final film came out the following year, so I could be part of the moviegoing excitement. (Warner Bros. ultimately released the last movie as two separate films, so I ended up having two more opportunities to participate.)

My brother had bought me the first Harry Potter book when I was 8, but I'd never gotten past the first chapter. Now, seven years later, before I even went back to read the first page again, I marched into a used bookstore, found all six remaining books and brought them home.

I immediately fell in love, immersed in a world so magical and spectacular I couldn't believe I'd waited so long to jump in. The characters were lovable and well drawn (Ron quickly became a favorite). The plot twists were jolting in the best possible way (the sixth book became a top pick for that reason). I found myself longing to walk through Hogsmeade sipping butterbeer or sit in the Great Hall munching on Cornish pasties, treacle tart and cauldron cakes.

Suddenly, all the Harry Potter hype made sense. In fact, even with all the attention the series got, it still felt underrated. It was that good.

In 2010, I lived my dream. I attended the opening-day showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, decked out in a red-and-gold scarf I'd knitted for the occasion (which I wore again for Part 2 -- see below). Sporting my Harry Potter glasses and lightning bolt scar (drawn on my forehead with eyeliner), I was finally part of the craze.

A welcome escape

Despite controversy surrounding author J.K. Rowling's comments on trans issues, the world of Harry Potter has remained an integral part of many fans' lives, as we've essentially adopted these stories and characters and made them our own. I've rewatched the films sporadically in the years since I got hooked. Those binges have been facilitated by streaming platforms like HBO Max and Peacock, which tend to take turns hosting the eight-film collection. But in the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the wizarding world took on a whole new meaning as a form of escapism from all the real world's uncertainties and fears. 


When you go to a Harry Potter showing, you've got to dress the part.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

Last winter, I spent evenings after work rewatching the films from start to finish. As we all isolated and practiced social distancing, I transported myself to a realm filled with mythical creatures, dazzling spells, and characters that felt as familiar as old friends. 

This week, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter film, I've once again been rewatching the movies. Each time I do, I cling to one quote or another that resonates in a way it hadn't before. This time, I connected with a reminder from Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live." 

The past year and a half has been challenging, and it can be easy to wish things had been different. That quote, to me, is a reminder that it's important to cherish each positive moment brought on by today's unprecedented challenges: the extra time spent with family, the opportunity to be alone with my thoughts and reflect, the chance to pick up new hobbies. You can find good in almost any situation, but you have to be fully present to do so.

A lot has happened in the world in the 20 years since the first Harry Potter film debuted, including a global health crisis that's fundamentally altered every element of our lives. Activities we once took for granted -- even the little things like Friday nights at the movies -- were put on pause.  

But through all the challenges and changes, what's remained is that tangible sense of magic in the Harry Potter books and films, and the ability to escape into a realm of fantasy when life weighs heavily on us. The series serves as a reprieve and an assurance that, as Dumbledore says in the Prisoner of Azkaban, "Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."