Our young but rapidly maturing friend, Harry Potter, is coming back to the silver screen, on July 15, 2009, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth of seven movies, based on the seven books of the series by J.K. Rowling.

The film’s synopsis, from IMDB (the Internet Movie Database):

As Harry Potter begins his 6th year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he discovers an old book marked mysteriously “This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince” and begins to learn more about Lord Voldemort’s dark past.

Ratings for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, per IMDB:

In the UK, the film has been given a 12A rating by the BBFC . . . for “Moderate Threat.” In the US, however, the MPAA have given the film a PG rating, for “scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality.”

In general, I’m a fan of Rowling’s books. But I do have some some doubts how well the Harry Potter series will fare as the years go by.

In view of that, here’s a review from the Washington Post of the final volume in the 7-boo0k series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, reviewed by Elizabeth Hand. Ms. Hand is an award-winning, brilliant author of books of dark fantasy for adult readers (Winterlong, Waking the Moon, Glimmering, Mortal Love, and others).

In the review (she too is a fan of the series), she hits a number of nails on their heads. She points to the likability of the series and its protagonists, drawing in adult readers like her as well as many millions of young readers.

She points to the delightfully Dickensian nature of Rowling’s secondary characters, with goofy names and little side stories woven into the big picture.

And she notes the great element of the books, how the human heart triumphs over the magic, an essential ingredient (in my opinion) for truly great fantasy.

But Hand also points to what I see to be the major flaw in the series as a whole: the shift of the latter books into grim, dark, more mature themes.

For Elizabeth Hand, as a writer of dark fantasy, this is appealing. By and large, the legions of young fans who grew up with the series (published over ten years, from 1997 to 2007) also agree, finding this development appropriate to their own maturing interests.

But what happens as new young readers are introduced to the completed series? The gap between the maturity level from the first to the last Harry Potter books is quite large and of legitimate concern to parents and educators, as well as to younger readers who want to be able to sleep at night without visions of Dementors and such. (Dementors are flying creatures in dark, hooded cloaks, showing only gray, decayed hands, blind, eyeless, and a large hole where the mouth should be, floating silently toward their victims . . . to suck out all the happiness from their souls.)

While interesting to older readers, portions of the later books are unsettling, scary, and inappropriate for younger ones.

For instance, the movie version of book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was rated PG-13 for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.” Here is a partial list of the warnings (again, from IMDB)

Action scenes involving Harry fighting dragons, water demons, other competitors and him being trapped in a violent maze.

Harry’s nightmares begin in this film, which are very intense.

Several violent scenes at the beginning of an old man being murdered by Voldemort.

Overall, 3 onscreen deaths.

The events involving the Death Eaters at the Quidditch World Cup are violent and extremely intense.

Lord Voldemort is shown for the first time . . . and is violently portrayed by actor Ralph Fiennes

One main character is murdered in front of Harry with the Avada Kedavra curse.

Harry is violently tortured by Lord Voldemort and is forced to duel him.

Harry brings the body of his dead friend back to Hogwarts, and the scene is rather intense with Harry crying hysterically.

Harry’s wrist is cut open with blood shown and Harry screaming in pain.

Hand compares it to the differences between Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The latter started as an intended sequel to The Hobbit (per his publisher’s request), but developed into something far greater and mature and dense in its mythic themes, in part with the guidance of his fellow Inklings, including C.S. Lewis. In Tolkien’s case, LOTR was released in the 1950s long after The Hobbit (1937) and packaged as a separate trilogy.

In the case of the Harry Potter books, there’s not much from the publisher to differentiate any maturity levels from Books 1 to 7. The descriptive text, for instance, on the Scholastic website just refers to things like “thrills and adventures” in the later books.

The problem: a logical person might well think the Harry Potter series was like most series, where book 1 and book 7 are intended for the same audiences, albeit with a natural maturation of the central characters.

In comparison, the Narnia series, also 7 books, keeps a pretty uniform tone, although the final book, The Last Battle, does turn darker and less light-hearted, with the killing of friendly animals in the final battle. But this occurs with a less drawn-out build-up with all the terrifying creatures, nightmares, super-scary enemies, etc., found in the Potter series. (More often, the foes in the Narnia series are beguiling, like the White Witch who offers sweet words and treacle; although evil they are less frightening, less likely to cause young readers to have their own nightmares.)

Myself, I lost a bit of fondness for the Potter series in Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where Harry is a cranky, uncooperative, very angry teenager, lashing out at long and true friends who are clearly trying to help him. Check the number of time phrases the words angry or angrily are used. He spends a lot of the book in an unlikable funk, and I found it most of it unnecessary. Although he grew out of it, I was a little disenchanted.

To me, it ends up being a set of mostly great books, but a flawed series. A terrific series for those who grew up with it over ten years, who embraced it as a true touchstone for both their social and literary lives.

Less terrific for those youngest and newest young readers who might be relishing reading the whole series after reading the first few books. They (and their parents) have a real problem avoiding the later books until those young readers mature.

(Blog post on the FantasyLit.com blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature and The Purpose of Fantasy.