Here comes Harry Potter

George Will

11/15/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--The richest woman in the United Kingdom is Queen Elizabeth, who certainly looks the part when dolled up in her finest threads. She has lots of land, some palatial homes and the Tower of London is one of her jewelry boxes. Evidently the queen's richest female subject is a single mother who not long ago was on welfare, spending hours in an Edinburgh coffee shop where, while her daughter slept in her stroller, she wrote a novel about an 11-year-old orphan boy who is a wizard. Her rapid rise to riches, propelled by the sale, so far, of 116 million copies of her four Harry Potter novels, tells us something interesting about our society: children spend, or cause to be spent, huge sums. At one point, J.K. Rowling's first three Harry Potter novels occupied the top three spots on the New York Times hardback fiction best-seller list. This caused such heartburn among the literati that a best-seller list of children's books was created so that Rowling's books could be banished to it, making the old list safe for adult fare such as Danielle Steel novels. Never mind that Rowling's British publisher brought out an edition of one Potter novel with a sober black-and-white cover so adults could read the books in public places, like trains, without embarrassment. Now comes the first Harry Potter movie, opening on 7,000 screens, a record. It may have cost $150 million to make and market, but Coca-Cola has reportedly paid $100 million for the right to use images from the movie in ads for its products, and the $300 million profit the movie may make will be part of the $2 billion or so that all the Potter movies may make. Potter merchandise is everywhere, stealing the march on a rival merchandizing blitz that will accompany the December release of the first of three movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy ``The Lord of the Rings.'' There may be more than a dollop of wretched excess in all this, but Rowling deserves every penny she gets, and the gratitude of adults, because she probably has done more than anyone in the last half-century to turn children into readers. The Wall Street Journal reports that the research firm Leisure Trends says a quarter of people under 25 say reading is their favorite pastime, up 10 percent over last year. Surely this is, in part, a Rowling ripple. But the forces of darkness are counterattacking. This week Microsoft joined Nintendo and Sony in the multibillion-dollar battle to get children to put down their books and play video games. Microsoft's new $299 Xbox console will compete with Nintendo's new $199 GameCube, and with Sony's $299 PlayStation 2 for the $20 billion games market. Microsoft, which hopes to sell 4 million to 6 million Xboxes worldwide by June, will lose an estimated $125 on every one it sells, but expects to break even in 2004 and eventually make whopping profits on the software that the console plays. Microsoft, whose stock is one of America's most heavily traded, is wagering billions--half a billion just to market Xbox--not only on the billions that boys have burning holes in their pockets, but also on the childishness that is increasing in society. Last week a Wall Street Journal story on the video game competition began with this arresting paragraph: ``Lee Godfrey has never even played the Xbox, but the eighth-grader says he will beat the Christmas rush and plunk down $299 after Microsoft's new video-game console goes on sale next week. 'I heard that it has good graphics and it has a DVD player. Some of the games it has are cool,' says the 13-year-old from San Lorenzo, Calif.'' Young Godfrey, with his rootin'-tootin' American disdain for the deferral of gratification, is supposedly typical of the target market for video games--adolescent boys. But there are millions of post-adolescent--indeed middle-aged--boys out there. Time magazine's Josh Quittner, who reviews devices such as the Xbox, says that although Microsoft offers ``a few child-friendly'' games, its strength may be ``adult-oriented fare.'' Such as? Such as ``a surfing simulator, Transworld Surf.'' Adulthood isn't what it used to be. But, then, you knew that just from looking at how grown-ups dress down. Time was, children enjoyed dressing up like adults. Now adults increasingly dress like children. In airport concourses you see them, men wearing jeans and T-shirts and running shoes, holding the hands of small boys dressed similarly. Small wonder they play similar games.