By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - Film farewells don't get much bigger than Harry Potter, and thousands of fans prepared on Thursday to say goodbye to their beloved boy wizard at the world premiere of the final movie in the record-breaking series.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" is the eighth installment -- and first in 3D -- of a franchise that has generated more public excitement and media hype than any other in living memory.
For Hollywood studio Warner Bros it has been a magic pot of gold, with the seven films released so far grossing $6.4 billion in ticket sales and billions more from DVDs and merchandise.
For a generation of Potter fans, the movies have extended the wizarding world created by British author J.K. Rowling in her seven-book saga which began in 1997 and concluded in 2007.
More than 400 million copies have been sold around the globe, making Rowling the first author billionaire and providing a huge support base upon which the films built.
"We've grown up in the Harry Potter generation -- I read the first book when I was five so now it's weird that it's coming to an end ... like the end of childhood," said Rhys, an 18-year-old who braved the rain in London's Trafalgar Square.
Die-hard fans, some in full regalia from the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, have camped out since Monday to catch a glimpse of the stars as they walk the red carpet at the official world premiere.
The young actors, cast in their roles aged between nine and 11, said they too were struggling to get to grips with the post-Potter world, despite being A-list stars with huge personal fortunes.
"After we finished (filming) a year ago now I have felt a little bit lost without it, really, and not really knowing what to do with myself," said 22-year-old Rupert Grint, who plays Potter's main sidekick Ron Weasley.
"It's been such a constant part of my life and to suddenly have that come down to this one film, it is quite sad and I'm really genuinely going to miss it and miss everyone."
DEATH AND DESTRUCTION
Consistent with the gradual trend toward darker content as the franchise progressed, Deathly Hallows - Part 2 climaxes with an intense battle between good and evil fought at Hogwarts.
Buildings are flattened, wizards and witches die and Harry steels himself for the final showdown with his evil nemesis Lord Voldemort, played by a snake-like Ralph Fiennes who called his character a "high definition villain."
Daniel Radcliffe, 21, who has played Harry Potter throughout the last decade, was enthusiastic about the conclusion.
"I think of it as being light years ahead of any of the other films in the series," he told a London news conference on Wednesday via videolink from New York where he is appearing in a Broadway production.
"In terms of quality this is the best film we've ever made, so I'm thrilled that we're going out on this positive note."
Whether critics agree remains to be seen, with most reviews coming out after the premiere.
The Daily Telegraph, however, featured an article by Philip Womack which described Deathly Hallows - Part 2 as "monumental cinema, awash with gorgeous tones, and carrying an ultimate message that will resonate with every viewer, young or old: there is darkness in all of us, but we can overcome it."
The movie opens in some territories on July 13, and in the key British and U.S. markets on July 15.
Rowling has said she has no intention of writing another Potter novel, and David Yates, director of the last four Potter movies, told the news conference that he believed the film cycle had closed for good.
Rowling's wizarding world will not disappear altogether, however.
She recently unveiled Pottermore, a website allowing fans to interact with the characters and storylines, and will finally retail the stories as ebooks exclusively on the site.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Janet Lawrence)