Hermione is tipsy. Neville is serving drinks. Ron is sipping mead and Harry is partying with his professors.Does Hogwarts have a drinking problem?
As Harry Potter fans crowd movie theaters to catch the latest installment in the blockbuster series, parents may be surprised by the starring role given to alcohol. In scene after scene, the young wizards and their adult professors are seen sipping, gulping and pouring various forms of alcohol to calm their nerves, fortify their courage or comfort their sorrows.
The movie, based on J. K. Rowling’s sixth book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” is as much about coming of age as it is about the wizarding world. Love potions and adolescent yearnings are central to the evolving story line, and Harry, Ron and Hermione enjoy new freedoms as 16-year-old students at the mythical boarding school Hogwarts, including unchaperoned trips to a pub in the nearby town of Hogsmeade.
But recreated on the big screen, the images of teenage drinking are jarring. Previous Harry Potter movies have shown drinking, but this one takes it to a new level.
In one scene, Harry, Ron and Hermione order butterbeers at the pub, and Hermione ends up with a frothy mustache. While it’s never been entirely clear whether butterbeer is alcoholic, it seems to have an effect on the normally uptight Hermione, who acts tipsy walking home as she throws her arms around the boys.
As the mother of a 10-year-old Harry Potter fan, I was taken aback by the reaction of the young people in the theater. They snickered at Hermione’s goofy grin and, later, guffawed when an inebriated Hagrid passed out. While I don’t think my daughter fully understood what was going on, I wondered how other parents, educators and addiction experts would react.
Liz Perle, a mother of two teenage boys and the editor in chief of Common Sense Media, which reviews books, movies and Web content aimed at children, said she was bothered by so many scenes showing alcohol as a coping mechanism.
“Hermione is such a tightly wound young lady, but she’s liberated by some butterbeer,” she said. “The message is that it gives you liquid courage to put your arms around the guy you really like but are afraid to.”
Other parents were less concerned. Daniel Isaacs, a New York advertising copywriter, said his 9-year-old daughter didn’t notice the drinking scenes. “The Harry Potter universe is not our own,” he said. “Trying to put 2009 American norms into play seems kind of silly.
“Plus, in a world where dark wizards are kidnapping or killing people on a regular basis, a little under-age drinking is the least of their problems.”
Overseas audiences may respond differently to the drinking scenes. In England, the legal drinking age is 18, but 16-year-olds can order alcohol if they’re eating a meal. (Even by those standards, the teenagers in the movie were flouting the law: during the pub scene, no food was served.)
Alcohol educators say that they don’t want to ruin the fun, but that parents should be aware of alcohol’s role in the Harry Potter series, the books as well as the movies. Several studies suggest that movies influence teenagers’ behavior when it comes to drinking, drugs and tobacco. An Institute of Medicine committee on under-age drinking has said there is “a strong possibility” that youth exposure to alcohol through movies contributes to early initiation of alcohol use.
A 2007 study of nearly 5,600 German teenagers looked at the relationship between drinking activity and exposure to American movies. Even accounting for variables like friends’ drinking habits, the researchers found that children with high exposure to alcohol in movies were nearly three times as likely to binge-drink as those with the lowest exposure.
Similarly, a study of 3,000 adolescents found that those who were most often exposed to smoking in movies were nearly three times as likely as others to try smoking. In a striking finding, the study concluded that in more than half the times that a child in the study tried a cigarette, the decision was linked to having seen smoking in a movie.
Alcohol experts say this does not mean that children shouldn’t see the new Harry Potter movie. It actually presents an opportunity for parents to talk to their children about alcohol, says Dr. Christopher Welsh, a University of Maryland psychiatrist and addiction specialist.
“I hope parents can talk to their kids and tell them even though Harry Potter made that seem fun, that it isn’t O.K.,” said Dr. Welsh, the author of a 2007 article about alcohol use in the Harry Potter series, published in The Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse.
Warner Brothers, which released the movie, said the drinking scenes were “open to different interpretations.”
“One of our main objectives in bringing the Harry Potter films to the screen has been to remain as faithful to their original source material as created by J. K Rowling,” the company wrote in an e-mail message, adding that the wizarding world “should not be held to the same standards as the real world.”
A spokesman for Ms. Rowling said she was not available to comment.
Alison Turner, a British expatriate who owns Signature Bites, an Internet brownie business based in Florida, said that while watching the movie with her 14-year-old stepdaughter, she did find herself briefly musing about the alcoholic properties of butterbeer. But she said their post-movie conversation focused on broken hearts and unrequited love.
“I think the alcohol angle washed over me because of the magical context of the film — this isn’t a real school, real teachers or real students — so it’s almost like the drinking isn’t real,” she said. “I wonder how many kids even know what mead is.”