The Harry Potter books are classics in the making, but with the meteoric rise of their popularity they have also proven to be a commercial gold mine. Movies, theme parks, websites, and fan fiction have turned the beloved book series in to a cultural phenomenon. At the center of this phenomenon is J.K. Rowling, the magical world’s inventor. Potterheads have the unique advantage of being able to Tweet with the builder of their favorite fantasy world and she always has an insightful answer to their questions, offering glimpses to the larger world only Rowling fully understands and is unveiling to us piece by piece. If only Lord of the Rings fans could have been so lucky as to have Tolkien fully funded to explore the furthest reaches of Middle Earth with the power of modern media behind him; imagine the possibilities.
However, when does an expanding fantasy universe lose its authenticity due to the commercialization of the original concept? We saw this happen when The Hobbit, the shorter prequel to the Lord of the Rings series, was split in to three separate epic scale movies. There was no justification for this move other than to make money (and make money it did). The result was a bastardization of a beloved childhood novel. (The third installment was really the problem in this case as they ran out of original book content to cover). Again, oh if Tolkien had been alive, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. And that’s the key. Rowling, like Tolkien, is the magic behind her fantasy world.
In 2016, two major new developments were added to the Harry Potter cannon (much to my and other Harry Potter fans’ delight). The first, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was a play developed for the London stage. The play takes place years after the book series and centers on Harry’s son, Albus, while he navigates through Hogwarts as the seemingly unremarkable son of the most famous wizard in the world. A printed version of the script was published and eager Potterheads across the world gobbled it up, treating it as an eighth installment of our favorite series. Sadly, as many of my friends (not to mention fans all across the internet agreed), Cursed Child did not feel like a part of the Harry Potter cannon. The characters were simply all wrong. Most notably, Ron Weasley was reduced from being one of the most important and interesting characters in the series, to a punch line and a buffoon. The romance between Ron and Hermione is trivialized as a dysfunctional marriage for no apparent reason other than Ron having clearly undergone a lobotomy; a romantic storyline with depth and complexity in the original series is simplified and turned mundane. Cursed Chid’s storyline lacks gravity. That’s not to say there isn’t urgency, but the premise is based on one pre-teen’s lack of caution, which causes great time travel mishaps that could spell the end of the wizarding world. The original Harry Potter series also deals with the doom of the wizarding world, but it’s a story of good triumphing over evil, not of one kid being careless with a time turner.
In the end, they play just didn’t feel like Harry Potter, to which my astute husband pointed out, of course it doesn’t, Rowling didn’t write it. Though Rowling’s name is on the cover of the book, she didn’t write the words, just advised the content. Though the plays writers Jack Thorne and John Tiffany write an entertaining story, it misses the magic of Rowling’s unique voice and humor.
After Cursed Child, I began to wonder if Harry Potter had morphed in to something different from the beloved books at its core. Have the majority of the children and adults dreaming of visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park even read the books? When I heard that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (a textbook mentioned in the original book series) was being used as the jumping off point for a new five movie series, I began to worry that Harry Potter was being hobbitized. None the less, I went and saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the second major addition to the cannon in 2016, and was pleasantly enchanted.
Rowling is back at the helm of her own ship. As the first Harry Potter film in which Rowling took on the lead screenwriting position, it may also have the best script. The superlative part of the original Harry Potter series is its incredible depth and thematic power. In the original Harry Potter books, Rowling faces difficult subjects like prejudice and bigotry head on, making humanity’s darkest wrongs understandable to a child while avoiding over simplification. In fact, scientific studies have shown that children who read Harry Potter are more likely to be empathetic; a revelation that actually makes perfect sense if you’re familiar with the series. Fantastic Beasts shares this thematic depth, focusing on important issues such as the negative psychological effects of abuse on children and the importance of social consciousness and conservation. Granted, there was some unnecessary sexualizing of the one of the female leads, Queenie (Hollywood never fails to deliver on that front). Still, I left the theater with my fears that this would be a shameless money grab quelled. In fact, five movies could make a lot of sense as Rowling has placed them during the rise to power of another great evil wizard, who was mentioned in the original series. J.K. Rowling still has something to say and her stories are full of substance.
In the end, of course, money is a pivotal factor behind these massive investments in the Harry Potter universe. Harry Potter has become bigger than Rowling as her fans (and Universal Studios) continue to add their own extensions to the world. I’m fine with this even if I don’t personally understand the need to obsessively investigate the Pottermore website or own a genuine movie wand replica (though I’m sure it’s fun). It appears that art and the commodities they inspire feed off one another and with Rowling keeping her place at the heart of this dynamic, we are assured that the series will remain untainted (for the most part). So long as it keeps bankrolling Rowling as she produces great work, that’s good by me. I will still gladly see Cursed Child when it comes to Broadway and know that the spectacle will be wonderful. After all, a little Harry Potter is better than none. Plus, I hear the butterbeer at the theme parks is fantastic!