J.K. Rowling is Ruining Harry Potter's Legacy

source (actually a pretty good article ranking the books)
Like so many Millennials, reading the Harry Potter series was a memorable and even vital aspect of my childhood. My parents read me the first three books out loud at bedtimes after they first appeared in the U.S. (Prisoner of Azkaban was and remains my favorite book in the series.) My family bought Goblet of Fire immediately when it was released, and I remember working extra hard to read it on my own, even though I was only nine and the thick book dwarfed my hands. I awaited the release of the fifth, sixth, and seventh books in turn, and the darker, more complicated plots of each subsequent book perfectly mirrored my own adolescent development, culminating in the release of Deathly Hallows (taking place when Harry is seventeen) when I was sixteen myself. It is no mistake to say that my peers and I grew up with Harry Potter, and Harry Potter grew up with us.

Part of the beauty of Rowling's Harry Potter series is that it is not a legendarium. It does not create a massive, intricately detailed universe à la Tolkien's Middle Earth, complete with gods, myths, histories, poems, songs, maps, languages, and cultures, all deftly embedded in the plots of the novels. Instead, what Harry Potter offers is a complete childhood experience—the opportunity to witness the full development of a small group of characters overcoming tremendous trials year after year until they have grown into strong adults who save their world. It's not a Bildungsroman, but rather a Bildungserie—perhaps the best example of a heptalogy that we'll ever see written (especially if George R.R. Martin can't pull his shit together).

Nothing could ever destroy the potential impact that reading the Harry Potter heptalogy can have on young children and teenagers. Nevertheless, the Harry Potter stories' legacy could be tarnished if it's repeatedly used to prop up misguided new projects—projects that fail to reflect what makes Harry Potter so great. Unfortunately, Harry Potter's legacy is threatened, and it's being threatened by the author herself.

seven years, seven horcruxes
—Harry's story had to be
complete in seven books
I don't remember when I first read that J.K. Rowling promised not to write another Harry Potter book after the seven in her heptalogy, but I do remember what I felt—immense relief. Reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows brought me an incredible sense of satisfaction and closure, the realization that an epic saga spanning my childhood would finally come to a meaningful resolution. It was a meaningful demonstration of the lesson that all good things must come to an end. Because reading the Harry Potter heptalogy is a complete childhood experience, a complete Bildungserie, it absolutely must come to an end. If Harry's stories continue on into his adulthood, the experience is lessened and the reader is betrayed.

Since Deathly Hallows was published, J.K. Rowling has kept to the letter of her promise not to write another Harry Potter book, but she has broken that promise in spirit. In 2015, Rowling approved the publishing of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the script to a stage play (not a book, right?) written by Jack Thorne, based on a story developed by Thorne, John Tiffany, and herself. I had no desire to read the play when it came out, and the wisdom of my decision was confirmed when I witnessed friends who had rushed to read it express frustration and disappointment. However, I still had little idea what the actual plot of the story was—not until I watched this video. I'm glad I did watch the video (the full thirty minutes), since it plainly illustrates how Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a ghastly misstep: The story not only defies established principles of the Harry Potter universe, but also tramples over highly developed character traits and critical moments from the heptalogy that longtime fans value deeply.

I don't know what Rowling was thinking when she decided to do the Cursed Child project, and I don't know what her thoughts have been after it was so panned by Harry Potter fans. Regardless, the experience proves that authors should exercise extreme caution with putting out sequels or spin-offs of a complete and widely celebrated story. Rowling didn't show that caution with Cursed Child, and the world probably would have been better off if it'd never seen the light of day.

Perhaps even more threateningly, there are now supposed to be a series of five films based on the character Newt Scamander, author of the in-universe textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that Hogwarts students use. (That entire sentence should set off alarm bells for anyone who worries about stories built on flimsy premises.) The first film—Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—was released in November to positive reviews, but in general those reviews were positive because of the entertainment value of the film—not its storytelling.

This review does a good job of highlighting ways in which Rowling failed to put together a coherent, compelling narrative: Virtually all the characters were either underdeveloped or unnecessary, the premise of the conflict was questionable, and the film was chock-full of sparkling distractions that contributed little meaning to the story. I mean, for a movie named Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the fantastic beasts were astonishingly tangential to the plot.

It seems Rowling was focused on trying to build a relevant story around themes of discrimination and demagoguery—and while I certainly don't think that goal is an unworthy one, Rowling's preaching wasn't particularly well done. The author definitely fancies herself as a political commentator, and there's nothing wrong with that; I'll admit she's launched some great tweets over the last few years. However, Rowling's best work in promoting her values was in the more organic, measured manner of the Harry Potter series. Turning her new spinoff movies into transparent morality plays makes for neither good art nor effective messaging.

three of a kind?
I walked away from watching Fantastic Beasts with the strong feeling that these movies will turn out much like Star Wars Episodes I-III or the Hobbit film trilogy—a shallow, poorly-constructed run of prequels far better at making truckloads of money than doing justice to the original stories that gave them that earning potential. Maybe the upcoming movies will prove me wrong, but I think I have some compelling reasons to fear the worst.

So, why has Rowling launched these projects when they risk tarnishing the legacy of the beautifully complete Harry Potter heptalogy? There could be a number of different reasons. For one thing, Rowling's non-Harry Potter works probably haven't been as successful or satisfying as she would have hoped: Her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, received significant critique, while her subsequent mystery novel published under a pseudonym, The Cuckoo's Calling, had positive reviews but failed to sell until its author's identity was revealed. Perhaps Rowling increasingly couldn't see as much of a future for herself in real-world-based adult fiction as she expected.

I suspect it's more likely, however, that the main reason Rowling's gone back to the Harry Potter universe is that she loves it too much to stop. And of course, that's pretty understandable. Who could blame her for wanting to write more about her wonderful, magical world adored by millions?

Ultimately, though, I have to wonder—what value does Rowling's promise not to write another Harry Potter book really have when she decides to produce Harry Potter-universe plays and movies instead? It's apparent now that she's a much better novelist than a screenwriter or playwright collaborator. I think we'd be better off if she just came out and broke her original promise. Far more than a crazy play or a spate of shallow Hollywood blockbusters, a new series of books would have much greater potential to live up to Harry Potter's legacy—or, at the very least, not diminish it so much.

Note: By no means did I discuss all of Rowling's recent activities in this post. In particular, the way she has incorporated Native Americans into her "Magic in North America" writing published on the Pottermore website is absolutely disgraceful. That issue deserves a separate post, and the one from Native Appropriations is well worth reading.