September 25, 2013

Why J.K. Rowling Needs To Let Harry Potter Go

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Earlier this month, J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers recently announced that they will be collaborating on a new film spin-off from Harry Potter, based on the book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” It makes sense that Rowling would do something like this, precisely because her novels are so finely detailed that they allow her to expand almost anywhere, an entire universe ready to explore. Champions of the project note that not basing the film off of an established character and instead focusing on the book’s author — Newt Scamander, who we know little about — gives Rowling full license to go anywhere she wants with the project.

The Harry Potter series is arguably the best saga ever written for children, and as a fan of Rowling’s work, I don’t doubt her ability to continue to blow our minds with the gift of her imagination. Even though this will count her screenwriting debut, as the project will be made directly into a film, I’m sure it will be great — because the woman can do anything. However, I wonder if she should — and whether this universe needs more building. The Harry Potter series gave us seven novels, and the last novel, Deathly Hallows, meticulously gave fans every piece of closure they could want. Rowling couldn’t have done a better job if she wrapped the ending in a bow.

However, what this does is continue to delay closure for fans who have grown attached to the series in the same way the author has. While writing The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger felt so connected to Holden Caulfield that he felt as if he had betrayed Holden by finishing the novel, as if he’d killed his most beloved character. Salinger famously never recovered. Similarly, Rowling can’t bring herself to kill Harry Potter — not the character, but the universe itself. Whether its outing Dumbledore or giving fans Pottermore, which gives fans a Second Life-like environment where they never have to leave Harry Potter’s world, Rowling can’t move on.

However, it’s not just that J.K. Rowling can’t stop telling her own stories; it’s that we don’t want to let her. Rowling’s most recent follow-up to Harry Potter, The Cuckoo’s Calling, was printed under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, before the writer’s identity was revealed. The novel received deafening acclaim, with many wondering how a supposed first-time writer was able to write such an “assured debut,” until J.K. Rowling was herself outed. Rowling responded to the reveal: “Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

Rowling isn’t alone in getting chained to her work. Kowtowing to AMC’s wish to have another marquee show to replace Breaking Bad, the show’s creator is giving the network a spin-off featuring Saul Goodman, one of the show’s least dramatically rich characters. Network executives believe this will give the Emmy-favorite channel a chance to break out into comedy, but it’s about buzz and money more than anything else. In its last season, Breaking Bad has become a cultural phenomenon, redefining water cooler television in the age of Netflix and pay cable, and AMC doesn’t want to put their cash cow out to the money pasture just yet. To paraphrase Walt himself, AMC is done when they say they’re done.

Like Rowling’s future film, the show will probably be well-received, as the network promises a darkly comic tone along the lines of Fargo. However, it’s very existence speaks volumes about our entertainment era, a time when our cultural properties exist in perpetuity and nothing ever ends. The very raison d’etre of fandom is to keep something alive forever, and when Lost or 30 Rock ends, there’s still an active fan culture keeping it alive in the internet graveyard, memes that exist where Liz Lemon used to be. Fan cultures are exactly what brought back Family Guy, Doctor Who and Veronica Mars, willing what they loved forth from the grave. Such is the case with Harry Potter. Without demand, would the be a product?

As a Veronica Mars fan, I was personally over the moon to see the demand for her return, as the show’s Kickstarter raised more than enough money to finally get the feature film that Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell have long desired. With the way the show ended, after a season of network bungling hobbled it, fans wanted the bang that the show should have went out with. Finally getting a movie spin-off allowed them the closure they thought they needed after having their favorite characters taken away. A movie gives them a chance to say goodbye — even though they technically already had one. It just wasn’t good.

But what happens when we keep bringing what we love back from the dead? What do we bring with it? For fans of Arrested Development, it was disappointment — when the fourth season deviated from the formula the show was built on. The show was about a dysfunctional family trying to come together and failing, but little of the original’s ensemble spirit was to be found. To get the project rolling, Hurwitz had to work around the cast’s now busy schedules and break up their storylines, which made for a rhythm that was entirely new. Like Skyler White, we have to deal with the fact that this thing is not what we once loved — and learn to live with it on our own terms. In the digital era, we are all Skyler, making compromises to keep going.

Mitchell Hurwitz has promised a film, on top of talk of another season, furthering the potential of transmedia as Hurwitz continues to experiment with the television form. Television is a new technology, and it’s full potential has yet to be tapped. Joss Whedon recently got back in the TV game with Marvel’s Agents of Shield, the comic book house and film studio’s first foray into television, and Fox recently announced a Batman TV show from the creator of The Mentalist, currently a huge hit on CBS. Like Fantastic Beasts, both of these properties will bring in huge built-in viewerships and are assured hits at a time when TV audiences are fragmenting. There are no sure things in enterainment anymore, but this is as close as you get.

Rather than zombie versions of franchises, both of these are expansions on something that already exists, a way to continue to make money off of The Avengers and Batman between films and bring in more of an audience. The reason The Avengers was such a money machine is that it combined fanbases for its individual superheroes, showing they were stronger at the box office together than separately, and the Untitled Batman-Superman project will be doing the same, using synergy not as a force for good but for money. The recent attempts at a Superman movie hadn’t been what DC expected, but they were intent on willing another project into existence, keeping Superman alive in any way they knew how.

These films and the soon-to-be Harry Potter movie franchise will be competing with a new Star Wars trilogy, based on a universe that George Lucas has been intent on expanding, almost no matter what. You can say Lucas did it for the fans, but Star Wars has routinely punished fanboys for their own excitement, whether that’s the last hot mess of a trilogy or the even-more-poorly-received Clone Wars. Although geek god J.J. Abrams promises a brighter future in the Star Wars galaxy, you have to wonder when Lucas is going to leave well enough alone. Did he not see the Dexter finale?

George Lucas isn’t a lesson learner, and the continued project stems just as much from hubris as his love of the series, but Harry Potter still intimately matters to J.K. Rowling and the millions of fans who grew up with the character. It’s more than about money. When the second installment of Deathly Hallows debuted in theatres, friends of mine confessed that they felt like a part of their childhood had ended. They cried in the theater as if they were attending the funeral of a friend. That mourning is a natural part of the grief process, but we all have to realize that when we love something, there comes a time to let it go. TC mark

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