Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

I promised I’d talk about Pottermore and touch on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so … here we go.

As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter books — in first grade one of our field trips was to see The Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters — I pretty much live and breathe this stuff. It’s not so much something that I actively seek out as something that I know like the back of my hand; it’s as familiar as a beloved stuffed animal, and the series grew along with us. You could probably call millennials the Harry Potter generation and we wouldn’t really protest that much.

Before the Pottermore site ever went live — I want to say this was around 2005 — a piece of fanfiction was written called The Shoebox Project. It centers on the Marauders, James Potter and Sirius Black and their little band, and it’s over two hundred thousand words. Now, say what you will about fanfiction, but even without having read it you’ve got to admit that 200k of anything is a great deal of time and energy to spend on something you’ll never get paid for. Having read it, I think the writing is pretty darn good, and it tells an engaging story. A pair of writers sat down and wrote this Project, and included drawings and photographs, and it was a labor of love.

The reason I was aware of the Shoebox Project — long before I ever felt the interest to read it — was because within that story, one of the plot points is that James Potter’s parents are murdered by Death Eaters.

J.K. Rowling went to the media to say that no, that was incorrect, James Potter’s parents died of old age.

… Which is … great, I guess, except that none of the actual Harry Potter books that were out at that point mentioned the fact that Harry’s grandparents died of old age.

And I remember being ten or so, watching the Today show before heading to school, hearing about JK Rowling saying, very seriously, that James Potter’s parents died of old age and it was incorrect for these fans to write a story in which they didn’t survive to old age.

Ever heard of a concept called “Death of the Author”? It means that once you’ve written something and published it, as long as people are drawing their conclusions from the text, they can draw whatever conclusions they want. You, the author, cannot force them to come to a particular conclusion, nor can you prohibit them from coming to a conclusion you do not like. What’s in the published work is all there is. If you want to write a sequel, then write a sequel; but whatever you write, once you’ve released it into the wild, you can’t control what other people think about it.

It’s the old English Major Maxim: As long as you can prove it with textual citations, you can argue for it.

So JKR, the author, had this idea about James Potter’s parents. She didn’t write it in the books. The fans aren’t mind readers. How could they know? How could she expect them to know? And how could she get mad at them for coming up with a perfectly logical idea with regards to what she had already written?

That incident in ’05 (or ’04, or ’06; I’m hazy on the dates) is JKR saying “Death of the Author doesn’t apply to me.”

Pottermore is that incident magnified, and prettified on a website.

And yeah, it’s neat to be able to Sort yourself into a Hogwarts house (Hufflepuff forever) and see what the website thinks your Patronus should be (polecat?), and it’s neat to have a message board for other fans.

But she’s continually coming out with new content about books that were published … over a decade ago. And treating it like it’s just as canon as the published books.

Sorry, lady, but at this point those are just fancy headcanons, as the fans call them. Ideas that are nice to think about, but that can’t be read as law within the fictional universe, because they only exist in your head. If you want us to think a certain thing about this character, then publish a short story or a sequel or a separate series. Don’t dump snippets on a nice website and then get your nose out of joint when people ignore it.

— which leads into the next subject, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Flogging the Dead Horse.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Maybe Quit While You’re Ahead.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the You Actually Wrote A Blue-Haired Daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange And Voldemort? Did You Take A Minute to Maybe Think About This First?

Sometimes — and I would count having your own theme park as one of those times — it’s okay to step back and let a series be finished.

the Janus man

I’ve nattered about it in other circles, so I might as well do it here. Be ye warned: this post is a long one.

As a consumer of media, I tend to go through cycles of intense obsession that die down to more reasonable levels after a few months (or years), but that can flare up again at any time with only the slightest provocation. To millennials, that much-bemoaned demographic to which I belong, it’s pretty par for the course. To the iGeneration, those people born after the year 2000, who are in high school or about to enter college (!!!), it’s also very much the norm. To people older than Gen Y, that’s … weird. For some reason.

Whatever. The original Trekkies pretty much laid the groundwork for fandom as it is today, y’all don’t get to sneer at us.

The point that I’m meandering towards, is that the level of obsession in the media I consume is directly correlated to the characters in that media. Whether it’s a book or a tv series or a movie, or heck, a period of history, it’s the people involved that I’m interested in, not necessarily the events.

Which is funny, because I tend to stay within certain genres and certain trappings. I’m not a horror or mystery fan. Shoot-‘em-up action films don’t do much for me. Mil scifi and hard scifi can be pretty interesting (see: Starship Troopers and The Martian), but I usually stick to space opera, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. I come for the setting, but I stay for the characters.

I stay for the authors, too. If someone writes one book I enjoy, I’m a lot more likely to read the rest of the backlog, even if it’s part of a different series or universe. That’s how I got into the Discworld: via Good Omens. And Good Omens itself I read because of Gaiman’s Coraline. Never underestimate the transitive power of a well-liked book.

It’s how I got into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If JKR is good at anything, she’s good at capitalizing on her backlist to sell the frontlist.

Which – you know, good for her. The woman’s got her own theme park. If I can be a tenth as successful as she is, I’ll have made it big.

(The Cursed Child is, uh, a different matter, but that and Pottermore are a different post altogether. Let’s table that for tomorrow.)

Anyway! Fantastic Beasts. Or more accurately, the characters of Fantastic Beasts.

The first time I saw it, I was reasonably pleased with the goings-on of the plot and the characters, up until a crucial reveal scene in the last quarter of the film. If you’ve seen the film, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen the film, maybe skip the rest of this post altogether, because it’s a big freaking spoiler.

The casting of Grindelwald was a mistake, in my personal opinion. Mr. Depp may be a talented actor, and I may have enjoyed previous films that he was in – Pirates of the Caribbean sparked a huge interest in the Golden Age of Piracy for me in middle school – but if you’re going to have a film with a central plot focusing on domestic violence, maybe don’t cast an actor who’s been charged with beating his (now ex-)wife.

Seems kind of tasteless.

That’s the casting, though. Even if they’d cast Jamie Campbell Bower (you know, the actor who played Young Grindelwald in the HP movies), the decision to make Creepy Antagonist Percival Graves actually an international terrorist is … well … I’d still chafe at the bit, I think.

It’s not that the movie isn’t internally consistent. On the rewatch, there are plenty of clues to indicate that the man isn’t just a fashionable-and-imposing-yet-creepy dude. The slight fixation on Dumbledore during the interrogation scene is the biggest indicator that he’s actually Grindelwald. The Deathly Hallows bit, as well, works as an alarm bell for them fans that know, that all is not as it should be. But … well …

I mean, the alley scenes with poor Credence do a pretty good job of that, too. There was enough emotional manipulation in those short scenes to choke a horse. And you don’t have to be an international magical terrorist to be a manipulative creep. Anyone can be a creep! Equal opportunity creepiness!

And he didn’t have to be the literal terrorist to agree with the terrorist’s ideas. That’s the point, isn’t it? Not everyone is Magical Hitler, but he didn’t get so much power without supporters. It would have been concerning enough, and it would have remained consistent with the rest of the story (except for that pesky Dumbledore question), if Percival Graves had still been Percival Graves at the end of the movie. I get that “terrorist infiltrates government by stealing a man’s face” is one hell of a plot twist, and hey, stealing faces is a sufficiently sinister magical thing to do, so hey, why not. It’s a good “gotcha!” moment. But wouldn’t it make more of an impact to say “hey, this trusted lieutenant dedicated his life to protecting people but now he agrees with the magical terrorist”?

Especially when – and this is the particularly sticky issue – right before the reveal, he actually poses a pretty good question.

“Who does this law protect? Us, or them?”

The question was already answered two seconds ago, but the question forces us to think about it. The no-majs who were killed during the Obscurus’ rampage, they sure weren’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy. Credence, who was executed by wizarding firing squad rather than be rehabilitated, he sure wasn’t protected by the Statute of Secrecy.

And it also confronts the fact that MACUSA was too blinded by pride to acknowledge that there was even a possibility of Obscurials existing anymore. They could not realize that an Obscurial was tortured into existence right down the street from their headquarters. Essentially, the government condemned a young man to die.

That law protected no one.

Graves was morally gross, but the dude had a point.

And the movie confronted us with that uncomfortable truth, right up until – whoops, actually he’s Grindelwald so we don’t have to weight his words at all. Everything that spews out of his mouth is a lie. We can dismiss the uncomfortable truth, because it came from the lips of a mass murderer.

Oh well.

The character of Graves – or GrindelGraves – was a ruthless man who would do whatever slimy thing it took to achieve his ends, but who commanded the respect and loyalty of one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie, Tina Goldstein. Her shock and sorrow when he sentences her to death is visceral, and not just because she’s about to die! There’s some legitimate betrayal going on there! What kind of man is he, that can inspire that level of dedication, and then turn around and condemn her to death?

Mmmm, he’s a terrorist. Well, there went all that moral complexity, right out the window.

On the plus side, the switcheroo means that distinguished-older-gentleman-with-the-rakish-clothes Colin Farrell is now officially a mystery. We don’t know who the real Percival Graves is! Is he an accomplice? Is he a captive? Is he dead? Until the next installment (and JKR is planning 6 more movies as far as I last heard), we have no idea. He’s Schroedinger’s character. And fandom has taken that blank slate and run with it.

I’m really hoping he isn’t dead. If we’ve introduced the face-stealing plot and we can’t retcon it, by God, let’s explore it to its full potential.