Getting Harry

Why post-Potter predictions miss the point

All the Hogwarts hoopla and hype misting magically through the Muggles media these franchise-finishing, dark days—“How Harry Potter Changed The World”; “Harry Potter Fans Flock To Theaters For Final Film”; “Will Rowling Write Another Adventure?”—keeps missing the Quidditch snitch by about 150 quaffle-lengths. (No, that doesn’t make sense, but neither does Quidditch, the dullest of imaginary sports, especially next to the foxy pursuit of Whackbat). And no broomstick-blazing conjecture misses the point more than the speculation over what the next Potter-like film franchise for tweens, teens and all-age geekgirls/fanboys will be.

The point is that the Potter craze, like a lightning-scar in a bottle, is impossible to capture twice—but not because the Potter book are “timeless” or “classic” or “create a world” or any other musty mudblood clichés. Precisely the opposite—the Potter success is a phenomenon of a very specific time, already seeming long ago and far away.

In a world of e-readers and Tweets and in-flight Internet, when high-tech gadgets are hypershifting and nano-accelerating, it’s already hard to remember that the Potter books exploded because they were books, hot off the olde press. After the first one hit shelves, in 1997, a key reason the series became so popular was because it was seen as a great way to get kids to read print—in the face of TV, film and video games, there was a lot of concern (as if visual media doesn’t demand a kind of “reading”) about children not reading much anymore.

Plus, in our cool-to-be-younger-longer culture, teens and twentysomethings and, of course, parents could read along, too (adult editions, with more mature-looking covers, were issued). And then the Potter books became something retro-cool and morally sound to defend—against spurious religious charges that Rowling’s work promoted witchcraft.

The Potter books, especially early on, were no better written than many fantasy and/or kids’ books (even most Potter fans will admit that HP and the Philosopher’s Stone is nothing to send Hedwig home about, especially compared with the later books). And just because there are HP Wikis with reams of information, that doesn’t mean Rowling’s created a “world” any more or less captivating than, say, Emily Brontë in her one book, Wuthering Heights (a book Stephenie Meyer’s largely imitated for the Twilight series, one of many hyped HP franchise followers).

But the success of the Potter series as books was parlayed, carefully and cannily, into a massive “world” of a film franchise, video games, an amusement park and other spin-offs. (And Rowling’s latest venture is a shrewd, George Lucas-like extension of the brand … into the world of ebooks.) The bitterly ironic secret of HP sauce is that a huge literary success, in part out of reaction to televisual media, was soon alchemized into a televisual phenomenon—on small and big screens, on laptops and podcasts, on consoles and now e-readers. Books were simply too small, quaint and old a medium for a series set in a quaint old world of wizards, castles, Oxfordian academies and incantations. In addition to breaking box-office records left and right in such categories as Midnight Screenings, Biggest Opening Day (various countries), and on and on, the franchise has grossed over $6-billion and counting; by contrast, the books sold 400 million copies. (The HP octet of movies, though, has been notably uneven, induced a fair bit of critic fatigue, and garnered few top industry awards.)

Potterverse has been, as Will Hutton points out, one of the great early successes of a kind of cultural globalization. The key is the American market, so an English-language book is crucial, as Hutton notes, but another horcrux of the matter is “the social grapevine, triggered by good reviews, and especially word of mouth. … the social effect in publishing is particularly vital. … And by telegraphing there were more books to come, [Rowling] cleverly laid the bait for each successive book to become an even greater event. With the Harry Potter website on top, she has become the uber-mistress of the social nature of creative success, showing her profound understanding of how the creative market works.”

The ugly truth is, the HP books have ended up becoming part of a multi-media franchise, their printed words overwhelmed by the mega-budget CGI fantasy images of the movies and their marketing, not to mention the video games and theme-park rides. And that’s how 20th-century Hollywood, still far more powerful in the 21st century than the 19th-century-based publishing industry likely ever will be again, likes it.

So the mega-billion$ boost that Warner Bros. got from adapting Rowling’s series can’t happen again—it came out of an odd bubble of a moment, a time when many people had one hand clutched to their nostalgic book-clinging fancies and childhood-concerns, while their other hand tapped away on the keyboard of an increasingly globalized commercial culture. That bubble’s burst.

Which means that speculation about: The Hunger Games being the next big post-HP thing (though only a paltry—by HP standards—three million copies are in print); or Twilight spreading its rosy-moneyed hue even as its girl-fanbase moves into adulthood (the last movie made slightly less than the previous); or Merlin or Oz  (both based on rather old books that have been adapted many times before) filling the post-HP void; or remembrances of former family-friendly fantasy franchise hopes failed and faltered (His Dark Materials, The Narnia Chronicles, Percy Jackson & The Olympians) … well, it’s all missing the Gandalfin’ point. Whoops, sorry—that’s a different book series, a different great white hope of fantasy franchises, and another story for another box-office weekend. V


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