J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and a 2020 Retrospective: Will the Boy Wizard Survive His Creator?

Joel Eisenberg

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Daniel Radcliffe in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone"

Introduction

He was once known as "the boy who lived." However, has the scourge known as 2020 proven to be an even more potent force than the boy wizard, or have reports of the premature demise of J.K. Rowling's golden goose been, as Mark Twain would say, "greatly exaggerated?"

We will explore the matter here, but regardless of the conclusion this much is clear: The multiple controversies surrounding Rowling this past year have proven the idea of inadvertent literary homicide by a creator's own hands is certainly, at the very least, worth a conversation.

Will the creation survive the creator?

***

In 1997, the world forever changed with the following sentence: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

The words opened the first novel of J.K. Rowling’s tale of boy wizard Harry Potter, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” released in the U.S. as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (referencing the original title as it was the first published) spawned a seven-book novel series — which has since become the biggest-selling book series in history — and numerous spinoff product. Worldwide, the series novels have sold over 500 million copies, the eight films based on the “Potter” novels alone (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the final film, was divided into two parts) have globally grossed over $7.7 billion, and the “Potterverse” franchise in total is worth an estimated $25 billion.

Not bad for a former researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International who conceived the idea for the series while on a delayed train from Manchester to London. From Wikipedia: The seven-year period that followed saw the death of her mother, birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband, and relative poverty until the first novel in the series.

For more information on the creation of “Harry Potter” and the “Potterverse,” please visit the series’ Wikipedia page here.

Perhaps Rowling’s greatest legacy is she is credited with turning countless millions of children and adults back to reading books. A secondary legacy, but no less impressive, is that her novels’ cinematic adaptations were so successful, the studios have — during the films’ releases and since — realized that intellectual property (IP) based on books can be an ongoing mass media bonanza, as opposed to one-off successes.

However, though it is fair to credit Rowling with legitimately changing world literary and franchise culture, much of the goodwill she had earned began to rapidly dissipate just prior to 2020, specifically in December of 2019.

Was the author transphobic?

According to a December 19 CBS News online report by Sophie Lewis, the contract of Maya Forstater, a researcher for the U.K.’s Centre for Global Development with an alleged history of transphobia, was not renewed due to her use of “discriminatory language against transgender people on social media, specifically transgender women.”

Rowling was incensed when the news broke, and shared the following tweet:

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Her armor had cracked. Teen fans on social media were confused. Early fans who had introduced their own children to the Potterverse were baffled.

Why? Why would this author, whose works were inclusionary, publicly commiserate with anyone who appeared to hate … anyone?

Though some of her fans supported her views, many were incensed, and disillusioned. Was the openness and acceptance as represented by her literary hero in reality anathema to the creator?

In response to mounting outrage, Rowling continued to interact with fans on Twitter, many of whom by now were identifying themselves as “heartbroken” or even “lapsed,” and some stating they were going to burn their “Harry Potter” books.

Unlike Anne Rice, who introduced the omnisexual vampire Lestat to the world in 1976, Rowling was sending mixed messages. For Anne’s part, though “Interview with the Vampire” was adult in nature, her protagonist and related characters appealed to a natural exploration of sexuality, and gender. Young readers devoured the book. It was okay to be different.

Rowling, on the other hand, wrote a series of Young Adult (YA) books loaded to the brim with diversity and positive themes.

And then she took an unpopular stance. Few expected that stance to remain an ongoing brunt of controversy. Indeed, when Donald Trump usurped much of the news in the intervening months, noise about Rowling quelled.

But the relative quiet was temporary.

On May 28, Devex.com printed the following op-ed: “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate”.

Rowling re-tweeted the op-ed and once again spurred the ire of “Potter” fans.

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Her conviction was only women menstruate, and yet her tweets were widely accused of insensitivity.

There was more to come …

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As expected, the anger intensified on the part of her readers. Rowling was called “transphobic” and “hypocritical” by those who fell for the tale of Harry Potter, and what they believed the character stood for.

In an effort to manage the controversy, Rowling issued a personal statement on June 10, entitled, “J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues,” where she attempted to express her views on the matter outside the limiting confines of tweets and immediate reactions.

As ever, the statement only made matters worse. As the months went on, Rowling became defensive, and divided the fanbase of her greatest creation even further. In September, she went so far as to openly promote an online shop that sold anti-trans paraphernalia. See: “JK Rowling promoted a store selling anti-trans merch saying ‘transwomen are men’ and ‘f — — your pronouns.’”

It appeared as though Rowling was deliberately sabotaging her unmatched literary legacy. Again, now-lapsed fans scheduled “Potter” book-burning events, and social media was in an uproar.

The point of this extensive article is not to excoriate Rowling, as she appears to have done a good enough job of damaging her reputation on her own.

The intent here is to somehow balance her immense cultural significance and influence by revisiting the sheer scope and popularity of the “Potter” franchise, all the while determining who should suffer for the crushing series of disappointments of an author plainly speaking what amounts to her own truth.

Once again, who is the more powerful? The creator or the creation?

And … is expressing one’s truth, despite modern day judgements of cultural appropriatness, wrong?

***

“Harry Potter” — Novel and Film Franchise

Let’s dig in to a comprehensive look at the Potterverse.

The "Harry Potter" novel and film franchise includes seven books comprising the primary series and eight movies based on those books.

Note: The first book was published by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom, followed by Scholastic in the U.S., before the remainder of the series was published concurrently by both.

1. “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S.) The first “Harry Potter” film was released by Warner Brothers in 2001, and introduced our regular cast of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley. It was directed by Chris Columbus and written by Steve Kloves.

Minerva McGonagall: “Is that where — ?”
Albus Dumbledore: “Yes. He’ll have that scar forever.”

Harry Potter’s lightning bolt-shaped scar was caused when Lord Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents but failed to kill the infant Harry. The evil wizard’s killing curse backfired, a curse that will become a central conflict in this saga.

The film iteration was, as anticipated, a worldwide smash, earning $978.4 million at the global boxoffice. As a comparison to another monster franchise, in 2020 dollars “The Rise of Skywalker” will have capped out at just over $1 billion globally. Unadjusted for inflation, “Harry Potter” has sold considerably more tickets.

2. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (Book: 1998; Film: 2002)

The creative team returned for the first cinematic sequel, based on the book of the same name. The film was another smash, earning $879.2 million worldwide.

3. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” (Book: 1999; Film: 2004)

Based on Book Three (Year Three), Alfonso Cuarón took over the director’s chair and the film was a darker, more adult-skewing work. Kloves again wrote the screenplay.

The third Harry Potter film grossed $796.9 million around the world.

4. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (Book: 2000; Film: 2005)

The fourth cinematic go-round was directed by Mike Newell, again based on a screenplay by Steve Kloves.

This fourth film of the series earned $897.1 million around the world, which led the franchise to become one of the highest-earning film series of all-time. And among the most consistent.

5. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (Book: 2003; Film: 2007)

The only film in the series not to be written by Steve Kloves, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was written by Michael Goldenberg and directed by David Yates.

The film earned $940 million around the globe.

6. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (Book: 2005; Film: 2007)

“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” saw the return of Steve Kloves as screenwriter, and David Yates as director.

7. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (Book: 2007; divided into two films — Part One: 2010, Part Two: 2011)

Yates and Kloves returned for these two.

Part One earned $960.4 million around the globe. Part Two brought in an astounding $1.342 at the worldwide boxoffice, a “Potter” film record.

***

Official Spinoffs, Part One

Rowling expanded the Potterverse with several thin volumes written for charity. Among them were a Hogwarts “textbook,” entitled “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (see below), “Qudditch Through the Ages,” and the handwritten “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” a collection of fairy tales.

All of these were eventually collected and sold in bookstores worldwide.

Rowling further wrote an 800-word prequel to “Harry Potter” in 2008 as a fundraiser. Three e-books followed in 2016: “Hogwarts: An Incomplete and Unreliable Guide,” “Short Stories from Hogwarts of Power, Politics and Pesky Poltergeists,” and “Short Stories from Hogwarts of Heroism, Hardship and Dangerous Hobbies.”

“Harry Potter and The Cursed Child” (2016)

The story continued in 2016 with the acclaimed two-part play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” The show began previews at the Palace Theater in London on June 7, 2016, and opened on Broadway on April 22, 2018. The followup was based on an original story by Rowling, Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany.

Beginning 19 years after the events of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the new work focused on Harry, now working a desk job as head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement at the Ministry of Magic, and his son Albus Severus Potter as he set to attend Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The play received multiple Laurence Olivier and Tony Award nominations, winning Best New Play and Best Play, respectively, and remains a boxoffice powerhouse.

The script for the play was released in book form, as again published by Bloomsbury and Scholastic.

***

Official Spinoffs, Part Two: “Fantastic Beasts” (book — 2001; films — 2016-present)

In October of 2016, J.K. Rowling announced the new cinematic series based on one of her three initial works written for charity, the “Fantastic Beasts” series, would be comprised of five films.

This new project would serve as a five-part prequel to the original series of films, taking place beginning in the year 1926.

The first film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” written by Rowling, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, was yet another global success for the Potterverse brand, earning $814 million worldwide.

2018’s “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” utilizing the same creative team, earned $653.8 million globally. The film was not as critically well-received as its predecessor, but was nonetheless a hit for the studio.

“Fantastic Beasts 3” is set for release in 2021. This chapter recently received a torrent of negative publicity due to abuse charges against actor and co-star Johnny Depp on behalf of his then-wife Amber Heard, which resulted in Depp being replaced in the new movie by Mads Mikkelsen as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. The release dates for the subsequent two films in the series have not yet been formally announced.

***

Mass Merchandising, Theme Parks and Porn

According to Google, the estimated total value of the Harry Potter franchise is well over $30 billion, inclusive of merchandise, which in 2019 sales were estimated at over $7.5 billion.

“The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” was going great guns in Orlando’s Universal Studios, and Los Angeles’ Universal Studios, until our Covid-19 pandemic, and porn parodies -- including films and adult comic books -- continued to be released but have since slowed. What part of that is due to Covid-related restrictions and what is due to author Rowling herself is impossible to measure.

Speaking of, according to Business Insider the author today is worth over $1.2 billion, after taxes. She is not hurting.

There seemed to be no end to interest in the Potterverse, and then the conclusion of 2019 became a dominating pop-culture controversy throughout much of 2020.

***

The Future

Who knows.

It appears the (main) “Harry Potter’ story had long concluded at the finish of the seventh book. Readers everywhere thought, like the “Star Wars” films and “The Wizard of Oz” films and multiple books before them, the overarching tale would live on for generations.

It still may.

In the meantime, J.K. Rowling found another niche, writing crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. In an unexpected twist of fate prior to the book's release, this Insider article in part caused its share of new grief: JK Rowling’s new book reportedly features a male killer who wears wig and a woman’s coat to dupe some of his victims.

That news didn’t go over all too well either when originally announced.

***

Conclusion

Who wouldn’t fall for this story: It all began with one amazing sentence, followed by a book written on a manual typewriter in a cafe … by a broke woman on welfare? A woman, incidentally, whose spirit could never break. Rowling’s first “Harry Potter” novel was reportedly rejected 12 times before she finally found a publisher, and she remains one of the wealthiest and most well-known human beings on the planet.

There’s a message, there.

But what of those other messages, those she nakedly tweeted to her readers while exposing herself to be something less than perfect?

As well-written as the books may have been, the films — despite or perhaps because of irregular changes in the cinematic iterations’ creative teams — were never predictable in look or tone and were all immensely successful on their own.

And perhaps that’s how we should leave it. J.K. Rowling is not as predictable, or comfortable, as so many of us would have liked to believe. She appears to be an opinionated woman ready to fight for her stances.

Nothing wrong, there.

Though I personally loathe some of her positions, such as those that set off the firestorm, where does it end? I preach for writers to speak their own truths, and to let the chips fall where they may, and I’ve written numerous articles on the topic.

I have to hold Rowling by the same standard. I consider the totality of an author and their work and then decide whether I will patronize said artist and product. If another reader chooses to continue to partonize Rawling, they too will speak with their dollars.

As someone who fights for civil rights, I can openly state my own opinion that the author certainly appears to be transphobic -- which is a shame -- but if so she’s as entitled to her personal truth as anyone.

And yet the messages of the books she created are constructive, and positive.

The immediate conflict is Rowling, veritably on her own, has created a multi-media franchise unlike most others, and her “Potter” books have inspired generations to read and create.

H.P. Lovecraft is considered a racist today by many and his books are still read. There are lists of other authors who were even more egregious in their beliefs and they are as well.

Do we immediately discount a piece of work, in this case the “Harry Potter” series, because a particular author has not met your standards?

What comes first, the work or the human being who created it?

That’s the eternal question.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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