“19 Years Later”: Checking in On Harry Potter Canon

As the world of Harry Potter becomes more collaborative & collective, fans are forced to confront their understanding of canon.

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, then you probably know that today is an important day.

September 1st, 2017 is the day that Albus Potter first leaves for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows epilogue that ends the book series. It’s also the day when The Cursed Child, the latest “canon” addition to the Harry Potter story, begins its tale. In other words: this is the day when one phase of Harry Potter mythos ends and another era begins.

— Cursed Child Play (@HPPlayLDN) September 1, 2017

From the very beginning, the “19 years later” epilogue has been a controversial part of Harry Potter canon, but the bookend to the original series has taken on new significance as the global phenomenon transitions out of its original incarnation — the book series and their film adaptations — into something new — The Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts.

For many, this transition has been a bumpy one. The Cursed Child, especially in its scriptbook format, was met with fan criticism despite its commercial, Olivier Award-winning success, and the first film in the Fantastic Beasts came under fire when it cast the increasingly controversial Johnny Depp in a key role. To put it in Rowling’s words: all is not, strictly speaking, well. To put it in outdated Facebook jargon: Fandom’s relationship with Harry Potter canon is complicated.

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From where I’m standing, this has as much to do with a larger cultural discussion around ownership and stories as it does with specific dissatisfaction with the most recent Harry Potter stories. As Harry Potter “canon” shifts further from J.K. Rowling’s individual control, we are all forced to confront the modern confusion we have when it comes to more collective, public forms of storytelling. In our capitalist era of copyright and intellectual property law, how do we talk about a work that has become so collaborative and collective, both in the commercial arena and outside of commercial values?

Collaborative and collective storytelling.

What do I mean when I talk about collaborative and collective storytelling? “Collaborative” implies multiple parties working towards a shared story, while “collective” implies multiple parties working towards many, respective stories arranged around a common narrative interest. At the most basic level, I am talking about a fictional world that allows multiple creators to actively contribute to its creation. In our modern era, this is socially-accepted when it comes to highly-collaborative mediums like film or plays, but less so when it comes to highly-collective ventures that operate outside of the commercial arena — like fanfiction.

In other words: if someone isn’t making money off of it, then it is a threat to the capitalist framework of our society. Stories only pass into public domain 70 years after their author’s death (this is why we have so many Sherlock Holmes retellings), with corporate copyrights lasting 95 years. Yes, this is in place to protect the author and her ideas, but, in American culture, we go to extreme lengths to protect the rights of corporations and their intellectual property, often at the cost of creativity

The idea of someone solely owning a story is a relatively modern one. Historically, storytelling has been a collaborative, collective effort. In the oral storytelling tradition, people would share, recycle, and transform stories. Today, the same is still true; however, in a culture that understands so much through the economics of capitalism, a story is considered more valid if a corporation is making money off of it.

Harry Potter as intellectual property.

While the discussion and anxiety around this transition of Harry Potter into a collective, collaborative work has increased in recent years, the truth is the process began a long time ago — not only with the blossoming of Harry Potter fandom, but, in 1999, with J.K. Rowling’s sale of the Harry Potter film rights to Warner Bros. for one million pounds (2 million dollars).

Harry Potter is no longer solely J.K. Rowling’s story; its Warner Bros.’ intellectual property, too. When you go to the official Harry Potter and the Cursed Child website, it says at the bottom of the page:

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Warner Bros has even created a Harry Potter Global Franchise Development Team, tasked with guiding the corporate future of this story across future films, the Warner Bros Studio Tour in London, theme parks, and “Harry Potter digital products” such as the Pottermore website.

The appointment of a Harry Potter Global Franchise Development Team symbolizes a continued turn away from the single-vision mode of the original series into something broader and less easy to pin down.

This turn away from a single-author mode is echoed by Fantastic Beasts and The Cursed Child. Rowling may have written the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and approved the story for The Cursed Child, but she was far from being the sole or (especially in The Cursed Child‘s case) even primary storyteller. For my money, Fantastic Beasts was a much less successful storytelling endeavour than The Cursed Child, but perhaps because the former is more closely associated with Rowling, it came under less criticism. 

When people criticize The Cursed Child, they tend to call it “fanfiction.” For some, this is meant as an insult implying that the work is amateurish. For others who are more familiar with fandom, it refers to certain tropes common in fanfiction.

More generally, I would say that “like fanfiction” is a quasi-insult that tends to be leveled at work that is seen as more distant from its original, primary creators. When Harry Potter canon drifts away from Rowling, it is called fanfiction. When Game of Thrones TV canon drifts away from George R.R. Martin, it is called fanfiction. “Fanfiction” is the best word we currently have for describing stories of a more public, collective nature, even when they fall under a commercial umbrella.

Harry Potter belongs to all of us.

For many, Harry Potter has always been a highly-collective story. I’m talking now about the incredibly rich, prolific Harry Potter fandom that grew up alongside the books and alongside internet culture.

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Fan culture is inherently collaborative by its very nature. It is about people who are not the canon creators of a work telling their own non-commercial stories in that fictional universe. Fanworks creators and consumers tend to, though don’t always, have a more liberal view of canon and collaborative storytelling.

For Harry Potter fans who grew up in the internet fandom world, it was impossible to avoid the truth that Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling “owned” the Harry Potter story by some definition of that word. Even if you didn’t personally receive a “cease and desist” letter, every work of fanfiction would start with a disclaimer. Many still do.

— AO3.txt (@AO3txt) February 20, 2017

Fandom has been chipping away at the idea that canon is sacred for some time now, but the transition of Harry Potter, one of the biggest fandoms in the world, into a more collective, collaborative space on the commercial level has brought that discussion to the forefront in confusing, controversial ways. It’s arguably harder to accept fictional choices you don’t like when they come from someone other than the story’s original, single-source author.

Might I suggest not taking Harry Potter canon too seriously, if possible? Legally, J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. may own Harry Potter, and they have the money to back it up with fantastical storytelling experiences across a variety of media. And that’s great, but, culturally, the story of Harry Potter belongs to all of us. While it might feel like the experience of being a Harry Potter fan is changing, this truth is a constant: in your head canon, the story of Harry Potter is whatever you want it to be. That canon is just as valid as Warner Bros.’