A Year of Rowling Dangerously
It has been a great year to be a fan of J. K. Rowling: In the Spring, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II (oy) opened on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play; in the Summer, Lethal White, her most recent gritty detective novel, was released; and in the Fall, the latest Fantastic Beasts movie, The Crimes of Grindelwald, arrived. Now, the play debuted in London in 2016, which was also the year of the first Fantastic Beasts release, but there was no mystery novel that year, and the one that had come out the year before was not nearly as good as Lethal White, but still, perhaps I should amend that to, 2018 was a great year to be a fan of J. K. Rowling in America, because the play opened here, and 2016 was a great year to be a fan in England. But unlike 2016 in England, 2018 has also been a rough year to be a fan of J. K. Rowling. She broke or bent her own established rules to expand her most beloved creation, the Wizarding World, dismissed fan outrage about what she put in and what she “left out” of her canon, embraced once immensely popular figures who have become somewhat infamous, and gave a very minor character a backstory that struck many people as cruel. Without going into the plots of any of her year’s new output (in America), I want to take this opportunity to look back at what being a fan of J. K. Rowling meant this year.
The first adventure came very early in the year, and it was neither necessary nor Rowling’s fault. It is also the stupidest and still irks me. David Yates, director of the last four Harry Potter movies and the first two Fantastic Beasts movies, was asked if Dumbledore’s sexuality would be explored in the upcoming movie. A fair question, since the movie is named after the man Rowling once said Dumbledore had had feelings for in his younger years. The only part of his answer that matters, since it’s the only part that anyone paid attention to, is, “Not explicitly.” This got the internet attacking the movie, still unfinished and definitely unseen at the time, and its creators, including Rowling, for keeping Dumbledore “in the closet.” Rowling made light of the internet’s reaction and muted it on Twitter, whatever that means. This was an infuriating start to the Rowling year for several reasons: it sprung from the worst part of our instant gratification obsessed culture (“If he’s not out and proud in the second of five movies he may as well never be”); it used the language of the closet to condemn Rowling while seemingly forgetting that the time the movie takes place was long before gay people were even spoken of in terms of being in the closet, as though coming out were an option; and the rage was focused on a woman who is a very significant part of the reason our generation cares so much about minority groups and fairness, as though we suddenly can’t trust her to do the right thing. It still frustrates me, and I’d like to stop writing about it (even though what I wrote about it back then was one of the most popular things I ever wrote), but I just have to say, Yates’s answer was stupid and clumsy, and in this age of people being terrified of spoilers in movies like the one he was talking about, he could have been a lot cagier and still given an answer that wouldn’t have gotten the internet’s ire up quite so much. Or maybe not, the internet is fickle. More on Yates later.
Next up in the J. K. Rowling controversies (technically it broke in late 2017, but it has really been ongoing since the first Fantastic Beasts movie, and I wanted to get the stupid Dumbledore thing out of the way first) is the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. When it was revealed at the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I was one of the people who actually thought it was a great match of actor and role. It was a magical, fantasy character, but a Rowling creation, and therefore more of a human being than, say, someone Depp would play in a Tim Burton movie. That was also shortly after his messy divorce from Amber Heard, who had accused him of domestic abuse, which he has since accused her of and said the truth will come out in court, because he is suing some British newspaper for calling him in a “wife beater.” Rowling was taken to task for not recasting him, and said, “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are…genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.” As big a fan of Depp as I am, I do not think he leads a healthy life, and I am torn about whether or not I believe that the man who stays out of the spotlight as much as he can and dresses as his best character, Captain Jack Sparrow, to cheer up children in hospitals, is capable of what he’s been accused of. His case is being litigated, it doesn’t seem to have hurt his career, and J. K. Rowling seems to know something the general public does not. Both Depp and Heard are legally prohibited by the divorce agreement from talking about their split much in public, but maybe there have been private conversations, especially when Rowling, who, as mentioned, helped teach an entire generation to treat people decently, was faced with the decision of recasting a major star who was accused of the exact opposite. The matter is in court, and the perfect analogy is in a Harry Potter movie: Remus Lupin tells Harry, “It comes down to whether or not you trust Dumbledore’s judgement. Dumbledore trusts Snape, therefore I do.” Depp would have made a great Snape, and he’s kind of getting his shot at the role now. And Rowling is my Dumbledore, but since I’ve read her books, seen her movies, and, now, seen her play, I know that doesn’t make her infallible.
In the spring, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II, opened (my roommate went to the opening) and, a few months later, won it’s Tony (well, Tonys), and I mostly rolled my eyes. I’m of the generation that doesn’t necessarily want the series that we love being stretched into oblivion, and have been wary about a play treatment ever since it was announced. It did not help the play’s case that it was being written by someone who was not J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, based on a story by Rowling (and Thorne and some guy named John Tiffany). I rolled my eyes also because, as much as I love the movies, scripts written by other people based on stories by Rowling do not have the cleanest track record of satisfying my appetite for her work. I have had the published version of the script for nearly two years but never read it because I wanted (though I did not know how I would) to see it in its intended form, on the stage, first, and also because of that bias against anything Harry Potter that was not written by Rowling. She is a very special writer, not just to me but as far as writers go, and I didn’t know anything about this Jack Thorne guy. Fortunately, that first reason made me feel less stubborn about the latter reason these past two years. Now that I have seen the play, I can finally read it (eventually), which I need to do, because I definitely did not catch every line (particularly Draco’s). It also helps that my project of finishing the Animorphs series forced me to come to terms with reading the work of ghostwriters.
Flashing forward to September, two big things happened a week apart, the first of which was the publication of Lethal White, by Rowling’s alter-ego, Robert Galbraith, a war veteran. Her last Cormoran Strike novel, Career of Evil, was not good, and made me question at least my commercial loyalty to Rowling: should I continue to consume every product she puts out now that she has proven herself to be capable to producing something bad? I think Fantastic Beasts put me back on track, but I was still worried about the detective series. Mystery novels are such a humdrum thing in the literary world for someone as magical as J. K. Rowling to have embraced. And Lethal White was huge, physically. I don’t know the word count or how it compares to that of her longest Potter novel, but I would say, since the word-to-page ratio is geared more toward adult readers, that it is probably her longest book. Would her longest also be her worst? No, it was great. Not just good, not just righting the ship, it was downright great. It was the closest one of her detective novels has come to a Harry Potter novel in feel and plotting. Not that they have to, but it just felt like she was back on her game after that low point. I practically zipped through that giant tome. So I will continue to buy them as they come out, and the profits from these books still go to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity (because she doesn’t need the money), which means I probably would have anyway, but its nice to feel confident that I will enjoy doing so.
A week later, the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (oy) came out, and with it more controversy. This is the only plot detail I will specify because it is not a plot detail from the movie specifically but a backstory for a character from Harry Potter, namely Voldemort’s snake, Nagini. Apparently, Nagini used to be human (though not a witch?), born with a blood curse that caused her to turn into a snake off and on, a change that eventually became permanent, at which point she became pure snake, all human memory gone (?). Most details are still uncertain, but it is universally accepted that that is beyond a terrible fate. But she’s not the first character to suffer a horrific fate, and creators have every right to do horrible things to even the most beloved characters (and she’s not beloved yet, though she was one of the best new characters in the movie). Rowling was accused of casting the character as Asian as an afterthought, but said she’d known this about the snake for twenty years, and let’s face it, if she had cast a character inspired by Indonesian mythology (the Naga) as white, to avoid the criticism of casting a non-white actor in a disposable role, she’d have had even more (and more well-deserved) criticism. Diversity has been an issue with her work, I won’t argue (though I will say read The Casual Vacancy), but this is not that problem (and I would point out that all of the most interesting new characters in the movie are people of colour). This, like the Dumbledore thing, is only even notable because we already know about the character. I look forward to seeing what this character does over the next three movies, and I hope that by the time she becomes Voldemort’s snake, I care enough about her from what she has done in these movies that I’m desperately sad about it.
Just under two months later, the movie itself came out, and fans were finally able to see what all the controversy added up to. As mentioned, Nagini is one of the best new characters, and if fans had waited to see how Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship as young men is teased in the movie, I’m sure they would have been happy with it as a logical start to the exploration and big reveal that we all want. There are three more movies. However, a major movie cannot open in this day and age without sparking fresh outrage, and I think I speak for every single person who saw the movie but was not involved with it when I say…I’m confused. It’s quite confusing. But I am not outraged, because there are three more movies. She has three more movies to make this all make sense. Yes, there will always be the lingering annoyance that we were initially sold magical Pokémon and got the Dumbledore/Grindelwald showdown instead, but we just have to accept that, especially because it’s what we really wanted from a Harry Potter prequel anyway (though the magical Pokémon aspect, what there is of it, is still cool). I just have one request that I’m sure I won’t get and I won’t throw an internet tantrum if I don’t, and that is that they fire David Yates, or at least downgrade him to producer. Bring in new directors. As uneven as the Harry Potter movies were, at least they looked like individuals. The last four of them and first two of Fantastic Beasts look too uniform. Bring back the two directors who each only got one Potter movie but made, arguably, the best of the Potter movies, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell. Or get Rian Johnson; I, for one, loved The Last Jedi, and as long as people are going to get upset about this franchise no matter what, you may as well. Rowling started her detective novels anonymously because she wanted genuine creative pushback from editors, and she had that ruined for her by meddlesome academics. The people whose movie opinions I most respect have said that the problem with The Crimes of Grindelwald is that she didn’t have creative pushback, and I am inclined to agree. Yates is too comfortable with her. It has to be her, but it doesn’t have to be him. But it probably will be, and I’m not going to complain when it turns out to be. This is just a friendly suggestion. Key word: friendly.
What I couldn’t have predicted for myself this year was actually seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II. There was no way I was getting a free ticket, and buying one ticket to a hit Broadway show is painful enough, let alone two. But I had a very good Fall and was able to treat myself to a half a day of Harry Potter. It was sloppy, a lot of it felt rushed, it broke a ton of rules established in the books, and it felt like the nth Harry Potter sequel if they had kept making them in the years following the release of the last movie, and this was the one where they had run out of brilliant ideas, but it was great and I loved it. Most of my complaints are with the first part of the first part, but I also took my time adapting to the idea that this was the first Harry Potter story written with live, real time, mass audience reaction in mind. The books were probably written with the understanding that they would be read out loud in addition to to oneself, but books are, for the most part, for a quiet audience of one. The movies were made to be enjoyed in theatres, but the scenes were written to be filmed in isolation, done as naturally as possible, not presented to a live audience that would clap or laugh. The play was written for a thousand people to all enjoy at the same time, and for someone who is used to quietly reading one of the books or seeing the movies in which the actors don’t know I’m there or care how I’m reacting, that was strange for me. Lines were written and moments were stretched to acknowledge audience response. I’ve done this when I’ve written plays. That was the key to my appreciation of it. That and the stagecraft and even the plot, which is far from the best plot in any Wizarding World story (though it might be better than the most recent movie), but ultimately came around to making sense, adding something to the lore, and making me laugh and cry at least as much as any of the movies, for perfectly legitimate reasons (well, one tear jerking moment seemed excessive, but still kind of made sense). I’m glad I didn’t read it first, and that I got to see it play out in real time, and I’m glad the little girl sitting behind me who apparently had some knowledge of the big reveal and wouldn’t shut up, even when the play was going on, was not quite loud enough to really ruin it for me.
So do we still like J. K. Rowling? I know I do, but do we? As a people? As a culture? Has she overstayed her welcome, is she beating a dead thestral? Will she be vindicated, in the eyes of the haters, by sequels and court rulings? Or has she already shed too many fans? From the sizes of the audiences I shared her most recent movie and play with, I would say the answer to that last question is a resounding no. I don’t revere, I was not raised to. I do not blindly follow. I may be a Hufflepuff, but I am a discerning Hufflepuff, and even halfway through the book series that started it all, I still wasn’t a super fan. I took my time getting to the point where I thought she was the most important creative person of our time, and while I may not be completely satisfied with all of her creative choices, and I may hope she eventually introduces some more variety into her portfolio, I’m not going to write her off because the angry internet turned against her three separate times this year, because she has made a few questionable decisions. You try rising to her level of fame and success and continuing to please everybody. I know I plan to, and I look forward to the first time I do something that flops and it’s meaningful because of all of the expectations heaped on top of me. She may yet lose me, but this was not the year, despite the internet rage machine’s best efforts. I see through you, internet. I’m glad the industry didn’t take your bate, because while I wrote my little blog posts, I felt helpless to defend her as I felt she was being treated most unfairly. Not that she needs me to defend her, as she proved this year. She’ll be just fine, and I’ll have her to look up to and emulate, and to look forward to output from for years to come. My one request, J. K. Rowling, and I know you’re equal to it because you’ve done it many times before: surprise me.