Thursday, December 1, 2016

Harry Potter and the Expanded Universe

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Ever since I started this blog, there have been certain books that I've made reference to, expecting my audience to know already. This blog is rife with spoilers for The Hunger Games, features the occasional Twilight related diatribe and - let's not forget - frequently pauses to admire the brilliance of the seven book, eight movie Harry Potter series.

These three series have a lot in common. They're all mega-blockbusters, all aimed at children and all garnered a massive adult fan base despite their intended audience. Up until 2016, they also shared another key feature that made them easy to talk about on this blog:

They were all over.


But someone got a hold of those Deathly Hallows and flipped the resurrection stone, because the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is back from the grave.

Some Context...

I first came across the Harry Potter books at the start of seventh grade. It took one sentence to hook me. I charged through books one, two and three. Then began the waiting.

Anyone who grew up in the late 90s/early 2000s learned the agony of waiting for each new Harry Potter book.  When the series started, I was a year younger than Harry, Ron and Hermione. By the time it ended, I was three years older. It never took me longer than a few days to read each book and so, by and large, most of my time spent with Harry, I was waiting for more.

In order to fill this Harry Potter sized hole in my heart, I took to the internet. I talked to people on message boards about Harry Potter. I read blog posts on everything from wand lore to inbreeding in the wizarding world. I trawled through countless pages of fan art on Deviant Art. It's safe to say that no series hit my developing writer's soul more than Harry's did.

Online, I wasn't alone. There were countless people just like me, desperate for more Potter. Which is why the inevitable blow-ups that happened whenever a new book was released were - in hindsight - kind of bizarre. But not that bizarre.

Fandom Over Time

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Ron + Herm 4 EVA!!!!
Between the publication of Book 4 and Book 5 alone, three years passed. Three! For teenage Emily, this was an eternity, and a lot of people felt the same way. So they filled the gap with fan theories, fan fiction and fan art. What resulted were divergent opinions about the true nature of the Harry Potter world. Right up until the sixth book came out, there were ride-or-die supporters of Harry and Hermione falling in love with each other. They could (and did) write essays on the ways JK Rowling clearly intended the couple to be together. They were devastated when they realized that Harry and Hermione were a love that would never be, even more so when Rowling joked that they'd missed some "anvil sized hints" that Hermione had feelings for Ron.

There were people who hated the "teen-angst Harry" that replaced our hero in Book 5; people who loathed Ginny Weasley, the more focus she took in the narrative; people who felt betrayed by the heroic end that Snape got; people who lost their minds when Umbridge didn't die; people who disliked the way Book 7 unraveled Dumbledore's legacy. And there were a lot of people who hated the epilogue. Man, people hated that epilogue.

But as each book settled into reality, resistance died down. Like it or not, this was Rowling's world. And you could either throw the whole series out or accept the changes you didn't like. Most people chose acceptance, though not everyone. I had friends who went from super fans to so disenchanted, they never finished the series.

But once 2007 passed, Harry Potter became fixed. Sure, J.K. Rowling continued to give interviews, but the stuff she spoke about  wasn't important enough to make it into the books. None of it defined the series. And if you weren't the type of fan who hung on every word the great Rowling spoke, you might not even know she was still adding factoids to the series.

The Arrival of 2016

In many ways, the great change began back in 2013, with the announcement of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For six years, the series had been over. The movie adaptations stretched the timeline a bit longer, but they weren't adding new lore to the world. And even then, the last movie came out in 2011. Potter was supposed to be done.

Fantastic Beasts would be a movie series, focused not on Harry, but on Newt Scamander, the author of one of Harry's textbooks. It would detail his adventures in 1920s America and function as an independent story, within the same world. On the whole, people loved this announcement. It felt like the perfect balance between getting more Potter without dragging out the corpse of the beloved series we'd already said good-bye to.

But then Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was announced and people kind of collectively said, "what?"

Of all the things I listed above, nothing was as universally reviled as Book 7's epilogue. I, like a lot of people, chose to conveniently "forget" it existed and focus on Harry as a teenager. The idea of a story that took place AFTER that time would make it feel more real. And back when she was writing the original series, Rowling double-triple-quadruple promised she wouldn't write Harry Potter and the Mid-Life Crisis, yet here we were, faced with a stage play that was exactly that.

Optimists (such as yours truly) still bought a copy of the play to read, but Cursed Child also made something else painfully clear. The book had three authors on the title page. Rowling wasn't the only one driving the Harry Potter bus any more.

Rowling is the only person on Fantastic Beasts with a "story by" credit, but even that being the case, you can bet the script was vetted and doctored by a whole team of writers. It's just the way movies are made. Besides which, Rowling is a novelist, and screenplays are a different - ahem - beast. The very fact that she has a "story" credit and not a "screenplay" one speaks to the fact that other people stepped in at some point.

In both cases, it can be argued that we might be getting more Harry Potter, but that doesn't mean we're getting any more *pure* Harry Potter. So what role do these additions play in the over-all universe? And are we expected to accept them the same way we did each book in the series? 

Expanding Universes Across Fandom

It might be useful at this point to address the whole notion of an "expanded universe." The term comes primarily from Star Wars, which after it's initial mega-success back in the 70s and 80s, spawned a whole generation of fans hungry for more.

At the time, George Lucas wasn't interested in making more Star Wars movies, so the task of creating fell to others. These works were meant to satiate super fans, but not necessarily define Star Wars for the general public who couldn't care less about Jabba the Hutt's origin story. And what is the cheapest way of creating new content for super fans?

Books, of course! Books are cheaper to produce than movies or TV shows and you don't need nearly as many people to engage with them to make a profit.

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Not gonna lie. I only recognize Han and Leia.
Star Wars wasn't the only series to make use of a niche fan base in this manner. Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and even My Little Pony have all published books related to their respective worlds, expanding the universe for the fans that care without complicating the overall perception for casual fans. In fact, it's understood that further movies or TV shows can "overwrite" these books, much to the heartache of those who love the Expanded Universe. Still, they tend to take it on the chin. The books were extra. Not the main narrative.

For some people, engaging with this Expanded Universe material is the defining test of if you *are* a super fan. You don't know the name of each of the bounty hunters after Han Solo? Well, THAT GUY read a book about each of them! And you call yourself a fan. For shame!

But now that Harry Potter is expanding, the old fan base is at a cross roads, because not everyone wants to jump on the wagon. And if you look closely, you can kind of understand why.

The Harry Potter Conundrum

All of the series I mentioned above started out as Mass Media. Okay, so books are technically mass media too, but they're different. They're the "smart person's" pass time. We all kind of expect books to be simplified or "dumbed down" when they're adapted to film and television. In fact, we're pleasantly stunned when they don't feel that way.

When Star Wars and the like expanded their universes, they were moving "up" the ladder. By adding books to the world, they were going for smarter, niche content that only the true super fan was meant to engage with. The whole notion that complexity could be added to the Harry Potter world by making more movies feels off for a lot of people.

Add to that, blockbuster movies are not the small side-projects you make for a hyper-devoted fandom. They depend on massive ticket sales and cash returns, which comes from lots and lots of people going to see the movies. These movies are for the average joe, not the fans who spent their teen and college years writing side stories where Luna Lovegood takes center stage.

Cursed Child tripped up fans for different reasons. Though a play, most people will engage it first as a book, since the released script made for the biggest Harry Potter book launch in years. Technically, you can also buy the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, but c'mon. Let's face it. We're seeing it in theatres. So then what's wrong with Cursed Child? First, it reads differently from the original series. It had to, of course. It's a play. But because it's a play, gone are the vast descriptions of magical objects and locations. Gone are the internal thoughts we're used to from Harry. Neither of those things work well on stage, but both were key to Harry's original success.

On top of that, both recent works have highlighted some deeper problems with the series that some fans would rather not swallow. Cursed Child introduces some plot holes, if it's canon. The Pottermore writings that lead up to Fantastic Beasts, plus the movie itself, highlighted some difficulties Rowling tends to have writing diversity. (Those problems have always been there, of course. Try reading Goblet of Fire and finding one French character who isn't a raging stereotype.) And the casting choices for both the play and the movies have led to some mixed reactions.

To be honest, I'm not even sure how much people (on average) care about these problems or worry about the wider implications of adding more to the series. One of the issues with being a super fan for a series is that my vision tends to be a little myopic. I know what the internet junkies are thinking and saying, but Harry Potter touched a far, far wider swathe of people, many of whom host Harry Potter parties and get Harry Potter tattoos, even if they've never dreamed of posting on a Harry Potter message board or reading fan fiction. It's their story too, and who am I to say their experience and insight into the series is any less important than mine? For all I know, these were the people Rowling created the new play and movies for.

Or did she think she could satisfy all of us in one go? Or did she know she couldn't, but kept writing anyway?

The Future of Potter

So where do these works fit? They're going to be well known, more so than the expanded material from Star Wars or countless other properties. And even if other people are involved now, Rowling's name is there, over and over again, reminding us that on some level, she signed off on this. The chances that future books will come out that "overwrite" the new movies and play are slim to none.

You certainly can't force everyone to like the new material. As someone who eagerly read Cursed Child and watched Fantastic Beasts, I can admit, they aren't perfect. And maybe there is something to be said for holding the books up on a different "tier" than the rest of the new material. The "pure" books that Rowling created without the meddling of big studios and big money.

But at the same time...

I would never want to stop someone from critiquing the Harry Potter series. Man, there is next to NOTHING that I enjoy more than picking apart a story I love. One of the major features of this blog is its book reviews, which always mention at least one thing that could be "improved" in a work of fiction. Sometimes it's craft, sometimes its what it says on a social commentary level. But as we pick apart the new additions to the series, overall, I'm excited that there's a lot of interesting stuff to talk about. Even with their weaknesses, I don't think they're anywhere close to being something you would want to give up on.

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RON + HERM 4 EVA!!!!!!
For those who are wondering if they should read Cursed Child or see Fantastic Beasts - especially those who are worried that these stories might tarnish something they loved - I'd really encourage you to give them a shot. There are great, new characters to meet. There are all of Newt's creature friends and, holy crap are they lovable. And Cursed Child finally fixed that frickin' Book 7 epilogue and for that alone, the play deserves an award.

I keep wondering what will happen a year or so from now when the dust has settled and these stories have been around for a while. Will they be seen as normal? Will the fan base swallow them on the whole, just like they did the books? After all, this isn't a new pattern we're seeing. People have rejected aspects of "new Potter" every time another story is added to the canon. All that's changed is the level of social media exposure.

Either way, with more movies on the way and new snippets added to Pottermore regularly, one thing is very clear. Harry Potter fans have more content than ever before to engage with, and what they do with it will only be known in time.

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