[Author’s Note, November 26, 2018] Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has been out for a few weeks now and has been cleaning up at the box office. Too bad the reviews are trashing the movie. It got me thinking about this old piece I wrote three years ago when the first Fantastic Beasts movie had been announced. I’m republishing it here for your enjoyment.
The other day, J.K. Rowling gave an interview with Matt Lauer about her charity Lumos and mentioned she probably wouldn't write another story about Harry and the gang, although she wouldn't foreclose the opportunity altogether. I don't know whether Rowling will ever return to Harry Potter but I do know that she shouldn't. In fact, I think she should relinquish all rights to the Potterverse before she messes it all up.
Okay what? Messes it up? J.K. Rowling is a goddamn international treasure and I should be strung up by the neck for thinking such heretical thoughts, right? Well maybe, but first let me say that I have nothing but admiration for Rowling's skill and artistry. The books and films stand as towering achievements in their respective fields and the world is undoubtedly a better place with Harry Potter than it would be without. And that's exactly the problem.
We revere authors and creators of valuable intellectual property. We assume they know what's best when it comes to their work. And sometimes that's true! George R.R. Martin certainly believes it. The general sentiment is that his voice is the only one worthy of steering the Game of Thrones ship. The same probably would have been said about J.R.R. Tolkien and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But as fans, I think we've been burned by too many Special Editions/ Director's Cuts/ sequels/ prequels/ sidequels/ reboots/ and preboots to feel anything but trepidation when a creator remains involved for too long with their own work. I get it. It's your baby, and it's hard to walk away from something that you poured your heart and soul into. But I'm a firm believer in the Death of the Author, and I've stated on this blog several times that when a work takes on a certain level of cultural importance, it transcends the law and becomes the property of society at large, not just the creator. That was the original intention when copyright protections were baked into the Constitution. Remember too that history is replete with authors who aren't the best judges of their own work; George Lucas is a prime example of how far from grace one can fall simply by sticking around for too long. And I want Rowling to avoid that fate.
All evidence indicates that she's not stepping away. She's released several short stories and updates on the lives of the main Potterverse characters and is even writing a trilogy of screenplays for Warner Bros featuring the tertiary Potterverse character Newt Scamander (to be played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne) in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. There is limitless money to be made from the Potterverse, so I think it's just the beginning of a huge tidal wave of stuff with J.K. Rowling at the helm.
Obviously the law allows Rowling to do whatever she wants. Copyright law, particularly in the U.S., isn't equipped to consider the cultural importance of works like Star Wars or Harry Potter. The result is that all art, regardless of quality, is treated the same, which can be a good thing because it prevents systemic discrimination. The downside to that approach is that financial reward becomes the only measure of success. And that just makes it harder to let go. It's easy to convince yourself that you and only you are capable of maintaining the integrity of the work over the long haul. It becomes even easier if there's a lot of money to be made by doing it. The law incentivizes you to stay. And because copyright terms last for so long (life of the author plus 70 years), Rowling's great great grandchildren will be able to profit from her work. And I think it's a shame to keep something like that so closed-source.
To my eyes, the seams are already showing. Three years ago, Rowling publicly stated that she wished she had killed Ron out of spite and that Hermione really should've ended up with Harry. The fact that she admitted this publicly is problematic enough - it shows a tone-deafness to the effect her words have on the fan-base (which is surprising considering her generosity to her fans). It also suggests that she might not have a full grasp of what makes the story work (i.e. that Harry's arc isn't about romance).
So what should Rowling do? Well, I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think she should follow in George Lucas' footsteps. During an interview in January for his bizarre animated film Strange Magic, Lucas mentioned that he originally envisioned writing and directing Episode VII himself as the first of a new trilogy of Star Wars films. Ultimately, he decided to spend that time with his family instead, so he cut the cord and sold Lucasfilm to Disney. It was a remarkable bout of self-awareness from a man who has typified anything but for so long. When asked if he was involved with the new film, Lucas said that he knew nothing about the story, had seen no footage, and was looking forward to watching it in a theater... as a fan. When you're the author of something popular, knowing when to walk away is a valuable trait, and even though he took some hard knocks getting there, Lucas finally learned it.
Rowling should walk away from Harry Potter the same way Lucas walked away from Star Wars. She can retain the copyrights to the main story if she wants, but license or sell everything else to Warner Bros for a whole new universe of books, films, and TV shows (she would make a small fortune either way). She can even stay on as a figurehead or elder stateswoman who gets approval over story and design decisions. After all, who wouldn't want to see a series set at an American wizarding school? Or a Quidditch version of Miracle on Ice? Or a trilogy of films about the adventures of the young Dumbledore brothers?
This would give Rowling the clarity to focus her busy schedule on her Cormoran Strike series (which is being adapted into a BBC television series... my wife is so excited) not to mention her charity. Lucas and Ridley Scott (Prometheus, yecchh.) are poster boys for what happens when you overstay your welcome. It's never a bad idea to go out while you're still on top.