The concept of ‘ruining one’s legacy’ is a tricky one to fully define. Some instances are very cut and dry – Bill Cosby, for instance – yet others feel harder to fit into that box. My parents finding out about the abhorrent child abuse of the notable figures of their youths, such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville, didn’t ruin their childhoods but it did cast a shadow on them in a manner (and it should be noted that such people did in fact ruin the childhoods of those they abused). In more benign cases, there are thousands of websites dedicated to ‘revealing’ the hidden adult jokes, possible Freudian imagery and potential harrowing darkness of the pop culture of days of old. We groan over new episodes of The Simpsons and lament the drastic drop in quality, but those lesser seasons don’t undo the show’s immense legacy.
I say all this because I want to make it clear that I don’t think JK Rowling can, or ever will, ruin her staggering and wonderful legacy. The Harry Potter series will remain one of the great influences of modern literature and pop culture. No amount of add-ons, author mandates and questionable comments will spoil your childhood, nor will they taint what Rowling’s work has done.
However, I cannot help but yearn for the day when JK Rowling leaves Harry Potter alone.
When Pottermore was first announced, many feared overkill with the series, which had come to a satisfying, if slightly maudlin conclusion. I defended the website and was excited for its unveiling because, still flush from the end of the series that influenced me more than anything else on the planet, I believed the Potter books still had more to offer readers beyond the barriers of the written page. The books only offered a smidgen of the world Rowling created, so of course many readers were eager for more.
Pottermore eventually opened, and wasn’t exactly the immersive online experience many had hoped for. It offered tidbits of character details and world-building that enhanced the books but weren’t necessary to fully enjoy the series. That in and of itself would have been fine, but Rowling has continued this writer roundabout, mostly on Twitter, and it’s become both exhausting and a touch sad.
It didn’t start on social media: Many complained of her retroactive changes after the final book was released and she revealed Dumbledore was gay. While such an inclusion into a major series is undoubtedly important, it’s disappointing that the announcement couldn’t have been made in the actual books. Similar instances of these u-turn changes occurred when Rowling was questioned over the lack of LGBTQ & non-white diversity in the series, and she pointed to singular moments of characters who never really featured in the books but somehow met an imaginary quota of representation.
The lack of diversity in the Potter series is a problem, and many better and more experienced writers than myself have tackled this problem. The series is what it is for better or for worse. I understand the pressure Rowling must be under as arguably the most famous writer on the planet, and the gargantuan expectations she lives under are something most of us will never experience. I’m sure she reads her work years after its publication with the gift of hindsight and wishes there were things she could fix. I’m not sure offering a steady stream of tweets that amount to “But wait, there’s more” is the way to go.
Soon we will have a film adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the 2 part stage play sequel entitled Harry Potter and the Lost Child, which will offer a glimpse into the life of adult auror Harry and his frustrating family life. The series, which had previously offered such a sturdy conclusion with opportunities for fans to imagine the rest, has mutated beyond those borders and the results are proving, at least to me, more tiring than anything else. None of it feels especially necessary, but it’s the way of the entertainment industry – take a popular thing and milk it dry. That’s fine, but it stings all the more when the issues Rowling has tried to retroactively change through personal statements haven’t been addressed in these new opportunities. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is populated with a majority white cast (in 1920s New York, so don’t play the ‘historical accuracy’ crap with me here) and the meagre hints we’ve received regarding The Lost Child suggest the focus will be on two white male characters. If readers are hungry for something the books themselves didn’t offer, why bring the same old problems to the table? Who does that satisfy?
The lines between fan activity and authorial output have blurred over recent years as fanfiction has become publishable and writers use fandom associated tactics to broaden their scope (Meyer & James’s use of the switched POV and gender swapped retelling feels very reminiscent of the transformative works used by fan communities). Rowling’s work reminds me a lot of fandom, and it’s no coincidence that the Potter fandom at its heyday produced some of the most ground-breaking and influential fan works of the modern internet age. Rowling is of course free to do as she chooses with her work and characters (however inadvisable it may get at times) but what she’s doing feels more suited to what fans do, and in order for them to do that they need a certain degree of freedom.
One of the most alluring elements of the Potter world is that unexplored universe. There are countless characters, many of whom only appear for a scene or two, who readers latched onto and developed deft, complex stories for. These fics work both alongside and separate from the series – an extra flavour for readers rather than a whole new meal.
Rowling doesn’t have to move on from Harry Potter if she doesn’t want to, but as she draws out more elements and stories beyond the initial series, it’s evident that the spark is fading. Maybe it’s just my personal growth and my ability to now view my beloved Potter books with real scrutiny beyond fangirlish glee. Belated updates on the elusive Jewish characters of the series or what Harry’s kids are getting up to don’t seem to truly enhance the series anymore: Instead, they feel like tired and guilt-ridden attempts to fix old problems that can never truly be fixed unless Rowling has a time turner on hand. Let Harry Potter stand as it is, warts and all, and let the fans interrogate and develop it in the way it deserves. Don’t let it outstay its welcome.