Call It What You Want Except Retconning
SPOILERS AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
With one month until Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released, I’ve been thinking about the tumultuous state of the fandom and what that means for the franchise moving forward. Crimes of Grindelwald is the second installment in the Fantastic Beasts series of films – of which five are currently planned – that is expected to culminate in Albus Dumbledore’s defeat of the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in 1945. The final film is scheduled to be released in 2024. A lot can change in six years. Dumbledore’s life changed forever over one summer in 1899, as his relationship with Grindelwald led to the death of his sister, Ariana. I don’t take it for granted that, if the tide of public opinion against J.K. Rowling continues to accelerate downward, then we’ll be fortunate to see this series be completed.
Closer to home, J.K. Rowling’s announcement in 2007 that Dumbledore was gay was received with mixed feelings. Fans began scouring the books, looking for hints, anything that might imply Dumbledore’s sexuality. Some fans wondered whether such a revelation was necessary, others wondered why she hadn’t explicitly stated his sexuality in the books, there were those who thought that it was a disingenuous attempt to be progressive, and the rest praised Rowling for making such a major Harry Potter character, gay. If people were discontent with Rowling, then that was not reflected in the discussions that were taking place in the fandom. After all, this was the “Golden Age” of J.K. Rowling, as hpboy13 coined. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had just been released and it looked like Rowling could do no wrong.
In the decade that followed the publication of Deathly Hallows, the generation that had grown up reading Harry Potter had begun making its mark on the world. In many ways, these books influenced how a generation of young people interacted with the world, socially and politically. Harry Potter was seen as a source of moral compass, and a badge of honor. Above all, it was a place of comfort. Hogwarts was home, a part of our childhoods that we could look back on with fondness. However, fans, and the world, soon began to outgrow the series. There came a point when it was widely accepted that the Potter books were not as progressive as they had appeared to be – the lack of representation was evident.
At one point, fans yearned for a Harry Potter encyclopedia. We couldn’t get enough of this universe and wanted to know everything that there was to know. Ultimately, in 2012, we had to settle for Pottermore. Over the next four years, Rowling shared small tidbits of information on Pottermore – and later, Twitter – with very little backlash if there was any at all. This all changed in 2016. In that year, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them were released. To prepare fans for the latter project, Rowling published her “History of Magic in North America” articles on Pottermore. Fans panned the pieces and Rowling was accused of culturally appropriating and stereotyping aspects of Native American cultures.
As Harvey Dent proclaimed in The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Cursed Child was also negatively received. Fans questioned its place in the Potter canon – this would have been unthinkable at the height of Pottermania. Cursed Child was seen as an opportunity for Rowling to increase inclusivity and representation in the wizarding world. Upon reading the script and seeing the play, fans were aghast at the queerbaiting nature of Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy’s relationship. Even Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was, for the most part, well received, was not widely praised. Some fans felt that the film was a blatant cash grab, and others thought that it was disjointed and lacked the magic of the original Harry Potter series. This criticism is nothing compared to what Crimes of Grindelwald has received, though. From the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald to the lack of explicitness regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality, it seems that fans had finally had enough with Rowling. I even saw fans saying that they were done with Potter. Although there was a time when Rowling could do no wrong, now it seems that she can do no right.
As the criticism toward Rowling has increased, so too has the level of toxicity within the fandom. I’ve always thought of Potter as being one of the least toxic fandoms, so it’s particularly upsetting to see similar patterns of behavior among Potter fans to what I’ve observed in other fandoms. When the Potter books were coming out, we happily accepted the journey that Rowling was taking us on. Now, however, fans, sometimes justifiably, expect more than what they’re given. There’s a sense of entitlement in that – fans identify with this world so much that they become possessive of it and demand to be shown the stories that they want to see. The fact of the matter is that it is simply not possible for Rowling to please every fan, given how diverse the Potter fandom is. Then there are those fans who get off on being “fandom police,” or as I refer to them, the Michael Corners of the fandom. These people contribute nothing worthwhile to the fandom but instead ridicule fans just because they have different opinions.
There’s nothing new about what’s happening with the Potter fandom right now, though. The parallels between the toxicity within the Harry Potter and Star Wars fandoms are unmistakable. On the one hand, you have the original seven Harry Potter books. On the other hand, you have the original trilogy of Star Wars films. Both are considered by fans to be the holy grail of their respective franchises. Beyond that, things start to get murky. The way that Potter fans responded to Cursed Child is similar to the way that Star Wars fans responded to the prequels, and even newer films. Both fandoms’ relationships with their creators have also followed a similar trajectory. When the original Star Wars films were coming out, George Lucas could do wrong. However, when fans saw the prequels, they accused Lucas of ruining their childhoods. Potter fans are not quite so bad – yet. But the sense of entitlement with Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts suggests that we’re not too far off.
I mention George Lucas in order to bring up the topic of retconning in the Potter universe. It’s ironic that where fans once craved as much information about the wizarding world as possible, they would now rather Rowling avoid excessively deluging information. Rowling, like Lucas, has been accused of retconning her own creation. However, this is where the similarities end for me. By my understanding of the term, Lucas was actually guilty of retconning Star Wars – he literally made Greedo shoot first. However, the same cannot be said of Rowling. Lately, I’ve found myself rolling my eyes when I’ve come across people accusing Rowling of retconning Potter.
When it was revealed that the Maledictus in Crimes of Grindelwald was Nagini, fans accused Rowling of retconning the series. A similar pattern of thought among disgruntled fans was, “When will she stop and leave well enough alone?” I have some concerns with Nagini being in Crimes of Grindelwald, but that has little to do with the character being retconned, or even the controversy surrounding Claudia Kim’s casting. When you stop to think about it, Nagini being a Maledictus is not a retcon. It may influence the way we reread the Harry Potter books, but it does not significantly change them in any way. In fact, most of the additional Potter information that Rowling has embellished us with does not contradict those books but rather complements them.
Sometimes fans ought to remember that the Harry Potter books (with the exception of a few chapters) were written mostly from Harry’s point of view, meaning they could not possibly show us everything there is to know about the wizarding world. Dumbledore’s sexuality or Nagini’s identity wasn’t brought up in the books because Harry wasn’t privy to those facts and that type of information wasn’t relevant to the overall story. Just because Rowling tells us something new about the wizarding world, that doesn’t mean that she’s retconning the series. By that logic, everything that we will learn about Albus Dumbledore in Crimes of Grindelwald would be a retcon, because we will undoubtedly learn things about him that were not explicitly mentioned in the books. There’s so much more to the wizarding world than what’s shown in the books. It isn’t until Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that Harry even considers “how many witches and wizards there must be in the world; he had never really thought much about those in other countries” (GoF 7).
I suggested at the start of this article that we’d be fortunate to see the Fantastic Beasts series completed, and this isn’t a statement that I make lightly. For now, despite all of the criticism leveled against her, Rowling still has a strong, but waning, relationship with her fans. However, if the level of negativity toward her keeps increasing as it has done in recent years, then there may be a time when Rowling decides to walk away from the wizarding world. And that time may come sooner rather than later.