In Jo We Do Not Trust
In case you haven’t heard, I did not like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. And I am far from alone, however loud the “Loyalists” yell that everyone liked it and that I’m just a “Negative Nancy.” Today, what I’d like to explore in conjunction with that is how this affects our relationship with Jo Rowling going forward. By “our,” I refer to the people who are as disappointed as I am – if you liked Crimes of Grindelwald, carry on and don’t mind us.
Obviously, a lot of how we feel about Crimes of Grindelwald reflects right back on Jo Rowling. There is no more assumption that Rowling did a good job that was skewered by other parties: She is credited as the sole writer. I wrote at the beginning of the year about the erosion of trust between the fans and Jo. The less hasty fans (myself included) extended the benefit of the doubt to her up to this film. Now it’s entirely gone. Think of this piece as a direct sequel to that article: If that one examined how we got to the point where we don’t have faith in Rowling, now I write about what that means.
Everything is ruined?!
The first point I’d like to address is this: Let’s not get carried away with histrionics.
Jo Rowling did not ruin my childhood. My childhood remains intact, thank you very much, regardless of what Rowling may ever write. Contrary to most of her characters, Rowling does not have a Time-Turner (to our knowledge, anyway). She cannot go back and retroactively ruin all the positive experiences I had with the Harry Potter books. The countless hours debating online, the late nights rereading the books, the newfound aspirations to be a writer, the friends I’ve made who’ve endured for years… none of that is gone, or even tainted, by this film.
Let’s dispense with this exclamation. It only gives fodder to those who’ll dismiss us. Moreover, let us never lose sight that we are grateful to Jo for our childhoods, and for all that she has given us by publishing these books. It doesn’t put her above reproach, but let us not split the world into good people and Death Eaters.
Harry Potter is not ruined. Harry Potter will never, in fact, be ruined. Jo Rowling is not capable of entering my apartment and changing the text in the myriad copies of the HP books that I own. The Harry Potter books remain the best story I’ve ever read – one where I can keep finding meaning and enjoyment. And I suspect that decades from now, when the Fantastic Beasts movies are a footnote in history and Pottermore is a defunct URL, those seven books will still stand proudly on bookshelves.
Jo Rowling is not a bad writer. I’ve seen this one bandied about a lot this week, everything from “she’s lost her superpower” to “she’s actually dead and has been replaced by a mediocre fangirl à la Avril Lavigne.” In fact, we received evidence not two months ago that Jo Rowling is still a good writer: Lethal White is as good as anything she’s written.
Jo is just not a good writer of film scripts, and there is no reason to expect her to be because it’s a different skill set. It’s a shame that she bought into her own hype and thought she could do it unassisted, and it’s an even bigger shame that no one thought to tell her otherwise. As an analogy, I’m quite a good tax accountant in the United States, but I’d be pretty useless trying to file a British tax return – and am not arrogant enough to try.
The problem, I think, is that Twitter has been very bad for Jo Rowling. For years now, Jo has lived in a constant cacophony of sycophants, tens of thousands of replies to every tweet hailing her as “QUEEN!!!” Even the most humble and clear-eyed person, when presented with that, would eventually internalize it and come to believe they really are the best thing since sliced bread.
And Jo has made no efforts to leave her bubble (though, in fairness, that’s true of everyone on Twitter). Whenever a controversy has erupted, she has completely ignored it (with Depp’s abuse allegations being the one mangled exception). Wading through her mentions, there is literally no way she didn’t see that people were displeased. But she ignores them, or occasionally blocks them, and returns to tweeting about politics and basking in adoration. Even looking at this past week, one would be under the impression that Crimes of Grindelwald was being met with unanimous acclaim, judging by her Twitter.
It is this circumstance that led her to believe she could write a film. If anything she writes is greeted with “Caps Lock acclaim” on social media, then, of course, she thinks a film script she wrote would be pure gold. And if you’re a Warner Bros. executive, looking at the eight hundred million dollars the last movie made at the box office, are you going to be the one to tell Jo Rowling that her new script is crap? Of course not – you’ll write her a $200M check and trust that the Potter fandom will get in line.
I genuinely don’t think Jo Rowling is aware of just how bad Crimes of Grindelwald’s script is. I think she thinks that it’s okay, that it’s good enough to be getting on with. No masterpiece, clearly. But a serviceable way to make a couple hundred million dollars.
And she talks as if the entire HP fandom is thanking her on bended knees for these films: I admit I was flabbergasted to hear her talking about how these films were for the fans. Umm… do they come with a gift receipt? The irony that this came after a solid week of fan outrage over McGonagall being in the film seems to have been lost on her.
This becomes a vicious cycle: Jo writes something. No one at WB dares criticize. The fans show up, determined to love it because it’s J.K. Rowling. Rowling hears on Twitter that she’s a genius and can do no wrong. WB is relieved that quality is immaterial. Lather, rinse, repeat… and don’t expect things to get better the next time.
Finally, Jo Rowling is not a bad person. Whatever her issues of representation, they do not come from a place of malice. From a place of indolence, yes. Writing a bad film does not make her a bad person. Doing blatant cash grabs with a franchise we hold sacrosanct does not make her a bad person, particularly if you follow John Granger’s argument that she is more concerned with raising money for charity than with her literary legacy. In fact, not caring about Harry Potter as much as we do still does not make her a bad person.
That last sentence feels weird, counterintuitive even – how could she care less than we do? Because she got what she needed out of Harry, and we haven’t yet. For her, she wanted to tell the story of Harry Potter and to work through her feelings about the death of her mother. She did that. She told the story. When she and Harry parted ways in 2007, they were both in a good place. She was done.
A decade later, Harry has become a means to an end for her. She did right by him, by telling his story the way she wanted. Now, she has new aims – raising money for Lumos. And as I said earlier, nothing she does changes those seven books. So why not wield Harry as a fundraising tool? And clearly, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t mean much to her – it was a way for her to maintain some semblance of control over WB making these films, which they’d do with or without her. So she half-asses these scripts, attends a red carpet for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s umpteenth production, and then goes back to writing her Cormoran Strike series that she actually cares about.
We the fans, for a bevy of reasons, still care about Harry. Unlike Rowling, we’re not done with him. That’s not true of everyone, though. All of us have had friends, friends who were ride-or-die Potter fans just like us, who got over it. They moved on to other fandoms, or to adult life that revolves around jobs and mortgages and occasional drinks at a bar. For them, Harry is a big part of their lives in the past, but they bear no more emotional investment in him. (A good example is a bunch of the old MuggleCast hosts. They’ll occasionally come back for an anniversary episode and talk about how they just lost the excitement for Potter.)
And that’s okay. Obviously, it seems foreign to us, who have checked MuggleNet regularly for countless years and can’t imagine a day we don’t. But cast your mind to your other fandoms or passions. Were you a Gleek once upon a time? Or a hardcore Lady Gaga fan? Could you recite the first three generations of Pokémon in order? And how much of that is still the case? Sometimes, you grow apart from your fandoms, as you do with your friends, and go through life knowing that you’ve been changed – maybe for the better, definitely for good.
The other reason many of us still care so much about Harry is that we are the Potter generation – we grew up with him. We spent our formative years in this world. The trio were our friends growing up, and we waited for our Hogwarts letters. Harry was there for us through emotional turmoil and major life events. Even our morals and worldview were influenced by these books (as countless studies have found). It’s only natural that we are still invested in Harry, whereas Jo (who was an adult for all of this) is less so.
I am reminded of a moment from the BBC documentary about the exhibition for Harry Potter: A History of Magic. Jo is so careful and deferential toward the historical artifacts in the exhibition yet appears relatively flippant about her own notes about the early books. They’re just relics from a story she wrote, nothing extraordinary to her.
We fans, on the other hand, probably have the same deference to her handwritten notes as we do to the centuries-old scrolls. Certainly, her notes are what I was reading for over an hour when I went to the exhibit in NYC this month; that was the part that made me tear up. This will be a useful metaphor going forward: We hold the Potter books much more sacred than Rowling does.
We need to somehow adjust to this brave new world. Let us dispense with the illusion that everything Rowling does has been planned for decades and is the result of an earnest desire to tell the stories she’s telling. We are used to cynical cash grabs from our other favorite franchises, and we need to realize that the wizarding world is no different.
In a way, the new logo for the wizarding world – the wands that form a book – is a very helpful delineator. The Harry Potter books are the books – the story that we fell in love with, the one that Rowling cared about and painstakingly made the best she could make them. Everything with the wizarding world logo in front of it is not part of the HP books, it’s part of the wizarding world franchise, an entertainment empire that Jo is involved with but does not overly care about.
The very logo itself even tells this story: Springing out of a book are several different wands, each retailing for about $39.99. If one looks at it a certain way, it looks like the pages of a book – there is still a semblance of story being used to sell us this merchandise. But it’s the merchandise that’s front and center.
For me, personally, I think I am going to take my cue from Jo Rowling on this one: I will forever love and cherish the Harry Potter books, and I will be marginally involved with the wizarding world but won’t care about it all that much.