What Is a Legacy?: Franchise or Fandom
Harry Potter has established itself as a global phenomenon that isn’t going away anytime soon. The official Wizarding World outlets are more active than ever, there are frequent film marathons on TV, merchandise is widely available, and the series is referenced on the internet and in popular media, classrooms, libraries, museums, and even politics. But what has solidified Potter’s place in pop culture and the fantasy canon? I would argue that Harry Potter has remained relevant not through targeted marketing campaigns, the creation of new official content, or the author’s public persona (which remained quite private for many years) but through the unwavering passion, dedication, and creativity of its fans.
Literature doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and although individual readers can always read the books on their own and not discuss them outside of their family or close friends, widespread discourse and community spanning countries and continents have been hallmarks of the Potter fandom since its earliest days. Most fans didn’t discover the books through advertising but word of mouth from friends, relatives, teachers, librarians, and local bookstores. Before the author provided additional information about the characters and the universe, readers were theorizing backstories themselves. Before there was official merchandise, fans were designing their own artwork. Before there was Pottermore, there was MuggleNet, along with numerous other fansites, forums, book clubs, and podcasts.
There used to be limited official content, commentary, and merchandise, making every new piece of trivia or item special, and now the market is flooded. There is an almost overwhelming supply only because demand has been fostered by an active fandom. People were still obsessing over Harry Potter before new content was announced. The franchise could keep profiting from merchandising alone, but films, plays, and a constant stream of digital content make more money, though not necessarily more devotion.
Does a story endure because its creator and corporate interests keep pushing it? Some of the most enduring and beloved stories remain such not thanks to a media empire or even a prolific author but due to an inspired audience who reread them, reinterpret them, teach them, and pass them on. Standalone works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Jane Austen’s novels have become cultural mainstays without the assistance of big business. Being in the public domain has arguably made them even more popular for revisiting since there are no copyright issues.
Some people want more material only from the author; others don’t trust her anymore and would prefer an expanded universe a la Star Wars with various creators participating. I am one of those who doesn’t want a canonized Marauders story. Some stories are better left untold – or at least unauthorized, unofficial, without one definitive version, open to interpretation.
Sometimes there is a joy in scarcity. Knowing that we are united by just seven books easily accessible in local libraries, even extended to eight movies, is heartening and welcoming. It makes for an easy entry into fandom. Sure, it’s interesting to get some bonus content fleshing out the world in companion books, like Quidditch Through the Ages and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. But there’s comfort in knowing that we share a common, limited knowledge base, often based not on intensive research or scouring the internet or remembering a fact we read once on Twitter but that we acquired naturally through absorption during repeated re-readings. We know these pieces of trivia not because they are facts in a list somewhere but because they are grounded in the narrative and have some connection to our experience of following the story – including joking about them with friends or seeing memes about them – even if they were random tidbits.
I continue to consume new content to varying levels of satisfaction and disappointment, but it is the seven books I truly treasure, along with the community that has developed around them. When I tell the next generation about these stories, it is not the bonus material that I will pass onto them but the books. Next will be the films, which will likely be remade at some point because an adaptation is only an interpretation after all. And in 50 years, will it be the tweets and Pottermore articles and additions or those seven books that people come back to and connect over?
If the entire Harry Potter Global Franchise Development team shut down tomorrow – no more new films or plays, official Harry Potter Fan Club, Wizarding World Gold, licensed merchandise or games, listicles recycled from past fan content – we would still be here. We were here before, and we’ll be here long after.