No “Harry Potter” Adaptation Can Live Up to the Books – and That’s Okay

The announcement of a new Harry Potter television series came with a promise for accuracy. The second sentence of the article on the Wizarding World website claims that the series will be “a faithful adaptation.” It goes on to declare that “each season will be authentic to the original books” and quotes the author as saying, “Max’s commitment to preserving the integrity of my books is important to me.” Lacking any artistic justification for this series considering the massive and recent success of the films, whose continued popularity has spawned theme parks and exhibitions, the franchise is choosing to focus on the fact that a television series will simply have more time to include every detail from the novels.

This guarantee has led to high expectations among fans. Posts about the upcoming series receive hundreds of comments about how it better live up to its promises and include some favorite aspect, how the show is necessary because the films left so much out, that no matter how cherished the original cast, score, and designs may be, it is worthwhile to retell the same story less than twenty years after it was completed because it will be done right this time – “right” meaning “accurately.” Even posts that mention parts of the books not seen in the films, without mention of the remake, are met with a chorus of “I can’t wait to see that in the show!” Comments on articles about potential writers contend that no creativity is needed, just loyalty to the books. Readers say that they want every single scene and piece of dialogue included – some even go so far as to say that they hope to see the entirety of the books transferred to the screen verbatim. That is never going to happen – nor should it.

The Harry Potter films have their flaws, to be sure. They are far from perfect as movies or adaptations, though they are undeniably iconic. Some changes were understandable for the sake of time, while others were more frustrating (why did Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince have time to set the Burrow on fire but not to show more of Voldemort’s past in the Pensieve?). A TV series may indeed manage to include Peeves, fix the Harry/Ginny relationship, and not have Voldemort’s corpse dissolve, but it will not be able to capture all of the magic from the books, and trying to do so could be disastrous.

An adaptation is not merely a transference of text from one medium to another. If you want to hear the Potter novels read aloud word for word, listen to the audiobooks. Adaptation is a creative act, and prioritizing accuracy comes at a price. Fidelity has long been viewed by film critics as a reductive criterion for appraising adaptations. Not everything that works well on the page would work well on the screen. Narration is perhaps the biggest loss – Harry’s internal monologue is full of insight, humor, sass, grief, and angst. An adaptation can try to communicate his perspective and feelings with music, lighting, and acting, but a nonstop voice-over a la David Lynch’s Dune (1984) is unlikely to make for a compelling viewing experience. Much of the Hogwarts Quidditch season was not included in the films, and while it can be entertaining to read about each practice and match, further building the universe and developing the characters, those scenes don’t all necessarily fit into the pacing of a film or TV show.

While some pieces may be cut, an adaptation can also flesh out other parts that were not expanded upon in the books. Harry fighting off Voldemort’s possession at the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was a brief moment of thinking about Sirius in the novel but an extended, emotional sequence of memories in the film. Only a few rare scenes in the books are not from Harry’s perspective – the films added others, such as showing Hermione altering her parents’ memories, widely regarded as a poignant addition. While depicting Draco’s efforts to repair the vanishing cabinet in Half-Blood Prince might have spoiled the suspense of whether Harry was just paranoid about him, many viewers appreciated the inside look at Draco’s struggle.

The books are also not without their flaws. Their lack of diversity is often criticized, and adding more people of color to Hogwarts would not be an unwelcome change. Plot holes and inconsistencies could be smoothed out. Many readers are uncomfortable with the novels’ portrayal of house-elves and goblins. Even when events and dialogue are maintained, a director may approach them differently, thus providing new commentary that may have been lacking.

Even if potential changes in adaptation are done well, there will still be a lingering yearning for the original. The stories we read hold special meaning for us, and sometimes little things that may not seem to matter in the grand scheme of the story are dear to us anyway. The books will always be there. Rather than rage at the inaccuracies, we can view adaptations as a reminder of what is so special about the source material, impossible to perfectly replicate, never portrayed exactly how we imagine. And rather than promise a level of authenticity that can never be delivered, media executives might consider whether there is a truly worthwhile and achievable purpose, besides profit, in retelling a story that has already been told recently.

Each adaptation is just one interpretation, but when we read, we have the opportunity to interpret the words ourselves, to perform our very own imaginative magic. So don’t hold your breath waiting for the ultimate “faithful adaptation” – it may be happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

Laurie Beckoff

My Harry Potter journey began in 2000 when I was six and continued through a bachelor's thesis and master's dissertation on medievalism in the series. I'm a Gryffindor from New York City with a passion for theatre, fantasy, Arthurian legend, and science fiction.