Rowling In the Deep

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

Quote of the Day

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.