With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child dropping this summer and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arriving this week, 2016 is banner year for fans of Harry Potter. We’re getting the first new Harry Potter stories since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published nearly a decade ago, and the outpouring of magical riches is a welcome indication that the series is ready to stop coasting on its past accomplishments. But, sadly, the existence of a new Harry Potter story is no guarantee of quality — the mixed output of 2016 has made one thing painfully obvious.
Harry Potter is no longer viable as a protagonist. J.K. Rowling needs to ditch the Boy Who Lived if the Wizarding World is going to survive.
I do not make that suggestion lightly. Harry Potter is one of the greatest literary accomplishments of all time, a beloved milestone that inspired millions of people around the world. He’s also a personal favorite. I’ve dressed as Harry Potter on more than one occasion, and not merely because I’ve been told I have a vague resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe.
So why is it time to get rid of him?
The boy who happened
It’s simple. Harry Potter’s story has already been told. That became particularly clear in the wake of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, in which Harry’s son Albus is sorted into Slytherin and then goes back in time to undo the death of Cedric Diggory. On the surface, the London stage play mined fertile dramatic territory. Harry’s feelings of inadequacy as a father and the resolution of his rivalry with Draco are fascinating subjects for a play, as are Albus’s efforts to grapple with his father’s legacy. People can relate to stories about the misguided idealism of youth and the letdown that follows in adulthood.
Unfortunately, the result felt more like fan fiction than an officially licensed story. Though a smaller, more intimate family drama had potential, Harry Potter is expected to generate apocalyptic spectacle, and Cursed Child was a thinly veiled excuse for elaborate stagecraft. The play felt insubstantial because we’re able to measure it against the more intimate access we were given in the books, and a four-act stage play simply cannot match that level of detail.
The decision to re-examine Cedric Diggory’s murder only exacerbated the problem, keeping the plot fixated on what had happened rather than what will happen and leading to a narrative that ran in circles. Harry’s world was already as perfect as it’s likely to get at the conclusion of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where he’s living a happy life with a safe family and a stable job. Unless Rowling is willing to strip away everything that Harry achieved over the course of seven books – a decision that would drastically reduce their value as standalone works of fiction – then any plot about tampering with the past could never do more than reset the status quo.
That’s why any future stories about Harry Potter are likely to be disappointing, with or without the conceit of time travel. Any attempts to shake up Harry’s work or family life would be anticlimactic after seven books of careful world building and character construction, and neither Warner Bros. nor J.K. Rowling are ready to bring Harry, Hermione, and Ron low enough to give audiences a genuine sense of doubt about the outcome. That’s the right choice – Rowling would basically have to kill their kids and that would feel exploitative – but stories in which the heroes never have anything at risk aren’t terribly compelling.
That brings us to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which marks a turning point for the franchise. As the first non-Harry Potter tentpole in the Harry Potter Universe, Fantastic Beasts will almost certainly be a hit. However, the long term viability of the brand depends on its ability to distinguish itself from the Harry Potter legacy and to quash the notion that future Harry Potter works will continue to be pale echoes of what came before (in that regard it’s a bit like Albus Potter).
Fantastic beasts and how to make them fantastic
To do that, Fantastic Beasts will need to avoid the mistakes of Cursed Child, which is to say that it needs to offer a degree of suspense and some legitimate narrative stakes. Rowling’s world is whimsical and expansive, with many non-Harry stories that are worth telling. Fantastic Beasts taps into that with a new protagonist and a new location. We don’t know what New York will look like once Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is done with it, nor do we know how that journey will change the character over the course of the film. That uncertainty is reason enough to be excited.
Fantastic Beasts also doesn’t have the same weight of expectation. We’ll be able to evaluate the movie on its own merits rather than in comparison to a previous tale. That should be to the film’s advantage, but only to the extent that Harry Potter is absent from the proceedings. The more Fantastic Beasts tries to tie itself to the story we already know, the more it seems like an aging rock band leaning on its catalogue of greatest hits to get its comeback album into rotation in the top 40. A big name can draw attention, but it can’t make up for a mediocre product.
The point is that if the Wizarding World is going to continue, it needs to be bigger than the character that inspired it. Harry’s presence has become stifling, and he has to go because that’s the only way to make room for Rowling (and any future writers) to explore new characters and ideas. Though Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone served as our introduction, his battle against Voldemort is one of the many stories that can exist within that universe, and the sooner the Wizarding World breaks with the past, the easier it will be to build something new on the foundation.
Having said that, easier is not the same as easy, and there is some cause for concern with Fantastic Beasts. The recent announcement that Dumbledore will be in the sequel suggests that Warner Bros. would like to revive the past as quickly as possible, though at least in that case it’s likely that we don’t know everything about the character given his age and love of secrecy.
The new movie’s all-white main cast is far more troubling. The wizarding culture in Harry Potter is based on decidedly British sensibilities, but magic would have evolved differently in North America than it did in Europe. Incorporating the perspectives of Indigenous people and people of color would have made Fantastic Beasts more distinct and more authentically American. Instead, transplanting British sensibilities to another continent without acknowledging the influence of local cultures is a form of erasure that indicates that Warner Bros. may be more interested in Hogwarts set dressing than it is in content.
Since Warner Bros. isn’t going to stop tinkering with such a lucrative franchise, the best we can expect is that the studio will at least try to come up with something original. With that in mind, there’s only one way forward. Fantastic Beasts will hopefully be the first step, offering a Wizarding story that can stand on its own merits.
Harry Potter earned his happily ever after. It’s time to let him live it so someone else can take the spotlight.