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The last great moment in the Harry Potter fandom

Harry Potter and the Road to a Fandom Divided

Group of Harry Potter fans looking to camera Photo: Getty Images via Polygon

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In June 2011, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 premiered, and fans braced for the end of midnight movie premieres, crowded bookstore release parties, and the adventures of the boy wizard they’d grown up with.

J.K. Rowling wrapped up her Harry Potter book series in 2007, but the movies continued the story for four more years, which was enough to keep the fandom engaged and active. By the time the final movie hit screens, many of those fans still weren’t ready to say goodbye to the world of Harry Potter. Never mind that a theme park had just opened in Orlando; fans who grew up with the series felt like the last movie would close the doors and turn out the lights for the franchise.

In 2022, 11 years later, a good chunk of those same fans wish the series was all behind them. The Harry Potter franchise is now dubbed the “Wizarding World,” to make room for stories like the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film series, prequels that don’t involve the Boy Who Lived. And the Wizarding World is anything but dead, with a stage play, a handful of mobile games, the planned five-movie Fantastic Beasts arc, a game show hosted by Oscar-winning actor Helen Mirren, and a 20th-anniversary retrospective reunion for the first movie.

Between the new material not living up to fans’ expectations and Rowling’s periodic Twitter retcons altering established lore for the sake of faux diversity, the Wizarding World canon already divides the fanbase. J.K. Rowling’s openly transphobic views have soured many fans’ affection for the books, while shedding some light on the more dated tropes Rowling wove into the original series. It would be one thing if the franchise had peacefully been laid to rest in the summer of 2011, and its antiquated views on race and gender could be discussed as relics of their time. But Rowling and Warner Bros. continue to chug out Wizarding World content that doesn’t explore stories that fans are interested in, or even expand on the diversity that Rowling’s Twitter posts kept teasing.

Rowling has made her transphobia blatantly clear. What started as occasional one-off “middle-aged moments” soon became defensive essays full of harmful stereotypes. A good portion of former Harry Potter fans have actively disavowed anything to do with not just Rowling, but Harry Potter in general, no matter how far removed Rowling is from any given project. Different people have approached that aversion in different ways, from swearing off all things Potter to just avoiding the new material, or simply limiting themselves to consuming fan material. But the fact remains, Rowling’s stances have soured a significant percentage of a fandom that once saw her as a beacon of social good.

The last golden moment of the Harry Potter fandom wasn’t the release of the final movie, though. It was the announcement of the interactive reading site Pottermore. When that site actually arrived, it was lackluster compared to what fans had hoped for. But for months ahead of the reveal, the fandom banded together under the promise of keeping Harry Potter alive, enjoying the anticipation of what a post-movie and book fandom might look like. The site was intended to be the go-to source for information and behind-the-scenes notes direct from Rowling’s desk. It was designed to keep the lore of Harry Potter alive.

But Rowling’s quest to preserve the magic ravenously devoured what made Harry Potter special. Rowling’s openly transphobic rhetoric was the sledgehammer that finally smashed the fandom, but the warning signs were evident even before that.

Harry Potter and the Building Anticipation

IMAX & Harry Potter Fans Celebrate The Release Of “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 An IMAX Experience” Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images

The first hint that the movies would not be the end of Harry Potter came a month before the release of Deathly Hallows Part 2. It took the form of a cross-internet scavenger hunt. Various Harry Potter fansites, like LeakyCauldron and Mugglenet, laid out the clues to the ultimate reveal, displaying coordinates, which when plugged into SecretStreetView.com, led to locations significant to Rowling’s life or the book series. Each location displayed a letter. Salem, Massachusetts had an “E,” while King’s Cross had an “T,” and so on. Over 10 days, a new fansite revealed new coordinates, which revealed new letters. As the letters accumulated, blogs theorized about what they could mean: a new book? A new movie? Could “MORE” actually mean “Multiplayer Online Roleplay Experience”?

On June 23, 2011, Rowling announced the project: Pottermore, an “online reading experience unlike any other,” where fans could “share, participate in, rediscover, and help shape the world.” The excitement continued with another internet scavenger hunt that sent fans searching for beta access codes, scouring designated websites for “Magic Quills” that would prompt Potter-trivia questions. When participants answered correctly, they were rewarded with a registration code for early access. Fans searched for answers to tricky questions (How many owls are on the Eeylops Owl Emporium sign? Multiply by 49), stayed up late or got up early to cater to UK time, and waited eagerly for their confirmation emails. It was the final unifying moment of the Potter fandom of old.

At that point, no one knew just what an “online reading experience” entailed. The involvement of Harry Potter fan sites gave the enigmatic website a mystique. It suggested that Pottermore could be the ultimate hub for the fandom. It seemed like the perfect continuation of a beloved fantasy world: interactive experiences, connections with other fans, and a way to explore the books like never before.

Harry Potter and the Cynical Merchandise Mart

Harry Potter pop-up shop opens in Moscow Photo by Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images

In the end, Pottermore did fulfill some of that promise. Users explored the books chapter by chapter, with interactive illustrations that contained links to new information, such as Professor McGonagall’s sad backstory, and in-depth looks into the less prominent school houses. There were little bonuses as well, like a Sorting Quiz and minigames for potion-making and spellcasting. But the true intent of Pottermore wasn’t just to list the properties of each wand wood.

In fact, the whole point of the site — which Rowling didn’t really puff up in the announcement video — was to sell the books digitally for the first time. Prior to Pottermore, the Potter books weren’t legally available in digital form. Rowling retained digital rights to her works when they were first published, which meant she could keep most of the revenue through eventual digital sales. The e-books are now available from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony — which all directly download from Pottermore, putting the cash right in Rowling’s pocket without sending it through publishers Scholastic or Bloomsbury first. The site’s full launch was delayed from October 2011 to April 2012 in order to account for the volume of e-book orders. This also happened to coincide with the Hunger Games novels surging to popularity in the digital book market.

If Pottermore had just been a quiet singular page on Rowling’s website with an option to buy the books, it would not have generated nearly as much hype. In fact, on the site’s first day of beta access, Charlotte Williams of the Guardian wrote, “I think Pottermore has the potential to be a lasting focal point for the ‘Harry Potter’ brand. I think the fact that it incorporates new content, a social networking element, and is also the only place people will be able to buy the eBooks will prove to be quite a potent combination.”

But in 2021, Pottermore has morphed into WizardingWorld.com, a site that’s removed the interactive illustrations and minigames in favor of cut-and-dried wiki info, Sorting and Patronus quizzes, and a Twitter account that adds fun facts (for instance, about wizards shitting themselves) to the lore. Even though the original Pottermore was heralded as something “for the fans,” there was always a disconnect between the glow of a fan haven and the corporate practices that kept the Potter wheels turning.

Harry Potter and the Copyright Injunction

Back to Hogwarts Day Photo by Chris Radburn/PA Images via Getty Images

Even though Rowling gushed about her fans, and used sites like Mugglenet and LeakyCauldron to promote Pottermore, she and Warner Bros. had been serving cease-and-desists since the 2000s, attempting to shut down everything from mural reconstructions of Hogwarts for Hindu religious festivals to comics in army newspapers. In 2007, Rowling sued RDR Books for the intended publication of a physical copy of the Harry Potter Lexicon, a detailed reference website and companion to the Potter books. Just the previous year, Rowling had praised the online encyclopedia of her work and awarded it a “J.K. Rowling Fan Site Award.”

Not all of those legal disputes panned out — the mural, for instance, was determined to be not for profit, therefore legally allowable. After suing American computer programmer G. Norman Lippert for digitally publishing fanfiction in which Harry’s eldest son James starts his first year at Hogwarts, Rowling more or less stopped outwardly trying to shut down fan-created projects. Still, Warner Bros., which owns the theatrical rights to the property, continues to make headlines, cracking down on Harry Potter-themed events because of “unauthorized commercial activity.”

Once upon a time, you could only buy official Potter merchandise at bookstores or pop-culture outlets like FYE. Now, you can get a whole line of Vans, Pottery Barn home goods, and a Funko figure for every obscure character out there. You can visit Wizarding World theme parks to buy proper robes and wands, all while enjoying official new content.

That kind of commodified form of Harry Potter appreciation didn’t exist back when the Harry Potter books were first published. The burgeoning Potter fandom burst with organic, fan-driven content from the early internet days. A whole genre of Wizard Rock promoted itself on MySpace. Fan-run conventions sprouted everywhere. Viral YouTube hits like Potter Puppet Pals and A Very Potter Musical became integral parts of the Harry Potter fanon. And fanfiction was everywhere, from the trollish MyImmortal to fics that helped launch careers.

Unlike older fandoms like Star Wars and Star Trek, which started offline and adapted to the internet, Harry Potter came of age in an online world.There were IRL exceptions, like book launches, movie premieres, and conventions, but so much of the Harry Potter fandom experience came from the web. It wasn’t the only fandom to emerge concurrently with the internet, but the sheer size and impact of Harry Potter makes it the most notable example.

The web made access to the franchise’s community easier and faster. Long waits between books and movies made turning to the internet a natural extension. There was no need to wait for conventions when people could find other fans through online forums and specialized sites. Those sites and forums gave way to centralized social media like LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net (and eventually then to Tumblr and Archive of our Own), but still there was a focus on fan communities coming together on their own, connecting in ways that were nearly impossible in a pre-internet world.

Official books, movies, and miscellaneous real-life experiences like games and studio tours existed in tandem with that robust online world. Rowling had a sparse website, but the majority of the internet content was created and run by fans. Pottermore put an official stamp on the online wilderness. In the 2010s, the weird web was starting to shift in general. Pottermore is a concrete example of what started to happen to a specific fandom.

Harry Potter and the Burgeoning Fan Divide

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 - World Premiere - General View Photo by Danny Martindale/WireImage

The Harry Potter fandom hasn’t gone away. New fans are still discovering it, and existing ones are still celebrating it with fic, art, edits, and fan films. But there is a disconnect in the new Potter media that’s come out since 2011, a divide between what the fans longed for and what Rowling bestows.

A reliable fandom ensures that any new Potter project will be at least a modest hit. The Fantastic Beasts movie haven’t been as successful as the adaptations of Rowling’s books, but the first two earned a significant $812 million and $654 million at the box office, respectively. The stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a blockbuster event in both the UK and on Broadway. But a vocal contingent of Harry Potter fans continue to shun the original books (and Rowling herself), and focus instead on the nostalgia of being a fan of the fandom. Just like the Twilight fandom reclaiming its favorite saga, some of the Harry Potter fandom has re-created itself as a stand-alone community.

Part of that response just stems from readers’ changing expectations for new YA books. Movements like We Need Diverse Books and Diversity in YA have helped boost representation across middle-grade and young–adult books — never Rowling’s strongest suit. If Harry Potter had stayed in the ’90s, the franchise might just be considered a relic of its time. But even the newest material continues to focus on a predominantly white, male cast, with female characters regulated to playing love interests, and the only characters of color in minor roles or as villains.

The reckoning comes even harder because of the lack of new material in the five years between Deathly Hallows Part 2 and the 2016 debut of Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In the interim, fans who’d noticed the original series’ lack of diversity had already taken matters into their own hands. A rich fanon blossomed, one Rowling had no control over. During those five years, the only “official” content came in the form of Pottermore, and the site’s occasional backstory facts didn’t interfere with the lively fan-created expansion of Rowling’s world. The site was corporate, but easy to ignore. Meanwhile, Rowling did her own thing, writing adult fiction and crime novels under a pen name.

When she did return to new official content, the output of one writer couldn’t compete with an entire newly crafted version of the world online. The funky DIY musical spun up by a group of college students in Michigan, and available for free on YouTube, would always be more accessible and more interesting for young fans than a polished stage production, with pricey tickets and long queues. (Theoretically, some tickets went for $20, but very few people were able to snag those, and resale prices went into the thousands.) Many of the people who’d grown up with the franchise were growing out of it. Their experiences and relationship to Harry Potter had evolved, but the new official content hadn’t evolved with them.

Across the online world, the Harry Potter fandom has fractured in new ways, both around the newer official content, and about Rowling’s online persona. Fandoms splitting over the introduction of new material is nothing new, but because that fandom was so large, so active, and so online, the divisions have been unusually vocal and obvious to people outside the community. And Rowling’s controversial stances — not just the transphobia, but stances like supporting Johnny Depp’s casting in the Fantastic Beast series after abuse allegations — have further fractured and politicized the fandom. Some Harry Potter supporters still cling to Rowling’s words. Others separate their fandom experiences from the textual ones. And some recognize that the end of the saga came in summer of 2011, and leave it at that.

Harry Potter and the Fans Who Moved On

adult Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny watching their kids board the hogwarts express Image: Warner Bros.

Ah, but that summer of 2011 — what a glorious summer it was to be a Harry Potter fan. As Deathly Hallows Part 2 marked the end of the movies, it seemed like the whole world was talking about the series’ legacy. It was celebrated. It had not outlived its welcome. Rowling’s tweets were harmless. Fans were sad to see their favorite story ending, but it would be the last time that talking about Harry Potter did not mean inviting discourse, or endlessly arguing about the need to separate the art from the artist.

For a short period, it was possible to believe Pottermore would be the perfect last addition to the franchise: a soft epilogue to the Potter books and movies, a way to keep the magic available for return, but also a way to move on together.

There isn’t quite a “together,” these days, just a divide on what it means to love Harry Potter, on a scale that ranges from embracing every new word, spinoff, and Funko Pop to embracing and living in nostalgia for an era of mutual celebration through online discussions, fics, and the fan-made videos. Some fans can love Harry Potter without loving its creator, while others say the active harm she’s doing has completely rotted away any lingering affection for the series that once gave them purpose.

Harry Potter as a franchise has grown up. Its fans have too, and some of them have decided it wasn’t worth taking along with them.

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