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Harry Potter’s Return to Hogwarts special isn’t about nostalgia — it’s about rebranding

The show is designed to deflect attention from J.K. Rowling, and anything else that might upset the fans

Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Rupert Grint in a 2001 publicity image for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as seen in the Return to Hogwarts special Photo: HBO Max

J.K. Rowling’s continued transphobia is poisoning the Harry Potter brand. Lifelong fans — myself included — are consciously turning away from the franchise because of Rowling’s dedication to spreading transphobia online and in her work. Her commitment to misinformation and bigotry has soured and divided what used to be a fiercely loyal fandom.

Which is a huge problem for Warner Bros. Harry Potter is an extremely lucrative brand. It isn’t just a collection of seven books or eight film adaptations, it’s an entire marketing universe, with theme parks, merchandise, a Broadway play, a spinoff movie series, a series of popular video and board games, a trivia TV show, and much more. And it’s all designed to promote as much nostalgia and extract as much cash as possible from devoted and casual fans alike. Warner Bros. doesn’t own all these spinoffs, but it does profit from anything that uses images or elements from the film, and from anything that boosts the films’ profile. So anything that alienates fans is a threat to potential profits. In order to maintain the longevity and profitability of the Wizarding World, Warner Bros. needed to do some damage control.

Coming off the heels of the wildly successful special Friends: The Reunion, Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts follows suit by bringing back actors and directors (but notably not Rowling) to reminisce about their time working together. It looks like an exercise in nostalgia and celebration. It isn’t. It’s a calculated act of rebranding, designed to separate the Harry Potter movies from Rowling’s influence or involvement — or anything else that might carry negative associations.

Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliff in the Return to Hogwarts special Photo: HBO Max

The Harry Potter films mark a unique moment in film history. (The special, produced by Warner Bros., is emphatically only about the films, and not the rest of the franchise or fandom.) Before sprawling cinematic franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the norm, the Harry Potter movies told a continuous story over the course of 10 years, maintained its popularity enough to make billions of dollars, and kept up enough momentum to end with a bang. It hinged on the performances of three unknown child actors, buoyed by the crème de la crème of the British acting world. The directors changed, but the cast largely remained in the series for all eight films. It’s an impressive, notable project, one that helped create a model for the franchise boom that followed.

Return to Hogwarts feels most meaningful when series leads Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint reflect on how international stardom dominated their childhoods. Insights like Radcliffe and Watson reminiscing on how they would compliment each other whenever they did any “real acting” is a reminder of just how young and undeveloped as actors these stars were when the film series began. The special portrays the cast and crew as a strange family unit who grew up together over the course of a decade. In these moments, Return to Hogwarts justifies its own existence.

But the middle of the special highlights that between 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Watson seriously considered quitting the film series. This fact has already been picked up by the clickbait tabloids, even though it isn’t new information. Watson reveals that she felt extremely alone as a 15-year-old girl at the height of stardom. Return to Hogwarts doesn’t provide any context about why Watson found fame difficult, particularly in contrast to Radcliffe and Grint, who, as actor Tom Felton says, “had each other […] whereas Emma was not only younger, but she was by herself.” The special ignores the predatory nature of the international tabloids, which provided a countdown to Watson’s 16th birthday. It doesn’t mention the stress of worldwide fandom, with all the pressure that entailed, from obsessive fan mail and stalkers. It certainly does not mention the way the studio itself sexualized her, infamously enlarging her breasts and slimming her waist in a poster for Order of the Phoenix. Instead, it has Watson crediting the cast’s solidarity and “the fans [who] genuinely wanted us to succeed” as the reason she stayed.

That focus on positivity and connection sums up the way Return to Hogwarts operates. It alludes to the larger machine of Harry Potter, but can’t make it explicit, or explore any negative aspects around it. After the comparative financial failure of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff movies and the continued Rowling controversies, the special was designed as an advertisement for the continued relevance and goodness of Harry Potter.

Return to Hogwarts central thesis is that the Harry Potter story is about a fight between good and evil. It provides a special space for misfits so they can feel like they’re part of something bigger. “Everyone felt more like they belonged by witnessing these characters who didn’t belong,” Watson says at one point.

Except Harry Potter was never much of an outcast. He was the most popular boy in his magical school. He held the key role on his Quidditch team, dated popular girls, was singled out for special attention by his professors and headmaster, and was generally revered by his classmates. Harry Potter isn’t largely a story about misfits, but it’s been reframed that way because that’s how the fans identify with and relate to the characters. The special exists to validate the fans’ personal investment in the films and the feelings they created. So Warner Bros. needs to frame the movies as an all-encompassing, uncomplicated force of relatable goodness.

Emma Watson, Matthew Lewis, and Tom Felton stand in artificial falling snow in the Return to Hogwarts special Photo: HBO Max

That’s why the special does not include Rowling, apart from in clearly labelled archive footage. She is no longer the totemic figure of charity and progressiveness that fans once painted her as. Return to Hogwarts can’t explicitly acknowledge why she isn’t present — that would draw too much attention to the franchise’s flaws and controversies. Instead, her absence is swept under the rug, in what can be viewed as a sign of LGBT solidarity to those in the know, without being noticeable to those who are unaware.

This special is a rebranding effort to distance the franchise from its creator and from any other problems around the series, so socially conscious viewers can revel in a clean, unproblematic version of their nostalgia. Return to Hogwarts suggests fans should still be able to watch the films, buy the merchandise, and visit the theme park without guilt. It’s designed to present Harry Potter as still safe, comforting, and uncomplicated. Like the Mirror of Erised, Return to Hogwarts tries to reflect the fans’ deepest desires. But while it can be enjoyable to watch, the reflection is ultimately flat and one-dimensional.

In spite of Return to Hogwarts insistence that Rowling is no longer a prominent feature of the Harry Potter brand, she’s inextricably entwined with its legacy. But perhaps it is notable that Warner Bros. sees her views as worth disavowing, however mildly. It is because of the fans’ outcry that Rowling is seen as too toxic to feature in Return to Hogwarts. The future of Harry Potter lies with its fans, and what values they choose to embody. Hopefully Warner Bros will continue to listen.

Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts is streaming on HBO Max.