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‘Sometimes Dead is Better’: On Fan Fiction, J.K. Rowling and the Afterlife of Harry Potter

Read Monday, 28 Jul 2014

Anthony Morris asks the eternal question: why can’t creators leave their much-loved characters alone once the story has clearly ended? Are they attempting to retain authorial control – and to stave off the alternate lives and imagined endings of fan-fiction writers? And when does fan service start to feel like exploitation?

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Fantasy epics never can say goodbye. Remember how the final Lord of the Rings film seemed to have about half a dozen perfectly reasonable end points and yet it just kept on going? Does anyone really think Game of Thrones is going to conclude in a truly satisfactory fashion, even if George R.R. Martin does live long enough to wrap it all up? And why can’t Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling just leave well enough alone?

In case you missed it – perhaps you were in a submarine for the last month – J.K. Rowling recently released on her Pottermore website (advertised as ‘a unique and free-to-use website which builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books’) the first official glimpse into the Potterverse since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007.

Written as a entertainment puff piece by gossip correspondent Rita Skeeter on the occasion of the Quidditch World Cup, it’s basically a ‘where are they now’ update. Harry now has grey hair and an exciting new scar, Ron may or may not be going bald – Skeeter is notoriously bitchy and no friend to Harry and company, so there’s the strong possibility she’s exaggerating – and Hermoine is having it all… which hasn’t stopped speculation that there’s trouble in paradise between her and hubby Ron. Juicy!

The follow-up live-blog of the actual Quidditch World Cup was kind of fun too. Ginny Potter (Harry’s wife and Ron’s sister) covered the match itself, interspersed with bonus snarky asides from Skeeter for those of us who never got into Quidditch. Which was pretty much everyone, wasn’t it? Still, Rowling is clearly invested in her characters, so why shouldn’t she have some fun with them?

Well, for one thing, Harry Potter’s story is over. This isn’t a new beginning, or a deleted scene, or an untold tale that fits between what we already know to cast new light on his much-loved adventures. By just bringing them back just to say ‘here’s what they’re like now according to me,’ it feels like just yet another attempt by Rowling to throw a roadblock in the path of fan fiction writers.

*The Mortal Instruments* started as Harry Potter fan-fiction.
*The Mortal Instruments* started as Harry Potter fan-fiction.

Fan fiction existed well before Harry Potter (the tradition of calling romantic pairings ‘slash fiction’ comes from Kirk/Spock fan fiction in the 1970s), but there’s little doubt Harry Potter’s fan base – combined with the ease with which fan fiction could be spread on the internet – took it to new heights. There’s entire fake Harry Potter novels published in China; rival teen lit franchise The Mortal Instruments started out as Harry Potter fan fiction. Does J.K. Rowling know this? Going by the way she’s kept a death grip on Harry Potter long after his story wrapped, all signs point to yes.

One of the stranger endings in fantasy history came with the final chapter of The Deathly Hallows, where – having defeated Voldemort, thus ending the overarching story fans had been reading for the last seven books – Rowling went on to outline the futures of all the main surviving members of the cast. It didn’t read like a coda that cast what we’d just read in a new light or an extension of themes in the story that outran the plot (like the end of Lord of the Rings). It wasn’t really a ‘happily ever after’ ending either; they just grew up, had kids (who also went to wizard school) and generally got on with grown-up lives.

What it did read like was Rowling was saying to all those fan fiction writers out there ‘hands off these guys, the story might be over but I’m still the one laying out their futures’. You can’t take Harry off into new adventures, because his creator keeps popping up to point out that Harry – the ‘real’ Harry – isn’t having adventures any more.

Part of the joys of fiction used to be filling in the gaps. Wondering what happens after the last page can be one of the lasting pleasures of reading. But this kind of enforced control feels more like the work of a corporate IP manager making sure no bootlegs or unlicensed versions are out there diluting the brand. It’s a point of view that suggests giving readers any part in creating their own versions of the stories – even just by wondering what might have happened next – is a breach of copyright.

Rowling is already working on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a new film set in the Harry Potter universe. Revealing ‘official’ updates into the lives of her cast doesn’t just cut out the fan fiction writers whose work is never going to be ‘canon’; it helps keep the audience alive for new official material from Rowling. And their interest in Harry Potter is what she’s selling with these new stories: with pretty much all of Hollywood’s attempts to create new Potter-style movie franchises (The Mortal Instruments, Divergent) having flamed out, luring J.K. Rowling’s rusted-on fanbase back to cinemas is worth a lot of money.

So the question then becomes: at what stage does all this fan-service start to feel like exploitation? The original Harry Potter story – Potter versus Voldemort – was wrapped up at the end of book seven; nothing Rowling has said or written since then has suggested her version of Harry has another story worth telling in him. Do we really want to keep coming back for the equivalent of a series of Christmas cards keeping us in the loop about his grown-up life? A life his creator seems to be actively trying to make as dull as possible, mind you. The guy was a boy wizard – is a day job with the civil service really the best he can do?

Harry Potter may have cheated death at the hands of Voldemort; what his creator has in store might be worse. As Stephen King, who knows a little about being a bestselling author himself, once wrote: ‘Sometimes dead is better.’

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