Imagination vs Interactive Technology: The End of the Potter Saga’s Magic?

In the last month three significant interactive technology ‘opportunities’ have been rolled out for the legions of Harry Potter fans.

I’m not going to do more than mention Globus Mundi the rumored travel agency for both Wizards with Gringotts accounts and Muggles with cash.

I think it’s safe to say that this new wave of virtual technologies and “immersive experiences,” especially the Hogwarts Mystery and Beasts Virtual Reality games, represents the fourth step away from authentic, actually imagined story experience via text. Here is my quick list of the experiences currently available for purchase and their relationship with the Hogwarts Saga in descending order of quality, which is to say, the greater and greater separation from the reader-author imaginative experience and that story immersion’s capacity for transforming us into people of greater understanding and love.

(1) Books and Audio — the book as written by the author and conjured for our experience by the imagination straight up.

Online or from a bricks and mortar bookstore, all the books written by J. K. Rowling can be purchased to be read in the traditional codex or eBook format. The reader is obliged to use her skills to make the words printed on the page or displayed on the screen to co-create the narrative experience invented by the author. If the reader’s mind has not been programmed with the pictures of the characters and scenes from the film versions of the written text, the mental images are all her own. Audio versions of the books are only slightly less personal; the narrator may coax an idea or mental picture not exactly in the text, but the imagination is still the “organ of Meaning,” as C. S. Lewis called it.

(2) Film — sense experience of story, not imaginative

It is an unexamined commonplace that written stories are “adapted” into film. They are not. A film cannot be something that is not a complete recreation of a textual experience because the means of perceiving it is different. Just as we cannot smell the color red or hear a hard surface or imagine a sunset we are looking at, a film is something inherently different than a read story. We imagine the story we are reading; we see and hear the story visually in a movie theater or on a home screen without the use of our image-making, interior-story-writing capacity at all.

If I told you I had written the film adaptation of Michaelangelo’s David or the movie version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, you’d rightly think me a loon. No way do those experiences translate to film experience without re-creation amounting to transformation into something entirely different than what is had in the original. That movie recreations effectively displace if not flat out destroy our abilities to imaginatively experience a written text makes this point I think all but indisputable. Films and screened images are poison to the imagination.

John Truby, world reknowned screenwriter and story-coach:

The experience is a reminder of the difference between what a novel is about and what a Hollywood Blockbuster film is about — and that the two have little to nothing in common even when the story being in told is largely the same.

Most of us can no more imagine a life without television or film (or YouTube!) than we can a world or understanding the world without clocks, maps, or an alphabet. That’s what intellectual technology does; it rewires the brain which change can focus and inevitably restricts the mind’s experience and capacities.

Arguing with this person wired for film-stories about the relative value of books and written texts is like debating a drunk on a bender about booze — or trying to explain why books should be shelved so their bindings are legible. I haven’t owned or watched a teevee since 1978 and I’m still a vidiot in recovery, a dry video-drunk. But I know what a danger to mental and spiritual life the neo-iconoclasm of film is. All the jumps after this away from text are short hops. The plunge is made when we leave the text or the read-aloud room for cinema.

(3) Theme Parks — interactive experience with films

The next step away from story is the departure from the tale having been told. A theme park “adaptation” is even less of the story than the film recreation of it; at least the movie has the characters as described (one hopes) and something like the scenes and story events — inciting incident, story turn, climax, denouement, et cetera — created in words for our imaginations by the author. All a theme park can offer is the scenery, the story body deanimated. The sense experience is as many times increased from text and film as the imaginative experience is diminished, even extinguished.

(4) Video Games — interactive experience disconnected from stories

One step away from the theme park, three-dimensional scenery without the author’s story-soul to bring it to life (but with rides — sometimes with film clips! — to provide an artificially induced adrenal-excitement), is the video game. Cartoon scenery replaces the sensorial experience of the theme park and the rides’ pretence of story is supplanted by the force-feed progression of narrative experience as designed into the game. We long ago left the imaginative sphere; now we have left any pretence of adherence to the author’s story as well and even the sensorial experience of film and parks.

(5) Pokemon Harry and Virtual Reality — interactive experience pasted into ‘real world’

Via our ‘Smart’ phones and VR head sets, the video games go mobile, that is, they enter the world we walk about in. The jump down and away from imagined experience from the fourth to fifth level is much like that from the second to the third. Here, at last, though, I think we have bottomed out. Nothing of the original artistry and meaning from the written text survives to be imagined; no engagement with the story and its transformative power is possible. We have left behind the invisible realm of the human capacity to image and transfer ourselves via a transpersonal, self-transcending aspect of mind into the experience of others to embrace the material, individual, and sensual experience available in technology from the whispy detritus of the author’s genius.

Note that any story can descend from point one to point five — but no story experience rises to point one from any of those below it. Some film goers move from the movie experience to pick up the books and read them; Keith Hawk, the host of the MuggleNet Academia podcast and a man with a remarkable command of Saga details, is one of them. Color me skeptical that the theme parks, video games, or VR/Pokemon Harry players will make that jump, or, sadly, that those who experience the film first are capable of having the experience of those who have not.

I want to think this is why writers like J. D. Salinger “just say no” to Hollywoods. Salinger, having burn burned badly with an “adaptation” into celluoid of a short story he wrote, never sold the rights to any of his other work, most notably Catcher in the Rye. He wrote that this wasn’t because he despised film as a medium, just what they did to his stories.

“The fact is, I like certain kinds of films inordinately.”

Salinger goes on to explain that he simply has no “professional interest” in writing for the screen or stage. “The only theater I want to write for is the little marvelous one inside the individual reader’s mind,” he writes. Salinger says that he provides readers with all that they might need in order to bring the events of his books to life. 

My guess is that Rowling agreed to sell the rights to her books to Warner Brothers when a new author and with the enthusiastic encouragement (direction?) of her first literary agent. She has a new agent now — and her own film studio. She has not sold the rights to any of her stories since she left Christopher Little for an agent committd to her as his only client. Her work with Warner Brothers today is as a screenwriter creating original material for the collaborative experience of film making. Her involvement seems to turn on the ability it gives her to create fund raising opportunities for her legacy charity, Lumos.

Not one of her books since Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was published have been sold, though, to a major studio for “adaptation.” Rowling has said she is mystified by fans who say they love her work when they have only seen the movies — “because that is not my work.” Full stop.

If Cormoran Strike was paying those Lumos legacy bills, would she be playing the demeaning game of screenwriter celebrity-lackey to the Warner Brothers triumvirate and money machine of Yates-Heyman-and-Kloves? I offer for your consideration that, if the profit taking were not so supportive of her charity efforts and of further fund raising, she would not be participating in this kind of fan servicing — especially the kind that equates to story dissolution and imagination corruption and confusion.

Here’s the thing. Before the films were all released, before the theme parks, before the pervasive rush to “experiential marketing” and money-making from fandom, readers created their own secondary imaginative experiences with the Harry Potter texts. The positive direction of fan engagement with respect to story beyond reading and discussion of the books, the one that was free for everyone to create and simple to access, was in Wizard Rock and Fan Fiction. Which is to say — fan generated imaginative experiences springing from their encounters and discoveries with the written text.

But there was no money in those experiences except perhaps for a few WRock stars, none of whom were Warner Brothers properties to manage and exploit. And Rowling was not writing any more stories…

So we are where we are. A place not unlike, I think, the Hunger Games’ Capitol District. Except here we all go in to the arena, this one reminiscent of Plato’s Cave, and live the Virtual Reality game of sensorial experience adaptations that crush the capacity we have for escape. The imagination.


  1. Kelly Loomis says

    Granted, this man sold the rights to his work, but I stilllove the quote:

    “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one”. George RR Martin, A Dance with Dragons.

  2. waynestauffer says

    Sadly, John, I fear you are correct.

    Your reference to Salinger reminded me of a minor fact associated with Ray Bradbury. When ebooks first came on the market, I thought it would be perfect to get Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in ecopy. Looked and looked with no luck. On further inquiry I found that Bradbury had embargoed it from ebook release, resisting the march of the technology. It was only after he died, and could no longer control it, that his estate released it for ecopy

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