MuggleNet Academia 20: How the Films Destroy the Legacy

The 2oth installment of MuggleNet Academia, a pet project to raise the quality of conversation in Greater Fandom, is an Anniversary Special. We invited the guests who joined the show in its first year to return for a second look at the topics of their program and Potter Punditry in general.

It’s a fun, rollicking conversation — twelve animated, intelligent people who know Harry Potter very well, talking with one another at full clip! — but I think if there’s one take away from the event it was John Mark Reynold’s observation that the Warner Brother films, while creating a second and much more populous wave of Potter Mania before the book inspired mania had even crested, may also have sowed the seeds of Harry’s demise as a Shared Text for those born after Generation Hex.

His argument is hard to refute. Simply put, most perhaps almost all young and older people who are discovering the Hogwarts Saga today are entering the story first through the DVDs of the WB movies. If a percentage of this horde will almost certainly go on to read the books, probably on hand-held devices, they are experiencing the text series as “expanded screenplays” rather than the “real thing.” Think of the Star Wars novels that were written after the first trilogy of the Lucas films. And that experience is not  anything like the imaginative depth of the ‘Book First’ experience because it is tied to and imaginatively dependent on their ur experience, Daniel as Harry.

Prof Reynolds, the Provost of Houston Baptist University, a Great Books scholar, and a mythopoeic novelist himself, notes, too, that Harry Potter has become for middle and high school students, their older siblings’ thing. The movies do not create the identification the book experience did for the older brother or sister because, for one, the films are already stale and “dated” in terms of their special effects, film techniques, and consequent atmosphere. Not to mention the much lesser impact of a sense versus an imaginative entry into and engagement with story!

Please listen to the whole show — but let me know in the comment boxes what you think of Prof Reynolds’ ‘Potterdom Passe’ theory.

  • Have the films undermined not only the author’s hope that we “might imagine better” but the legacy of the books themselves?
  • Is the legacy of Harry Potter to be, as we have it in Twilight, Hunger Games, and Divergent fandoms, not only the literary magic of alchemical rings, but more obviously and lasting, the diminution of story by the inevitable degrading rush to celluloid with its pre-packaged sense experience and pre-digested meaning?
  • Has Harry Potter jumped the shark because of the fading movie franchise?
  • Will Catcher in the Rye outlive Harry Potter because Holden Caulfield’s creator had the courage and good sense to resist Movie Millions?

Your comments in response and your original thoughts are coveted, as always!


  1. I suspect that if we do see fading interest, then we will also see a rebound — the “Star Wars Effect,” if you will — when those who grew up on Harry Potter foist that beloved experience upon their own children, and that new generation develops a similar hunger and appreciation for the text. If my students are typical (several classes have discussed this at length), a healthy portion of those who encountered Harry Potter by book first will likely want that same experience for their young family members and friends.

  2. Louise Freeman says

    I don’t think Harry Potter, as of now, can genuinely “jump the shark” because of the detailed planning process Ms. Rowling did before she began publishing the series. “Jumping the shark” is something that happens to series (be they TV, books or movies) that begin with no definite end-point in mind. As the link above points out, the term comes from the 1977 decision by fifth season Happy Days writers who, having apparently exhausted their ideas for 1950’s nostalgia, took note of the then-trendy shark-mania inspired by Jaws, and decided to try to bump up ratings by putting Fonzie and his leather jacket on skis and setting him up as a potential hors d’oeuvre for a hungry great white.

    The sad part is, it worked. I was in fifth grade and we all were, in fact, marveling over Fonzie’s great shark jump. It was only a couple of decades later that my fellow Gen-x er Jon Hein pointed out to the rest of us how lame that was on his classic website, which, in its prime, was a brilliant catalog of other shoulda-been show-stopping moments. Unfortunately, itself jumped the shark when Hein sold it to TV Guide in 2006, though given the amount of money he made, I can’t blame him.

    Now, if Ms. Rowling should eventually decide to write a sequel or prequel or next generation series, *and* if those efforts turned out to be embarassingly bad, then you could argue that the Harry Potter franchise had jumped the shark. But given that both movies and book came to their pre-planned end and remained of high quality, I don’t think shark-jumping is an issue.

    As for the bigger question, are the Harry Potter films fading and will that harm the literary legacy of the books in the long run? My short answer is no. I agree with Amy that there will be generational rebounds as Generation Hex shares the books and films with their own kids. I think it is inevitable that there will be periodic re-releases of the films in theaters, as there have been for the Disney and Pixar animated classics. Almost any die-hard book fan will be disappointed in the movie, as a lot of us were with some elements of Harry Potter and Hunger Games. But I think the Harry films are good enough to age gracefully and, in the end, will spark more, not less, interest in the books for Generation Hex’s children and grandchildren.

    Catcher in the Rye is not the right comparison. My high school junior is starting that book now in for English class. Maybe she’ll like it, maybe she’ll loathe it, but I guarantee you that, in 2033 she will not be reading it to my 6-year-old granddaughter as a bedtime story. (If she does, I will sue for custody!) And if there was a classic Catcher in the Rye movie from 1955 or so, we would not be sitting down as a family to watch it on Netflix in 2013.

    I have a longer answer in mind to this question, but I think I will have to make that into its own post. I am thinking of books from my father’s childhood he read to me, books from my childhood that I read to my kids and books I read as a teen. Some were made into good movies, some were made into bad movies and some were made into no movies at all. Looking at that slice of my own history makes me think of a lot of factors that can affect literary longevity, but it will take a bit of time to write all my thoughts down. Hopefully I’ll have the get the full post up in a week or so, unless my computer explodes in protest of me trying to include Hugh Lofting, Madeleine L’Engle and V.C. Andrews in the same paragraph.

  3. I wondered about the books fading from interest as I have seen so many younger children exposed, willingly, to the films. One eight year-old I know has seen all of them so many times that I find it hard to imagine he would want to read the books when he is old enough to do so. And even if he does, fingers crossed, he will certainly miss out on the intensity of the mystery that builds throughout the last three books. There aren’t enough years for him to forget that Sirius and Dumbledore die. This depresses me. I feel like a whole generation of kids are being deprived of the full impact of this incredible reading experience. My adult son assures me that actually more people will come to the books because of the films as other similar situations have shown. Nonetheless, as I said, can the experience ever be the same?

    For instance, my other son has four kids and a wife who is pretty fanatical about the books. She has forbidden any of them to see the films until they have read that book. I approve, but now that the two oldest have read all 7 books, there are sometimes discussions around the table that we try very hard to monitor in front of the 2 younger ones. Unfortunately, this is not always successful. There have been slip-ups and I wonder how much they have been “spoiled.” This has nothing to do with the films, but still a pity and actually, the thing I mind most. I kinda hope that a time will come when it won’t be common knowledge that Dumbledore dies and that Snape is really on our side.

    Thinking it through, I think the films will end up at the back of the shelf behind newer DVDs, but the books will remain classics that will get picked up, received as gifts and studied in school classrooms. Listening to the Beatles today is nothing like the experience of waiting in line to buy the Sgt. Pepper album and hearing it for the first time with friends in 1967. It was a special moment in time. Like Paris in the 20s. We should probably just be glad we had this great experience in literature, that we were lucky enough to be there at just the right time.

  4. I disagree with the thesis, being a fan of both the books and the film versions. Old fogey that I am, I will sit and watch just about any of the films should they crop up while channel surfing and will often pull one off the shelf and pop it into the machine of an evening. The books are richer, more slowly paced, and (obviously) require more of an investment in time and effort. The experiences are different and both have their rewards.

  5. Don’t get me wrong, Ken. I love the HP films and watch frequently. Like I have said in many different posts here and there, I view them like a photo album from a very good holiday. They don’t show everything and sometimes they stretch things abit, but mostly they are a beautiful representation of a deeper experience. My thing is about spoiling. With all the media saturation and HP playing such a big part in popular culture, you can barely turn around without a reference popping up that gives stuff away. SNL and Jon Stewart are two that come quickly to mind. DD being gay or dead is constantly showing up in jokes, even other films. I know plenty of people who saw some or all the films because they were so big they couldn’t be avoided or they went with their kids. They say now that they won’t read them because they already know Harry makes it and DD doesn’t. That’s my beef. Believe me, HP is more than a mystery to me, but it was a darn good one and one of the great joys on the first read through. My son said that loads of people are reading LotR since the films because they’ve been told the books are even better. But the awesome mystery is blown. I’m so glad I wasn’t spoiled.

  6. I weighed in on this a bit at Misti-Con, but I’ll put it down here, too…. The books, I believe, will weather the passage of time far better than the films (the hairstyles are already looking a bit dated in the films). The books are classics. Eventually there will be a filmic remake in some form or other of the books, but the books will live on.

    As for spoilers: The spoiler life of HP is long over with. Yes, kids are likely to go into the books knowing that Harry lives and that Dumbledore dies… in the same way that my kids knew that Darth Vader was Luke’s father before they ever saw the movies. That part of the experience is over for most people, but it’s not the whole experience.

    We are just incredibly fortunate to have had the reading experience we had, living in the “inter-librum.” I wonder if, some 150 years ago, readers lamented that now everyone knew whether Little Nell lived or died because the serialization of “The Old Curiosity Shop” was over and done with, and now no one would get to have the experience of anticipation that they had shared….

  7. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    I don’t think the comparison with Star Wars is a fair one, because the Star Wars stories were films first and book adaptations after, whereas Harry is always a book first and foremost, with rich detail that just isn’t possible in screen. On the other hand, there’s plenty of moments in the films I’d hate to have missed. (And the studio tour is just great!)
    The HP films are beautifully cast, look wonderful, and crack along. Their faults are, as Janet pointed out in her excellent Mugglenet Academia podcast, “Page to Screen” that of the script and its plot – holes. The films will age, of course, but how gracefully remains to be seen. Well, I would’ve thought, granted the cast, but even if they do date, it won’t harm the books. Look at To Kill A Moockingbird, for example. It’s an excellent, if dated film but the book remains as relevant and”alive” as the day it was written.

  8. The point, I think, of the “Star Wars” comparison was not as a transition from book to film, but that the original trilogy (now Episodes IV-VI) spawned sufficient interest to make spin-off novels commercially viable; the Timothy Zahn series, for example, which non-canonically advances the storyline past the end of “Return of the Jedi.”

    Just to reiterate the attraction of the films, my wife and I have the opportunity to visit the Warner Bros. Studio Tour of the HP sets just outside of London in a few weeks as part of a UK vacation. Bought the tickets yesterday and are much looking forward to the experience.

  9. Natty Shafer says

    John Mark Reynold’s hypothesis is a prime example of “recency bias.” Harry Potter is undoubtedly less popular today than it was five years ago. Using that information, he is extrapolating that Potter popularity will continue to shrink.

    But there is a much better explanation for the shrinking of Potter popularity: it had nowhere to go but down. Of course, Harry Potter is less popular than it was five years ago. It was at unprecedented levels of popularity, surpassing any form of popular culture that had come before it. To say that it is less popular today than it was at its peak is a wholly uninteresting observation.

    John says, “His argument is hard to refute,” but that is because it is a forecast about the future. Only the passing of time can definitively confirm or refute his hypothesis. However, the onus should be on John Mark Reynold’s to provide evidence to support his hypothesis, not on anyone else to disprove it. His argument consists of a couple points: 1) anecdotal evidence that young people are not reading Harry Potter any longer, and 2) the movies look “dated.” As for the first point, young people still are reading Harry Potter. They may not be at the levels of five or ten years ago, but that is because it would be impossible to maintain that interest level.

    As for the second point, I don’t see any evidence at all that movies impact whether or not a book is considered a classic. Whether it’s Ernest Hemingway or Jane Austen, a good movie or a bad movie, a recent author or a long dead author, I cannot think of a single example of a movie that determined whether a book gets deemed a classic.

  10. Of course the books will live on there instant classics,the movies however wont.There not that good and i cant believe people on here who are book fans enjoy the movies?The directors made their own version of the books,literally destroying them.I get so mad at what are supposed to be book adaptions,where directors change too much and invent their own scenes.

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