For an entire generation of fans, the Harry Potter series has captured the imagination in a way that few other franchises have. J.K. Rowling's series of seven books, which were subsequently adapted into a $7.7 billion-dollar film franchise, inspired fans in an ever-evolving number of ways, while subsequently legitimizing the power of modern young adult literature. In the near-decade since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 debuted in theaters, the overall franchise has remained a topic of conversation in our popular culture — but not always for a good reason.
This was overwhelmingly apparent this past weekend, when Rowling came under fire for her latest and most overt series of transphobic tweets yet. After tweeting a statement that was regarded as offensive to trans women, Rowling continued to double down on her controversial statements, even arguing that people labeling her as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) is just the latest example of society's "woman-hate." Rowling's tweets have upset many of the franchise's fans and former stars, including Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry across all eight films and recently penned an op-ed disavowing Rowling's comments. Not only has the situation shed a light on transgender issues, but it has arguably illuminated a larger problem in the process — that Rowling's continued involvement with the larger Harry Potter franchise, both as a central fixture and as a creative decision-maker, just might be setting it back.
While Rowling's recent tweets have struck a very specific chord with the Harry Potter fandom, they're certainly not the first time that she has drawn attention for her offensive comments. She courted a similar controversy in December of last year after openly sharing her support for Maya Forstater, a researcher who was fired for making transphobic comments. Rowling's comments drew backlash from fans, as well as an official response from the LGBTQ+ advocacy organization GLAAD, which argued that her comments "[put] trans people at risk." Rowling also upset fans in 2017 by saying that she was "not only comfortable," but "genuinely happy" with Johnny Depp continuing to play Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts prequel movies, despite the allegations of domestic abuse and other problematic behavior tied to the actor. While the Depp of it all obviously wasn't solely Rowling's decision, her open embracing of it offended many survivors and advocates of domestic abuse.
Even outside of her controversial statements, Rowling has developed a reputation for making buzz-worthy, but completely unwarranted comments about details in the Harry Potter franchise, which have largely come across as her trying to retroactively change her own canon. The most famous of these is arguably her 2007 confirmation that she "always thought of" Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore as gay — a reveal that, while progressive at the time, ultimately was not and still has not been reflected in a major way in canon. There also was her 2014 comment that Hermione Granger should have romantically ended up with Harry as opposed to Ron Weasley, which kicked up a fan debate that had largely become dormant at that point. There are countless others, including her apologizing for character deaths, and saying that fans have been mispronouncing Voldemort's name all along. But the strongest and weirdest piece of retroactive trivia from Rowling came in 2019, when the official Twitter account for Pottermore, a website that Rowling uses to compile facts and lore about the franchise, tweeted that prior to modern toilets, wizards at Hogwarts used to go to the bathroom where they stood and magically make it disappear. While there is nothing stopping Rowling from revealing these pieces of off-the-cuff trivia, her proclivity for doing so has become a running joke online, and has arguably undermined the canon that has already been established in the franchise.
There's also the nature of how the overall "Wizarding World" franchise has continued over the past decade, something that Rowling has been involved with to varying degrees. Over the past decade, Universal Studios has launched multiple Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks, which Rowling ultimately took to the company after Disney was unable to give her more creative control. Rowling also shot down a pitch for an official Harry Potter comic series at some point in the 2000s. And despite years of rumors suggesting the launch of a high-end, narrative-focused Harry Potter video game, we've largely only seen the 2019 release of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, a narrative-less Pokemon Go-like mobile game that quickly fizzled in popularity. There's also Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play co-written by Rowling that follows older versions of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and their children. While the original Broadway production of the play ultimately won multiple Tony Awards, fans were less excited about the published script book, with many calling it "bad fan fiction."
And, of course, there's the series of Fantastic Beasts movies, which Rowling has written or co-written all of the scripts for thus far. While the first film was well-received both financially and critically, 2018's The Crimes of Grindelwald earned much more mixed reactions, with audiences being baffled by (among other things) Rowling's contrived plot, implausible plotholes, racist and Euro-centric worldbuilding, and the offensively racist character reveal of Nagini. Despite all of this, a third film in the franchise has been scheduled to film this year (although that has been put on hold due to the current COVID-19 pandemic), with five films — all written in some part by Rowling — ultimately planned. Again, while Rowling is not the only person who is making decisions on the Fantastic Beasts movies, the fact that she's surrounding herself with many of the same white male collaborators has arguably made the franchise already feel stale.
Unfortunately, there will never be a way to completely separate J.K. Rowling from what Harry Potter has become, despite current fan push to suggest otherwise. But given her alienating real-life politics, and her varied track record with subsequent sequels and spinoffs, there is no reason why she should be as significant of a part of what the franchise still has in store. The Harry Potter fandom has not only created a passionate and incredibly inclusive community, but it's spawned some genuinely inventive adaptations and fan works. There are absolutely people in the industry who could take segments of the franchise into uncharted territory, while still having a reverence for what came before, not unlike what Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau have done for Star Wars with The Mandalorian.
The Harry Potter franchise could (and should) be telling bold and modern new stories, whether in video games, comics, new movies, and television shows (just ask any fan who is still holding out hope for a Marauders HBO Max series). But with Rowling continuing to have such a significant — and controversial — role, it's unclear if and when the franchise will eventually get to that point.
(Photo credit: Walter McBride/WireImage)