Harry Potter Lives in All of Us

A handful of people in the United States — delirious, I suspect, on account of last Sunday’s epic win by the American women’s National (soccer) team — are unaware of the impending US release of the eighth and final Harry Potter film this coming Friday, July 15. Everyone else has bought their tickets already, or is in the process of doing so.  Harry is an inextricably British character, but there will be a massive American celebration on Friday.

To IP scholars, the apparent conclusion of the Harry Potter saga by no means puts an end to theorizing and commenting on the Harry Potter phenomenon.  (I for one would love to see a full length Parker/Stone adaptation of A Very Potter Musical.)  Some of us are the right age to have witnessed our children becoming totally and utterly absorbed by Harry et al. in literary terms alone and therefore to have escaped much of the associated merchandising and commercial exploitation of all things Potter. My children know nothing of Potter-themed amusement parks, videogames, and commercially produced Halloween costumes, but they are shrewd and sharp (and now adult) observers of the Potterverse.

On their behalf, I take an interest in the newest round of popular commentary about what Harry means to authors and readers of fan faction. From Time magazine comes Lev Grossman’s thoughtful and sympathetic account. From the New York Times comes a far more skeptical view by the film critics Mahnola Dargis and A.O. Scott. Both pieces agree:  Harry lives in all of us.

From one perspective, that gives fans an extraordinary amount of cultural power.  From another perspective, that power remains traceable to the copyright-owning motion picture studios.  That latter view suggests to me that fan-generated versions of Hollywood characters are sort of like the alien implanted in Kane’s body during the original Alien; copyright claims are latent, waiting to burst from within fandom.  The more optimistic view is Mel Brooks’s parody of that scene in Spaceballs.  Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal!

Spaceballs wasn’t one of Mel’s better efforts, though it did give us a couple of great lines (one of which, de-contextualized, is useful in all kinds of contexts:  “I’m surrounded by Assholes!”).  Still, the more optimistic view of HP fan fiction seems surely the right one, particularly given the abundant use that J.K. Rowling made of both public domain and copyrighted source material.  Producers of fan fiction are paying forward the reworking of genre and myth that makes HP so compelling.

Personally, I’m just relieved that no one in my household insists on a midnight showing of Harry Potter in 3D.