Harry Potter is, undeniably, one of the most groundbreaking literary juggernauts of all time. The books, and the films inspired by them, have been a massive worldwide money-making phenomenon for two decades — but for diehard fans of Harry Potter, often referred to as "Potterheads," the series has always meant far more than book sales and box-office revenue. J.K. Rowling's story, with its messages of community, social justice, and political activism have spawned a generation of readers who cite the lessons they've learned from the series as inspiration for their own creative pursuits and activism. But a string of recent controversies surrounding the expansion of the Wizarding World, particularly through the Fantastic Beasts film franchise, have caused a massive shift in the fandom, leaving many fans fearful about the future of the series that has come to mean so much to them — and questioning whether Rowling herself is the right person to represent Potter's legacy going forward.
"I'm disappointed, to say the very least," Abby Larus, operations director of Mischief Management, tells Bustle. "The Harry Potter franchise has always been morally grounded, in part because so many of us grew up reading the books and learned to apply the principles to our own lives. The fandom in particular has always been remarkably progressive and inclusive, so to see the new films spin in this direction is forcing me to separate the original books from these new movies, and even from J.K. Rowling herself. I don’t want my love for the original series to be tarnished by the new material or interviews."
"The fandom in particular has always been remarkably progressive and inclusive, so to see the new films spin in this direction is forcing me to separate the original books from these new movies, and even from J.K. Rowling herself."
The list of controversies surrounding the series has rapidly lengthened in just the past three years alone. From the origin story of the North American Wizarding School Ilvermorny, which many scholars, including Dr. Adrienne Keene — professor of American and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and author of the website Native Appropriations — criticized as being appropriative of Native culture, to fan concerns over queerbaiting in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But much of the recent outcry has stemmed from the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film sequel.
Fans have expressed outrage both over the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald — which Rowling has said she is "genuinely happy" about — and director David Yates' decision to keep Dumbledore's gay identity off the screen. Fans were further distressed when Rowling reportedly blocked some fans on Twitter.
"Generally, I don’t think Rowling does a very good job of responding to or even acknowledging criticism," Paul DeGeorge, a member of the band Harry & the Potters, says. "She missed a real opportunity [to] learn from and engage with Native Americans when she published the History of Magic in North America. The Johnny Depp situation is particularly disappointing. This movie franchise does not need Johnny Depp to be successful. Why is he still in this movie? I can’t figure it out. Rowling is one of the few people who could actually push through a change in casting and she hasn’t produced a satisfactory explanation for why she hasn’t acted."
"Generally, I don’t think Rowling does a very good job of responding to or even acknowledging criticism."
In the past few years, Rowling's universe has expanded to include Pottermore, the website where she shares much of her post-series information; multiple Harry Potter theme parks; the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child plays in London's West End and forthcoming on Broadway; two upcoming mobile games; countless new and special editions of the original seven books; and, of, course, the five-film Fantastic Beasts franchise. It's undeniable: Harry Potter is a business, and it's an incredibly lucrative one.
"This is a power struggle where story ownership, identity, representation, and sales are [at] the heart of the issue," Joe DeGeorge, another Harry & the Potters member, says. "Fans feel a share of ownership and dictate the representation they want to see from these new stories, while the creators value its potential return on investment more than engaging in the pursuit of socially transformative storytelling toward a freer, safer world. And I would be so happy to be told I am wrong about this."
"Fans feel a share of ownership and dictate the representation they want to see from these new stories, while the creators value its potential return on investment more than engaging in the pursuit of socially transformative storytelling toward a freer, safer world."
But without any official statements to the contrary, it seems that DeGeorge, and plenty of other fans, are right about the current path of the Potter universe. Would including an openly gay character in Fantastic Beasts affect ticket sales, especially in huge foreign markets like China and Russia, where the LGBTQ+ community faces outsized discrimination and violence? Maybe. But if it is Harry Potter fans who are giving the most support, both monetarily and creatively, to the series and its continuing tales, then it makes little sense to exclude them from the narrative. And it's time that those in charge of Harry's public image took notice — including J.K. Rowling.
"All Harry Potter fans — right up to J.K. Rowling, I think — should feel proud that Harry Potter fans are using their voices even if, and perhaps especially when, they’re using them to raise concerns about something they love," Melissa Anelli, author of Harry, A History and CEO of Mischief Management, says. "It’s easy to be opposed to something you dislike, but it takes a lot of ideological strength to say, 'I love Harry Potter, but I don’t think this is OK.' This sounds a lot like what Dumbledore tells Neville: that it takes more courage to stand up to your friends than your enemies. Those ideals are a huge part of why this group of readers feels so strongly about the need to speak up when something feels wrong."
"It’s easy to be opposed to something you dislike, but it takes a lot of ideological strength to say, 'I love Harry Potter, but I don’t think this is OK.'"
But the question still remains: Is a string of poorly handled controversies enough to negatively shift the legacy of Harry Potter, and its author, forever? Of course, the impact that the series has had cannot be overstated, but Rowling herself has long been held up as an icon and an inspiration for her inventive writing, her many charitable contributions, and her own cinema-worthy rags-to-riches life story. But what is a legacy, how long does it take to build one up or tear it down, and who gets to decide any of the above? These are the questions that Potterheads are just now beginning to grapple with.
"As fans, we moved through these stories as individuals, each with our own unique personal lens and imagination," Matt Maggiacomo, executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance, says. "Collectively, we have a huge stake in the legacy of Harry Potter. And because it's a story with such a rich and overtly expressed set of values and messages, we expect a lot from it. We've also built our own parallel universes that reflect the values of the series, whether through Potter-themed fan activism, more inclusive fan works, or conferences with LGBTQ+ oriented programming. All of these creations, and the deep personal connections they've fostered, are part of Harry's legacy. I believe Harry Potter is too big a cultural phenomenon for its legacy to be controlled by anyone."
"All of these creations, and the deep personal connections they've fostered, are part of Harry's legacy. I believe Harry Potter is too big a cultural phenomenon for its legacy to be controlled by anyone."
But if its true that Rowling, Yates, and others like them do not control the entirety of what Harry Potter will stand for in years, and generations, to come, then it is now up to the fans to determine what they will keep — and what they will leave behind.
"All of these pieces build on Harry’s legacy and they certainly can stand alone, but they lean on the original source material," Larus says. "And we have to decide what the original source material is — just [the] first seven books? The books plus the eight movies? Or every piece of content produced by J.K. Rowling, including the new play, Fantastic Beasts, tweets, and interviews? In 2007, J.K. Rowling said Dumbledore was gay in an interview — but if it’s not in the books or in the films, are we sure it’s canon? I think it’s up to the fans to decide."
And for more "high-profile" Potter fans like the DeGeorge brothers, Larus, Maggiacomo, and Anelli, this means leading the way into creating safe spaces, from Harry & the Potters shows to Leaky Con panels, and beyond. But it also means owning up to the fact that we all still have a lot to learn about fostering openness in our dialogue and inclusivity in our actions.
"The best way I can commit to being a positive force on the Harry Potter community is by not pretending I have all the answers or that my history makes me infallible within it," Anelli says. "I’ve learned so much from the community and I continue to; they’ve taught me a lot about experiences I have never [and] will never live, and as a very privileged person I need those lessons. We have a long way to go to truly enact the 'prolonged plea for tolerance' that makes up the Harry Potter narrative, and as long as we’re all truly trying to respect each other and try to see through each other’s eyes, we’ll make progress."
"We have a long way to go to truly enact the 'prolonged plea for tolerance' that makes up the Harry Potter narrative, and as long as we’re all truly trying to respect each other and try to see through each other’s eyes, we’ll make progress."
In the end, it's not wrong to say that Harry Potter, in fact, taught us this very lesson, too — that no movement, however well-intentioned, will ever be without its hiccups. And all leaders, including Harry Potter himself, are flawed. And so progress can be made, even in the darkest of times if, as Dumbledore says, one only remembers to turn on the light. And by speaking out about what they need to see from Rowling and the Wizarding World moving forward, Potter fans are doing just that.
"I remain incredibly impressed by this fandom, which seems to provide me with endless learning opportunities for being a better person," Paul DeGeorge says. "Our entire fandom is learning together and that is beautiful, but also frustrating. Like Hermione, we’re all imperfect activists — J.K.R. included."