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Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Harry Potter and the Nostalgia Industry of DOOM

"How can you write a review for something you haven't read?" JJ asked me incredulously, when I told her I was thinking about writing a piece concerning the new Harry Potter two-part-play and script-released-as-if-it-were-a-new-novel Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Nope


In truth, she has a point, but this isn't what this piece of writing is about. Well, not entirely, because although I will talk about the thing I haven't seen or read, it's mainly to describe the reaction to the thing and not a critique of the thing-itself.

Please note, I'm also going to talk about a thing that hasn't even been released yet. Namely, Fantastic beasts and where to find them, which we are now informed will continue to potentially a FIVE film series. Now, there's confidence for you!

*I hope it tanks something rotten*

Ahem. Now then, what I'd like to do is have a forensic look at the nostalgia industry, that is our popular entertainment, which has gained remarkable momentum in the last 10-15 years. There have always been films (and so forth) with a certain 'nostalgia to a bygone age' theme, but now it appears that every facet of popular Western American-influenced culture is brimming over with this nostalgia.

Several things:
1. What is Nostalgia and how is the phrase used?
2. This is a look at Harry Potter specifically and not the entirety of culture as is.
3. This is a description of entertainment as 'event' with a focus on 'things' 1 and 2.
4. This is bad, because passivity and lack of creativity.
5. Also, this is what the entertainment of a capitalist society looks like.
6. Ego destroys more than it creates.
7. Fantasy in a world of hurt.
8. The end... or is it? No. It is. Ooooorrrrr is it????

So, that's my overview. Stick around if still interested, or go back to your puerile superhero mush if not. ;-)

Finally, be forewarned that this essay presupposes you to be knowledgeable about Harry Potter and related topics without giving much explanation.

1.

NOSTALGIA
A compound word derived from the Greek, comprising nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain or ache), coined as a phrase in the 17th century (1668) by Johannes Hofer in a dissertation about Swiss soldiers suffering from severe ('often fatal') longings for home. By the 1830's it had come to mean any intense homesickness, where it was treated as a disease and listed in medical textbooks.

Our contemporary version is much different, however, and I would suggest that it has changed even more in recent years. Today, we think of nostalgia as a whimsical longing for our childhood years. Something that has been positively encouraged by companies that market and sell products that relate to the 1980's or 1990's depending on the age of the customer, but more about this aspect of the culture later.

Not my childhood


Primarily then, the focus of nostalgia, or the nostalgic, in our contemporary usage is seen as relatively benign, totally unlike the potentially fatal disease it once was described as. I'm not suggesting that nostalgia is secretly as dangerous as it once was considered, indeed, I wonder about how this would be described by modern psychology, but let's leave that discussion for the professionals.

The focus of our nostalgia is on the 'retro style' aspect, that is, the conscious adopting of fashion/music/culture of the recent past, which is approximately 20-30 years previously. Interestingly, this nostalgia is not necessarily for one's own childhood, many of those wearing Nirvana t-shirts are barely out of their teens and possibly not even born before Cobain died, or even of one's own culture - the predominant adoption is (of course) that of the USA. So, nostalgia as used now is a recreation of something that was once popular in a manner that is to be appreciated in an ironic or kitsch manner (or at the very least, bought).

2.

Harry Potter is different from this focus. It might not seem to be so very different anymore and as time has gone on, it has started to fall into the more common trends of the nostalgia industry, but it's beginning is based on the sort of popular craze that so many of us remember from our own childhoods. The difference with Potter is that it didn't go away, or cease to be important for so many of its readers and admirers. Only now, with film studios desperate for new/old IP's with which to develop their own 'Marvel-style' franchise, do we need to return to the 'Wizarding World' because nothing is more attractive than an IP that is still popular.

The first Harry Potter novel was released in 1997, the first film in 2001, and the series ended with the last book in 2007 and film in 2011. Quite a run; seven books, and eight films, all of which were immensely popular worldwide. So, it's not surprising the impact such a successful series would have upon popular taste, at least, that was the common conception and subject for debate in the late 1990's when Potter really started to take off. It was assumed that Potter would inspire a new generation of readers, something the older generation always worries about, i.e. the danger of the television, the internet, and even (I'm sure) the radio, on the minds of the young. However, to my mind, the problem has always been not with the particular technology itself, but the prevalence of various forms of distraction and the access to them. So, in my day, I read books because of the two channels showing children's programmes neither were showing what I wanted. There has been a sharp decline in children reading for pleasure in the last ten years or so, various studies have shown. So, it's not that much of a shock that Harry Potter didn't make children read again for long. They read the books, rather than wait for the films, they stopped reading the books when they finished. Some, it is hoped, did become converted to reading as an additional entertainment and educative resource, but local libraries are hardly busting at the seams with people. No, put simply, reading Harry Potter was popular with children for a while then most stopped reading.

Gotta catch 'em all!


3.

This relates to what I'm calling the 'cultural event' type of entertainment that although Harry Potter didn't invent, it certainly made it much more popular (and profitable!) than ever before. Now, if anything, that looks like a model that can be replicated and used over and over again. At least, that seems to be the way in which our creators and distributors (mostly the second group) of entertainment think. So, although the author/film-maker/whatever has a motivation to write a story that interests them, they also want to write something that will be published. The producers want something that will sell. The distributors want to make money.

So, while sourcing a new individual idea is a slow and risky business (what if people don't like it?) working with an established IP effectively removes the need for new creators. What we now need our 'creatives' to do, is to adapt something old into something new. Something popular, according to market research.

Hang on, I hear you cry, but Harry Potter wasn't doing this was it? True enough, Harry Potter was more of a mash-up of everything that might be remotely popular in children's (now, young adult) fiction. However, that was then and this is now. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, represents an attempt to rekindle interest in Harry Potter, which co-incidentally comes just before an attempt at a new 'Harry Potter' film series.

I won't yet discuss the possible 'author' motivation for Cursed Child (see 6) but want to mention instead how it was received and before that, how it was hyped.

Our entertainment has had marketing involved to a greater extent for some time now, indeed, the involvement of marketing in films (although in all areas of entertainment, this most of all) has increased to such a scale now that a film's marketing budget can sometimes exceed the production costs (this is rare and only in exceptional cases where the film is attempting to kick-start a new franchise - DC for example, but still average movie budget in 2007 was $65m with marketing adding an extra $35m on average). As the first Harry Potter went into production there was some speculation about how it would be cast and so forth, with all of this being exacerbated by the book's release four years earlier and a small (but rapidly growing) fan base. I say small, but it wasn't seen as such, at the time. Although it certainly is, in comparison to the various fan groups that follow a franchise. At any rate, the level of interest for each book and film rose before each release, to the point where even the less than spectacular films (in my mind films 4-8) were still propelled along by fan fervor.

That's one interpretation, another would be that as the Harry Potter series was 'setting the bar' (along with the Lord of the Rings franchise, at roughly the same time) it was given more of a chance. Other film series (with YA book tie-ins) have started, floundered, and been dumped (Golden Compass springs to mind) without any support.

Another evolving factor has been merchandise related to the film. At first, the only Harry Potter 'merchandise' was the books... this seems a cruel way of putting it. Pottermania was in full-swing before the film's release after all, but I would suggest these 'Potterheads' are the more devoted of the fans. To elaborate, not everyone that sees a Star Trek film is a Trekkie, but every Trekkie sees a Star Trek film (and complains that it's not accurate to the TV series).

Merchandise is now a massive factor in any of the large 'event' films, another excellent recent example is the new Star Wars film(s). Harry Potter merchandise is such a phenomenon that it exists separately from any of the new releases (Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts), although I expect to see a fair share of 1920's wizard-garb come the film's release.

Marketing hype and mass merchandising, two of the most important aspects of developing the cultural event. The third is, of course, the nostalgic-retro-style that provides 'nourishment' for both marketing and the merchandise. Even now, after only 15 years since the first film, still there has been enough time for people to look back in a warm nostalgic glow about their younger appreciation of the series. Indeed, as culture is now saturated with this type of view it would be difficult to escape this.

4.

So, what's wrong with all this? It's only a bit of fun, after all. True enough, this isn't a criticism of fantasy (see 7), but of the personal (and socio-economic, see 5) implications of this style of engagement with entertainment. So, it's not the entertainment per se, but rather the manner in which we are 'sold' it and expected to consume it.

The expectation, it seems to me, of Cursed Child (and Fantastic beasts) is that we should be grateful that more of our beloved franchise is being created. Those who would complain that JK had previously said that there would be no more Harry Potter and that they were happy with the series ending how it did (although many would also complain of the epilogue in the last book/film as unnecessary), were dismissed as moaning cranks or worse, as 'haters'.

There is a drive to make these events universally adored (or detested, but this is a subversion by the internet, cf. Ghostbusters 2016) without the nuance of critical analysis, something that the majority of 'fans' and a significant portion of the public are willing to go along with. This, I contend, is due to the massive amount of choice in our entertainments. Don't like this film, then try this other type of film, don't like films, here's a TV series, here's a computer game, here's a comic book series, here's...

Choice isn't bad, indeed, the opposite of too much choice (that is, no choice at all) isn't any better (perhaps even worse), but this isn't an argument for market saturation, because these 'choices' are hollow at best, as they all represent similar aspects of whatever is popular (or assumed to be popular).

They are to be 'enjoyed' passively and are designed rather than created.

Now, design isn't bad either, we need design, but not at the cost of creativity. I know this is an old and much traveled argumentative road to be drudging down, but give me a moment to describe why this is bad. This is not; every film must be an indie think-piece, nor is it, there is nothing new under the sun, nor is it, art must be unconstrained. The fashion of turning classic or popular works of literature into films is hardly new, nor is it a problem for the creative arts. Adapting one medium into another is potentially very interesting (thinking about Kubrick's The Shining), when done with the appropriate desire and it is still a creative process in this light. No, here's the problem, the production line approach, which I first glimpsed in the intractably awful Phantom Menace (released in 1999, I would suggest that this rather than Harry or LOTR was our starting point for the event phenomena). This approach attempts to detail plot points like a check list, giving all market researched areas of interest their allotted time and making sure that every nostalgic reference is run out.

The passive involvement is that of a consumer, "if you don't like it (whatever, it's all just opinions) then there'll be something that does cater to your market demographic, believe us, we've done the research!" You are not engaging with the thing anymore than you would with any other disposable consumer product, made only to be bought, used, and discarded.

5.

This is what our entertainment is now, a momentary paid distraction, devoid of any depth but replete with stylistic references. This is the entertainment of capitalism, consumerism, & of mediocrity.

It is the 'grown-up' method that began with the children's product-based-programming of the 1980's (Hasbro's Transformers, Mattel's He-Man, Kenner's Care Bears, and so on). Well, I suppose this makes some sense. This is the generation that grew up being marketed to from birth and now they are used to this approach, they are used to being customers, rather than critical viewers.

So, is art dead, has Harry Potter created the infantilised society that libertarian's tell us to fear?

Well, no, of course it's not that bad, but it's hardly ideal either and I can see the gradual shift myself. I'm not here decrying popular culture, but suggesting that our popular culture has been overtaken by the consumerist society it is part of. Entertainment is as shallow, plastic, and disposable as your Darth Vader PEZ dispenser, or authentic replica Hedwig plush.

Don't be mean about Hedwig!


And what is the attempt to own a part of the 'world' that your franchise belongs to? In a sense it seems like the tribalism of sports supporters. Your team might play terribly, lose constantly, cheat and so forth, but it is still your team, to cease in anything but total support would be traitorous. Thus, we are actively 'buying into' the world, whether that is a galaxy far far away, or the wizarding world, or whatever. "This is my identity. I bought it."

We are so desperate to label ourselves as individuals within a group, we submit passively to the consumer culture that effectively devalues the worth of any group. I would suggest a real cultural group worth joining is not one that can be so easily bought and sold, where being an 'authentic' supporter means buying the most up-to-date product.

Can people do this themselves; that is, be savvy consumers and question what it means to them to be a fan of Harry Potter (or whatever), to question the themes of the books/films and what they think of them? Absolutely yes, and this pragmatic response is the best that can be hoped for, acting within the constraints of normalcy within society. If that sort of concern matters to you.

Let's get back to Harry Potter, authentic or not.  It seems that Cursed Child was something different to the nostalgic franchise tie-in (like Fantastic Beasts), but what was it and, more importantly, why now?

The answer to the second question may be as simple as, because money, but as much as I'd hope not it doesn't seem that it can really be much more than either a vanity project or as franchise hype (for the forthcoming new series of films, five remember!).

6.

Let's consider JK herself and her motivation for approving Cursed Child. So, if we're discounting merely money (something she is not in short supply of) then there would have to be another reason for her revisiting such an iconic story-line. Adulation? It's not as if JK isn't constantly reminded how 'life-changing' her works have been for vast numbers of people, she is loved by many people across the world (and therefore also hated by many people across the internet). The books, films, and merchandise have steadily kept selling since the series supposedly finished five years ago. Interest in Harry Potter also continues, websites like Buzzfeed help, with a constant series of Harry Potter stories and quizzes. So, it's not as if it hasn't continued as a cultural 'institution' for all this time, what else is JK trying to achieve?

I wonder if the excessive pride of fame has something to do with it. There are many stories of the pressures of fame turning celebrities to bizarre and destructive behaviours, would the constant praise have an effect also? JK has been told for years that she "made a generation read," which is something I've disagreed with earlier (see 2), did she start believing this and then decide that she'd also make 'a generation' of people return to the theatre? Why indeed make the Cursed Child a theatrical play otherwise? A simple answer might be that the most obvious manner in producing the work, as a television series, would have been blocked by Warner Brothers (this idea suggested by JJ).

Why the theatre then? It's not as if it's something considered 'popular' whereas a television series made available worldwide through streaming is a much more contemporary manner in broadcasting your story. Theatre contrasted with Netflix seems positively archaic. Is the answer then, because she could? The only medium she has yet to influence?

The main writer, Jack Thorne, although best known for writing for various British television series (Skins, Shameless, The Fades, This is England) has written for theatre, radio, and film. So, he's versatile enough, but he isn't mainly known as a playwright. Another possible clue might be that he's never written a novel (published at any rate, I'd assume most writers of every type have to have a couple of 'unfinished' novels at any one point... I've three) and it is simply that novel writing is JK's territory and if she isn't to be the main author (but merely the name) then no one will be.

Many people* have complained that the script (for most the prospect of travelling to London to see a two part play is unrealistic due to distance and/or cost) reads much like a fanfic. It's interesting that Harry Potter is such an active fanfic writing community (or was, the fanfic phenomena seems to reside in the early days of the internet), something that in the early days JK was a proud supporter of, giving out 'fan website of the year' awards on her own website and generally being supportive of her readers. Once the film marketing machinery started moving and the commercialisation of nostalgia became wholesale, these little fan-sites started finding themselves getting shut-down orders from Warner Bros. That was the end of that, still, nobody blamed JK and they all moved on.

It's a first draft! Maybe they'll rewrite it.


* I've watched well over a dozen YouTube reviews of the Cursed Child script and all of them make this complaint. There are many more similar problems; that the character's act differently from the books, that there are a series of inconsistencies between how JK has detailed the world and how Jack Thorne interprets it, and so forth. They can get pretty specific and while many of these could be dismissed as merely an over-emphasis on detail by fanatics, the main problem is with the plot itself. Despite the play being well-produced and well-acted by the cast, when read in isolation, the script is muddled and deeply disappointing.

Should this disappointment matter? After all it is merely a work of escapist fantasy, all wrapped up with a nostalgia bow. Not only would we once say, "it's only a kid's film," or, "it's only a fantasy book," but now we also say, "it hasn't ruined your childhood."

7.

True, no one's childhood was ruined by Cursed Child. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how that statement should be taken, as I think it started as a joke at the expense of those fans who would over-react about Transformers (for example). That is, it was never that important anyway, so why make a fuss about it now? It's only a film, see it or don't see it.

Okay, sure, that's the pragmatic (although caustic) response. However, hopefully during the course of this piece I've managed to highlight that we shouldn't be passively accepting of our entertainment as this assembly-line disposable fluff. It should matter. Good entertainment should be the rule and not the exception.

I think this disappointment represents something else, something potentially important about how we relate to literature. When we enjoy a character in a piece of writing (or film) we are not necessarily simply noting the similarities with that character and our personality (or what we wish our personality to be) but we are, most of the time, simply enjoying the creator's depiction of that character. It is how they are described or portrayed that we find appealing. We aren't hoodwinked into believing in the reality of a fantasy figure, but instead we are finding another way to relate to the description of another person as this. We are enjoying that character, even if they are the villain (perhaps especially so). I'd suggest that this character-attachment is both more personal and more defined within literature (rather than film, television, theatre) because it depends on that one author's 'bringing to life' of the character combined with the fact that reading is such a personal introspective activity. In a film (f.e.) the character is portrayed by an individual actor, but that is the result of a process involving writers, directors and others. It is already an amalgam, but a written character is different, we as readers and as a community can come together to appreciate this, but the written description is final (the film image is also final, but holds more scope for interpretation based on its collaborative creation - speculating Tim Roth as Snape for example, but there is plenty of scope for interpreting written characters, writer dependent, of course).

So, when another writer describes the same character in a different way, or in a way that the vast majority of readers consider different (consensus holds sway here) then their reaction of being aggrieved seems appropriate. With a fan fiction, no matter how the character is treated, still we know that it is 'only a story' and can read, enjoy and dismiss it as we see fit. When the story has the 'stamp of approval' from the original author and it still doesn't work, then we wonder about the motivation or understanding of the author.

So far what I've described could be true of any dramatic character in fiction and despite any fantastical elements in a story, that the characters are still believable as 'human' (whether human or not) are central concerns for that story to make it 'authentic'. Some times of course, what counts as 'authentic' can be used to conceal another issue.

I won't go into a discussion of the uses and abuses of fantasy in literature and film here (instead I'll save that for another day), but will simply say that no matter how escapist the setting is, still it is the description of characters and the various character relationships (and how well, accurate, or pleasing they are) that is always the true heart of a story. Either that or go grand-thematic with huge sweeping narratives that, nonetheless, are made relevant due to their potential effects upon characters (I'm thinking of LOTR and its own connection to Norse myth, but then myth is a different style of narrativising story).

8.

All things end, even (thankfully) this essay.

However, when they remain popular there's the constant lingering thought that it could come back as good as before better! Apparently the film industry is immune to the folk logic of "you can never go home." Lucas tried to revisit the original Star Wars with the disastrous prequels trilogy, but he is hardly a lone failure. There a countless remakes, sequels, and reboots that refuse to let a lucrative franchise fade away, most do a terrible job of revisiting their old glories even when the original makers are involved. More surprising than Lucas in this regard is Peter Jackson's own return to Middle Earth and the awful Hobbit films (again, I'll talk about them another time). Why keep doing it? Why not let it end?

Why god, why?

Cash money son.

Lazy corporate hacks?

Our own unwillingness to let go of fond childhood memories even if they are false memories that have been created and marketed to us by the very same 'lazy corporate hacks'?

It's always easy to blame others, perhaps we (as consumers of entertainment) should have a look at our own unhealthy focus on things that have had their time.

When Fantastic beasts and where to find them was first released as a book in 2001 along with Quidditch through the ages, it was a relatively slim volume (128 p.) detailing various magical creatures in the Harry Potter universe written as if it was the actual book that Harry Potter owned, complete with 'notes in the Margins' by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It was a charity release by JK for Comic Relief.

Not a film
I suppose we can be glad that Quidditch through the ages hasn't been thought of as the basis for a film series (yet), but there is no story in either book, it's just fluff further detailing the world and sold for charity, which is noble enough. Indeed, the Comic Relief website informs me that the books made £17 million, which is frankly madness (but at least good causes profited). Although, I can't help but notice in the 2009 re-release of the books for 'charity' only a portion of the book's cost goes to comic relief (£1.15 per book).

I'd like to put this down in writing, so that when it happens I can point to it. I think that within 10-20 years the entire Harry Potter series will be remade, rebooted, rehashed or whatever. Perhaps they'll do it on HBO, much like the very successful Game of Thrones, a season per book, and that might interesting. I won't be watching though.

I even think that they might consider making Cursed Child into a film. Oh what, they already have? Urgh, well at least Daniel Radcliffe has shown some backbone and ruled out his return. Here are some very accurate statements by Radcliffe:

“There’s a part of me that’s like, some things are better left untouched.
“If we went back to Potter, there’s a chance we’d make what Star Wars: The Force Awakens was to the original Star Wars, but there’s also the chance that we’d make Phantom Menace.
“So I don’t want to go back to anything like that and maybe sour what people have already loved.”

Anyway, I suppose this depends on how well the Fantastic Beasts film does. Maybe they'll realise that enough people have moved on from Harry Potter, and then the studios will have to cannibalise some other IP. For me, I'll always have the Stephen Fry audiobooks. I've got my Harry Potter thanks, I don't need to buy your version.

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