In 1977, George Lucas released one of the most indelible pieces of pop culture in history on an unsuspecting public. Star Wars took the world by force and has transcended entertainment to become a common world-wide touchstone. For twenty years, it felt as if no other fictional world could ever reach the same heights as a galaxy far, far away. But in 1997, J.K. Rowling released the first Harry Potter novel. Now everyone you know can tell you which Hogwarts House they belong to. The jargon–Quidditch, Muggle, etc.–has entered our lexicon and our dictionaries.
The two creators also share a lot in common. Both were scrappy fighters, believing in their worlds when no one else did. Both centered their tales around Chosen One boys who learn lessons about morality, empathy, and sacrifice. Both spent years creating their fictional universes, applying rules and long histories to flesh out the narrative. Both tried to use their well-constructed lore to expand their cultural footprint. They both gave us so much, but cultivating a dedicated fanbase is like giving a mouse a cookie. We are both ravenous and exacting. And it now appears J.K. Rowling is on a collision course, repeating the mistake of prequel-era Lucas.Oceans of ink have spilled combing through every misstep made by Lucasfilm when it comes to the Star Wars prequels. I won’t waste our time wading too deep, but to sum up: regardless of how you feel about the technical achievements or storytelling in the Star Wars prequels, the stilted and disjointed narrative focusing on politics and trade was a far cry from the easy and familiar Hero’s Journey Luke Skywalker undertook in the original trilogy. The resonant connections fans felt with Luke, Leia, and Han as they struggled felt absent from the prequels. It’s hard to connect with a whiny protagonist that murders children. Putting the focus on Anakin instead of Obi-Wan or Padmé created a barrier to emotionally connecting with the audience. Everyone loves Darth Vader, but few people want to root for him.
Now it seems Rowling is headed down the same path Lucas tread before her, though by another route. Almost immediately after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in 2007, Rowling began sharing tidbits from her notes that never made it into the final novels. Fans learned trivial things such as Luna Lovegood’s profession and the names of every child born to the main cast. There were head-scratchers such as a simplistic view of American history, and there were shockers such as the fact that Dumbledore was gay. That last nugget of information was dropped in 2007, which means fans have known Dumbledore was “canon-adjacent” into men for over ten years. Now she’s walked that statement back. Dumbledore will not be “explicitly” gay in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts 2, a story that sees Dumbledore dealing with the fact that the man he’s in love with, Grindelwald, is evil. The backlash has been quick and brutal.
While taking different routes, both Lucas and Rowling have arrived at similar destinations. Tinkering with their worlds has brought them nothing but fan ire. The backlash against Lucas was for poor storytelling and stiff performances. Lucas missed what it was about Star Wars that resonated with is fans and the result was Lucas ultimately selling Lucasfilm to Disney. Meanwhile, Rowling’s mouth made checks she can’t cash. Adding LGBTQA+ representation after the fact resonated with fans that longed to see themselves reflected in stories at Hogwarts. Rowling also attempted to alleviate the blinding whiteness of her world by suggesting Hermione could very well be black. But once it was time to put an openly gay Dumbledore on screen, she demurred. Add to that her support of Johnny Depp despite credible allegations of domestic abuse, and you have a creator simply not connecting with their fan base.
Of course, it is the right of the creator to change their story however they see fit. Lucas and Rowling both created beloved fictional universes that succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. However, in that success, the rules change whether they like it or not. When you have churches springing up in the name of the Jedi, professional Quidditch teams, and literal representations of your vision come to life as theme parks, the dynamic shifts. Right or wrong, audiences will feel possessive of these properties they’ve poured time and money into. The desire to perfect or add-on to a creative endeavor is seductive. Not an author alive hasn’t felt the nagging internal voice whispering that one more pass and the draft will be flawless. But tinkering with a story is like pulling a stray thread on a sweater. Maybe it’s a flaw easily removed, or maybe tugging too hard will unravel the whole in ways you could never imagine.
Images: Warner Bros.