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The magic question: can a Harry Potter TV show work? | Television & radio

When I saw the news, reported by the Hollywood Reporter, that HBO Max was in talks to develop live-action Harry Potter television series, all details and talent TBD, my first reaction was: oh no. Like many late millennials, I grew up a fan of the books – more accurately, I grew up with the books, from some of my earliest reading memories through the time I literally crashed my car while listening to the sixth installment on tape for the fourth time. But my appetite for wizarding content has waned over the last eight years or so, as unquestioned Potter standom (self-proclaimed Gryffindors and Slytherins) soured into generational parody, creator JK Rowling doubled down on her transphobic views, and the Potterverse expansion seemed less interested in the earnest fun of fan culture – the midnight premieres, the trivia board games, the rangy wikis – than the consistent wringing out of a highly lucrative franchise for paced output.

Like the edges of the universe, the expansion of the highly profitable Wizarding World is an inexorable force, with increasingly high odds of strain. Still, the tiresome charges of Rowling and the relentlessly profitable Potter production do not mean a new entry can’t be fresh, insightful, or authentic to the genuine, often revelatory relationship fans have developed to the Potter world. It’s worth asking, what would we want from a new Potter spin-off?

The new entries into the Potterverse, while hailed by some, have grown up awkwardly with the zeitgeist. There’s the popular, if surreal, Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando. The 2016 play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, written by Jack Thorne based on a Rowling short story, picked up where the seventh and final book’s epilogue left off, and imagined the Hogwarts of Harry’s son Albus Severus, a bullied Slytherin who befriends the son of original nemesis Draco Malfoy – a relationship which drew some accolades for its depiction of close, vulnerable male friendship, as well as charges of queerbaiting. The two films of the Fantastic Beasts franchise – a prequel of sorts, fleshing out the story behind one of Harry’s magical creatures textbooks in pre-war New York, with another due next year and presumably two more to follow – have received mixed to good reviews while underperforming at the box office. But they have weathered collateral damage from Rowling perpetually and often perplexingly kicking the hornet’s nest, such as her continued support for the casting of Johnny Depp as series villain Gellert Grindelwald despite ongoing allegations of domestic abuse. (The films and speculative HBO Max show, as part of the Wizarding World franchise, will be made with Rowling’s input.)





Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald



Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros.

The farther you stretch a fantasy world, the more the rough terrain of reality – its ugly strains of racism, sexism and unresolved inequities of history, or simply the work of treating other cultures and communities with the same detailed care as one’s home perspective – poke through the story’s fabric. For example, Rowling’s Magic in North America, Potter-centric writing released in 2016 on Pottermore in anticipation of the film adaptation of her fictional Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them textbook, imagined a Magical Congress in Washington DC years before the city existed and glancingly lifted the Navajo concept of shape-shifting “skin walkers” in a way that drew criticism from many Native readers as trivializing.

A new series, however, could dig into issues of representation where Rowling’s post facto addendums have read at best as flippant, at worst opportunistic, self-serving and patronizing – that, as she announced months after the final book’s publication, Dumbledore was gay despite no explicit references in the books), or that a Jewish student was in Ravenclaw, or that a school for magic exists in Japan with a name that makes no sense in Japanese. Rowling’s viewpoints aside, the original series was built around resistance to blood-purity doctrine, a spirit of inclusion and empathy that’s fertile territory for prequel, sequel or, hell, even a Riverdale-esque hot teen drama at Hogwarts.

As Rowling herself said in her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, revisited in Molly Fischer’s deep dive in the Cut into Rowling’s increasingly polarized status in the years since the final book’s publication, as the internet has eroded her podium of Potter authority. “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s place,” she said. But “many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.”

That is, perhaps, the way forward for a Potter-verse TV series: a program that leans less on magical arcana by authorial decree, and more on the books’ capacity for compassion and guiding current of tolerance, trusting people to know who they are. A show that relies less on groundless revisions, and more interested in exploring with detail identities in the magical world, as in ours, given more due on Rowling’s Twitter account than in her original writing. To borrow Rowling’s own words, a show that chooses to exercise imagination toward new characters and perspective rather than burrow into the known.

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