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Critic’s Notebook | “Harry Potter” Is Dead, but Its Corporate Overlords Live On

Critic's Notebook | "Harry Potter" Is Dead, but Its Corporate Overlords Live On

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” Daniel Radcliffe’s young wizard receives advice from the ghost of his mentor, Albus Dumbledore: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living.”

Dumbledore’s words also apply to the would-be conclusion of this hulking franchise–which, despite appearances to the contrary, has only just begun its commercially lucrative timeline. From the first entry to the eighth, the tone of Potter’s adventures grew with the audience, seamlessly transitioning from the realm of innocuous children’s fantasy to first-rate gothic horror for young adults.

Considering that it began with genial formula of spell-casting and flying broomsticks, the phantasmagorical imagery and violence in the eighth installment is fairly grown up: A bloody fetal version of Voldemort looks like something out of the “Alien” franchise, and a wand-wielding mother rescues her child with the battle cry, “Not my daughter, you bitch!”

Behind the scenes, however, the franchise remains an immature child. An entire Wikipedia page exists to detail “legal disputes over the Harry Potter series.” The “Harry Potter” legacy seems to signify one of the greatest threats to entertainment law of the last ten years.

Shortly after Rowling released the first “Harry Potter” novel in 1997, two things happened to define the property: Warner Bros. bought the rights to the first four books (for the bargain rate of a reported $2 million), and fans embraced the Hogwarts universe and wanted it to call their own. The tension between those entities has been in place ever since.

As the franchise grew, so did the fans’ ability to engage with it. Warners released the first film in 2001, the same year that saw the creation of Creative Commons. Since then, innovations in social media have included YouTube, Facebook and the iPhone, among many other technologies. Of course, the companies behind them have their own agendas, but they also gave rise to a new era of creative empowerment.

However, while “Harry Potter” was a defining creative force in the 21st century, the owners made it clear that they would do anything to ensure that it remained mired in the 20th. As early as 2000, Warner Bros. targeted Potter fansites for copyright infringement. In many cases, they assailed the very people responsible for maintaining the popularity that allowed the movies to thrive. The most gratuitous case was a 2007 incident in which J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. went after the publication of fan-run encyclopedia “The Harry Potter Lexicon,” as if it actually threatened the series’ capacity to make a profit or called into question the nature of its ownership.

Say what you want about George Lucas selling out, but at least he opened up “Star Wars” to the fans who cherished it, letting them write their own spin-offs and (sometimes) applying them to the larger “Star Wars” universe. In the case of “Harry Potter,” the movies may have run their course, but Warners, Rowling and their attorneys will continue to keep the “Harry Potter” universe on a tight leash.

Warner Bros. has already opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park within Universal Orlando. In October, Rowling will unveil the sanctioned fan site Pottermore.com, described as “a free website that builds an exciting online experience around the reading of the Harry Potter books.” Or, as Time Magazine noted,

The site, which Rowling launched via YouTube, will sell her seven Potter novels as e-books and audiobooks in several different languages. It will also reveal background details on characters and settings Rowling says she’s been “hoarding for years.”

In other words, Rowling not only owns the Potter franchise, but the fans’ kinship to it as well. They have a reason to love “Harry Potter,” but should abhor what it represents. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching the series on the big screen, I hope the forces that keep it on lockdown burn in hell, or wherever it is that bad Muggles belong. Grassroots artistry has less a chance of making progress so long as it stands in a Harry Potter-shaped shadow.

The final minutes of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” speaks directly to this frustration. Without spoiling too much, characters who should look 19 years older than they do the rest of the movie magically look like they haven’t aged a day. That’s an easy metaphor sure to define the lasting “Potter” legacy: These characters never age because they’re timeless, but eternal life isn’t cheap.

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