Twilight. Glee. Vampire Diaries. City of Bones. City of Embers. Percy Jackson. Artemis Fowl. Supernatural. True Blood. Hunger Games. Lord of the Rings. Naruto. Kingdom Hearts. Pokemon. One Direction. Beliebers.
Rabid Internet fandoms all. (It’s particularly dangerous these days to poke the Directioners with a stick.) Some may say, though, that the idea of the Internet fandom owes its allegiance to one text: Harry Potter. Lost was an early flagbearer, and so was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and comic books have always inspired minutiae-obsessed fans both on and offline. But there’s no denying: Harry Potter, at the peak of the series’ popularity, was a trailblazer in how fandoms share their culture in a virtual world. Potter is far and away the most popular source text inspiring authors on FanFiction.net, and there are countless sites on the interwebs busting at the seams with Potter-themed art, music, videos, debate, and so, so much more.
Harry Potter fandom, though, has slowed down since 2007 and then since 2011, when the last volumes of the book and film series debuted, respectively. With no new material to anticipate, devour, digest, and regurgitate, many of the Potter-heads moved on (in many cases to become big ol’ fans of something else, often one of those many texts listed above), just as Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling did. Her first novel post-Harry was the grown-up non-wizard-based tome The Casual Vacancy, and she wrote crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym.
On September 12, 2013, Warner Bros. Studios, home of the Harry Potter film franchise, stepped forward with a game-changing announcement: they are going into pre-production on the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, set in the Harry Potter universe, and here’s the knockout punch: J.K. Rowling is writing the screenplay, making her screenwriting debut.
That whooooooshing sound you just heard was millions of Potter fans donning their house robes anew.
Fans don’t go away. Fans lay down their favorite toys, perhaps, and get distracted by shiny new baubles, but they will always return to their deepest love, desperate for just a whisper of that old first-time-I-saw-it feeling. And the Harry Potter world is returning, at the hands of J.K. Rowling? Warners may as well just ask Potter fans to send in their ten bucks right now.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of two books (the other being Quidditch Through the Ages) J.K. Rowling wrote about the Harry Potter universe for charity back in 2001. Both books ‘exist’ in Harry’s world, Fantastic Beasts as a textbook used at Hogwarts and written by Newt Scamandar, a world famous ‘magizoologist’ and one-time Hogwarts Headmaster. The book tells no story; it is an encyclopedic reference guide to strange and bizarre creatures that are unique to the wizarding world.
I’m going to give Warner Bros. Pictures a respectful head-nod here, because this was a pretty slick move. J.K. Rowling has a clause in her contract with WB: the studio is not permitted to make any Harry Potter films that are not based on a book of Miss Rowling’s. (This is why, and probably the only reason why, we’ve yet to see the screwball teen comedy Harry Potter and the Spring Break of Funneling). So Warners looked to the little charity books JKR had written and everyone had pretty much forgotten about. From the stories I’ve read over the past several days, it seems as though Warners informed Rowling they were going to go ahead and do a film series about Professor Newt Scamandar based on Fantastic Beasts (as was their contractual right), and not long after J.K. Rowling asked if she could write the screenplay, as she would feel odd allowing a new writer to play in this corner of her sandbox. (I wonder how many milliseconds it took for the studio to say “YES PLEASE”?) So we’ve been told to expect a film that begins in 1918 in New York City (the year, according to the character history, Scamandar was commissioned to write his book), with a 21-year old Newt scouring the globe to find all sorts of fantastic beasts to catalog in his groundbreaking new text.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t a story about Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but it IS set firmly in their world, decades before they enter it, and it’s going to flesh out in great detail the side-story of a barely-mentioned not-even-a-character character.
Wow. It’s almost like Jo Rowling is writing her OWN Harry Potter fan-fiction.
These promise to be very different stories than the original books, although as Scamandar is at one point in his life a Headmaster at Hogwarts there’s a good chance we’ll see the famous school again on-screen. I’m envisioning a world-hopping adventure starring the young rough-and-tumble wizard as he seeks out strange and exotic treasures hidden in the far-off corners of the globe, a Harry Potter meets Indiana Jones sort of story, and I gotta say I’m intrigued.
But will the fanbase be? Will they be re-ignited? It’s too early to tell, really, and to be fair, the Harry Potter fans of old have indeed grown up. The kids I directed in community theatre 10 years ago, the ones who were obsessed with Harry, are adults now, with lives and jobs and in some cases spouses and kids of their own.
Consider this, though: I reached out on Twitter to Melissa Anelli, the headmistress of The Leaky Cauldron (arguably the hub for all things Harry Potter online), and the author of Harry, a History, the definitive book on the Harry Potter fan experience. Ms Anelli and her cohorts on PotterCast (the Leaky Cauldron’s Potter-themed podcast and one of the top podcasts of all-time on iTunes) had just this past July put PotterCast to bed, recording their last episode at LeakyCon, the Harry Potter fan conference they run each year. I was curious: in light of the news, would PotterCast be returning? She pointed out to me that they had always said they’d return in light of something big happening (Fantastic Beasts qualifies) and that yes, they’d be back ‘on the air’ sometime soon. The actions taken over at Leaky have always reflected the interests and drive of the fanbase. The PotterCast band is getting back together, and for the first time since 2011 (really 2007) they’re going to have honest-to-goodness speculation to speculate about. It will be fascinating to see how the download and streaming numbers for the upcoming episodes of the podcast compare to the episodes the Leaky team has posted over the past two or three years; I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say these new numbers will blow those out of the water.
This will be a new experience for Potter-heads. For the first time ever they’re going to be speculating on the origin of a new story, and it’s a story that’s going to debut as a film. All the guessing games to play! Who’s directing, who’s producing, which screenwriter is going to take a pass on Rowling’s draft, who’s STARRING (you all want Benedict Cumberbatch, don’t you?), what famous Potter characters are we going to see as younger versions of themselves, or whose grandparents are we going to meet? Any actor cast with red hair will automatically be presumed a Weasley; anyone snapped on-location wearing glasses MUST be a Potter.
So no, while I don’t think we’re on the verge of reviving the height of the Harry Potter fan experience, the pilot light is lit and the burn is starting, and I can’t see why Potter fans, one by one, wouldn’t re-engage and rejoin the conversation. Sites like Leaky will see their traffic tic up, and fanart starring a young Mr. Scamandar is about to become very popular. After all, consider the moment: the Harry Potter saga, which gave birth to the most wide-reaching Internet fandom of all time, is coming back with a new story, a prequel. And it’s not just being birthed by ANYone, it’s returning to us from the originator! The great mind behind the earlier saga we loved so dearly! We’re going to see young versions of old favorite characters and meet some brand-new characters, to boot, in a brand new film series, maybe even a trilogy! A prequel trilogy!
Tom Hoefner (@TomHoefner on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. Fun fact: Newt Scamandar went to Hogwarts, where he was in Hufflepuff house. They’re excellent finders.
Check out “From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud”, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie: http://raceandcookie.blogspot.com