There’s nothing like watching a legacy crumble in real time, and these days, one feels spoiled for choice. This week, it is J.K. Rowling’s “updates” to the Harry Potter series which has set the world – or at least, swaths of the internet – on fire.
In an interview to accompany the Blu-Ray edition of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” Rowling elaborated on an earlier explanation of Dumbledore’s relationship with the dark wizard. She said, “Their relationship was incredibly intense. It was passionate, and it was a love relationship.”
This has invited some backlash. Including an important gay romance between the two wizards as an afterthought – and crucially one expressed in a spin-off film’s DVD extras, rather than in the film itself – feels like a cop-out. How wonderful it would have been for millions of children to have known that Dumbledore was gay from the beginning of the series – and to have grown up with that knowledge woven into the books. But the evolution of “Harry Potter” has now spanned decades, and as such, is complicated by many layers of conflicting context.
When Rowling sat down to map out her fantasy universe between 1990 and 1995, she could never have imagined the influence it would have, or the responsibility that would entail. On the face of it, she appeared to do what most authors do, which was illustrate the social issues most personal to her. Rowling was famously broke when she wrote the series, and the theme of class and social segregation on that basis – muggles vs. pure bloods, abused house elves, etc. – is prominent throughout the books.
Of course, as time went on, heterosexual romances were featured in the written series. And the idea that in a school filled with hundreds of teenagers – let alone the wider world they later explore – Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger might not meet an openly LGBTQ person at any point is laughable. However, it’s easy to forget how much the landscape has changed over the last couple of decades.
“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published in 1997, six years before Section 28, a law banning councils and schools in England and Wales from intentionally promoting homosexuality, was repealed in 2003. It would have been very difficult to get an explicit gay romance into a book aimed largely at elementary school-aged children at the time. By the time the later books came out, the massive span of its distribution – they are sold in 200 countries – could also have made this tricky.
These aren’t necessarily good excuses. Philip Pullman introduced a moving relationship between two male angels in “The Subtle Knife,” the second of his Dark Materials trilogy, which was also published in the UK in 1997. That book was admittedly aimed at a slightly older age group, but nevertheless, it was managed.
For whatever reason, the opportunity to feature more diversity in “Harry Potter,” once missed in print, might have been taken on screen. The failure on that score has become less excusable over time, but it is not all J.K. Rowling’s fault.
Rowling first said publicly that Dumbledore was gay in 2007, during a Q&A with students at Carnegie Hall. She relayed the story of a script reading for the sixth Potter film, during which she had to slip the director a note to explain why a line about the wizard longing after a girl in his youth had to be cut. She explained that Dumbledore falling for Grindelwald added to his horror when the dark wizard turned to evil.
For Rowling, the significance of this narrative doesn’t appear to lie in Dumbledore’s sexuality, but in the amplification of a great betrayal. You get the sense that with these explanations, she simply feels she is filling in the blanks.
The broader context into which these new remarks have been released hasn’t done Rowling any favors. Though her sincerity about her characters is evident, her latest comments on Dumbledore come alongside a distasteful “trendy” commodification of LGBTQ culture in recent years. This makes any apparently superficial affiliation look opportunistic – especially when it is not backed up by any “visible” evidence.
Rowling also has a track record of making rather tone-deaf proclamations. The reveal that lycanthropy (the power of a human to transform into an animal-like state) was a metaphor for HIV was especially memorable and ill-considered, considering that werewolves could become dangerous and out of control. She also has a tendency to blur the line between fiction and reality – and use the wizarding world as a tool with which to make sense of the real one. In a 2015 Twitlonger, she explained what Harry’s views on Israel might be.
As off-key as this comes across in public, this way of thinking is perfectly normal for a fantasy writer. But the sheer scale of Rowling’s platform and reach is unprecedented. The highly personal nature of “Harry Potter” to so many people places huge pressure on her to maintain an exceptional, universally inspiring standard as a figurehead. She is very visible, very successful and very wealthy. This makes her something of a flashpoint when things go wrong.
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“Crimes of Grindelwald” had many plot and representation problems besides Dumbledore’s unspoken sexuality. The casting of Korean actress Claudia Kim as Nagini, a snake subservient to an evil Nazi-esque villain, and the misattribution of Nagini’s name to Indonesian mythology was a major one. It looked especially careless given the criticism the series has historically received for being overtly white. And Johnny Depp taking on the role of Grindelwald in the wake of huge negative publicity was also controversial. And that doesn’t even begin to address the plot and tone of the film, which were generally agreed to be all over the place.
It’s frustrating that for all the talk off-screen about the significance of Dumbledore’s love for another man, that love remains as “deniable” on-screen in 2019 as it was when first revealed in 2007. It feels like a huge missed opportunity, considering that love had such direct relevance to the story. But there is also a sense of compound pressure on Rowling.
“Harry Potter” was formative in the childhood of many of today’s adults, and continues to engage new readers in a world which is – at least in part – vastly more socially aware than it was in 1997. Preserving the past experience of the former while enriching and evolving the Potter universe for the latter was never going to be easy. The books can’t be rewritten, but the best hope for the wizarding world might be a vast improvement in the quality of any new movies. A still better one might be for any current or future children’s authors to include clear LGBTQ narratives as par for the course, and for those stories to become as beloved, and as influential, as “Harry Potter.”