The kid-forward, moral lesson-heavy content of Rowling’s work adds a new wrinkle to an old debate: can we separate the art from the artist?
When J.K. Rowling’s massively successful “Harry Potter” book series spawned a similarly massively successful film franchise (overall box office take for the eight Warner Bros. films: over $7.7 billion, making it the third-highest ranking film series of all time), the rags-to-riches tale of the unexpected author (she invented the magical tales as bedtime stories for her brood!) offered a charming origin story for the eventual literary star.
In the years since Harry Potter mania first magicked itself upon our decidedly Muggle world, we’ve learned plenty more about Rowling’s own beliefs, most notably her transphobic stance and status as an unabashed TERF, one she has no problem showing off on her social media channels, in her own writings, and in her political leanings. At the very least, Rowling’s beliefs have put an awkward slant to her franchises — including both “Harry Potter” and its spinoff, “Fantastic Beasts,” which has so far inspired three films — which hinge on seemingly at-odds ideas about forging one’s own path in a world that doesn’t always accept that and being brave enough to nurture an identity that many will try to disavow.
But while the content of Rowling’s creations adds an additional wrinkle to this conversation, it’s also still part of an ongoing debate about separating the art from the artist. Can we? Should we? And does Rowling’s entry into this sticky subject change the stakes at all?
On the occasion of the release of the Rowling-written “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore,” IndieWire executive editor, film Kate Erbland and associate editor Jude Dry attempt to unpack a persistent issue with fresh eyes.
Kate Erbland: We can debate the possibility, feasibility, and potential need of separating art from the artist in cases like this — to put it mildly: in cases where artists’ beliefs are opposed to the work they’ve created, and also prove to be objectionable to both fans of the art in question and like, humanity in general — until the metaphorical cows (owls? cats?) come home, and I doubt we will ever reach any kind of consensus. And that’s fine. What both baffles and intrigues me about this case is how the most current iteration of Rowling’s work — the third film in the “Fantastic Beasts” series, out this week — reflects a profound tension between her public beliefs and the core tenets of this sprawling, now mostly unwieldy series.
Courtesy Everett Collection
“Fantastic Beasts” is an outlier from the get-go: a planned five-film franchise based both on existing “Harry Potter” lore and a fake magical textbook Rowling wrote about the magical creatures that populate her lore. While the messy nature of this franchise — again, five planned films on this — have allowed her to expand out some of the subplots of her most famous series (like gay Dumbledore!), it mostly feels like treading water, punctuated by both cute creatures (aww) and a hardy interest in chronicling the rise of magical Nazism (no thanks).
As I wrote in my review of “The Secrets of Dumbledore,” “while Rowling’s own politics have forever tainted her legacy, even those blissfully immune to the writer’s personal leanings will likely feel an unnerving tone at play in the film; one minute, we’re being warned against a world that is being ‘pulled apart with hate and bigotry,’ the next, a respected leader is reminding us that ‘all voices deserve to be heard,’ even the hateful and stupid and ignorant and, yes, the genocidal.” That tension is emblematic of why “Fantastic Beasts” as a franchise feels so muddled, so unnecessary, and so at odds with itself. Even without express knowledge of what’s happening in Rowling’s personal life, there is something tainted about her art. But that’s not always the case, is it?
Jude Dry: I’m not surprised to learn that this latest “Fantastic Beasts” chapter is fantastically befuddling, particularly when it comes to its politics. Rowling’s myopic vendetta against trans women not only marks an obvious lapse in moral judgement, but the fallout seems to have made her a worse writer as well.
For years, Rowling’s personal ramblings have been utterly confounding, using the wildest jumps in logic to spew some of the most dangerous rhetoric leveled at trans women ever. As the sheer numbers behind these franchises attest, Rowling has incredible cultural influence and reach. When she speaks, people listen. People look to writers to shape how we see the world, to help make sense of contemporary life. When they look to their favorite children’s author for guidance on trans issues, they are taught to question, invalidate, and hate.
With all the money the woman has, a single abstention will never make a dent in her wallet. The question of whether or not one can still enjoy her books and movies is a deeply personal one. When you sit down to watch, maybe you can. If it’s mere escapism you seek from entertainment — and you like the cut of brooding Jude Law’s jib — go ahead and enjoy. Just remember what happened at King’s Cross Station at the end of the “Harry Potter” series: Harry faced death and was resurrected. She’s snuck her beliefs into her work before, and she’ll do it again.
Kate: Here’s an interesting wrinkle to the Rowling of it all: it seems that plenty of people have been able to tap into her work for its (as you sagely note, diminishing) entertainment value over the years. Our own Chris Lindahl recently published a fascinating look at how Rowling’s financials have changed (read: mostly not by much) in the years since she’s made her TERF stance clear. In short, the franchise and her other attendant works haven’t experienced much of a dip, though attention does seem to be slipping. Is that because of Rowling’s politics? The messiness of the “Fantastic Beasts” film series? The messiness of the “Fantastic Beasts” films stars? Is Harry Potter and his related entities finally going out of fashion?
With “The Secrets of Dumbledore” still expected to bring in some hearty box office bucks, it’s hard to see a direct correlation between Rowling’s public perception and how her many creations are doing. Do people not know or, as might seem to be the case here, has the Magical World of Harry Potter long ago become the domain of more than just its creator? That’s my bet (or, at least, my hope).
Jude: That’s an interesting question, Kate. If I had to guess, I think a certain class of people (read: progressive millennials) are aware of her views, if not by specifics then a vague awareness that she’s been “canceled,” for lack of a better word. For the people who grew up reading the Harry Potter books, and I count myself among the eldest of that group, a not-so-small piece of our childhood has been tarnished by her views. I never re-read any of the books, but I know many people who did — many times — and I would guess that many of them have stopped that tradition. Again, that’s not going to eat into Rowling’s bottom line, but her reputation among fans who once adored her has certainly plummeted.
There has also been a pretty definitive and overdue criticism of Rowling’s use of racial stereotypes in recent years, specifically around the character of Cho Chang. (Even writing that name feels a little icky.) Her pirmary role in the books is as live interest to Harry and Cedric, and she’s written as shy, studious, and mostly very pretty. The already secondary character was even more sidelined in the movies, but that didn’t stop fans from spewing racist comments at actress Katie Leung. Would these issues have become so universally recognized had Rowling not been so vocal in her fight against another minority group? I think not.
Kate: Another thing to think about: so much of what we’ve learned about Rowling’s views have been because she’s happily splashed them all over her Twitter account. When she first wrote the Harry Potter books, that wouldn’t have been a possibility. The world has moved on, both in how we think about such distasteful hate speech, and the very way in which it’s disseminated (faster than owls, that’s for sure).
I haven’t re-read the books and I tend to skip past the movies when they pop up on the TV. Each “Fantastic Beasts” film has been more of a chore than the last one. Is that because my feelings about Rowling have seeped into my consciousness? Maybe, but it’s also possible she’s doing herself in without any actual cancellation — the work isn’t as good as it was before, and neither, it seems, is the person who made it.
Jude: It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario. Did the weight of expectation send her further down the TERF rabbit hole, or did spending so much time with batty old school feminists who don’t understand gender is a trap we’re all stuck in together make her writing worse? There is also an anti-capitalist takeaway here, which is that money and fame will always corrupt, and she just snapped under the spotlight.
Even Tom Riddle had some good in him before he became Lord Voldemort, but it’ll take more than a few horcruxes to piece back together Rowling’s fractured soul.