It has been twenty years since J.K. Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Potter is still one of the biggest franchises in the world, worth an estimated $25bn. But the main film series ended six years ago, and the world is still trapped in a cultural Potter hangover, with nothing new coming close to ending the boy wizard’s domination. This continued Potter obsession represents a greater stagnation within Western popular culture, one that needs to end to prevent the decline of the entertainment industry. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the perfect example of the dangers of hanging on too long to beloved stories.
I was lucky enough to see one of the first performances of Cursed Child last August, and it was the most exciting, joyful, and exhilarating experience I have had in a theatre. But this was partly because of the relationship it has with the source material, with the play itself offering very little to a theatregoer with no knowledge of the wizarding world. Rather than offering something new to everyone, Cursed Child offers excitement only for existing fans. It may have won Best New Play at the Olivier’s but there is nothing new about it. Therefore, its box office success is not based on the play’s own merit but because of its relationship with source material from 1997.
It would have been far more exciting if the smash hit playing at the Palace Theatre was in fact a new work, that spoke to all theatregoers. If we look to Broadway we see how things should be done. Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton speaks to 2017 more than Potter ever can. Its cast is made up of ethnic minorities and it is rapped as well as sung. It has brought new people to musical theatre from across America and the world, and was brought about for creative reasons not for the desire to milk an existing cash cow.
Potter needs to stop not only to allow something new to take its place but also because it should leave a strong legacy. Currently, the franchise (excluding Cursed Child) is made up of a less-successful spin-off series, and merchandising ventures designed solely for profit. We are all victims of Potter’s success, as we are increasingly being seen as consumers rather than an audience within the entertainment industry and both Hollywood and publishing are becoming increasingly focused on merchandising and brand extension.
The lack of a replacement for Potter represents the state of the entertainment industry as a whole. Hollywood has become increasingly focused on sequels and reboots. The West End has become cluttered with jukebox musicals, and revivals reliant on big names for success. Literature is the latest victim. This year marks the return of popular characters George Smiley, Lisbeth Salander, Robert Langdon, and Lyra Belacqua, all of whom are over a decade old. We are in danger of the cultural legacy of the 2010s simply being a continuation of the twenty years before, but the question is how do we move on?
The answer is a return to risk-taking. In the increasingly unstable world we live in, publishers and studios are reluctant to invest in risky propositions, which is leading to a lack of originality. Hollywood needs to return to making low-budget dramas and not just $100m+ blockbusters. The West End must reduce the focus on high ticket prices and adaptations of other mediums and instead provide more thought-provoking and imaginative theatre. Publishers must ignore the data of what is popular and seek something fresh for their audiences. Letting go of Harry Potter is where this change begins.
We need to ask ourselves what do we want the cultural legacy of the 2010s to be? Simply a continuation of the successes of the 2000s, without an element of risk-taking? By keeping Potter alive, this is the message we send.