[16 November 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
We were lost champions as the vile plan unfurled,
Like flags from different houses,
Traded clues so we’d turn out okay,
—Draco and the Malfoys, “Remember Cedric Diggory”
“It’s a job, for lack of a better word,” says Melissa Anelli of her interest in Harry Potter. It began, as she recalls for We Are Wizards, when she started a website, The Leaky Cauldron, which Anelli describes as a “general destination for fans.” Here she discovered passionate investment and rollicking energy, a community in the making that changed her own experience of being a fan. A reporter by vocation, she found as well a newsworthy subject. In helping her fellows to find “the way they can most enjoy being a fan during this specific time in Harry Potter history,” she says, to experience “to the utmost this great time in literary history, and I was right here in the front of it.”
For Anelli, this position leads directly into the Potter merchandising juggernaut, specifically in the publication of her book, Harry, A History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon, just this month. For Josh Koury’s documentary, Anelli’s earnest assessment names its subject—Harry Potter fans. While Anelli doesn’t actually have much to say about the fans she knows and researches, the film offers interviews with several, including brothers Joe and Paul DeGeorge, who make up Harry and the Potters, an early example of what has since come to be known as wizard bands—fans who write and performed songs based on J.K. Rowling’s creations.
The DeGeorges, like the members of Draco and the Malfoys (half-brothers Brian Ross and Bradley Mehlenbacher) and the Hungarian Horntails (seven-year-old Darious and four-year-old Holden Wilkins, whose parents met while performing together in a punk band), embody a certain type of Harry Potter fan. In finding ways to “express themselves” through consuming and reconfiguring Potter-ness, they follow in a tradition identified by MIT professor Henry Jenkins. An expert on fandom, he makes the case that Potter’s consumers find ways to “continue and expand” a story that has become “deeply enmeshed in our culture.” He describes “all those people who read and were reshaped by [this story], who dreamed it, who imagined it in new ways, who fleshed it out in their stories, who sang songs about it, and dressed in costumes about it.” Indeed, he contends, “Those people are as much part of the future of Harry Potter as Warner Bros.”
In fact, in this retelling of the fans’ story, Warners becomes something like a villain, for its early efforts to control and so profit extremely from its product. Among the company’s major opponents is super-fan Heather Lawver, who created a website at age 13 in order to proclaim and share her fandom with others: she describes The Daily Prophet as an “online newspaper for children, focused on creative writing for children,” using Potter to help them feel “like they were a part of something.” When she learned that Warners was sending cease and desist letters to various Potter-fan website operators, Lawver took her own sort of action, forming Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) and (by way of the no-longer-active site, Potterwar.org, organizing boycotts of Warner merchandise and paraphernalia. She did not, Lawver explains here, target J.K. Rowling’s or Scholastic’s stuff, as it was WB who was threatening legal actions. The boycott became news in itself (Lawver notes a USA Today front page story as a turning point) and the narrative spinning out from the legal conflict celebrates the power of fans (whose numbers remain undisclosed in We Are Wizards) over the evil corporation.
Lawver’s own story involves a chronic illness (which she sees as partial motivation for her fight with Warners: “If I was going to die, at least I would leave my mark beforehand”), but the legal and cultural implications are broader. She smartly sees the company’s awareness of fans’ enterprises as the problem. “People used to have clubhouses for Howdy Doody,” she reasons, but the internet makes the Potterites’ activities hyper-visible, and so the company envisaged infringements on its own profits. Jenkins sees in Lawver an especially perceptive and righteous fan. “She goes on national television and debates the value of fan participation,” he says, “And through this process, she gets Warner Bros. to rethink their position on intellectual property.” Indeed, the company admitted their mistakes in trying to take legal action against fans, and withdrew their cease and desist orders.
In fact, a relatively few fans made money off their work and art. Among those who have, Brad Neely may be first among equals. The creator of “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” an alternate soundtrack for the first movie (now available at Illegal Art), Neely recalls his early performances of this “unauthorized re-envisioning of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” If he didn’t profit directly from the audiotrack, Neely offers insights as to how commercialism shapes (his) daily existence. “My life is so dictated by media,” he observes, “just being an audience member. Everything I do or say is half-assedly a response to that.”
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t follow up on this idea, which is less about good and evil than it is about consumer culture. Instead, it gets distracted by a culture warrior, Caryl Matrisciana. A self-described “Christian filmmaker” (whose own documentary, Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged: Making Evil Look Innocent, is available for purchase), she provides commentary at this film’s start concerning the iniquity of the Potter business, not for its incessant money-making, but for its promotion of wizardry per se. For her, the franchise is “enticing children to dabble more into the occult, to search out the occult. This is the power of Harry Potter, something that is addictive it draws them into darker powers and into something that ultimately will destroy society.” (She is especially exorcised by Daniel Radcliffe’s decision to appear in Equus on stage: “I’m not sure if Daniel really fully understands the implications of what he’s done,” she opines, “And of course that’s up to him. Did he understand the implications of what he began when he was a little loveable witch?”)
Urging parents and teachers to intervene into the spread of “diversity” betokened by Harry Potter, Matrisciana uses learning to drive as a metaphor for this process, arguing that learners must understand the rules of the road before actually driving. We Are Wizards, in turn, uses her metaphor repeatedly, showing fans like Lawver, Neely or the Wilkins boys’ parents behind the wheel as they explain their alternate perspectives. While these images suggest a certain wresting of control away from the purveyors of commercial products, they don’t make the case that buying stuff (or being inspired to make art by that stuff) is necessarily—or even vaguely—“resistant.” Then again, Koury’s documentary, meandering and amiable as it is, reveals that resistance is pretty much futile.