At the 2001 premiere of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Joanne Rowling (Poppy Montgomery) is overwhelmed and refuses, for a moment, to get out of her limousine. Looking fearfully at the crowds lined up to see her, she worries too that she doesn’t know how to talk to famous people “Like it or not,” says her fiancé (Greigh Laschuk), “you’re one of them now.” Spotting a mother and daughter dressed as witches and waving wands excitedly, she’s moved to remember her own childhood. And so Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story sets about answering the question of how Rowling got here.
According to Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story — which premieres on Lifetime on 18 July — this journey is a string of moments, all leading to Harry Potter. Typically, these refer to ideas or scenes in the books. Some are clever: when a stern, bespectacled teacher gives students a quiz to “sort out” where they belong in class, we recognize a source for the Hogwarts Sorting Hat ritual. But other times they are heavy-handed and silly, as when a teenaged Rowling (Madison Desjarlais) laughs off her red-headed friend Sean (Wesley McInnes), calling him “weaselly.”
This sort of recognition game occupies most of the first half of the film. If it’s fun for viewers familiar with the Harry Potter books or movies, it also makes clear that this film is as much about “the boy who lived” as it is about the life of his creator.
Based on Sean Smith’s 2003 book, JK Rowling: A Biography, the movie shows that as a child, she has a doting mother (Janet Kidder) and a practical father (Paul McGillion). The former encourages her to “follow her heart” and write, while the latter pushes her to pursue a course of study in college that will ensure her a job. She takes her father’s advice and, after earning a degree in Languages from Exeter, drifts from one unsatisfying job to another.
She’s also married, for a time, to the sometimes abusive Jorges Arantes (Antonio Kupo), with whom she moves to Portugal. After their divorce, Rowling winds up back in England with her infant daughter. Though she has worked on her writing in fits and starts over the years, it’s while she is technically homeless and living on welfare that she finally begins writing in earnest.
Here the film offers some rudimentary social commentary. Though Rowling is educated, she can’t find a job that pays enough to support herself and her daughter. Forced to go on welfare, she is appalled at her treatment by the social worker Mrs. Morgan (Patti Allan), who insists on labeling her “homeless,” though she is staying with her sister, and criticizes Rowling for putting herself in the situation in the first place by leaving her husband, however unworthy he was. Further, it illustrates that “the system” is designed to keep people within it: when Rowling finds a low-paying teaching position, Mrs. Morgan tells her she will have to turn it down or else she will lose her assistance and that she should look for something that pays less.
Such hardships inspire her to return to her first love, writing (in a dream, she meets Harry Potter, on his way to wizarding school). The movie includes as well as her well-known struggles to get the book published. Turned down by several agents, she is finally taken on by Christopher Little (Andy Maton) who is hugely skeptical not only of Rowling’s book, but children’s literature in general. Much like her father, he urges her to be practical and “keep her day job.” As he reminds her constantly, “There is no money in children’s books,” a laughable point in retrospect.
Though Rowling’s success is a foregone conclusion, the movie includes a second, less overt storyline about good mothers and bad fathers. This starts with her own, and their contrast apparently informs Rowling’s life choices as well as her writing. These types play out repeatedly in the film: her mother, her sister, the young editor who discovers her, her girlfriends, and eventually even Mrs. Morgan, are all positive and supportive and sure of her potential.
But it is her bad dad who holds the most sway in this Lifetime movie. When she meets Jorges, she instantly falls for him (despite early indications of his noxiousness), because he too obviously gives her the male approval she’s been missing. As her professional relationship with Little develops, he clearly becomes the kind father she’s been missing. And then there’s that fiancé at the premiere, never mentioned by name or appearing at any other point in the film, as if to suggest that with a proper male partner, Rowling’s success is really complete.