Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the #KeepTheSecrets campaign remove a major part of the Harry Potter experience by limiting discussions between fans. But more importantly, when it comes to this Harry Potter sequel, I don’t believe J.K. Rowling’s wishes should carry any more weight than mine or yours.
Missing out on ‘the Eighth Story’
There is a Harry Potter sequel, but you probably haven’t seen it. Rather than a hipster claim to superiority, this is the sad reality for the majority of Harry Potter fans. For someone who has been a dedicated Potter fan since age seven — now over two thirds of my life — I am made decidedly uneasy by this. If you dwell on that statement for a moment, I imagine you will feel the same way.
For the first time since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997, Harry Potter fans are divided. Restricting Cursed Child to the stage — a medium limited by both geography and money — has transformed Harry’s story from one of inclusion into one of elitist exclusivity. We’re not all camped out under the stairs with him; some of us are now out in the cold.
I know I am not the only fan who feels this way. As Hypable’s Andrew pleaded with J.K. Rowling in an open letter, “please make The Cursed Child available to all.” Writing in October 2015, Andrew suggested the show be filmed and released in cinemas. Since then, the producers have announced that the script will be published in July 2016. This news, combined with the (rather predictable) confirmation that Cursed Child will tour, means any plans for a filmed release will certainly be delayed indefinitely, in order to cash in on potential script and ticket sales.
Rather than belabour the point Andrew made so eloquently, what concerns me is that whether intentionally or not, Cursed Child has now created a hierarchy of Potter fans. The #KeepTheSecrets campaign, designed to keep Potter fans spoiler-free until the script is released, has divided fans into those who have seen the play, those who haven’t but who are staying spoiler-free, and those infidels who just couldn’t control themselves.
Even if the play is eventually filmed and released for a wider audience as Andrew suggested, these divides are unfortunately already in place. Further to this, #KeepTheSecrets puts an unreasonable expectation on Potter fans. It’s one thing to ask people to not spread spoilers when everyone gets their book simultaneously at midnight, but when fans are seeing the play two months before its official release in script form, it is predictable that many fans — those who have seen the play and those who haven’t — simply want to talk about it with each other. That’s what Potter fans have always done, and have always been able to do.
When you’re #Wormtaily
This problem partly stems from Rowling’s reaction to Cursed Child spoilers on Twitter and, of course, #KeepTheSecrets. Rowling has made it clear on Twitter that if you see Cursed Child, it is your responsibility to keep the details to yourself. If you haven’t seen it, you are supposed to wait for the script. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely seen her (tongue-in-cheek? offended? unnecessary?) calling out of Hypable on Twitter, when she seemingly took issue with our coverage of the play.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 8, 2016
There is not much left to say on this issue, although in general the following applies to any spoiler situation: as long as spoilers are clearly labelled, it isn’t anyone else’s responsibility to negate your lack of self-control.
#KeepTheSecrets is problematic in that it prioritizes Rowling’s wishes over Potter fans’ agency. Rowling might think it’s best to read the script without any spoilers, but as a fan it is my right to decide whether or not I want to know about Cursed Child before July 31. Yelling “Snape kills Dumbledore” at a line of dedicated Potter fans waiting for their copies of Half-Blood Prince is not the same as deciding you’d rather not wait to find out what happens to Harry and co. To conflate the two is, frankly, offensive.
Practically of course, #KeepTheSecrets is also a marketing ploy. Camp Rowling are understandably worried that fans who read an in-depth online synopsis of the play might be less likely to pick up a copy of the script. And, after reading one of those synopses myself, I can’t help but wonder if it’s also a preemptive move designed to not dissuade fans who might be put off by certain plot elements included in the play.
Fans who sought spoilers may have been motivated to find them to hear the play described by someone who has actually seen it. Praise for the staging, cast, and onstage magic are a common themes in Cursed Child reviews. Yet these are elements that can’t be translated to a script book. It’s understandable that fans who do not anticipate being able to see the play want to hear what it was like from someone who has; it might be the closest they get.
Regardless of reason, as long as spoiled fans are respectful enough to not spoil their fellows who would rather stay in the dark, there is no basis for Rowling or other Potter fans to vilify them. It has been disappointing to see a push on social media against these fans who, for whatever reason, decided not to wait until July 31. What happened to the inclusive fandom we Potter fans like to so proudly proclaim ourselves to be members of? Are we only inclusive for fans who make the same choice we do?
The Death of the Author
At the heart of this problem sits Rowling herself. Harry Potter brings us into dangerous territory when it comes to the wishes of the author. In his famous and much-cited 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author,” French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes argued that readers should not look to the author for intent or interpretation of the text. In Barthes’ reading, authorial intent is meaningless, and readers are encouraged to produce their own interpretations. In modern terms, he is talking about “headcanons” — the varied and personal interpretations readers bring to texts.
Headcanons exist in all fandoms, and in Harry Potter they are often linked to broader issues of inclusion and representation. Your headcanon might be that Hermione is black, or that Sirius and Remus were in a relationship, or both. Fan interpretations are especially important in a work like Potter which, for all its talk of inclusivity, fails any basic test of diversity in terms of characters explicitly identified as anything other than white, varied cultural and ethnic backgrounds, or inclusion of LGBTQIA+ characters.
However in modern fandom, the author’s role extends beyond them prescribing meaning to existing texts. Now only a tweet away, Rowling can add, and add, and add to the text. Headcanons are all well and good, but what if Rowling tweets something that goes against your own interpretation of the Harry Potter books? Are her contributions canon, or should we embrace our own interpretations?
Given the expanding Potter universe (in addition to Cursed Child and Rowling’s social media we have Pottermore and soon, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Rowling’s role in the continued life of Harry Potter is already complicated. The logical progression is to wonder how much weight requests or instructions from the author should carry, even when not directly related to textual interpretation.
No matter how grateful I am to J.K. Rowling for giving me (and the world) Harry Potter, I actually don’t care if she thinks I should #KeepTheSecrets or not. Despite suggestions to the contrary, it is not her decision to make. And it is not the job of other Potter fans to tell me a decision I have made for myself is wrong — no matter what Rowling says on Twitter.
I wish Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had been released in a medium that was accessible for all fans, in order to facilitate the fan conversations that have always been such a critical part of Harry Potter. I wish all Potter fans would accept that while they might want to stay spoiler free, it is an equally valid choice to read every Cursed Child spoiler available. And most importantly, I wish J.K. Rowling would recognise that condemning fans who choose to spoil themselves (“themselves” being the key word) only builds hierarchies amongst fans, and imposes the opinion of the author on a space where fans should be free to make their own decisions.
So #KeepTheSecrets, or don’t. Just don’t tell me what to do — even if your name is J.K. Rowling.