Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone opens today, starring Daniel Radcliffe as You-Know-Who—or rather, He-Whose-Name-I-Am-Sick-Of. I can just envision the hordes of would-be wizards, both young and old, stampeding theaters, wearing sorcerer’s hats and round glasses, even getting that oh-so-clever bolt of lightning tattooed on their foreheads: Think Pokemon and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, only a hundred times worse.
I suppose this equates me with the likes of the piggish Dudley Dursley, but I am a Muggle and proud of it. Just wading through the pages of J.K. Rowling’s first volume was toil enough: Quidditch and Hogwarts and Gryffindor are words in another language that I have no interest in learning. (I’m already expecting hate-mail from everyone who worships Rowling or her fictitious characters, accusing me of being everything from a philistine to a cynic.)
I am not a fanatic Christian who seeks to warn the public about witchcraft, I merely despise the hype and licensing that Rowling has condoned while hypocritically proclaiming her support of literacy campaigns. Fans will argue that all this commercialism is actually good for everyone, that it reinforces reading and promotes literacy in a society of music videos and video games. But does it reinforce the desire to read per se, or just the desire to purchase more Harry Potter paraphernalia?
Example A: Last week, while browsing Amazon.com for books, I came across a link to the Harry Potter store. Masochistically, I clicked on it and discovered everything from Harry Potter toys to Harry Potter linens and hygiene. I can deal with the four published books and the three to-be-published books. I’m coping with the release of the most anticipated movie of the year. But Harry Potter body wash?
“Why not?” the merchandisers seem to be asking. There are Flintstones vitamins and Rugrats toothpaste, so why not Harry Potter body wash? Sorcerer’s Stone ushers in a buying bonanza for consumers and a piñata of profit for marketers, spewing out Harry Potter action figures and overpriced jelly beans. In addition to the board games and Legos are two more films, the first of which goes into production on Nov. 19, three days—count them, three—after Sorcerer’s Stone comes out. By the time the next movie opens, the first deluge of DVDs will already have smashed into stores, dribbling cash and trailing more merchandise in its wake. Walking into a Warner Bros. Studio store is like entering a Harry Potter bazaar.
But surprise, surprise! Hollywood marketers are shrewd. Wary of tainting the (so far) starry-eyed image of Harry as innocent youth, unblemished by hype, Warner Bros. is exercising an extremely tight rein on movie marketing—choosing only Coca-Cola as their global licensing partner. Despite the preponderance of Potter products in (and being snatched from) stores, the studio has also shielded Radcliffe and his cohorts from press and paparazzi—the confidentiality surrounding the cast and crew of Sorcerer’s Stone puts Kubrick’s and Spielberg’s top-secret A.I. to shame. Forget Haley Joel Osment—Sorcerer’s Stone will catapult Daniel Radcliffe & Co. to super-super stardom, whether they like it or not.
By not over-promoting the film in order to keep rabid fans salivating for the briefest pinch of Potter-news, Warner Brothers will maximize both profit and continued universal interest in the series. Diane Nelson, Warner Bros.’ senior vice president for family entertainment, points out in the New York Times: “We also asked [Coca-Cola] to include a philanthropic component; there’s this huge literacy program that’s part of the Coke campaign. We think this goes to the spirit of what is inherent in the Harry Potter brand. None of this is bad for Coca-Cola, either, by the way. But we really feel that the intention is about as altruistic as one gets in a corporate environment.” How very generous.
Listen up, WB execs: It’s too late. The little wizard is already over-commercialized. Once directors and screenwriters and actors have lifted him from the books and projected him onto the glamor and glitz of the silver screen, no one will ever be able to separate Harry Potter from Daniel Radcliffe, and vice versa. Why ruin the imagination that Rowling seems to advocate so strongly? Once the movie studio makes a $120-million dollar blockbuster from an insanely popular children’s book, it has provided the public with enough franchise fodder to last another ten years or more, especially since Rowling will probably take just that long to publish her next three novels.
So what exactly makes these novels so wildly successful? Is it Rowling’s charismatic characters with whom everyone can relate? Her witty, brisk dialogue? Her tongue-in-cheek humor? Her vivid descriptions? Her fantastical names and whimsical jargon? Or, more likely, have kids simply exhausted the worlds of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring Fellowship and even that staple of childhood fantasy, Roald Dahl, welcoming J.K. Rowling’s more approachable—and more marketable—Hogwarts?
Rowling herself has become something of a Danielle Steel of fantasy writing, judging by the way she churns out massive tomes of bathroom reading that are fawned on and labeled charming and original by critics and readers alike. Just how long will we feel the aftershocks of the Potter earthquake? Until Harry Potter and the Mid-Life Crisis hits bookstores? Let’s just say that the grand literacy cause and the integrity of her creations were low on Rowling’s priority list when she decided to make her character a brand name. The Harry Potter cash cow clearly depicts the consequences of “corporate altruism”: Rowling benefits, the studio benefits, and the only people who lose in this situation are poor deluded consumers and kids. Repeat after Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes:” I will not license. I will not license. I will not license.