• Michael T. Christensen

J. K. Rowling and the Perpetual Enforcement of the Status Quo

I recently re-watched this excellent 1 hr 45 min video by the YouTube creator Shaun, where he discusses his first reaction to Harry Potter (having read very few of the books as a young person, and now finally catching up on the whole franchise). If you haven't watched it, it's worth your time, especially in light of Rowling's current ongoing controversy:

This video points out that Rowling seems to lean toward telling stories where the status quo must be upheld.

Now, this isn't necessarily unusual in fantasy. The Lord of the Rings is about protecting the Shire/Middle Earth from being destroyed/devastated by Sauron and Saruman. Superhero stories frequently feature villains threatening to make the world different/more interesting, but they also eat puppies or something, so the heroes have to stop them. It's a cliché, but it's sometimes necessary for the story to happen. And it also doesn't mean you can't tell an interesting story within that context.

Plus, you can sometimes use those expectations to comment on the nature of trying to preserve the status quo. In the Lord of the Rings series, the two major human kingdoms wind up with new rulers, because it would probably be better for everyone if some new people took over (setting aside, for today, the trope of Divine Right to Rule, there's no argument that Aragorn won't be a better leader than Denethor). And the books end with the Shire still suffering under Saruman, because maybe, just maybe, the status quo can't be protected.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the villain literally says, out loud, "You want to protect the world, but you don't want it to change." It's far from a perfect film, but at the very least it tries to acknowledge the role the heroes play in upholding the status quo (although this theme ultimately goes nowhere).

But it's fine if you don't do anything with that. The Harry Potter series was ostensibly written for children, so while I agree with Shaun that it is super weird that Harry Potter doesn't question authority at all, aside from the concept that sometimes bad people are in charge and that's not nice... it didn't have to be a problem.

Rowling favored telling stories where the status quo must be upheld. Fine, you do you.

But weirdly, she did what she always seems to do these days... she goofed up the easiest thing in the world to get right.

If you write stories that don't question the status quo, then setting your prequel series (the Fantastic Beasts films) in the past seems like it should work well with that - after all, if we know the way history played out, then we can’t really blame the characters for not changing the future. They don't know what's coming but we do. So no matter what they do, we know how the world is going to look when they're done - it’s the nature of how the story had to end.

Other stories can do this really well, using dramatic irony to show how the world wound up following the history we’re familiar with. Doctor Who did this all the time - Charles Dickens witnessed aliens, and Rose was convinced he would write about them and history would change. But the Doctor revealed that Dickens didn't live long enough to do so. It's tragic irony, the future could have changed, but the status quo was maintained by random chance. Similarly, in "Vincent and the Doctor" (the best Doctor Who episode), Amy thinks they've changed Vincent's life and prevented his young death. But, sadly, that's not the case.

But even in stories where there's no time travel, it can be done really well. In the Star Wars prequels, we know what the government will look like when the story ends, so the drama isn't about whether or not it happens... it's discovering which well-intentioned choices leads to that horrible outcome. It's not perfect, but it's a good use of dramatic irony.

But Rowling even messes this up. In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald, the titular villain reveals that World War II is going to happen, and implies that he wants to stop it. It doesn't matter whether he's honestly got good intentions, or whether he's just trying to gain power - the fact is, he's right. And while Shaun argues that Rowling is reacting to (bad faith) questions about "Why didn't the wizards stop Hitler," I'll go a step further by pointing out that she even screws that up.

If you're going to tell a story about how a bloody war could have been avoided but wasn't, there's a lot of ways to do it. The Looming Tower is about the FBI and the CIA trying to stop the Taliban before something bad happens, and then they fail and something bad happens. But one of the many differences between The Looming Tower and Fantastic Beasts is that the villain isn't showing us images of 9/11 and saying, "I can stop this if you join my evil cult." Instead it's a sociological story about a lot of people in charge (none of whom are the Good Guy), and the arrogance and mistakes that led to tragedy. Sometimes they can see what’s coming before it happens but they can’t prevent it, and other times they just guess wrong. Really, really wrong.

Oh, and the other difference is that none of the characters have magic powers.

She messed it up by making it so obvious that the characters could change the status quo, and by giving them power to do so. And now she’s drawing attention to their failure - or lack of interest - in doing so.

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