Books, brooms, and bad video games
I spent a number of years working in a bookstore in the early 00s, starting shortly after the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2000. For a character who has appeared in books, films, toys, stickers, a theme park, and who knows what else, it’s always amusing for me to remember that at the time there was no merchandise at all. As the bookstore industry even then was moving to include more of what was called “sidelines” on the sales floor, this disposed us to look on the Harry Potter books fondly and J. K. Rowling as one of us: A book person. We relished the stories of Jo, a single mother, writing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a coffee shop. We thought of all the money even then that she was turning down by not selling stuffed owls, or plastic broomsticks.This, of course, all changed with the release of the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001. I don’t remember all the details, because I tried not to pay attention, but I’m sure there were Harry Potter Happy Meals as well as the coloring books, posters, picture books, and other movie tie-ins that took over my bookstore. It was the end of a particular innocence that we as bookstore people should probably never have lulled ourselves into. Jo was still clearly a wonderful writer, but she wasn’t just a book person. She wasn’t one of us.
And you know what? None of that matters. The books, the films, the fan art and fiction, all of it is worth every cheap piece of plastic sold with a Harry Potter logo. Harry Potter is better as something more than a book.
I make this assertion with some confidence, having read all the books (I started late, but I caught up fast), seen all the films (except the last one — I’ll get there), and having spent more time buried in Harry Potter lexicons, fan-written stories, and Wikipedia entries than I care to admit.
Which brings me to a rather odd admission: There have been a host of Harry Potter video games — at least one for every film, and even a Quidditch World Cup game in 2003 — and LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is the only one I’ve ever played. (You can read my final word on that game here, in case you missed it.) As much as I love Harry Potter, I avoid Harry Potter video games like the plague because movie tie-in video games are almost universally terrible.In all honesty, this is a travesty. Adaptations should strengthen great characters and storylines. The plain fact of getting to encounter a character and story in a new form, not to mention all the little (or big) tweaks and changes necessary to make a story work in a different medium all add something to the greater whole. The book changes the way we see the film, and the film changes the way we read the book. Even running around on a cheap plastic broom changes the way we think about a Quidditch match, at least a little bit.
Video games should be a full-fledged part of this cross-media narrative exchange, and the only reason that they are not is that they are produced quickly and rushed to market, almost always constrained by the aesthetic and narrative determinations of the film they rehash. Even thinking of a game as an adaptation in its own right, rather than a marketing and merchandising tool, would be a huge step in the right direction.
Even better would be a game that tells a story of its own, in the universe suggested by but not limited to that created by a book or a film. There are plenty of good examples of this, from the 1998 X-Files PC game, to the recent Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and Spider-Man: Edge of Time games. (And, of course, Batman: Arkham Asylum.) The best adaptations tell their own stories, and the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando proves every day that there are large numbers of people who would leap at the opportunity to live in Harry Potter’s world for a while (or longer than a while).
So I’d like to make a suggestion. Who knows? The internet is a big place. Maybe, just maybe, word will get back to Jo herself. We need a new Harry Potter video game. Not one that revisits all the films in one 100+ hour multi-disc game. Not even a Harry Potter MMORPG. (Which would probably sell like gangbusters, and might even be cool, but it’s a little too obvious a place to start.) No, what I want is a game based solely on the Battle of Hogwarts and the preceding year at the school, maybe from Neville Longbottom and Ginny Weasley’s point of view. I want the story that we didn’t get in the book or the film. I want to get to flesh out two great characters who do really important things even though we don’t see that much of them while Harry, Ron, and Hermione are out camping. I want to direct the defense of the school. I want to cut off Nagini’s head.
You could probably even sell some controllers shaped like Godric Gryffindor’s sword. It would be worth it.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.