Is it Time to Say “Avada Kedavra” to the Ailing Harry Potter Franchise?

Pop Culture

Is it Time to Say “Avada Kedavra” to the Ailing Harry Potter Franchise?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

If you were born in the ’90s, whomever or wherever you happened to be, there is no doubt that you remember the all-consuming excitement of a new Harry Potter book. Where today people queue up for the latest iPhone or pair of Yeezys, lines used to stretch all the way around bookstores as everyone waited to drop a few hundred rupees on their copy. Siblings would play fierce rounds of rock-paper-scissors to see who would get first dibs, and if the winner dared to reveal spoilers, even Mom and Dad couldn’t save them from getting a tight slap. “Which house would you be sorted into?” was a standard playground question, and required no further context because we had all gone Potter-mad. 

Two decades on, it looks like Potter mania is finally dying a slow, painful death — at least, if the lukewarm response to Wizards Unite, the new Harry Potter mobile game by Niantic, is any indication. Launched on June 21, the Pokemon GO-style AR game gives fans a similar real-world experience, except instead of Zubats and Magikarp, you defeat “Confoundables” to collect items called “Foundables” that have gone missing after the Calamity, a poorly explained event that has caused these objects to appear. 

At this point, you might be wondering if I’ve confused good old Harry Potter with Nintendo’s Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Don’t worry, fellow Potterheads, you aren’t losing your grip on HP trivia. As with every project that has sprung from the franchise in recent years, Wizards Unite relies on a whole new story that absolutely no one has asked for. 

Today marks 22 years since The Philosopher’s Stone, the first book in what would become the bestselling series in history, introduced us to The Boy Who Lived. But in our brave new Potter-saturated landscape, you would scarcely recognise the original tale of Harry, an abused, misfit adolescent who discovers he’s both a wizard and an unwitting hero. Channelling her immense talent for building a magical universe through the lens of a relatable boarding school experience, author JK Rowling brought Hogwarts to life. Suddenly, every 11-year-old dreamed of receiving their admissions letter via owl post, as Harry had. When it never came, the more resourceful kids simply wrote themselves into their favourite stories and posted them on fan-fiction forums. 

Then came the Harry Potter movies, which broke new ground through their special effects, and covered familiar territory by casting Alan Rickman as a sharp-tongued brooder. Warner Bros, now in possession of the film rights, created the delightful Wizarding World at Universal Orlando, complete with attractions like Hogsmeade village, Ollivander’s wand shop, and flagons of Butterbeer. Now, every Harry Potter fan could get that elusive admissions letter into Hogwarts and beyond by shelling out for a ticket, or going to the Harry Potter shop at the real Platform 9¾ at London’s King’s Cross Station. 

These endless iterations of the Potterverse were always a bit plasticky and commercial. Still, at least they tried to cater to one of the most intensely involved fandoms in history, to satisfy our inner children and give us the immersive experiences we so craved. 

So where did it all go wrong for the rapidly bloating franchise? Many fans saw the seventh and final book in the series, with its senseless, saccharine epilogue, as the first marker of Rowling phoning it in. For others, it was the moment when Pottermore — formerly a Hogwarts roleplaying site with games and interactive stories — was downgraded to an official blog. For me, it was Rowling’s increasing lack of consistency in spin-offs like The Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts franchise, an entire film series inspired by one of Harry’s school textbooks. 

As with every project that has sprung from the franchise in recent years, Wizards Unite relies on a whole new story that absolutely no one has asked for.

While all these lucrative ancillaries have helped make Rowling an honest-to-god billionaire, none of them have managed to capture the magic that earned Harry, Ron, and Hermione their legion of loyal fans. Which explains why, after a solid decade of being disappointed, they aren’t biting to get at Wizards Unite

Don’t get me wrong — had any other free-to-play mobile game made $1M in its opening weekend, its makers would have plenty of cause to celebrate. But a cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter can’t be judged by those same standards. Pokemon GO, another nostalgic property with a massive global fanbase, made a staggering $28M four days after its launch. 

Perhaps Potterheads are sick and tired of mobile games after Hogwarts Mystery, a supposedly “free” adventure story that forced players to go through near-constant paywalls. Or maybe they’re just done with the circus that Harry Potter has become. Between a creator who is determined to milk her story for all its worth, and studios who continue to do what they do best, the legacy of Harry Potter now lies in tatters. 

Twenty-two years on, will it be remembered as a fantasy that captured the imaginations of a generation, or just a series of steadily more egregious cash grabs? Will its legendary fans be blamed for the decline not only of the Potterverse itself, but all the megawatt franchises that now follow its lead, pumping out unnecessary sequels and uninspired merchandise while fresh, original stories fall by the wayside? At best, we can leave Harry and Co in the noughties, and fondly remember the first time we read about “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive”. Because anything else right now feels like we’ve been hit by the Cruciatus Curse.