Hogwarts Legacy Imagines a Harry Potter Without JK Rowling

Even if Rowling didn't work on this game, everything eyebrow-raising in the series came from one source.
A screenshot from Hogwarts Legacy
Image Source: Hogwarts Legacy

In last week's PlayStation presentation about Hogwarts Legacy, the upcoming Harry Potter open-world role-playing game, members of the development team Avalanche Software talked about using magic, caring for magical creatures, flying on broomsticks, and finding secrets hidden throughout the castle. They did not discuss Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

Harry Potter is as much part of the fabric of popular culture as superheroes or Disney films. Yet, as a person that grew up at the height of the books’ popularity, I cannot think of anything I want less than more Harry Potter. It’s true there is a massive passive audience for the Potter series, and that even after the final book was published in 2007, Rowling’s fictional world became an indelible part of popular culture. The Cursed Child, a play set in Rowling’s Potter universe, won multiple Tony awards including Best Play, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them grossed $814 million worldwide, and was the eighth highest-grossing film of 2016.

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Hogwarts Legacy will enter a world that has a different tolerance for Rowling’s wizards than either of those previous two properties did, though. Since about 2020, Rowling has become infamous for her outspoken views on trans people. She has gone as far as legally threatening people who speak ill of her on Twitter. Her arguments are typical for transphobes, especially in England: While she proclaims to be protecting women and lesbians, she sidles up to prominent homophobic activists on Twitter.

Rowling’s behavior hasn’t completely soiled the Potter legacy, given that there is a new Fantastic Beasts movie on the way, and that Sony dedicated an entire showcase to the upcoming Hogwarts Legacy. These are, at root, properties for children, who are presumably  only vaguely aware of Rowling or her political beliefs. Warner Brothers, which owns the “Wizarding World” franchise comprising Rowling’s setting and characters, clearly wants to position Harry Potter as a kind of franchisable setting, a la Marvel movies or the Star Wars expanded universe. The only issue is that once you dig into the lore of the series, it’s clear that it's inextricable from Rowling and her politics. Moreover, she very clearly wants to be the shepherd of her story, even as she makes it a politically-charged property.

Hogwarts Legacy becomes all the more notable, then, for being a look into what Harry Potter becomes without Rowling. According to last week’s presentation, it takes place in the late 1800s, long before many of the characters that Potter fans know and love would even be alive. It doesn’t look all that dissimilar to many other open-world role-playing games: You can fight people, you can solve puzzles, and you can craft things on timers. What makes this a Harry Potter game primarily is Hogwarts itself, with people involved in the game boasting about how they’ve created a version of the wizarding school that they’re eager for players to explore. The presentation also hinted at a “goblin rebellion” as being part of the game’s plot.

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Rowling’s depiction of goblins has been criticized on and off for its antisemitism by both fans and casual observers. In Harry Potter, goblins are hook-nosed creatures obsessed with gold, who run the wizard banks. In the movies, it’s almost funny how egregious it is—they rub their hands together menacingly as a young Harry checks his bank account like the now-memeified imagery of “the happy merchant.” Asking whether or not these creatures are intended to be anti-semitic is kind of pointless when, well, look at them. Were the Ferengi in Star Trek meant to be an offensive stereotype when they were first conceived? Was Watto in Star Wars? Does that matter when Watto intones that “Jedi mind tricks don’t work on me, only money?” Despite the politics of the authors of these characters, they exist in a world where these have been long established anti-semitic tropes.

This is the kind of stuff that’s baked into Harry Potter that becomes impossible to avoid even in Rowling’s absence. If you turn over a rock of Potter lore, you unearth a whole host of problematic worms. Despite the fact that Rowling did not work on Hogwarts Legacy, and despite the fact that Warner Bros. would surely like for Harry Potter to exist in perpetuity apart from its creator,  like Star Wars now does, Rowling did in fact write and create this universe, and in many ways it is a reflection of her politics.

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Harry Potter is, at best, a mirror of the status quo politics of its time—commercially successful and inoffensive to a mass popular audience,” Liz, one of the co-hosts of the Shrieking Shack podcast, told Waypoint. The Shrieking Shack is a podcast where two lapsed Potter fans have reread the entire series as adults, something they’ve done as Rowling’s stances on trans rights became clear.

“I do not believe in a mythical Before-the-Fall J.K. Rowling,” Liz continued. “I don’t know her personal political trajectory, but you can’t read Harry Potter without tripping over her ideas about femininity and gender (for a start).”

“If you ignore the problems it looks weird; if you address them it likely ends up feeling limp,” XeeCee, the other host of The Shrieking Shack, said. “I think it’s healthy and vital to acknowledge that yeah, Harry Potter has a lot of stuff that ranges from ‘hasn’t aged well if you think too hard about it’ to ‘actively horrible.’ Is Hogwarts Legacy going to touch the house elf thing at all? Conversely, are they going to do something like slap a character creator into the game that lets you choose pronouns, and market that as a ‘Love Wins!’ type of thing, while the author is also out there doing material harm?”

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If anything, even this brief glimpse of Hogwarts Legacy shows that the ultimate mission of this cross-media franchization—to create a Harry Potter without the politics that the author imbued into through the act of creation—is not really possible. There are plenty of relatively small details like the depictions of goblins that can sour a reread as an adult. If it’s not that, then it’s the sanctioned slavery of the house elves, or the fact that girls can go into the boys dormitory but Hogwarts castle physically repels the boys if they try the opposite, or the pointed way that Rowling refers to tabloid journalist Rita Skeeter’s big hands, or even the fact that the only canonical gay person also canonically fell in love with wizard Hitler and never loved again, or the fact that in Rowling’s World War II narrative, there is only one Jewish student at Hogwarts—Anthony Goldstein. These specific details would be less bothersome if Rowling would divest herself from the property, as George Lucas has done with Star Wars. But she’s still writing scripts for Fantastic Beasts, and The Cursed Child still proudly bears her name as part of the title. (Officially, the play is called J.K. Rowling’s The Cursed Child.) She is an active participant in the creation of more Harry Potter, and from time to time has not been afraid to flaunt her authority on the subject on Twitter.

If you look at Rowling’s Twitter account right now, it’s more about her transphobia than it is about her fiction. Just a few days ago, she picked a fight with the South Wales Police over a typo they made in the context of a tweet regarding the memorial service for a gay man who was beaten to death.

Right now, Rowling’s politics and bigotry are the most visible aspect of her persona. It would be convenient for Warner Bros. if it was possible for Rowling to be separate from the intellectual property that they own, and that is demonstrably quite profitable. But everything eyebrow-raising in Harry Potter came from one source: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter can’t truly exist without her.