The Cooptation of Imagination

Walking out of a movie theater after viewing a movie based on a book, I’m among the first to share my love of the original. Rarely do I find the movie better than the book it’s based on. I know many feel this way, but I’ve narrowed my reasons down and decided it’s because I lack visual acuity. When I read, I create the world I’m reading about in my head, complete with voices, colors, etc. It’s relatively subconscious and I couldn’t describe it or recreate it with my own artistic skills, but it exists. When a movie depicts that world, it takes over my own mental images. Someone else’s creation and interpretation of the story eliminates my own — to the point that if I read the same story again, my vision has changed.

I don’t like having my imagination hacked, but I still have trouble avoiding it. There is no story this is more true for than Harry Potter.

I was the first in my small elementary school to read and enjoy the first Harry Potter book. It spread quickly after that, and I attended more than one Harry Potter themed birthday party. I grew up with the books, finishing the newest the day it came out and waiting impatiently for the next to be released. I loved them so much that I got excited and reread the whole series before each movie premiere. I can’t imagine a better way to ensure I would be disappointed with each film, but I persisted. Though at the time my disappointment stemmed from congruency errors, as I reflect back on the experience, much more of it could have come from the loss of my personal wizarding world.

The books taught me about good and evil and how to care for people who are different from yourself. The brilliant story takes place in a world that parallels our Muggle reality closer than we might think. I truly believe that this series laid a foundation for my social justice education and empowers young people across the globe. I own the complete set in two languages and regularly consider how I will introduce them to my future family.

But each movie robbed a little bit of my experience. From obliterating my original pronunciation of Hermione, to ascribing solid images to almost every moment of the book, every detail the producers included pushed one that I created from my mind. I’m currently re-reading the series aloud with my partner (who had seen the movies, but never read past book three, gasp!) and though I’m still uncovering new details, the picture in my brain is one created by Warner Brothers.

When J.K. Rowling released Pottermore, I was sorted into Hufflepuff, which took me longer than expected to embrace. Again, external forces were hacking my world. Though my love for the books runs deep, and I always felt my heart warming at Facebook posts from friends “waiting for their letters”, I remained grounded in the Muggle world, focused more on the allegory than the reality of being a wizard. Within a month of moving to Florida, I visited Universal’s Wizarding World for the first time, with the friend who best understands my love of Harry Potter. By this time I recognized that seeing the park would forever change the books. Despite my hesitance, finding myself in that world was magical in and of itself.

It became a love-hate relationship, but I found myself in this park over and over again in the last year. The two Harry Potter areas are easily Universal’s busiest and I was saddened that this might be the closest that many people come to the books. In many ways, we’ve made Harry Potter a consumable that requires no understanding of the actual story. Despite this, each time we visit, we spend more time in the Potter areas than anywhere else in the park. I resisted buying a wand or wizards robes, especially once they became so popular; I always felt odd buying a character’s wand and the sheer number of Gryffindor robes running around took away the authenticity for me. But the parks are beautiful and truly magical in their ability to transport you to another place, even when surrounded by thousands of Muggles.

Before our most recent visit we knew our annual Universal passes would expire and that we probably wouldn’t return to the parks soon. I spent some time in Ollivander’s and stumbled upon wands that had no characters associated with them. Instead they are based on the Celtic tree calendar and each wood is associated with different characteristics. I found the one I most identified with, hemmed and hawed, and then left to visit Florean Fortescue’s. For the rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t get the wand out of my head. I did some more research and learned that they were loosely based on birth month, and that J.K. Rowling happened upon this long after she gave Harry his wand. His holly wand just happened to fit his birthday.

When we left Diagon Alley that afternoon I became overwhelmed by the idea that I might never be in the Wizarding World again. Tears sprang to my eyes; as much as I am saddened by the cooptation of my imagination by the gigantic enterprise, my Harry Potter experience is now completely entwined with Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. Walking away was as bad as having my (non-existent) wand snapped in half.

My wonderful partner, catching on to my distress, encouraged me to embrace my inner wizard. With an hour left before closing, we rushed back to Ollivander’s and asked which wand matched my August birthday. The helpful staff member said hazel, and I was sold. We checked out, bought a butterbeer, and began studying the map of all the places we could use the wand to cast magic spells. We raced around Diagon Alley, making water shoot from fountains, lights illuminate the night, eyeballs stare you down, and feathers fly, and I have never felt so magical. It helped that the wand worked better for me than it did my partner, solidifying that the wand did indeed choose me.

I can’t change the impact that the commercialization of Harry Potter had on me and my inner vision. But that hazel wand has brought me joyfully back to the days when my own imagination led the way through the series, so I suppose I’ve come full circle.

For now, wand in one hand, book in the other, I say, “Always.”