Sunday, February 14, 2010

Harry Potter and the Dead Ringers

My books essay in the Independent's Review this weekend:

As the film of the Percy Jackson novel 'The Lightning Thief' opens this weekend, Susan Daly reports on the rush to emulate JK Rowling's spell-binding success

Does the name Tanya Grotter ring a bell? She's an 11-year-old orphan who attends the Abracadabra school of witchcraft and rides a magical double-bass in a bestselling series of Russian children's books. Next door in Belarus, they have Porri Gatter and the Stone Philosopher.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, author JK Rowling must be beside herself with pride. The outlandish success of her creation Harry Potter -- 400 million books sold worldwide and counting -- has spawned a predictable number of imitators.

Some claim to be parodies. This is clearly the case with Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody by American humorist Michael Gerber, which features some very adult behaviour at the Hogwash School of Wizardry and Witchcrap.

Some, however, tread a very fine line between parody and plagiarism. Tanya Grotter has been slapped with a cease-and-desist order by Rowling's lawyers and its publication in English is prohibited. There are unashamedly brazen rip-offs: In 2002, a book called Harry Potter and the Leopard Walk Up To Dragon appeared in China, purporting to be the fifth instalment in the series. Tiny problem: Rowling was still at home in Scotland beavering away on the real fifth book at the time.

Suspicions were also raised by the plot, which hinged on a shower of sweet-and-sour flavoured rain turning Harry into a hobbit.

While not all 'homages' to Rowling's fiction have been quite so bonkers, there has been a rush to emulate her billion-dollar success. Much as record labels like to mould and market new performers as the next Beyonce or this generation's Bob Dylan, book publishers are constantly scouting for the 'next' Harry Potter.

Percy Jackson is the current contender for the tween fiction throne. Like Harry, Percy is an ordinary young boy who discovers he has extraordinary powers. Like Harry, he struggles with life in the 'real' world. He suffers from dyslexia and ADHD and thinks he's a loser -- until he finds out his father is the ancient Greek god Poseidon.

The Percy Jackson books have been huge sellers from the moment US author Rick Riordan sold them to a publisher in 2005, two years before Rowling wrote her seventh and final Potter instalment. There are some clear intersections between Percy's world and Harry's -- both boys attend magic schools: Hogwarts and Camp Half-Blood; and Percy has his own Ron and Hermione sidekicks in the shape of Grover and Annabeth.

Movie bosses, encouraged by the success of the Harry Potter movies, were not slow to greenlight a screen version of Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It opens in Ireland this weekend -- a fact that will already have been drummed into you if you are the proud owner of a child aged anywhere between eight and 13.

At the helm of the movie (as is very clearly stated on the promotional posters) is two-time Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. He says he recognises there are "similarities" between Percy and the more famous boy wizard. "We would be fools not to hope for the same kind of audience."

Indeed they would. The six Harry Potter films so far have raked in $5.4bn at the box office -- the final two instalments, to be released at the end of this year and the start of 2011, are expected to continue the cash-in.

Percy author Riordan readily admits that Rowling was an influence and that he "took some lessons" from her ability to blend fantasy, humour, thrills and character. Riordan draws on a lot of personal inspiration that can't be attributed to Rowling -- he began writing Percy Jackson to comfort his own son Haley, who is also dyslexic and has ADHD.

He adds that while Percy is like Harry in many ways, it is not because he is modelled on him. "It's because they are both models of the same archetype," he says, "A lot of what JK Rowling does so well is drawn from Greek mythology."

Yet even Riordan admits that without Harry Potter, he may never have got published. "It [HP] made publishers aware there was a market for children's literature," he says.

Not just any old children's literature though.

Since the first Potter book hit the stands in 1997, there has been a surge in publishers and authors latching on to the fantasy novel. The question could be asked: What first attracted you to the genre that made JK Rowling a billionaire?

None of these authors has come close to sniffing the level of success or critical acclaim of the Potter books. Riordan's books have sold over six million copies -- very respectable, but only a fraction of Rowling's worldwide sales. The trumpets were previously out for The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black, which first appeared in 2003. It too spawned a film, starring young Irish actress Sarah Bolger, which has almost doubled the return on its $90m budget, but earned nothing close to what the average Harry Potter film would have made.

The Shadowmancer series by GP Taylor; the Wolf Brother books by Michelle Paver; Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; Alison Goodman's Eon series -- all fine books set in the realm of children's fantasy; none reaching the dizzy heights of Harry on his magic broomstick.

Riordan thinks it's foolish to call anyone a rival to Harry Potter. A former teacher, he says: "I had students who read these books 13, 14 times and I would say, 'Great book, but don't you want to try something else?' And they would say, 'There's nothing else this good.'

"There is no 'next' Harry Potter. There never was a Harry Potter before Harry Potter. It's completely unprecedented in children's literature."

It's a thought echoed by Darren Shan, Irish author of the very successful Cirque du Freak children's horror series.

Addressing young fans on his blog last Sunday, Shan remarked that "while success in any field breeds imitators and copycats" and many of these do well, "you just don't get the same buzz if you read a book about a school for wizards that was written to cash-in on the success of the HP novels."

Shan is absolutely correct. Ironically enough, his own fiction holds a key to the trend that is overtaking young adult fiction as fans of the boy wizard grow up and away. Shan's fantasy world has been populated by vampires and demons since he published his first kids' book in 2000 (he has sold 15 million copies worldwide).

Five years later, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series came along, selling 85 million copies and proving that the sexy teen vampire is taking a real bite of the competition.

Irish Independent


  1. I'm a big fan of the Harry Potter series, but I think it's worth pointing out that many of Rowling's concepts were used in earlier fantasy books too.

    - School for wizards/witches: "The Worst Witch" series by Jill Murphy, "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula le Guin.

    - Normal boy plunged into magic adventure: "The Dark is Rising" by Susan Cooper, "The Hounds of the Morrigan" by Pat O'Shea, most of the Narnia series.

    She also takes from popular fiction and folklore about witches and magic. So even though recent children's fantasy may appear to be mimicking Rowling, it could be that it is simply influenced by the same things she was influenced by.

    Not to put down Rowling - I worship at the altar of her greatness - but the first Harry Potter book wasn't particularly original, as children's fantasy goes. So I can imagine new authors might be annoyed to be constantly compared with her. Though I've no time for the blatant rip-offs at all.

    (I'm saying all this as something of a connoisseur :P )

  2. That is correct - I wished I had so much more room in this piece to talk about all the precedents, antecedents etc but I was fairly limited by wordage. All you say is true - and I think Rick Riordan's point is very appropriate on that note; that Rowling herself is drawing on classical motifs and characterisations.