We have a new blog from stipend holder Sarah Kelley, who looks at how Britishness is emphasised and sold in the Harry Potter Franchise through the vast array of Potter related merchandise at the museum. Sarah is a postgraduate research student at the University of Bristol.
Filmic paratexts such as posters, preview literature and merchandise play an important role in the relationship between a film and its audience, emphasising certain themes and ideas, and extending these to a public who may not even view the film itself. As such they can be considered particularly valuable sources for understanding the influences and interactions that take place between a film, a specified public and their context. Phil Wickham, curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, explains that these materials ‘can make meaning and provide historical evidence of the place of a film in its world and in the lives of those who saw it’ (2010: 316). I am particularly interested in this research method as I am undertaking a PhD project that looks at the ideas on British culture and identity that have been represented to the British public in the highly publicised Harry Potter film franchise.
I have made several visits to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum to analyse relevant materials, beginning with those created for the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), I looked at the original film poster (EXEBD 39866, below), a set of promotional postcards (EXEBD 40072; the featured image above) and a mug (EXEBD 79176, below): all made available to the British public.
I was looking for prominent and reoccurring imagery that may emphasise a certain representation of British culture and identity. One such image was the inclusion of the Hogwarts school robes, the creators consistently choosing to present the main characters in these costumes rather than in the other, more casual clothes that they also wear in the film (and on the original books covers). When coupled with the image of Hogwarts castle in the poster as well as the presence of its architecture in the background of the postcards, the importance of the film’s boarding school setting is emphasised. This in turn draws on nostalgic ideas about Britain’s past as Shelley Anne Galpin explains ‘the use of such an iconic institution as the English boarding school creates a strongly [British] heritage aesthetic’ (2016: 433).
As a result I found myself wondering why the British heritage iconography of Harry Potter was emphasised in this way. This led me to research the industrial and political context for the film, which included viewing a set of ‘UK Film Initiative’ pamphlets from 1991-1993 (such as EXEBD 42927, EXEBD 54680) held by the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. These revealed the perceived importance of film to the British economy: the government subsequently set up tax relief and funding schemes (1997-) to boost investment in British film. My thesis explores the implications for this in more detail but this essentially encouraged Hollywood investment and a commercially driven approach to film-making that was likely to draw on previously successful depictions of British culture such as those included in British heritage films: the Merchant Ivory productions of the 80s and 90s, the Jane Austen adaptations of the 90s and films about the British monarchy. In this way one can see why Warner Bros. Studios brought Harry Potter and its British heritage iconography to the big screen and also why it emphasised these elements during marketing campaigns.
I made further visits to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum to look at materials relating to the later films in the franchise and noted a pamphlet and mousemat (EXEBD 71225) advertising Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in June 2010, between the release of The Half Blood Prince (2009) and The Deathly Hallows part 1 (2010).
This theme park could also be considered a filmic paratext since it emphasises certain themes and ideas from the films and extends their influence. It was interesting to note that, again, Hogwarts school plays a prominent role as an impressive replica of the castle hosts the park’s flagship attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The rest of the park is a mock up of Hogsmeade, a wizarding village that represents a ‘picture postcard’ image of seventeenth century Scottish architecture. Again the public is being presented with nostalgic visions of Britain’s past and, particularly in this case, it is treated as an ideal: a place they would want to visit and have fun.
Upon researching the paratexts for the last two films of the franchise, The Deathly Hallows parts 1 (2010) and 2 (2011), I found a distinct decrease in British heritage iconography in the items at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. A poster and several preview articles for Part 1 feature images of the three main characters dressed in casual clothes amongst indistinguishable, generic sets (dark doorways, a silhouetted forest). Looking more closely at the text in Empire Magazine’s preview article (published in October 2010), quotes from the three main actors have been taken from on set interviews, granted by the production team. The content of these represent a ‘coming of age’ of the actors as they swear, discuss the physical demands of the more violent scenes and make reference to 18+ films such as Eyes Wide Shut (d.Stanley Kubrick, 1999). Below is a poster for a late showing of Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows which demonstrates this adult appeal.
With post-school age costumes and language, one can argue that these paratexts engage an audience that would have become adults in the 9 years since the more family friendly The Philosophers Stone.
The more ‘grown-up’ themes continue with the publicity for Part 2, released 8 months later. The front page of the July 2011 edition of Empire Magazine includes the three main actors, out of character and dressed in smart clothes. Inside this edition, a preview article presents us with onset photos of a bloodied and bedraggled Harry and the destruction of Hogwarts: simultaneously representing the climax of the film’s battle and the end of the series. The text includes quotes from the cast and crew and is largely concerned with the final battle and the physicality required for these scenes. A small sub-section also focuses on Harry’s death scene.
However, as the last film in the series, its publicity also does a lot of reflection on the importance and impact of the franchise. This includes Empire Magazine’s ‘Harry Potter: The Ultimate Movie Celebration’ (July 2011), a 36-page supplement featuring photos from the set of each film in the series in chronological order, interspersed with contemporary photos of many of the actors involved and their reflections on the experience. The first page of this supplement includes the following quote: ‘the best of British and international film makers come together in a true labour of love… turning the world’s best loved books into a cinematic phenomenon the likes of which we’ve never seen.’
A later edition of Empire magazine (published September 2011) includes a review of the film with the sub-heading ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’ before stating ‘Now, after ten years, eight films, four directors and over $6 billion at the box office, it has come down to this’ (Page 64). This emphasis on the importance and impact of the Harry Potter films makes me wonder how influential its representations of British culture might have become, particularly when locations from the films have since become tourism sites listed on the VisitBritain website.
I still have a lot of research to do for this project, particularly with regards to the implications for these representations of British culture and identity. I am very grateful for the help that I have received at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum with regards to this research.
Galpin, S. A. ‘Harry Potter and the Hidden Heritage of Films: Hybridity and the Power of the past in the Harry Potter Film Cycle’ from Journal of British Cinema and Television 13.3 (2016): 430-449, Edinburgh University Press
Wickham, P. (2010) ‘Scrapbooks, soap dishes and screen dreams: ephemera, everyday life and cinema history,’ from New Review of Film and Television Studies 8(3), pages 315-30