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HBO, Harry Potter: Everything New is Old Again

There’s an episode of the old The Twilight Zone – “Shadow Play” – which has poor Dennis Weaver stuck in a recurring nightmare as a man convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  Every night, he goes through the same scenario, although the “players” in his dream may switch roles, which takes him right up to his execution.

This came to me when I read the recent news that HBO has announced they are going to reboot the Harry Potter franchise; no, not add to it, not do a spinoff, but go back to square one with the books, dedicating a season of episodes to each of the seven novels.  It was hard to read this news without expressing an inner groan.

Ok, for the moment, let’s put aside the debate about whether this is enabling the now-controversial figure of J.K. Rowling and her controversial statements on the controversial topic of transgenderism.  This is more along the lines of an eyeroll; that the service which broke such new ground with shows like The Sopranos, The Larry Sanders Show, Sex & the City, Oz, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, Succession, The Last of Us and a bunch of other remarkable stuff is going the remake/reboot route, and no doubt it will be a costly big-dollar excursion.

There’s nothing new in the move.  Hollywood has been in the remake and sequel business just about since the industry came into being.  Take 1959’s Ben-Hur, winner of the most Academy Awards – including Best Picture – since they started giving the little naked gold guy away (that is until Titanic [1997] which tied Ben-Hur’s eleven).  There’d already been two versions:  one in 1907, the other in 1925.  Or take that classic noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941).  That was actually the third go-around for Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the first being in 1931, and the second – under the title Satan Met a Lady – in 1936.

There’s not even anything new in a movie being rebooted as a TV show.  A lot of them were short-lived, like the two small-screen adaptations of another Humphrey Bogart classic, Casablanca (one in 1955, another in 1983), while others were more successful like M*A*S*H (based on the 1970 movie), Fargo (from the 1996 movie), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992 movie), and even HBO has been here before with Westworld (1973 movie).

So what’s my beef?  Well, Hollywood may have always done this before – sequels, movie series, TV adaptations of movies, remakes – but over the last 20-30 years or so, it seems the top end of the business is consumed with reproducing the familiar.  This is, after all, the era of the Marvel Universe, Warners’ faltering attempts at a DC Universe, and speaking of universes, Universal has been in the process of building a Monsterverse resurrecting house-owned critters like The Mummy and mixing and matching good ol’ American monster icons like King Kong with the denizens of the Japanese “kaiju” universe; beasties like Godzilla and the like.

Image: HBO

It is hardly a new complaint, especially from us old farts, that it seems like Hollywood is unable and/or unwilling to do anything new (the old alas of “creative poverty”), that it has become addicted to beating the living hell out of a brand.  Maybe if you’re part of a generation growing up with this as a norm it sits more comfortably with you than with us oldsters, but someone like me sometimes ponders, How many different Star Trek TV series do we need especially while you’re going through the third generation of big-screen Treks?

Mind you, I’m not saying that, qualitatively, they’re bad.  Some of them are quite good.  Just like originals, some suck, some are pretty good (Fargo), and occasionally one manages to vastly improve on the original (I’m thinking Westworld and Buffy here); that’s not my issue.  My issue is working up enough interest in visiting a spin on a title I’ve already seen rerun since I was a kid.  I went through all the original Planet of the Apes movies, caught a few eps of the awful TV series and even one of the even awfuller Saturday morning cartoon, suffered through Tim Burton’s version, even saw – and kind of liked – the first Andy Serkis flick, but the monkeys have worn a little thin for me.  Likewise the Star Treks since I’ve been around since the 1966-1969 TV series, the Star Warses (loved the first two back in the 1970s, was fed up by 1983’s Return of the Jedi).  Look, I loved Spider-Man:  No Way Home (2021), thought it was a hoot the way it rolled three generations of Spider-Men into one movie…but at the same time, I’m thinking, Jeez, there’s already been three Spider-Mans?  (Tobey Maguire led off in 2002 with Spider-Man).

I don’t know; maybe this is old-fart-curmudgeonly of me.  Or maybe it’s because my generation grew up with a Hollywood that thought it’s best chance of survival was to dig deep to find something novel, something fresh, even if it meant completely disassembling a familiar genre like Chinatown (1974) did to the private eye movie, or The Wild Bunch (1969) did to the Western.

I may be crabby but I’m not blind; there’s a lot of terrific filmmaking going on outside the circle of big major studio releases.  Sometimes you have to scuffle around a bit to find it, but it’s there, and it’s just as good – and novel – as anything else Hollywood has ever done (Everything Everywhere All at Once [2022] – God bless ’em, what were writer/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert smoking when they cooked up that one?  Dude Lebowski called and wants an ounce).

But in my blankety-blank-blank years of going to the movies, I have never seen the majors so funneled down such a narrow path.  Go to right now:  of the top ten earners released so far this year, seven are sequels or additions to franchises.  Last year ended with all top ten being a sequel, reboot, or franchise installment.

Thing is, sadly, I get it.  I know why HBO made that call (especially now that they’re part of Discovery and Discovery has to show it knows how to do with HBO what AT&T didn’t).

There’s a kajillion cable channels out there now, and a bazillion streaming services on top of them, all churning out content.  Every once in a great while, one of those originals generates some buzz, gets some kind of visibility like The Last of Us or Yellowjackets.  But more often than not, a lot of stuff gets lost in the flood.  I’ve seen trade stories of streaming series getting cancelled I never even knew were on the air.  I write about series like Slow Horses and ask younger people if they’ve seen Rogue Heroes, and the response I get is like I suddenly started speaking in tongues because they’ve never heard of these two critically-acclaimed series.

The problem is – and this is the trade term – “clutter.”  There’s just so much stuff out there, good and bad, that any new offering risks getting lost in that jungle.  Ahh, but a familiar name – a grandly familiar name – like Harry Potter, well, how does that not cut through the clutter.  It’s an unfortunately pragmatic answer to an impossible situation; letting a potential audience know that somewhere in the roaring, unceasing torrent of cable and streaming offerings there’s at least this one thing worth their attention.

Like I said, I get it, and maybe that’s why I find it so depressing; because I’m not sure there’s another way to go.  And maybe that’s even more depressing, because if this works for HBO, Hollywood having always been a monkey-see-monkey-do place where a success gets turned into a formula that gets flogged until its lifeless, there might be more of this haven’t-I-seen-this-before kind of endeavors.  Look what happened after the sitcom Will & Grace was successfully resurrected.  Roseanne turned The Connors.  Ew.

I’m not naïve, and I’m not dreamy-eyed about the past.  Back in the day when I was getting treated to the novel and new on a regular basis, the biz was also churning out a lot of crap…but then it always has turned out more crap than good stuff; you think Casablanca was the norm?

Hey, maybe the HBO series will be good, maybe even great, taking advantage of the ability to tell a story over a number of episodes rather than in an acceptable big screen running time.  Who knows?

Still;, when I saw that announcement from HBO, even with all this in mind, I kept coming back to, Seriously?

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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