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Hacking Harry Potter

I went on vacation and came back to find six different people (including my editor) had sent me copies of a recent New York Times article about a fan who had redone the soundtrack to Harry Potter and The Sorcerer…

I went on vacation and came back to find six different people (including my editor) had sent me copies of a recent New York Times article about a fan who had redone the soundtrack to Harry Potter and The Sorcerer Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, if you happen to be British). The amateur dubbed edition, “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” has developed a cult following on its own, playing at underground film festivals and being downloaded off the internet. I haven’t seen the film myself but from the Time’s description, it is pretty broad parody of the kind one expects from Mystery Science Theater.

As the Times notes, fan made videos have a long history. Initially, they involved attempts by fans to remake or create sequels or make parodies to favorite films. My students recently did a documentary about a group of high school students in Maine who did a super 8 spoof of Star Trek in the 1960s. I have written a fairly extensive study of the role which fan-made parodies have played within Star Wars fandom. (The NYT Times refers to the Phantom Edit, a well known attempt to cut Jar Jar Binks out of the Phantom Menace.) More recently, I have run across a site where amateurs record their own commentary tracks for DVDS which they share on the internet. Some of these are parodies, some are full of well informed critical commentary.

My research suggests that there are significant gender differences in how people remake movies. Female fans tend to try to dig deeper into the emotional experience of the characters, taking the content seriously on its own terms. Male fans are more prone to broad parody, often suggesting a discomfort with the original material. In that case, the fact that “Wizard People” is a broad and off-color spoof (by a male fan) comes as no surprise.

The Times speaks with Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, who argues that such works may be protected under Fair Use provisions, since they provide critical commentary on the original film. The long-term strategic threat to the entertainment industry is that people will get in the habit of creating and making as much as watching and listening, and all of a sudden the label applied to people at leisure, 50 years in the making - consumer - could wither away,” he said. “But it would be a shame if Hollywood just said no. It could very possibly be in the interest of publishers to see a market in providing raw material along with finished
product.”

My book, Textual Poachers, described this new participatory culture more than a decade ago, at a time when the web wasn’t yet operational, and when the Internet was still largely to be found at research institutions and military bases. There seems to be a deep human need to respond to the materials of our culture. Neither technological nor legal barriers have slowed people down very much. But the availability of the web as a distribution system for such works has brought them out of the closet and into the New York Times.

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