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The Thing About Nostalgia Revivals

Warning: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life spoilers within

Recently, there has been a substantial increase in big companies like Netflix rebooting or reviving cult classic television shows and making beloved books into movies and television series or expanding upon the universe.

It seems like an easy to way to make a buck. Everyone loves shows like Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls, and Young Justice, so there’s already a fan base there. Not only does the series get revived, but the company reviving it becomes a hero to fans. They’re providing capital to finish the show, but, more importantly, they’re providing creators with the creative freedom to finish their story, and it gives fans more content.

The nostalgia filter is powerful, and it can skew perceptions of shows until they’re almost completely unlike the original product. And fans aren’t always ready to admit this. I know that I often feel personally offended when someone tells me that my love for the Halloweentown saga has more to do with nostalgia than actual quality of the films. Even though I know that this is probably correct, it can’t help but feel like your personal taste is being called into question (my taste is impeccable) or that something so close to you can be anything but stellar.

Part of being a fan is adding something–usually a piece of media–to your identity. Media powerful enough to have a nostalgia filter is often first consumed in formative years or moments. Fans are first awed by something: usually how relatable the media is or how well-crafted it is. Then, the awe turns into rapid consumption.

So, when these stories that we relate so much to are revived, it shows not only how the writers, actors, and creators have changed, but how we have changed. Each summer, I reread the Harry Potter series. When I first read the books at age six, I was most taken with Harry and Hermione. Harry, because he was the chosen one and his life was exciting, and Hermione because she was bookish and had an indomitable will. However, as an adult, I find myself relating more to Percy, a character that I despised as a child. I also see major flaws in the characters that I’ve adored for nearly twenty years. For instance, I can’t help but notice that by being Harry’s introduction to the wizarding world, Hagrid instilled a lot of prejudices in Harry that weren’t really confronted. If they were confronted, it wasn’t until much later in the series.

Harry Potter is actually a pretty good example of what happens when creators try to expand upon a universe or story. For my generation, Harry Potter was a part of everyone’s childhood whether you wanted it to be or not. I don’t think that nostalgia has a lot to do with its initial success. JK Rowling is just an exceptionally talented writer who crafted a really great story. However, I think that the Harry Potter phenomena continuing nearly two decades probably has a lot to do with nostalgia. But, in the last year, we’ve also gotten two continuations to the story: The Cursed Child play and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie. Both have a small basis in the books (Fantastic Beasts drawing on a book that Harry has in the series as well as a short reference book for magical creators published by Comic Relief, and the epilogue of the seventh book respectively), but they had a ton of room to go in any direction.

I think that Fantastic Beasts did a lot of things right. The audience had no expectations for the characters other than Newt studying magical beasts. Rowling wrote the script, so it felt like the wizarding world that everyone knows, but it was set in a different country and time period with different rules and scenery. It has to get to a particular ending (Dumbledore confronts Grindlewald, Newt and Tina get married, etc.), but how they get there is up to Rowling and the Fantastic Beasts creative team. Anything they do is an opportunity to expand the universe and give fans more. So far, sans issues with basing Ilvermorny on the folklore of indigenous people, fans seem to be receptive.

However, when this goes wrong, it’s devastating. Take Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’ve made it clear that I did not enjoy the play. Cursed Child did a lot of “what ifs” with characters whose fates were already sealed. Wondering what would have happened if Harry had lost the Battle at Hogwarts is something that’s fun to think about, but it’s also something that fans don’t really want to know the answer to. It also didn’t expand the universe in any meaningful way. We got to the adventures of Harry’s son as well as Draco’s, but it’s just hard to care about them since they aren’t very likeable. What’s more, this is a continuation for Potter fans, and the original Potter fans have grown up. Reading about kids when you’re a kid is fun. Reading about kids when you’re an adult is not always fun. And bringing back Voldemort was possibly the worst decision that could have been made.

Basically, you always have to move forward with a story or give yourself plenty of space in a different part of the universe. Star Wars breaks some of these rules, but mostly does this well. Again, I use this as an example because it’s nearly impossible to not have at least some nostalgia for the original Star Wars (but it’s also just an exceptional film series) even if, like me, you didn’t see them until you were an adult. Star Wars has been revived, taken back in time, and has had the universe stretched in every direction.

Interestingly enough, there’s a nostalgia filter of shittiness on episodes 1, 2, and 3. I saw the original one once in theaters when it came out, and my mom wouldn’t let us see the rest of the because she thought Jar Jar and Watto were racist (she wasn’t wrong). I watched the films right before The Force Awakens came out and they weren’t nearly as good as the originals, but they weren’t nearly as terrible as everyone had told me they were for years beforehand. Jar Jar sucks, but he isn’t around much other than the first movie. Anakin is terrible, but in order to bring balance to the force, he had to kill all the Jedi and make the other crappy decisions that he made. Being kind of terrible, I think, makes it easier to swallow that he would do these things. Fanon also becomes more or less canon in these films. Nostalgia for the franchise makes fans create theories that make the movies better. Jar Jar being a Sith Lord is goofy, but it’s crazy enough to believe for a second, and it makes the first film about a thousand times funnier. Seeing Padme’s actions as the result of Anakin influencing her with the force makes her bizarre behavior and their relationship seem much more believable.

Nostalgia really paid off with The Force Awakens. The movie on its own would have been a hit similar to the first film, but having it be a part of the Star Wars franchise really blew it up. Here, we see a continuation of the central story with better characters. The original Star Wars characters are really charismatic and cool, but they’re also little more than archetypes. Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren are based on archetypes, but they have a lot more nuance to their characters. Kylo Ren, instead of being tempted to the dark side, is being tempted towards the light. It’s part of what makes him so compelling. Kylo also presents an opportunity to bring back Vader without resurrecting him (which is always lame). Kylo can use Darth Vader as a spiritual guide and idol, essentially continuing his story without messily bringing him back from the dead.

This also gives the original characters a chance to progress beyond their archetypes. As we’ve said before, you’re clearly the good guy when your enemy unironically names their space station The Death Star and blows up entire planets to get information out of political figures. But where we find them in episode 7, they’ve screwed up. Leia and Han’s romantic relationship has ended and their son has turned to the Dark Side. Even Vader’s final legacy of allowing himself to turn to the Light in his final moments have been tarnished by Kylo Ren’s selective interpretation of Vader’s motives. And Luke, who seemed to be destined to start the Jedi Order once again has failed in his mission.

All of this is much more interesting than if they would have succeeded. It makes beloved characters more complex in ways that don’t go against the traits that are central to their character. This gives the creative minds behind these works the freedom to expand and it gives fans something to chew on.

Star Wars managed to break some of these rules in Rogue One. The fans knew what was going to happen in Rogue One. We’ve known since 1977 that Leia gets the Death Star blueprints and successfully sends them off the ship with R2. However, all we know of Rogue One is that they retired the call sign and they all died (or at least I thought that was clear before the movie). Like Fantastic Beasts, there’s a few moments that the movie has to hit, but it can otherwise do whatever it wants. I actually think it was a failure of the movie that we didn’t see more of the inner workings of the Rebel Alliance, but it was still an excellent movie that gave us more to the story (and gave us a story that wasn’t centered around the Skywalker family). They could have expanded out more (like in Fantastic Beasts), but instead they focused on a very character-driven story that fills in some major plot-holes in the Star Wars franchise. Then it conveniently has every character die so fans don’t have to wonder why we haven’t heard these names before. It isn’t perfect, but, overall, it still works.

Fans have years to build up expectations for a story. What ends up happening is that the ending often cannot live up to the story. The best thing to do in this case is to wrap up only what you have to and go outwards instead of forwards. Even in shows like Gilmore Girls, which is not set in a magic or sci-fi setting, this can be done. The show told the audience where all of the relationships stood and wrapped up the Lorelai/Luke subplot, which was central to the show, but the characters didn’t actually do much during the course of the revival. We just a good look into their mindset in the future. A lot of Rory’s issues were finally addressed and fans were shown that Emily can be human occasionally. The bombshell ending wasn’t happy, but it was clean. The Rory/Lorelai storyline that we’re used to is over, and I’m okay with that. I feel like this chapter of their lives ended with Rory’s pregnancy, and the show should end with it. Unlike Star Wars or Harry Potter, Stars Hallow only feels magical. The real world is Rory’s and Lorelai’s unique relationship. And, with the last four words of the show, central traits of that relationship died. It has neither hope nor potential for continuation: the perfect final ending to a show like Gilmore Girls.

The thing that everyone gets wrong about nostalgia is that it isn’t as easy as it seems. You can’t just cash in on a show with a large fanbase. This is why revivals for Community, Fuller House, and Scrubs failed. It involves having a creative team deeply acquainted with the characters rather than the story and guarantees that (most of the) central characters will return to conclude their storylines. Stories, even stories we love, do have to end eventually; hopefully, they’ll end in a satisfying way.

Fiona L.F. Kelly (@FionaLFKelly)
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a writer, editor, and podcaster. She has published numerous articles about all things gaming and pop culture on websites all across the internet, was also a writer for Trinity Continuum: Aberrant 2e, and has been published in books and magazines. She is an editor for the pop culture and media website GeekGals.co. In addition to her writing and editing, she has also been a guest and host on several podcasts. She hosts the Project Derailed podcast Big Streaming Pile, produces and performs on Fables Around the Table, and plays the githyanki pirate Rav’nys on Tales of the Voidfarer. Buy her a coffee: ko-fi.com/fionalfkelly

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