Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
As phenomena go, the act of attempting to re-create for oneself the success already achieved by another is as common as it is understandable. We see this all the time, and it’s not always the fault of the copycat. Sure, there are plenty of creative people out there who strive to create “the next big thing” and yet end up falling just short of outright plagiarism, but there are just as many “creative” executives out there who issue ultimatums to their underlings such as “Find me the next ____” before heading out two “do” lunch for two hours on the company’s gold card.
No matter what the cause, we see the effects all the time. For every piece of pop culture released that feels truly new and unique – provided the sales numbers back it up – there will be countless imitators that arrive soon after looking to glom onto the original’s success. In the vast majority of cases, the law of diminishing returns applies.
The original Star Wars trilogy, for example, was both a commercial and creative masterpiece. Nothing like that had ever been attempted before, and the results were astronomical (pun intended). Soon enough, the imitators started flooding the market: Saturn-3, The Last Starfighter, Flash Gordon, Flight of the Navigator, and years later, even Star Wars would attempt to copy Star Wars.
The music industry is guilty of this as well. When a specific band or “sound” becomes the next big thing, within a month there will be a half-dozen singers or groups that are veritable clones of the first. Here, I’m thinking of America’s favorite skinhead: Britney Spears. Britney’s oeuvre was curiously specific – a young and pretty teenager who sings songs that are blatantly about sex, and yet are just vague enough for plausible deniability – and yet we were just dealing with her as a reality when Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore, and Jessica Simpson hit the scene doing EXACTLY THE SAME THING! What a coincidence!
This brings me to the biggest pop culture phenomenon of all of our lifetimes: Harry Potter. There is nothing in this world that can compare to Pottermania. There are over 325 MILLION Potter books in print (at least until Deathly Hallows helps to shatter this number), and they are read by children and adults alike all over the world. There are movies either made or planned for each of the books, countless products and toys based on them, and now even a theme park in the works that will allow people a chance to enter Harry’s world, for only $250 per day, not including food and souvenirs. The books’ success has had an effect on the author as well; J.K. Rowling is currently ranked 48 on Forbes Magazine’s list of the 100 most powerful celebrities, and she is the first writer ever to become a billionaire from her books. So it should come as no surprise that, over the years, many other books have been released into the market that bear strong resemblance to Mr. Potter and his adventures. Perhaps even more interesting than this is that, in books more easily than other media, publishers are willing and able to go back to the well, and re-publish earlier works from the past, if they feel they will work with the climate of the present. So in addition to new Potteresque books hitting the market, we also have OLD books that could be deemed Potteresque doing likewise. So how do they stack up to our lightning-scarred hero? Let’s explore.
Series Name: The Inheritance Trilogy
Author: Christopher Paolini
Book Title(s): Eragon, Eldest
Synopsis: In the world of Alagaesia, a young boy named Eragon discovers a beautiful blue stone that one day hatches into a dragon. Eragon, we learn, has become the first of a new line of Dragon Riders, a group of heroes thought to be extinct, and fated to overthrow the evil King Galbatorix and bring peace back to the land. As he grows in power, so too do the forces out to destroy him.
Why It’s Like Harry Potter:
- The main character is a boy who thinks himself ordinary, but discovers that he is very powerful and can perform magic.
- Because of this, and despite his young age, he is thrust into a huge battle against forces far stronger than he himself.
- Much time is devoted to the young boy’s training, preparing him to be able to harness his powers properly.
- Both books were best-sellers, and Eragon was made into a major motion picture.
Why It’s NOT Like Harry Potter:
- Harry’s world is the same as ours, if only we had the power to really see it. Eragon’s world is completely fictional, a different land from a different time.
- In Harry’s world, non-humans play roles in the goings on, but they are secondary characters to the humans who determine the world’s destiny. By contrast, Eragon’s world is a mythical one. Humans live amongst dwarves, elves, and other creatures, and they all must work together to overcome evil.
- The Harry Potter movies have been enormous successes, grossing in excess of a billion dollars worldwide. Eragon was a box-office failure, and to the best of my knowledge no sequels are planned.
Verdict: My first impression was that it was trying to be a combination of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, Paolini possesses neither Rowling’s gift for storytelling, nor Tolkien’s brilliance at creating mythology. The end result – while admittedly compelling – is actually quite boring. These books cram in a ton of material – Eragon’s back story, training, and burgeoning relationship with his dragon Saphira, as well as background information on the world and its history – and yet despite that, it feels like hundreds of pages are devoted to nothing at all. MUCH was made about how young the author was when Book One was published. That was impressive, but the end result leads me to think he might have been better off waiting a bit longer to hone his craft first.
Series Name: Fablehaven
Author: Brandon Mull
Book Title(s): Fablehaven, Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star
Synopsis: When Kendra and Seth’s parents go away for an extended vacation, they force the kids to spend the time on their grandparents’ farm. What starts out as an incredibly tedious ordeal quickly turns miraculous, as the kids discover that their grandparents farm is actually a sanctuary for the world’s magical creatures, and their grandfather is the caretaker. Their grandmother’s absence, explained away to the parents in vague and unsatisfying terms, is actually due to sinister forces. When things take a dark turn for the worse, Kendra and Seth are forced to navigate a dangerous and magical world where all the creatures have their own agendas, and the rules are entirely different.
Why it’s like Harry Potter:
- The protagonists are children
- The magical world exists within our normal, everyday one.
- One of the children has latent magical powers that are only beginning to emerge.
- The Grounds of Fablehaven strongly resembles the Forbidden Forest surrounding Hogwarts
- Adults possess the knowledge and power, but it’s ultimately the children who are needed to save the day.
Why it’s NOT like Harry Potter:
- In Harry Potter, the magical world exists in parallel with the muggles, and they are at least as prevalent. In Fablehaven however, the non-magical world is threatening to render the magical creatures extinct, and the preserve is one of the few ways they can live safely.
- The Potter books revolve around the protagonists learning to manipulate magic themselves, while by and large, the protagonists of Fablehaven must do their deeds without the use of magic themselves.
Verdict: Kids learning about a magical world they were unaware of previously…seemingly normal occurrences that end up having supernatural causes…children successfully navigating a dangerous and magical situation that would have destroyed most other kids…yes, there’s no question that these books were inspired by the Harry Potter phenomenon. However, despite the obvious similarities, Fablehaven is nonetheless able to rise above the label of imitator, and find a thoroughly unique and entertaining voice. As I read the first book, I immediately saw the potential for an ongoing series of adventures that take place in this most unique of sanctuaries, and when I discovered that Mull was indeed pursuing this course, I found myself anticipating the future books despite myself. As long as these books don’t inspire children to run along drinking bowls of milk they see lying in the sun in the hopes of seeing fairies, they should if there’s any justice find a place on those same kids’ bookshelves, right alongside Mr. Potter.
Series Name: Percy Jackson and the Olympians
Author: Rick Riordan
Book Title(s): The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, The Titan’s Curse
Synopsis: Perseus Jackson is a misfit kid with ADHD and an inability to stay in school without getting expelled. However, after a teacher turns into a winged beast and tries to kill him, he comes to learn the truth: he is actually the child of one of the Greek Gods of Olympus. With magical creatures attempting to kill him and nowhere else to turn, Perseus finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, a refuge for children of the Gods. It is there that the kids, separated by bunk based on their godly parentage, train for battle and prepare themselves for whatever quests the Gods demand of them. It is here that Percy must learn the ways of partial Godhood, and accept his vitally important role within it.
Why it’s like Harry Potter:
- Percy Jackson thinks he’s an ordinary boy, but one day learns of his unusual parentage, coupled with his potential to possess great powers.
- Percy’s magical world exists right alongside the non-magical world.
- A magical force prevents humans from seeing the Olympian world, even as it unfolds right in front of them.
- Percy attends a secret, protected instructional facility where special children can learn to hone and refine their powers without distraction from either the magical or human world.
- The students at this facility are separated based on their bloodlines, which causes alliances and enemies to form.
- Despite his age and relative inexperience, Percy finds himself on quests he does not fully understand, fighting enemies far stronger than he is.
- Accompanying Percy on his quests is a female friend who is wise beyond her years, and a male friend who is a lovable coward.
- Percy is at the center of a prophecy that promises to change everything about the world they live in.
- The ultimate enemy that Percy and his friends are fighting is a being of incredible former power who was destroyed, yet survives still, and is slowly trying to regain power and control over all.
Why it’s NOT like Harry Potter:
- For Harry Potter, Rowling delves into the mythologies of many cultures for material, while Riordan depends solely on Greek Mythology for his.
- References within Harry Potter are for the most part timeless, while Percy Jackson’s world is littered with “hip” modern kid-speak.
- The Potter books are written from a third-person perspective, while the Jackson books are written first-person.
Verdict: The most blatant Potter ripoff anyone could imagine. The slight differences in tone and texture just can not outweigh the massive similarities in theme and story. To me, they read like the literary equivalent of re-seasoning leftovers. You can do many things to try to mask the flavor, but at the end of the day, it’s still yesterday’s meal.
Series Name: His Dark Materials
Author: Philip Pullman
Book Title(s): The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass
Synopsis: Lyra is a young orphan girl with her own personal daemon (which everyone in her world has) and an extremely powerful uncle (which no one else in her world has.) Soon enough, she is thrust into a world where polar bears are warriors, parallel universes can be accessed with a knife, and she discovers a power within herself that can either save the world, or destroy it.
Why it’s like Harry Potter:
- Lyra is an orphan with unusual parentage who possesses great power she is at first unaware of.
- Lyra lives in a world where magical acts and devices are the norm.
- The series of books tracks our heroes as they age, and eventually learn about love.
Why it’s NOT like Harry Potter:
- Harry’s world is firmly implanted on Earth, while Lyra’s world(s) contain only shades of our own.
- In Harry’s world, magic is something that must be learned and studied to gain proficiency, while in Lyra’s world it is innate, and part of everyone.
Verdict: I spent a lot of time trying to come up with other differences between the two series. That I ended up with so few is very surprising, since in my opinion they are extremely different from each other. In fact, from nearly every angle you might choose to compare them – writing, story, character, etc – I contend that His Dark Materials would actually surpass Harry Potter. These are marvelous books that feel as completely rendered and real as anything you’ll ever come across. Read them, and you’ll be amazed that they are not at least as popular as Rowling’s work (though, with any justice, the upcoming film adaptation will go a long way to correcting that).
NOTE: His Dark Materials was actually first published BEFORE the beginning of Harry Potter. While that might normally preclude it from a comparison such as this, it’s important to point out that it has been marketed much more extensively since Pottermania took hold, and the movie adaptation is only now coming out, over a decade since the first book’s initial release, and clearly done in the wake of Harry Potter‘s movie success.
(By Anastasia Salter, Special to CC2K)
Series Name: The Tortall Novels
Author: Tamora Pierce
Book Title(s): Song of the Lioness [Alanna, In the Hand of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, Lioness Rampant]; The Immortals Quartet [Wild Magic, Wolf Speaker, The Emperor Mage, The Realms of the Gods]; The Protector of the Small Quartet [First Test, Page, Squire, Lady Knight]; Beka Cooper [Terrier, Bloodhound (pending)]; Aliane [Trickster’s Choice, Trickster’s Queen]
Synopsis: The Tortall novels all take place in the same world, but contain a number of generations. The first novels came out in the 1980s, with the Alanna stories. The Alanna novels tell of a girl who wants to become a knight, and so disguises herself as a boy and takes her twin brother’s place as a page. She also possesses magical talents, does battle with evil sorcerers, and comes to find a lover in a prince of thieves. The four novels of the Lioness quartet follow Alanna’s growth from girl to woman as she becomes the greatest knight of the realm. The next sequence, Immortals quartet, follows a girl with a special bond with animals who comes to the kingdom once Alanna is already a knight. The girl, Daine, is a wild mage who receives training in a little-known type of magic that allows her to speak with and later become one with animals of all kinds. The next trilogy tells of the first girl who is allowed to train as a knight while being open about her gender: the Protector of the Small quartet follows Kel as she overcomes the gender bias of the knighthood without the aid of magic. Most recently within the Tortall novels, the Trickster sequence has followed the life of Alanna’s daughter, Aliane, as she becomes involved with a power struggle for the monarchy in another kingdom, while the Terrier novels follow a woman generations back from the other characters, Beka Cooper, as she works as part of the city guard. Tamora Pierce also has two other quartets dealing with a magic circle of four young mages learning to use their elemental powers.
Why it’s like Harry Potter:
- The novels focus on young and talented children, often orphaned or alienated from their family, as they work through the training necessary to master their powers and fight for their realm.
- The setting at least for the initial novels in each sequence is generally a school or similar situation, and the focus is on learning to reconcile reality with education.
Why it’s NOT like Harry Potter:
- The setting is derived from a medieval style world, and technology does not play a part. While magic—called the gift—is not possessed by everyone, it is known about by all.
- The focus of Tamora Pierce’s novels is particularly on strong female characters: while male characters also play a role, there is a focus on gender concerns, particularly within a medieval society.
- The characters in Tamora Pierce’s world generally begin as young or younger than Harry and his friends but age throughout the series to full adulthood.
Verdict: The Tamora Pierce novels began long before Harry Potter, and never achieved the same amount of fame. However, what has been most interesting is to see what has happened to the series post-Potter. Most obviously, the novels are now released in hardcovers and the older novels have been released in more lavish editions packaged to capture the new audience of young adult fantasy readers. Also, new novels within the setting are much longer, as Tamora Pierce can accomplish in one volume what she used to have to split over several—the main reason for the previous quartets was the expectations that novels had to be short to sell in the young adult market, a belief that Harry Potter has thoroughly shattered. There is a difference in themes in the new novels as well: Tamora Pierce now deals openly with lesbian characters and allows for a greater depth in story. The works have had a following since the beginning of the series, but the publisher has made more of a push now that young adult fantasy novels are high profile.