Stumbled upon a biopic—unauthorized though it was—of J.K.Rowling, who is undoubtedly a publishing sensation, the likes of which appears on the horizon like a rare comet maybe once in a century.
Magic Beyond Words The J.K. Rowling Story, directed by Paul A. Kaufman and based on the book by Sean Smith, was made in 2011, but dropped on an OTT platform, and despite its rushed feel, it makes for fascinating viewing, simply because it is an inspiring story of a woman completely down on her luck, who lifts herself up with her extraordinary talent and imagination. The Harry Potter books and movies made her one of the richest women in the world; this kind of popularity and wealth is seldom bestowed on an author, and that too a female author. Joanne Rowling had been advised by a well-meaning agent to use initials, because boys don’t read books by female authors. She was also told that children’s books do not make much money, and of course, she proved that belief spectacularly wrong. Not only did she send book and movie ticket sales soaring, she also engendered dozens of me-too authors who ventured into the fantasy space after the success of Harry Potter. It is as if her extraordinary creativity ignited a whole new genre of story-telling.
The film gives small hints about the creation of the Harry Potter universe, but it is more about how a young woman cleared all the hurdles placed in her path. It begins with Joanne or Jo, dressed as a witch, playing with her sister Diana. She spooks a sneering boy named Ian Potter, with a made-up-on-the-spot story about a witch living in the forest, as she dares him to go in there alone.
Her mother reads to her (The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame is a beloved, well-thumbed book) encourages her dreams of becoming a writer and teaches her she can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to. This was at a time when millions of little girls must have been told by their parents to grow up to be good, get suitable husbands and settle down. All her father expects is that she study something that would help her make a living. Unfortunately, her mother who suffered from multiple sclerosis did not live to see her daughter’s fame.
Because of her middle class roots and public school education, Joanne is rejected by Oxford, and has to pick a lesser college. Her teachers at school comment on her “flights of imagination.” She pays little attention in class and doodles in her notebook some of the magical creatures who ended up in her books. Joanne (played as an adult by Poppy Montgomery) is unable to stick to mundane jobs, and ends up teaching English in Portugal, where she meets her future husband, Jorge Arantes. After a short and dizzy romance, they get married and have a daughter, Jessica. But his call for military service results in the loss of his job as a journalist, and a descent into alcoholism and violence.
Joanne returns to live in Edinburgh, bringing just her little daughter and a box of Harry Potter story ideas and notes. She is forced to go on the dole till she is able to find a job that would help her pay the rent and afford daycare for her daughter. Even at the end of the tether, she sits in a café and writes the first Harry Potter book in longhand. (The café now has a sign that says J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter here.)
Putting aside everything but essentials for her child, she types the manuscript on a second hand typewriter picked from a pawn shop, and sends out the book to agents. Christopher Little is bullied by one of his staff to accept the book, it goes out to publishers, and is rejected by all, till Bloomsbury’s new children’s book division picks it up and Harry Potter enchants millions of children and their parents all over the world. Each new book sets off a frenzy, and parents are forced to queue up overnight to pick up the latest Harry Potter for their kid. The story of the wizard, his friends, teachers and enemies at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft And Wizardry, set off his own vocabulary and mythology. The movies set the box office on fire with latest CGI giving visual shape to Rowling’s vivid descriptions.
And all this because of a young woman’s determination to be a writer, her remarkable talent plus a conjunction of circumstances and luck that made her work so successful. She also had the brains to adapt to new media and today Harry Potter is stamped on the minds of readers (and non-readers) all over the world.
The books have won multiple awards, and sold more than 500 million copies, making them the top selling books in history. She has won several honours and awards, but has used the power of her celebrity for philanthropic work.
Interestingly, in her address to graduate at Harvard, published as a book titled Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, she said, “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”
The crime thrillers she wrote under the pen name Robert Galbraith have also become bestsellers. She deserves a better film, a more detailed look at her life and work—ideally scripted by her own magic pen… or computer.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated December 16, 2020)