It’s no, well, secret that name-dropping Dumbledore in the title is a Hail Mary borne out of the desperate hope that evoking one of the most popular characters in the series will drive audiences back to the theaters. But realistically, it seems like Dumbledore’s backstory (and any hidden revelations contained within) has already been fairly well-mined. We’ve seen him as an old man, the wizened mentor of Harry Potter as headmaster of Hogwarts. We’ve seen him in flashbacks at various points in what we have to assume is an unusually extended middle age, thanks to Harry’s exploration of the Pensieve in an effort to learn more about Voldemort’s shadowy past. We’ve gotten first hand accounts of his early life from his brother Aberforth, and we’ve even read excerpts from an (admittedly potentially libelous) biography published posthumously by Bathilda Bagshot.
And now with The Crimes of Grindelwald, we’ve seen him as a roguishly handsome young Transfiguration professor at Hogwarts in the 1920s, thanks to Law in an impeccably tailored three-piece suit. Does Dumbledore even have any secrets left?
Setting aside all of the substantial on-screen exploration of Dumbledore’s past, we haven’t even begun to take into account one of the most powerful vessels of canonical Harry Potter intel: the famous Rowling info dump. Ever since Harry Potter put J.K. Rowling on the map, it’s been clear that she has veritable notebooks full of background information that didn’t make it into the books and films, and nothing delights her more than sharing some of these details. Some of them are puzzling but harmless, like the time she posted on Pottermore (apropos of nothing) that Hogwarts didn’t used to have indoor plumbing, and that witches and wizards simply relieved themselves wherever they stood and magically vanished the evidence.
Others add nuance to beloved characters: the revelation she shared shortly after the release of the final Harry Potter book, for example, which told us Dumbledore was gay. Learning all of this shapes our understanding of the series, but it also feels a little bit like a cheat. If it was important to Rowling that we know Dumbledore’s sexuality, why did she wait until after the ink was dry to tell us, and not simply include it in the text? In many ways, it’s a half measure; an opportunity to pay lip service to progressive values but without any inherent risk. (And the more that we learn about Rowling’s views on gender politics, the more it comes across as disingenuous.)
To be frank, audiences have reason to distrust Rowling’s attempts to elaborate on characters from the original series. Historically, this has not always improved said characters. Nagini, for instance, began as an intriguingly intelligent snake, one able to maintain a powerful bond to Voldemort when he was unable to connect with any of his own species in the same way. Everyone just sort of accepted that character as read, and no one asked for more of an explanation. The universe did not need a Nagini prequel.
But in The Crimes of Grindelwald, Rowling couldn’t resist the opportunity to tinker, and then we end up with a Nagini that is an incredibly problematic depiction of an Asian woman. She is enslaved by a circus owner and burdened with a blood curse that initially gave her the power to transform into a snake but, by the events of the original Harry Potter series, she is permanently fixed in snake form. Who in the world thought adding that to Nagini would make her a more compelling character? Proof that there is creative danger in becoming so rich and powerful as an artist that no one is willing to tell you, “No. That’s a bad idea.”
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