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J-School at Hogwarts offers lessons from the “Potterverse”

15 August 2011 · by Blaine Sundrud

The Harry Potter phenomenon has lessons for the newsmedia industry. As we go down the tracks from King’s Cross station into the multi-channel publishing world, we need to realise that different media does not just mean additional audience; it presents unique storytelling needs.

I taught speech, film and theatre in an Arizona high school for a few years before coming full-time to the news industry. While I was teaching, I had one of the greatest compliments a teacher ever received when one of my students came to me dejectedly and declared: “Mr. Sundrud, you have ruined movies for me. I can’t watch them anymore without thinking, and I hate thinking during movies.”

It was hard for my student to realise that he was asking himself why we like something, or why something just doesn’t work for us, rather than just simply liking it.

This brings me to the recent release of the end of the Harry Potter film series. Like them or not, most people have opinions on the series as a whole. However, if you separate the books from the films, you get an interesting dichotomy.

Most people either like the books as a collective work, or they don’t (if you got past Book 3, odds are you fell under the “I liked it” category). But the films individually spanned the range of reactions from, “breathtaking,” to “abysmal,” even from fans of the Potterverse (can I use that term?).

Sean Means from The Salt Lake Tribune recently published an excellent series recap of the eight films. In the article, he not only re-grades each film as standalone art (Means forced himself to never read the books until all the films were released), but ranked the films against each other.

The worst films were the first two, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” The best film on his list: the third one, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

So what made the difference between those films? The first two were directed by the journeyman Chris Columbus, who also directed such pedestrian classics as “Home Alone and “Home Alone 2. The third one was helmed by the artist Alfonso Cuarón, who was responsible for masterworks such as “Y Tu Mamá También,” and “Children of Men”.

It could be argued that the artistic skill levels between Columbus and Cuarón can account for the quality difference between the films. Columbus has a visual dictionary that, while pretty, left the viewer feeling like something was missing. Cuarón was able to take our emotions on a journey that exhilarated audiences. Since the books were (for argument’s sake here) equally as good, it could be reasoned that Cuarón was better able to translate the author’s words to the screen.

Which brings me to the key part of the analysis: what does it mean to translate the story?

In Columbus’ vision, the words of the book were so well done that he had to faithfully recreate every line, every image in order to re-tell the story in film. Cuarón has the understanding that film needs a different voice; that in order to be true to the author’s story, it must be adjusted to fit the audience.

Knowing how to tell the story using the medium of film was more than just taking the book and calling it a screenplay. In some cases he had to fully re-write the content. This willingness to know how to tell the story differently is what separates the artists (like Cuarón) from the average (like Columbus).

Yet, as newspapers we get trapped in Columbus’ thinking way too often. We have known for hundreds of years how to tell a story to our print readers. We know how to design pages that guide readers’ eyes over and through the content (and past the revenue-generating ad stacks in the process). And yet when presented with entirely new medium options like tablet devices, as newspapers we tend to either run tablet-specific Web page design or put a page turning e-edition online which in either case is exactly the same copy that ran in print.

So here is the challenge that Cuarón has put to us: as we go down the tracks from King’s Cross station into the multi-channel publishing world, are we taking the time to realise that the use of different media does not just mean additional audience, but also requires unique storytelling needs?

Are we leveraging our technology vendors to make sure we can handle multi-channel publishing without needing multiple-channel workflows? Are we thinking about these channels not just in terms of search-engine optimisation, but also audience optimisation? It may take more than a swish and flick of the wrist to adjust the content, but in the end I think that will help us tell the story better.

And that is one thing J. K. Rowling proved: a good story will keep us spellbound.

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