Harry Potter Was Always Meant to Be Television

A long story with a locked-in ending is ideal for the smaller screen.

Illustration showing vintage TV showing the philosopher's stone with wings.
Illustration by Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic

When HBO recently announced that it would be adapting the Harry Potter series into a television show, devoting at least one season to each book, some critics were skeptical. The original Potter film franchise grossed more than $2 billion. What could a TV version possibly offer audiences that the popular movies hadn’t already?

But I had a different reaction: It’s about time.

Judged as fan service that considerately condensed the celebrated series for the silver screen, the Potter movies were an undeniable success. But as art, they left a lot to be desired—and not because of a lack of creative effort. Rather, the movie medium was never well suited to the seven-year story of the beloved boy wizard. Harry Potter was always meant to be a TV series, and it provides a perfect study in why so many books today make for better television than film.

To begin with, the Potter novels were never going to fit into the run time of feature films. J. K. Rowling’s saga totals more than 3,000 pages, with the later installments growing notoriously long. In their attempt to encompass this material, the movies often feel more like trailers, churning through plot without fully explaining it and nodding to meaningful character moments while never quite letting them breathe. Certain fan favorites from the books, like Peeves the poltergeist, never appear, and some cinematic scenes from the books were left on the cutting-room floor. To take one example: In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the Quidditch World Cup begs to be dramatized as the magical equivalent of the Super Bowl. But because the championship’s aerial antics were not strictly necessary to understand the book’s conclusion, the match itself was cut from the movie. A TV version of Harry Potter would not have to make such a sacrifice.

But it’s not just the number of pages in Harry Potter that makes the material more suited to television—it’s what’s in them. One of Rowling’s strengths as a writer, in both her Harry Potter novels and her acclaimed Cormoran Strike detective series, is her ability to tie up her tales in a fashion that causes all prior pieces to fall into place. Whether it’s the origin of the Chamber of Secrets or the true nature of Severus Snape, everything in a given book ultimately adds up. That quality is precisely what makes for a satisfying television drama.

Many serialized TV shows today, by contrast, are making it up as they go along, advancing narrative questions without knowing the answers, and this often leads to audience disillusionment. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is J. J. Abrams’s Lost, whose first season revolved around a mysterious metal hatch found in the ground. At the end of the season, the locked door is finally opened to reveal … a hole in the earth, an apt representation of the plot hole that the show’s writers planned to fill over the summer break. Unsurprisingly, Lost’s finale similarly punted on resolving most of the mysteries previously raised by the series.

This haphazard approach is distressingly common. In 2021, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was asked what he’d learned from producing the first season of Star Trek: Picard, a nearly $100 million show that received mixed reviews from audiences. “Figure out the end earlier,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “If you’re going to do a serialized show, you have the whole story before you start shooting.”

Such creative confusion has less to do with the talent of the writers than the mechanics of the industry. Much of television is written episodically, and unlike novelists, those producing it don’t have the luxury of going back and revising earlier chapters in light of later developments. Networks typically pick up single-episode pilots, not multiyear storylines. This is why many shows with a gripping first season fall apart afterward, as showrunners either fail to follow up their initial idea with something similarly scintillating or begin coasting once they’ve acquired a built-in audience. Moreover, with constant turnover in TV writers’ rooms, maintaining a coherent narrative vision over time can be fiendishly difficult. When the screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski decided to commit to a five-year storyline for his sci-fi show Babylon 5, he had to write 92 of its 110 episodes himself.

Adapting a literary work is one of the best ways to avoid this trap. After all, the novelist has already taken care of the narrative arc, foreshadowing, and other storytelling elements that bedevil episodic TV writers. By basing a television series on books like Rowling’s, showrunners avoid “hatch moments” where viewers realize that the writers have no idea where the show is going. The result is drama that doesn’t disappoint its audience. In other words, television doesn’t just solve Harry Potter’s problem; Harry Potter solves television’s problem.

HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones illustrates the point. Based on the best-selling novels of George R. R. Martin, the show won plaudits for many years—until the writers ran out of books and had to wrap up the story on their own. Deprived of Martin’s careful plotting and broader vision, they floundered, serving up a conclusion that was panned as rushed and inconsistent with what came before.

Or take another beloved British children’s book series with adult appeal, which offers a more encouraging precedent. In 2003, when the BBC polled the U.K. public about its favorite literary works, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came in fifth, two places behind Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. In 2007, the first book of that series was adapted for film. The Golden Compass had a lot going for it: a skilled director in Chris Weitz, the production company behind The Lord of the Rings, and lead roles filled by Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. It also flopped so badly that the studio never produced the next two books in the trilogy. Fast-forward to 2019, and His Dark Materials got a second chance—as television. Featuring James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda among its stars, and backed by the biggest budget in BBC history, it was finally able to tell the popular story on its own terms. This time, the effort was rewarded with three full seasons. The show finished its run to critical and audience acclaim in December.

Harry Potter can do the same. In the past, only movie studios had the budget and talent to do justice to popular works of literature. Many actors turned down TV gigs for higher-profile blockbuster roles. But today, the rise of prestige television and dramatic advances in affordable visual effects have made it possible to combine the production values of the big screen with the expansive storytelling space of the small screen—and it’s that marriage that would provide the real magic of a Potter TV turn.