According to my own rules about spoilers, I am compelled to warn you that significant plot points of a variety of books and movies are discussed below. Proceed at your own risk.
On Monday, a little tidbit about an alternate plot line for the Harry Potter series made the rounds when J.K. Rowling said that she strongly considered killing off Ron Weasley. At a low point in the writing of the series, “sheer spite” nearly induced her to off one of the series’ three main characters.
It’s too bad she had a change of heart. Look, we all knew that Voldemort wasn’t going to roll through Hogwarts and rule the magical world.* The only questions going into Book 7 were what exactly the deal was with Snape and who was going to get it. At first glance, the good-guy body count seems pretty high: Dumbledore, Sirius, Dobby, Colin Creeley, Hedwig, Remus, Tonks, Mad-Eye, and, perhaps most painful for fans, Fred Weasley.
Fred’s death is the most emotional (Dumbledore’s death was weakened considerably with the revelation that he was going to die in a year or so anyway), but there was another one of him.** The roll-call of secondary casualties seems to me to suggest that Rowling was trying to have the war exact a price, but couldn’t bring herself to do in Harry, Hermione, or Ron.*** And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep the series in safe territory, away from the dark waters of adult literature.
This isn’t a value judgment, but an observation about what adult literature does that children’s literature doesn’t do; it not only brings the worst-case scenario into play, sometimes, just sometimes, it actually happens.
Consider the really bad stuff that actually doesn’t happen at all to Middle Earth. To Narnia. To that galaxy far, far away for that matter.**** People die, to be sure, but not the ones we really care about. Not the ones that hurt and linger. I mean really, of the nine that set out from Rivendell, only Boromir dies? The one who has a brother just like him that plays a major role in the last part?*****
Hamlet dies. So does Don Quixote. Both Hector and Achilles die. And Sydney Carton. And Tea-Cake. And Jay Gatsby. And nurse Katherine. And Beloved. Characters that are at the center of readerly interest and value don’t always die in adult literature, but they always can. I’m not sure if this is the central thing that separates children’s literature from adult literature (or if there really is anything tangible at all), but it sure feels that way.
Rowling had a chance that, to my knowledge, no other writer has had; to write a series that walked readers from childhood into adulthood. If, say, Ron******* sacrificed himself to save Hermione, then it’s a different story. If Harry dies and stays dead, different story. A more complicated, mature, and enduring story.
So in this bizarro version of Harry Potter she once considered, Rowling would have done more interesting things–just for the wrong reasons.
*If this had happened, were we supposed to think the Muggle world was next? I was never clear about what the stakes were. Not that they were ever really at risk.
**Confession: I had to Google which Weasley twin actually died. This is anecdotal to be sure, but it doesn’t suggest a deep psychic wound. Not like Bambi’s mom or the horse who dies in the sadness swamp in The Never-Ending Story. Shiver.
***The whole Harry-dies-but-not-really is a valiant attempt to have her cake and eat it too, to have Harry sacrifice himself without putting the audience through his passing. It was middling successful I think. From this day forth, let all such narrative compromises be known as “Rowling’s Gambit.”
****This is not to mention comics or cartoons where characters do worse than die–they are resurrected and re-incarnated again and again.
*****List I Want: Secondary Characters Who Die To Give A Story “Emotional Depth” Without Having To Kill The Main Characters. Such characters from here on out are to be known as “Fred Weasleys”
*******Apparently, Harrison Ford thought Han Solo should have died to save his friends. This might be Ford wanting the star moment, but I think it also could be that Ford sensed that it would have fundamentally changed the story for the better. I think I agree with him. My own pre-adolescent love of the trilogy would have been considerably more nuanced if this had happened.