For decades film has been seen as vital to nation-building. A country’s identity was claimed by the cinema it produced. As such, countries competed to lead the film industry. Up until World War I, France dominated world film production (source). However, by the 1930’s, 80% of films screened around the world had roots in Hollywood (Harvard Business Review), thus the cinema being showcased promoted and popularised American culture. More recently, there has been a paradigm shift from national cinema to transnational cinema. As a result, these films have been seen by some as effectively barricading cultural representation in film. This blog will look at the idea of
transnational film as a tool for disintegrating culture, then use the Harry Potter film franchise to demonstrate how this may not be the case.
Transnational cinema blends elements of multiple nationalities, often making it difficult to recognise the nation in which a film originated =. This has caused fears of cultural homogenisation (a reduction in cultural diversity, often leading to the view that Americanisation is taking place). For example, the Chinese Government has strict film censorship guidelines which regulate the number and content of international films being screened in China, in order to protect the Chinese culture from potential Hollywood corruption.
But are Hollywood films really that American? It has been argued that much of Hollywood cinema is culturally non-specific and therefore represents no particular culture.
For example, the Harry Potter franchise was written by British author J.K. Rowling. Rowling was reluctant to sign over the film rights of the series to an American film production company, Warner Bros,
demanding the main cast be British (source). This is likely due to a fear of a culturally homogenised enactment of her characters – she created them specifically as British. However, the producers and directors of the films were a combination of American (Chris Columbus), Mexican (Alfonso Cuaron) and British (David Yates and Mike Newell). This combination of Hollywood and British contribution makes it difficult to determine the nationality of the
Harry Potter cinema. Irish actors were also cast (such as Richard Harris) and various European actors in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Alfonso Cuaron, a Mexican, directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The title of the first film, originally Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was adapted to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as that was thought to better suit the desires of an American audience. Therefore it can be said that the Harry Potter film franchise is an example of transnational cinema. Still, taking a much shallower view of the franchise, Harry Potter and its characters are generally known to be British.
Sara Robinson’s Harry Potter and the Magic of Global Culture explores how the novels were adapted to suit different cultural audiences. In France, the story was edited to highlight the educational themes above any others. Many different storylines in paperback circulated
Chinese markets, many of which had Chinese characters in Chinese settings. Japanese versions focus on the symbol of Hedwig, with owls culturally representing good fortune.
This makes Harry Potter an example of cultural appropriation. But is it an example of cultural homogenisation? No – it spreads British culture more than American (i.e. the boarding school tradition), and that is culturally appropriated to different areas on the globe. Is there anything wrong with the story being told in different ways to appeal to different audiences? It could be said that it is disrespectful to the author, J.K. Rowling and to British culture to have the story modified to market better in another country.
Robinson acknowledges that Australians were fed identical Harry Potter media to the British (free from cultural appropriation),
“readers accept the novels’ unfamiliar concepts as part of its inherent Britishness”
Is this assuming the British settlement of Australia has born British culture within us? Or are we as Australians more adaptable to viewing other cultures? Or is our culture not deemed strong enough for its own appropriation?
So we can safely pronounce that a media phenomenon such as Harry Potter is influenced by different cultural roots, and is interpreted and restyled in many others. I believe cultural appropriation has, to a degree, reduced the British authenticity of the franchise and therefore effectively locked up the opportunity for British culture to be spread in some nations, but at the end of the day, viewers worldwide are responding to media they can relate to and enjoy.