Parody has always been protected under copyright law–even though there are inroads to litigation if one of those parodies becomes a bit libelous. That obviously only applies to depicting real people…but Harry Potter has become so ingrained in the worldwide consciousness now–it makes anything that parodies the stories of the world’s favorite wizard-in-training a bit suspect in what the intentions are. Many, many parodies of Harry Potter have been done on TV shows of various kinds–with the most notable American ones being on “The Simpsons” and “Saturday Night Live.” Add to that hilarious sketches on British and Australian TV or on various sites around the internet. A lot of people, however, probably don’t know that numerous books have been published around the world that (in some cases) viciously parody the plot elements of all of the real books. Most of them have received a watchful eye from J.K. Rowling and her legal team. So far, though, many of them haven’t been forced to cease and desist. And some of them have become bestsellers.
One of the most successful ones is from an American parodist: Michael Gerber. To date, Gerber has written three books in his “Barry Trotter” series that gives the Mad Magazine treatment to all the Harry Potter characters by giving them uproarious name changes. Barry’s friends are Lon Measly and Ermine Cringer just to start with the name slaughters. They attend the Hogwash School of Wizardy and Witchcrap that’s run by headmaster Alpo Bumblemore. The other characters have name changes that will either appall you or make you guffaw until it hurts. Overall, though, this series of books is quite cynical while also being endearing in some ways to the real Harry Potter books. It also has some overly adult plot points that are so outrageous…most people with sophisticated senses of humor would get them. Some of those involve Bumblemore being a pedophile and Lord “Terry” Valumart (yes, clever) an open Nazi who was a former eco-terrorist. The child characters are depicted as older, sophisticated adults. Ermine Cringer has an overactive libido while chasing down the boyfriend of J.G. Collins (a parody of–who else–but J.K. Rowling).
The Barry Trotter series does have some literary merit, believe it or not. It’s written in the intellectually-sophisticated literary metanarrative style that basically means a technique of “a story within a story.” The continuing plot in all three books (the first book named “Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody” as printed in the U.S.) has the character trying to prevent the making of a movie about the characters. Come to find out, the story has already been made into a movie…and the characters are living it out. That, until it’s revealed that Barry Trotter had been writing this story all along…as an intended novel. Complicated? Yes, but makes parody more cerebral and worthy of all the work involved.
As of summer of 2007, only the first book mentioned above is still in print with the UK-titled version of “Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody” being hard to find in the States. The other two (“Barry Trotter and the Shameless Sequel” and “Barry Trotter and the Dead Horse”) have been pulled by the publisher for unknown reasons. Perhaps because Michael Gerber sold close to a million of these–Scholastic (the publisher of the real Harry books) may have exerted some pressure once and for all. No one’s reported what J.K. Rowling thought or thinks of the books. After some of her past litigation battles with people claiming she stole someone else’s ideas (long ago proved wrong)…she’s probably overly cautious and not always happy with offshoots like these. Nevertheless, it’s continually said that parody is the sincerest form of flattery along with confirmation of pop culture status. When that becomes undeniable, Harry Potter will be the #1 most parodied, imitated and most talked about brand of pop culture in human existence.
Well, it doesn’t just stop with the Barry Trotter series. Lots of other authors (mostly American) have attempted to cash in on the Harry Potter book parody craze. Another American parodist, Valerie Estelle Frankel wrote a book called “Henry Potty and the Pet Rock (an Unauthorized Harry Potter Parody)” that was published in August of 2006. This one has the usual Mad Magazine name changes to the characters, but really designed for children this time (or ages 2-222 as the book says on its cover). Many consider it the funniest book parody of Harry Potter out there too. Here, the parodies on Ron and Hermione are named Really Wimpy and Horendous Gangrene who attend Chickenfeet Academy with Henry Potty. The other principals are Bumbling Bore who goes around wearing hot pink surfer shorts as well as other clothing associated with a person in retirement living on a beach in a warm climate. Lord Revolting is the nemesis who does one uproarious thing in the book that’s astute to an ongoing problem in the real Harry Potter books: He loves giving spoilers and ruining plot points throughout the story.
What’s different about this one is that it also uses the metanarrative technique as the Barry Trotter series does. In this case, the characters have the knowledge that they’re living out their actions in a book. Lord Revolting consistently spoils cliffhanging plot elements throughout as mentioned above. The author herself ends up walking in on the action…while being a bit angry about having to do it.
Another interesting aspect to the book is that Frankel incorporates other classic children’s book plots into the mix. That creates a parody within a parody with parodies of the Harry Potter characters parodying elements of “The Wizard of Oz”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and numerous other usual literary suspects that are vulnerable to this treatment. Frankel basically has wide references to all kinds of pop culture in the book–also going after TV shows and other media institutions. She also creates original characters in the story to make this come close to being something other than straight parody. One example of those original characters: The Wicked Witch of the Vest…who enjoys making people’s minds turn to mush.
In April 2007, Frankel posted on Amazon.com’s message board for the page selling her book. In her message there, she claimed to list “upcoming” sequels in the Henry Potty series. Nobody knows if she was being serious or not, but you can read her message, titles and plot synopses here: www.amazon.com/Upcoming-Henry-Potty-Sequels/forum/Fx1788HVDMX1CX1/Tx35QFSJIM66Q7X/1/ref=cm_cd_dp_tft_tp/105-0289061-1496462 . Supposedly, some of the upcoming titles are “Henry Potty and the Chamberpot of Secrets”, “Henry Potty and the Man in the Iron Pants”, and (hold on to your sorting hats) “Henry Potty and the Cauldron of Hormones.”
And now let’s fly across the world to Russia where you wouldn’t expect parody to really prevail. This particular HP parody (called “Tanya Grotter”) also steps into the line of the plagiarism cases J.K. Rowling has successfully stopped over the years. And this is one parody that went over the line and ultimately was prevented from being translated into English by J.K. herself and Time Warner.
The plot in this one has the lead as a girl as you obviously could figure out from the title. But the book had illustrations that showed the girl (an orphan) looking startingly similar to the real Harry Potter…other than a prominent mole on her nose. Outside of that, the entire plot points are exactly the same as the real Harry Potter books…only with cultural names applied to each character. The author, Dmitri Yemets, claimed it was a “cultural response” to the real books. Yet, it supposedly still fell under the parody banner, despite not really being a barrel of laughs. It is interesting, though, to see Russian culture incorporated into the story with references to Russian folklore involving witches–including the famous Baba Yaga.
Yemets fought back against the cease and desist order from J.K. Rowling and Time Warner. This was when it was being published in the Netherlands–and Time Warner thought it was going to end up becoming too much of a success when the similarities with the HP books were too great. Later, however, Yemets and his Russian publishing company found out that printing the translated book in Belgium was still legal. They printed 1,000 books as a risky test of defiance…while ending up selling every copy immediately in Belgium. These are obviously huge collector’s items (well, at least for people in Europe) with occasional copies turning up on eBay and other used book sources. Later, Yemets changed the story around for his Tanya Grotter books to make it fall under safer legal grounds…and has since written dozens in the series that are huge sellers in Russia. Nevertheless, no one’s been reported dying of laughter at this supposed parody.
It seems much of the internet parodies of Harry Potter are done internationally. “Terry Rotter” (that one should have been in my title) is a parody done in Germany that can be downloaded for free as an e-book. These are full e-book novels with lots of sly references to German politics both past and present. Once you see that the Dark Lord character is named Heinrich Himmler–you realize that Germany still has its Nazi past still in mind as an evil force that needs to be eradicated. It also makes you realize that Harry Potter ultimately stands for the epic battle of good and evil worldwide–as all great children/fantasy books seem to use as a backbone plot.
This only skims the surface of the Harry Potter parodies out there in all media. We’ll be seeing plenty more, too, unless parody gets a new revision in copyright law. It’s more than just Tanya Grotter in Russia labeling themselves as parodies when they clearly were not. Fortunately, J.K. Rowling and her legal team can tell the difference…while plagiaristic writers will likely continue to use the word “parody” as a quasi First Amendment shield to see how far they can go.