Finding it hard to let go of Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling's play, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, begins previews in London tomorrow

A grown-up Harry Potter played by Jamie Parker (far left), with Sam Clemmett and Poppy Miller as his son and wife in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.
A grown-up Harry Potter played by Jamie Parker (far left), with Sam Clemmett and Poppy Miller as his son and wife in Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON • J.K. Rowling always said the seventh Harry Potter book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, would be the last in the series, and so far she has kept to her word. But though she has written many new things in the intervening nine years, including four adult novels, she has never been able to put Harry to rest or to leave him alone.

What is an author to do when she once seemed to be done? Taking an approach that some fans love and others do not, Rowling has never made a secret of her continued immersion in Potter-world.

Over the years, she has regularly interjected new elements into the old stories, sometimes through sudden Twitter pronouncements, sometimes by other means. In 2007, for instance, she announced at an event at Carnegie Hall that Dumbledore, whose sexuality in the books was obscure, is gay.

She also produces fresh ancillary material - new stories, new elaborations - on her Pottermore website, most recently, a series of fictional essays about the history of magic in North America.

And now comes Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, a play in two full-length parts that begins previews in London tomorrow, opens on July 30 and is being advertised as the official "eighth story in the Harry Potter canon".

Set 19 years after the events of Deathly Hallows, the play imagines Harry as an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic and focuses on his middle child, Albus Severus, and his struggle to come to terms with his family's legacy.

No one who remembers the frenzy surrounding the publication of each of the Potter books would be surprised to learn there is now a frenzy surrounding this play and all the details around it, such as the disclosure that a black actress, Noma Dumezweni, is portraying Hermione.

The news has been released slowly - Rowling is a master of controlled publicity - and last Tuesday, cast photos of a grown-up Harry (Jamie Parker) and Ginny Potter (Poppy Miller), along with Albus (Sam Clemmett), were unveiled on the Pottermore website.

Performances, at least for the first of the two parts, are sold out through May next year. Secondary- market tickets to the first preview are selling for as much as £4,000 (S$7,800). And the script - by Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, who is also the director - is No. 1 on the Amazon bestseller list, despite the fact that it will not be published until July 31, Harry Potter's birthday. If that was not enough, next autumn comes Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, a movie that is a spin-off and a kind of prequel.

Written by Rowling (who did not write the screenplays for the eight Potter movies), the movie is loosely based on her book of the same name. That volume was a fictional wizarding-school textbook; the film takes its supposed author, Newt Scamander, sends him back many years to when he was a young man and transports him to the United States.. The movie, starring Eddie Redmayne, is expected to be the first of a trilogy.

Clearly, Rowling has not wanted to put Harry Potter behind her. It is an interesting dilemma for an author, particularly one who creates an elaborate world over many volumes: How do you stop?

Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials series, and Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, have spoken about further books to come, years after those stories were apparently put to rest. On the other extreme, Arthur Conan Doyle grew so weary of Sherlock Holmes that he killed him, only to resurrect him years later in response to widespread public unhappiness.

Stephen King, who has written many series as well as stand-alone novels, spoke of the temptation to revisit characters. In 2012, eight years after completing his seven- volume Dark Tower series, for instance, he produced an eighth book, The Wind Through The Keyhole, whose action takes place between Books 4 and 5.

Characters with unfinished business inveigle themselves into his head, he said in a telephone interview. He is toying with going back into his Bill Hodges trilogy though End Of Watch, coming out this month, is meant to be the final instalment.

"There's a character named Holly I keep thinking about," he says.

Rowling declined to comment for this article. But King says he sympathised with her relationship to her material.

"There are two things," he says. "I think she likes the Harry Potter people and it's a little bit hard for her to let go. And she's aware that there are millions of people who loved those books. Writers feel responsibility to their readers and some of that is a way of saying to the fans, 'If you want a little more, I'll give you a little more.'"

Details have been few and far between; Rowling likes to tease her fans by doling out information sparingly. Sometimes she will respond to questions on Twitter, as she did recently when a follower asked if Cursed Child would make him cry.

"If it doesn't, we'll be checking your vital signs," she replied, launching a thousand headlines about how she has revealed that the play will be "sad".

The tidbits are fine with Melissa Anelli, who runs the Leaky Cauldron fan website and also organises a Potter-themed fan convention known as LeakyCon. "I love everything about Harry Potter," she says. "So when I get one of those plot details or a new piece of writing, it's like a nice, full exhale."

But not everyone agrees. This speaks to a debate deep within fandom culture, starting with what counts as the canon in a fictional world like Harry Potter's. Some readers consider the material in the seven books to be immutable. Hearing new details about things they had not realised were open to interpretation feels like cognitive dissonance.

As reader Heather Schwedel wrote in Slate recently: "It's dispiriting to be faced with daily reminders that one of your former heroes is still tinkering with a world they thought you left behind perfectly preserved in childhood."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Finding it hard to let go of Harry Potter'. Print Edition | Subscribe