It’s been a bit less than a decade since J.K. Rowling brought the story of Harry Potter to a deeply emotional, deeply satisfying end. Since then, fans young and old who watched the Boy Who Lived grow up have been clamoring for more adventures in the Wizarding World. And Rowling certainly could have followed the path of so many other fantasy authors and launched a sequel or spinoff series. Instead, she went in entirely different direction. Charting the future of Harry’s world is a lot more complicated than just reading the next book in a series. Between bits of backstory and world-building leaking out on the Pottermore website, plans for a trio of prequel films, and the forthcoming publication of the script for the sequel/play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, it’s clear that Harry Potter is more than a book. It’s a modern-day literary franchise.
When The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, Rowling swore she’d reached the end of Harry’s story. The only thing fans had to look forward to was the promised publication of an “encyclopedia” that would collect unused bits of backstory and reveal what happened to some of the minor characters following the defeat of Voldemort.
That book has yet to emerge, and seems to have been supplanted by Pottermore, a multimedia website that is both a home base for the online community of Potter fanatics and a repository for those ancillary bits of story that didn’t fit into the seven-book series—short stories, dispatches, updates and facts about Harry’s world. We learned about the history of Quidditch, the lives of Harry Potter and his family, the sad life of Dolores Umbridge, and quite a bit more. But none of it was enough to satisfy readers.
Meanwhile, Rowling continued to write novels—just not the ones anyone expected. In 2012, she published The Casual Vacancy, a literary novel about the politics of small-town life, and later confirmed that she was the mind behind mystery writer Robert Galbraith, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm and Career of Evil. Harry Potter, it seemed, really had been left behind.
Then, in 2013, Rowling announced she would be returning to the Harry Potter universe with a new project: not a new novel, but a stage play, The Cursed Child. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. Pictures confirmed she’d be tackling script duties for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first film in a planned trilogy set decades before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Franchises are difficult beasts to build and sustain over time: and another author might have considered writing that sequel to satiate fans, but she has instead limited herself to small glimpses of the world. In truth, these fragments might be a more satisfying continuation of the story—something she seemed to realize even before the launch of Pottermore, with the publication of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages, two “in-universe” books that cement the reality of a fictional world.
Rowling isn’t simply expanding the story of Harry Potter: she’s building a massive world, piece by piece, in a wholly realistic fashion. A sequel novel would require her to spin a new narrative thread, and few would be satisfied if the final product was any less glorious than the original books. Harry Potter’s story really has ended, and in some ways, a new series of adventures, reuniting the cast and once again bringing the world to the brink of destruction seems…expected. It has, as they say, been done.
But The Cursed Child is a different beast. It’s a play, not a novel, and thus allowed to exist separately from the books we know and love. By setting the story to the stage, she’s shown that Harry Potter’s story isn’t bound by books or film: it’s a world that can exist in any medium, whether that’s through a short blog post, a bestselling novel, a blockbuster novel or even a West End production.
Pottermore continues to serve as an outlet to support this expanding world. The site recently unveiled several new Wizarding schools across the world, as well as short (and admittedly controversial) essays exploring the history of magic in North America, sowing seeds that will undoubtedly flower in the upcoming film. Where a story was once confined to a novel or film (or a film’s novelization), existing canonical models are breaking down. The story is more than the film, it is the marketing campaign that accompanies it: the Wizarding world itself is a self-sustaining entity that serves its fans, and itself, by keeping us engaged. Releasing The Cursed Child in print (but not as an adaptation) makes solid business sense: it’ll undoubtably sell in high numbers, but it reinforces the fact that the play is not a new novel, but a new story.
This is an interesting step in the evolution of storytelling, freed from the confines of paper and glue or celluloid and screen. Rowling is free to explore her world any way she wants to, and take us all along for the ride.