To a certain extent, I feel for Rowling. As a writer, there’s got to be something tremendously frustrating about feeling confined by your most successful creation, even if said creation has been so wildly popular that you can ease your pain with hundreds of millions of dollars. And while Rowling has done other work since the publication of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” none of her work has quite taken off in the same way.
“The Casual Vacancy,” which explored local British politics and social issues, sold strongly in part because it was Rowling’s first post-Potter book. But despite its success, it wasn’t the top-selling book of 2012, and the miniseries adaptation of the novel largely slipped below the water here in the United States. “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” written under Rowling’s pseudonym Robert Galbraith, sold fewer than 10,000 physical and electronic copies when it was published in 2013; sales surged only when it became clear that Rowling was the author. Her name seems to have been a bigger draw than the content of any of her subsequent works.
Thus far, the expansion of the Harry Potter universe has come in fits and starts. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a play about Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley as adults, and written by Jack Thorne, premieres in London this summer. And on Pottermore, the recently revamped fansite for the franchise, Rowling is releasing a “History of Magic in North America” in installments, as well as descriptions of wizarding schools in other countries. “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them,” a big-screen movie that turns what was originally one of the Hogwarts textbooks into a full-fledged narrative story, is due this November.
And so, if Rowling can’t let her most popular creation go, maybe she ought to find a way to expand it wholeheartedly rather than approaching it piecemeal, or, as Esther Breger of the New Republic described it, “writing wiki entries about the fictional universe she created 20 years ago.” If readers got new novels set in the Harry Potter universe, no matter where and when they happened in relation to Rowling’s original story, maybe these latest releases would feel less like marketing and more like the vibrant creations that made Harry Potter so compelling in the first place.
The easiest solution for Rowling and for the fans who love Harry Potter so much would be to open up the world she built to other authors. Rowling could do what George Lucas did with “Star Wars” and create an authorized expanded universe, allowing outside professional writers to tell new stories and create new characters. Rowling could set the rules for how that universe functions and establish important facts about critically important characters, as she’s done on Twitter by making declarations about things like Dumbledore’s sexuality. The world of Harry Potter could continue expand without requiring Rowling to drive that expansion entirely on her own. And new authors could bring new knowledge and new perspectives to this universe; I’d love to see someone like Nnedi Okorafor, the Nigerian American author of the fantastic fantasy novel “Who Fears Death,” flesh out an African magical system for the Potterverse.
It might be dispiriting for Rowling to see that Potterverse stories can be just as successful even if she doesn’t write them. But maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe could provide a lesson: It doesn’t diminish the contributions of the creators of iconic characters such as Iron Man and Captain America to see how other directors and writers have interpreted them in subsequent years. And superhero movies have seen real benefits from variations in tone and approach in films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool.”
Whatever else happens, it’s clear that Rowling is stuck either way. If she doesn’t want to write more Harry Potter novels herself, it’s also clear that she can’t bring herself to leave the franchise behind for good. But if she can add other voices to the franchise, Rowling might find a way to feed her fans’ hunger without having to tell all the stories herself.