Harry Potter fans, gird your loins. Last week it was announced that JK Rowling, in association with the Palace Theatre in London’s West End, will be putting on a new play next summer, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and she wants you to know that it isn’t a prequel. Despite the fact that there is essentially no information about the play other than the title and some information regarding the production team, the Internet has, quite understandably, exploded with speculation and excitement for a new Harry Potter-related story.
Speculation aside (Is it about Teddy Lupin? I bet it’s about Teddy Lupin.) The Cursed Child is just the latest in a line of what feels to me like a Harry Potter universe (HPU) expansion pack. In 2011/12 Rowling launched Pottermore, an interactive game/role-play/canon-accessory center website. On Pottermore, the user can make an account, get Sorted, relive the series through interactive artwork, collect magical items and earn House points. The most compelling element of the site, however, is that Rowling publishes new background information about characters, places, events and concepts within the HPU. There is, for instance, a brief biography of Professor McGonagall that, while certainly interesting to fans, has no real bearing on the context or direction of the series in general. It’s story embroidery, extra information, and it begs the question, I think, do these kinds of supplementary stories, whether in the form of an interactive website or a West End play, count as literature?
The Harry Potter series is certainly not the first story subject to expansion and elucidation beyond the original texts. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series doesn’t stand alone; The Silmarillion embellishes and expounds upon the mythos of series’ universe and was indeed used by director Peter Jackson to supplement and fill out the recently completed Hobbit film trilogy. When we discuss these extra texts, ought they be considered just as important as the original texts? What is this urge to flesh out stories that exist in universes that are so fundamentally unlike our own, and for that matter, does this fleshing out actually add to a reader’s experience? Or does it narrow and constrict the understanding of the text by limiting a reader’s ability to fill in details on his or her own, to read between the lines?
What I think is particularly interesting about Rowling’s foray into literary expansion packs, and what is important in assessing the question of whether or not we decide to include these expansion packs in our consideration of the works as whole, is that Rowling is utilizing other forms of media outside of traditional print to expand her textual universe. The Silmarillion, while a literary expansion pack of sorts, is still text-based (which is to an extent unavoidable as Tolkien didn’t exactly have the Internet at his disposal). Rowling, however, has expanded the Harry Potter universe not only on the Internet and in theatre, but also in the upcoming film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which appears to be a narrativized adaptation of the book of the same name.
Part of the reason that Rowling’s HPU has expanded so prolifically is due to its commercial nature. Harry Potter isn’t just a book series anymore; it’s a brand. With such a large readership and with such complex textual universe, it’s not surprising that readers instead become, in effect, consumers who want a complete picture of that textual universe, a finished product.
Perhaps the growing interactivity that readers are demanding from books is not, however, particularly out of line with historical trends in storytelling. With the advent and popularization of novels, reading became a much more solitary activity, deviating from previous oral traditions which demanded, if on a small scale, the participation of listeners and interaction between storyteller and audience. The very nature of the oral tradition allowed for changes in the stories between storytellers, implied that stories would morph and grow. With the oral tradition of storytelling, stories were much less static and much more alive.
With printed and bound works protected by stringent copyright laws, the idea of canon—that a story has an official form or version—has, I think, become the dominant way of thinking, when instead the very nature of storytelling is one that encourages amendment and addition. There are so many more outlets now to involve the reader in the telling of the story, so many more ways to communicate a story than to read from a page. While I sometimes feel like Rowling’s additions to the HPU are cheating a little bit, the traditionalist in me muttering that if it isn’t in the books, extra information provided by the author is just glorified ret-conning to make a buck, I also think outlets like Pottermore, like The Cursed Child, like Fantastic Beasts, are positive explorations of the possibilities in storytelling. While I will always love novels and the written word, perhaps it’s coming to a time to stop worshipping at the altar of the Definitive Text.
With stories told across multiple media platforms, we would not only redefine what it means to read, but what it means to be an author. To be an author in this light would be both to tighten narrative control by steering the content and information, but it would also at times require one to loosen it, to allow the medium or even the readers to guide the story.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will certainly be an interesting study in the way a story that has been so text-based can transform into a more performative medium. Where the film adaptations of the Harry Potter novels functioned to tell stories that already existed and Pottermore has created a living community of readers, The Cursed Child doesn’t have as many paperback moorings. Perhaps more than anything I keep wondering why it is Rowling has chosen to make it a play. What is it about the story that particularly suits it to the stage? Or is it simply a medium Rowling is eager to explore for the sake of exploring it? Either way, you can bet that come Summer 2016, my bum will be planted firmly in a seat at the Palace Theatre, and I will be shaking with excitement.