You might have thought that after writing seven books, eight films, two ‘pamphs’, a play, an encyclopaedia, one short story and a whole website about Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling might be a little sick of bespectacled boys and wondrous wizzardy tales.
Apparently not. Her latest Potter jottings have now formed the basis for Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, a newly-released movie set to sooth Hogwarts hankerings the world over as of this very month. More impressively still, Rowling has promised not just one sequel to her new fantasy franchise but four. This means we are likely to be treated to new instalments well into the 2030s, whether we like it or not.
According to the author, this wasn’t the original plan when she first sat down with Warner Brothers, the movie-making megalith that has hung much of its profit expectations on all things Harry since the turn of the millennium.
Reflecting on just how this latest piece of the Potter pantheon came to be, she says: “We always knew that it was going to be more than one movie, so we set it as a trilogy as a sort of placeholder. Now I’ve done the plotting properly, we’re pretty sure it’s going to be at least five movies.”
Adding an intriguing hint as to where the series is heading, she says: “I think, when you realise what story we’re really telling, you’ll understand that it can’t possibly all fit in one movie! There’s a natural arc that takes it to five…”
Loosely based on Rowling’s book of the same name, Fantastic Beasts was conceived as a magical creatures textbook, one that was required reading at Hogwarts, Harry’s alma mater. Taking a slightly different tack, the film follows the 1920’s adventures of one Newt Scamander, the textbook’s supposed author.
Although it is clearly designed to be the first in a series of prequels to the Harry Potter canon we all know so well, many of the connections to the latter Potter can – at first glance – seem a little tenuous. Given the world’s on-going love affair with the scar-faced sorcerer, however, any concerns are surely ill-founded, especially with stars of the magnitude of Eddie Redmayne and Jon Voight along for the ride.
“Now I’ve done the plotting, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be five Fantastic Beasts movies”
In truth, the enthusiasm of the franchise’s fans for any product with the Potter stamp on it means that its success is pretty much guaranteed. When tickets for the play Harry Potter And The Cursed Child went on sale earlier this year, for instance, the 175,000 seats were all sold in 24 hours – a record for any production ever put on in London’s West End.
The play, a collaboration between Rowling and Jack Thorne, an established playwright, is a sequel to the original Potter stories, taking up where the epilogue at the end of the very last book leaves off, with Albus – Harry’s son – starting his schooling at Hogwarts.
While developing a sequel and a prequel at the same time might have proved a stretch for most writers, Rowling apparently relished the challenge. She says: “I had this residue of material in my head, going in both directions – with Fantastic Beasts going backwards and with the play going forwards.
“Although it’s been more than a decade since the last book, just because I stopped writing it doesn’t mean my imagination stopped. It’s like running a very long race. You can’t just stop dead at the finishing line. I carry that world around in my head all the time.”
Harry Potter, it seems, has never been far from her thoughts, ever since he (in her words) “strolled into my head fully formed” during a train journey some quarter of a century ago. She says: “The idea for him came to me very, very quickly. I could practically see him.”
The rest of her story is, as they say, well-documented history. She spent five years thinking up adventures for her boy wizard, endured considerable hardships as a struggling single mother, trying to earn a living while writing the early drafts of her first book. Then there were the early rejections, with 12 publishers turning her down. She claims her first submission was returned so fast, it must have been sent back the very day it arrived.
Then – once she had found a publisher with the good sense to recognise a goldmine when they saw one – came the enthusiastic approval of readers and critics alike, the rapid rise to the top of the UK best-seller lists, the extraordinary international success, the sequels, the sale of the film rights, the spin-offs… Within a decade, Rowling’s creation had become a true cultural phenomenon.
“I am never going to hate the Harry Potter world, but there are other worlds I want to live in too”
In fact, statistics hardly do it justice. More than 450 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide. They’ve been translated into 65 languages. The first – Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone – is the fifth-bestselling book of all time. The films alone have grossed more than US$75bn (HK$581.6bn), making them the most financially successful cinema franchise in history. To this day, six are in the top 20 list of the Most Money-Making Movies Ever.
As a result, Rowling is now a multi-millionaire – the world’s wealthiest author – said to be worth an extraordinary £580m (HK$5.48bn) according to last year’s Rich List (published by the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper), or just under US$1bn (HK$7.75bn) if you prefer the valuation put forward by Forbes.
Many would be content to have created just one character as successful as Harry Potter. Rowling, though, has been at pains to prove she can expand her repertoire. This has led her to write an adult novel – The Casual Vacancy – and, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a series of crime stories revolving round the investigations of Cormoran Strike, a private detective.
Of her ventures into non-Potter fiction, Rowling says: “I love the world of Harry Potter. I am never going to hate that world, but there are other worlds I want to live in too.”
Addressing her need to write The Casual Vacancy, she says she wanted to show that she could do more than just write children’s books. As to its mixed reception, she is distinctly unfazed, saying: “The worst that could have happened is that everyone would have said: ‘That was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’. I can take that. If everyone says: ‘Well, that was shockingly bad – back to wizards for you’, then obviously I wouldn’t have thrown a party, but I’d have lived.”
The disdain certain literary types expressed for The Casual Vacancy didn’t stop it becoming a bestseller, inevitably boosted as it was by Rowling’s fame and popularity. That, however, wasn’t the case with her first Cormoran Strike story – The Cuckoo’s Calling – of which, initially, only a few thousand were sold. Once the true identity of the author was accidentally revealed – when her publisher’s lawyer let it slip to an acquaintance, who then mentioned it on social media – sales went through the roof.
Expressing her disappointment that her fake identity was revealed so soon, she says: “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer – being Robert Galbraith was such a liberating experience. It was wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”
It seems unlikely that Rowling will ever again be able to create anything that is free from the Harry Potter halo effect. In fact, she has pretty much accepted that as an inevitable consequence of the boy wizard’s astonishing popularity.
While it was something she had never foreseen when she first started writing about Harry, Hermione, Hagrid and the rest of the Hogwarts crowd, Rowling has no regrets about the way it turned out. She says: “I never set out to build a big community, but I don’t think there is a writer alive who wouldn’t want to have that many people react to their work.”
Today, she feels that one of the main reasons for the success of Harry Potter – in all of its growing number of incarnations – is that it touched a common chord with many of her readers. It chimed with their own sense of isolation or sadness and allowed them to envisage a better reality.
Expanding on her theory as to her characters’ success, she says: “The big reason why people loved Potter was that it felt like it could happen. It had a sense that there is more to the world, just on the other side, even within touching distance. It is the promise of another world.
“While it doesn’t have to be a magical world, to a lonely child or an insecure person or anyone who feels different or isolated, the idea of having a place where they truly belong is everything. That’s what happened and people came inside this world with me.”
And that they undoubtedly did. And in their millions too. With Harry Potter And The Cursed Child playing to packed houses in London and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them looking odds-on to become the latest Potter-related cinema hit, it seems many are perfectly happy to stay in the world of Quidditch and Gryffindor and Blast-Ended Skrewts for just as long as J.K. Rowling is willing to permit them.