With the final Harry Potter book coming to the screen this week, the Potter pipeline's about to run dry. Many people have been clamoring for J.K. Rowling to write more Hogwarts epics — but that would be a dreadful mistake.
Rowling stoked the speculation when she told Oprah a while back that she wouldn't rule out an eighth or ninth Potter tome — even though she tacked on an epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, whose only purpose seemed to be closing the door on sequels with a firm slam. It was like ending the last book with, "The End. Really. I MEAN IT. FOR REALZ."
I understand why Hollywood would love to have more plucky young wizard stories to turn into three-hour movies starring underfed British teenagers with improbably nice skin. But why would Rowling want to do that? She doesn't need the money. The only reason would be if she's tried to start another series and just hasn't been able to make it work. Maybe the work of world-building and creating a new hero from scratch, with so much pressure on her to get it right, has proven to be harder than it was when she was an unknown single mom scribbling in obscurity.
But even if that's the case, she should resist the temptation to bring back Harry Potter, or do a new set of books in the Potterverse.
There's no way Harry Potter book eight (or a new Potterverse series) could be as good as the original seven books. None. Because a huge part of what makes the Potter books so addictive is the fact that they're part of a saga, with a beginning, middle and end — if they'd been open-ended, they wouldn't have been nearly as thrilling. It would have been just an unending stream of "same wizard shit, different day." Plus, you can't do an open-ended series with just one main villain — people will start wondering why Voldemort is still trying to take over the world. ("Oh, he who must not be named, again?")
Here's a wee bit of a personal share. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I was fairly determined to wait until a friend finished it, and then borrow their copy. But then I walked past a bookstore on release day, and I was struck with a jolt of temptation, like an impulse-buy lightning bolt to the head. I bought it and got totally sucked into reading it. I was so engrossed in the story, even the dodgy camping bits, I almost missed my bus stop — and I jumped off the bus, leaving my backpack behind. With my laptop computer in it! Containing a ton of not-backed-up files. I freaked out and even begged a friend with a car to come get me, so we could chase that bus — but no use. Despondent, I read the Deathly Hallows in a pizza place, where the counter girl was sad that she couldn't afford a copy and wasn't going to be able to borrow a copy for ages — so I came back the next day and gave her my copy after I was done reading it. Shortly afterwards, I got word that the bus driver had turned in my backpack, with everything still in it, to the lost and found. Proof that magic works! In any case, I wouldn't have been so caught up in the book I forgot my backpack, if it hadn't been the Final Chapter.
People sometimes say that we shouldn't put too much emphasis on endings — who cares how a story ends, if the middle bits are good? But if anything, we don't put enough emphasis on endings. The ending makes the story work, or not. All of the beautiful bits of character and plot and ideas that a story builds up in the middle? They're all being stored up to use in the ending. There are plenty of mediocre endings in the world, and far too many hideously bad endings — I'm not going to mention that show whose name rhymes with "Bossed." When you get a great ending, it should be protected. And I am quite fond of the ending of Deathly Hallows, I think it's a fitting end for a great series.
But wait, I hear you say — who says a continuation has to cheapen a good ending? And it's true — an ending can stand on its own, even if the story picks up again, as Supernatural is proving this season. But that's the exception to the rule — most of the time, you can't carry on a saga without going back and chipping away at the integrity of the ending. Inevitably, characters who got a nice resolution will get stirred up again, ideas that were set to rest will be brought up — and most of all, any supposedly "final" victories will turn out to have been pyrrhic or partial.
We know that's how it works in real life — but we read books like the Harry Potter series precisely because they aren't like real life.
And then there's the question of what an eighth Potter book would be about. There are a few choices:
1) A book that takes place now, or at least before the epilogue, showing how Harry and the gang got to the places where we see them in that final scene. In other words, a story where we already know how it's going to turn out.
2) A book that picks up after the epilogue, with grown-up Harry. Note that this would be set in the near future, since the Potter books take place "now." (Update: Various people have pointed out the books take place in the 1990s, which would put the epilogue in 2016.) Plus, does anybody want to read about a married Harry staring down middle age? All of the qualities that were sort of endearing about young Harry would quickly grate in an older version — and the propensity for self-pity would be intolerable.
3) A fresh start, with a new main character. Maybe Albus Severus or one of the other kids, maybe someone else. The main problem here is that you either have another Chosen One, facing another Ultimate Evil, or you settle for a smaller story about someone who's quite heroic in their own minor way, facing a villain who's no Voldemort but is quite irksome nonetheless. So you either cheapen Harry by making him just one of a handful of Chosen Ones, or you create a more low-key follow-up that will probably be a bit of an appendix.
But this isn't just about what we don't want to see J.K. Rowling do. I'm personally dying to see her create a new world. I bet it would be brilliant. In many ways, the Potterverse is like a starter universe — it's cozy and familiar and cute, wrapped around a metaphor for class oppression (that doesn't prevent you from fantasizing about going to an elite boarding school.) Wouldn't it be cool to see Rowling try her hand at creating another new world, knowing everything she learned from the world-building in the Potter books? She might do something more urban, or a fantastical world more removed from our own. Either way, I'm game.
I'd also quite like to see Rowling develop a new hero who isn't living in the shadow of Harry — and please give us a girl hero this time! I love Hermione to death, but I'd love to see Rowling use her considerable powers of character-development to create a new archetypal female hero who grows into leadership the way Harry does in the Potter books.
And finally, Rowling also has a responsibility to be bold. How many authors are in the position she's in? She could write anything and it would be an instant sensation. Most of us would read her next book, whatever it is. Unlike the majority of authors, who struggle to push a boulder up a hill any time they want to do something genre-defying or unexpected, Rowling is such a brand that she can make anything she wants happen. She owes it to herself — if not to us — to use her power instead of letting it use her. She's already left a legacy, but she can make it much deeper if she goes in a new direction.
Harry Potter helped breathe new life into fantasy books and bring a whole generation to bookstores. Now J.K. Rowling has the chance to do it all over again. Or she could just dwell on her past glories.
Harry Potter and the Mid-Life Crisis cover by Daniel Spitzer.