You could say 1997 left us several impressions. James Cameron had killed off Jack, George Clooney was in the worst Batman film ever made, Steve Jobs was back in Apple and there was a comet in the sky, for days. But for those with a 20-year-old book on their shelves, 1997 also marked the start of a fantastic relationship. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone released on June 26 of that year to immediate and unprecedented praise. The book started off as whispers and gained such attention that parents — delightfully shocked their kids were reading something with children on the cover again — scrambled to get their hands on it.
Long queues started forming outside bookshops worldwide, thousands of copies sold within hours and what started life as a single mother’s 90,000 words went on to spawn seven more books, eight giant movies, theme parks, 450 million copies and a $21-billion franchise. In the meanwhile, J.K. Rowling had become the world’s first billionaire author and the bespectacled boy wizard and his two best friends became the most powerful fictional characters since Jedis and Stormtroopers. There are people who remember being in the thick of it. Subhash Arora, proprietor of Delhi’s famed Teksons Bookshop, recalls the early days of the hysteria. “I cannot believe it has been 20 years. One of our stores sold 900 copies in a single day.”
Of course, we had ordered a few thousand copies. We also used to organise promotional activities for children and their parents and we had those long queues outside, with people having started their waits long before the shops opened at 9am. I also remember the sale of 400 to 500 books after these promotional activities. It was good to see a book selling like that and it was a good time for us.” Indeed that was 20 years ago. The demographic that completely fell to Mr Potter’s wizardry has since grown up to hold jobs and buy cars. They’re now in their 30s, buffeted by gusts of economic upheavals and in search of the next big television set. Their lives are now spent in traffic and unlike the technologically placid 1997, the post-iPhone world of 2016 has distractions aplenty.
Into this brave new world launched Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in July — five years after the last film. The book, which is actually the script of a two-part play that had opened in London’s West End, had a format that made many who were used to regular prose shift uncomfortably. It was mum’s best recipe, made by dad; it was Bourne, not by Ludlum; it was Paradise City, by a drunk colleague. At its deepest, Cursed Child was flawed — with the Rowling missing, except on the cover… as a seal of approval.
Fans called it glorified fan fiction. Voldemort and Bellatrix having a love child? Harry and Draco’s sons turning BFFs — the world for those who read the Original Sevens beyond bedtime was suddenly upside down! There was not enough Rowling although to be fair, she did urge everyone not to approach it as a novel. The most hardcore of fans also had frowns on for certain glitches. “Harry’s wand is not described as returning to him during the climax. Why did they make Snape so two-dimensional? How could they forget about the Fidelius Charm? Ron was turned into a caricature. And why oh why did they bring back the Time Turners?” asks Karthika Gopalakrishnan, of Chennai’s ilovereadin’ library. Gopalakrishnan was part of the team that hosted one of India’s first Harry Potter-themed parties and for fans like her, Cursed Child has been jarring.
Rowling’s Casual Vacancy released in 2012 to mixed reviews — a situation the author hadn’t faced before. Critics, who were expecting the brilliance from the Potter books to spill over into what was Rowling’s first book for adult readers (away from Potterverse), were disappointed. “We do not come away feeling that we know the back stories of the Vacancy characters in intimate detail the way we did with Harry and his friends and enemies, nor do we finish the novel with a visceral knowledge of how their pasts — and their families' pasts — have informed their present lives,” wrote the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani. Then, there was this from the Times. “The difficulty, in this fat novel, is the difference between the reader’s level of interest in a wholly invented world, such as Harry Potter’s, and the world we’re stuck with.”
It is illogical to try and find meeting points in a parallel. Rowling had set off in an entirely new direction — completely away from Potterverse. She’s not thinking Hogwarts when describing London’s council estates in Vacancy. A bookseller based out of Bengaluru and “a former organiser” of everything Potter explains why it has been difficult for Rowling to escape Potterverse gravity. “Harry Potter was first books and then the movies. I think for 14 years, we were treated to a wholesome experience and everyone loved it — not just children. We had a villain that genuinely inspired fear, loveable characters and a well-developed plot. It was the same in the movies. Overall then, there was a certain sense of satisfaction when it was all over and people exited cinemas feeling joy and sadness at the same time — which is the human emotion Rowling, as a writer, was most successful in injecting. Later though, every other big update from Potterverse came with this whiff of, ‘Hey, you want more? Here’s something an executive thought of’ or ‘Hey, subscribe to this, buy that’… which didn’t feel human at all. Casual Vacancy was extremely good but it had that magic missing — which again is unfair judgement. Rowling has this ability to inject thrill and jubilation and I guess people are addicted to that.”
The bobbing heads within the boardroom are now pushing for another movie — based on the latest book. According to headlines gushing out of America’s finest news outlets, Daniel Radcliffe is being considered for the film which could release by 2020. What’s the strategy here? A Potter update every few years to keep the literary phenomenon alive in a world that’s debating the perfect smartphone screen size? Rowling’s own attempts to turn the Harry Potter world into an all-digital empire has sort of floundered. Pottermore — a venture set up by the author to sell digital versions of Potter novels — saw earnings drop from £31.8m to just £7m in 2015, a cut of 351.6 per cent. There were a few layoffs too.
On the ground, the sales of the books have been waning too.
“For a while now, we have been selling more of the movies than their books,” says a sales manager at a bookstore in Mumbai. It’s the same thing with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The movie always sells more because people have no time for the books.” Back in Delhi, Arora never had much hopes for The Cursed Child. “For the brick-and-mortar stores, there’s also the hit we have taken from e-commerce websites. And there has been a substantial drop in reading habits here. Keeping all this in mind, we ordered just over a few hundred copies of the book — nothing spectacular.”
Magic overload? Nope
Potterverse now has walking tours, theme parks, stage plays, e-books, lunch-boxes, movies and more in the pipeline. Rowling’s original books are being cannibalised for ideas as characters and storylines are thrown into every direction. For fans of the Original Sevens, it’s time for a deep breath. Karthika Gopalakrishnan feels the brains behind the book should hold back for now. “I don’t think the value of nostalgia will hold good if the makers plan a sequel to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — irrespective of the form it will take.” Super-fan Sneha Sivakumar, who arrived at a launch dressed as a character from the book, keeps hope: “To me, it was all about reliving the times we stood in queue and waited to grab the first copy... so many years running! Despite the book falling below expectations, a true Potter fan would understand how special the whole experience was again... and that is unparalleled.”
Others simply ask, ‘Do we really want J.K Rowling to stop writing more Harry Potter’? “I think we need to stop being a bunch of whiners and remind ourselves every once a while that this woman gave us Harry Potter. I’ll repeat that: She gave us *Harry Potter*. I haven’t read The Cursed Child yet — yes, I know, but keep that wand tucked inside for now — but irrespective of how the book turns out, I will be no less excited about the next Rowling book, Harry Potter or not. And while we’re talking Rowling, check out the Cormoran Strike series,” says author and blogger Judy Balan. In Bengaluru, the organiser of Potter events, too, preserves his expectations in logic. “Rowling, for thousands of us Potter fans, will forever be the favourite. At the end of the day, the publishing industry will make the most bang for their book. The 90s was a good time to read a book, yes. Now though, it’s a good time to turn a book into something bigger… which is okay.” Perhaps for the sake of simple economics then, The Boy Who Lived, could go on forever.