An article recently found its way onto the internet’s official gossip-and-misinformation site Facebook. It claimed that JK Rowling had officially announced that she was going to write an eighth volume in the epic Harry Potter series. People went crazy, naturally, and there was all kinds of speculation and fan fainting, I’m sure. Nobody checked to see that the date of the original article was April 1, 2013 – and I’m not sure that Snopes is the right place to debunk that kind of misinformation. I imagine that after finding out that there will be, in fact, NO more Harry Potter books ever, legions of momentarily excited fans went into a deep depression without realizing that the promise of never writing about that character again is the greatest gift JK Rowling could ever give the world.
There are a number of tales universal in their popularity and reach that can be called “classic” or “timeless,” the more modern of which include the STAR WARS saga, the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, and the Harry Potter stories. Not only do these epic stories deal with characters and places that are not “modern,” and are therefore timeless, but they are well-told tales that employ the monomyth – also known as the Hero’s Journey – to great effect. Each features an untested hero who must move out of his comfort zone into a new “world,” stock characters who fulfill the roles of guide, sidekick, shapeshifter, love interest, guardians, and of course, the Shadow or main opponent. Each of these beloved stories has a definitive beginning, middle and end. Some go longer than the three-act structure to achieve this, but all have satisfying conclusions.
This satisfying conclusion is where things begin to get problematic. Popularity is profit and many people make and made lots of money on quality storytelling with satisfying conclusions. But businesses are not content with the amount of money they make from a project until they have found every possible way to squeeze it to death. This is not a creative decision, it is a financial one. Epic stories such as The Dark Tower, Game of Thrones (if that blasted George RR Martin will ever give his hungering fans another book), and Star Wars are seen by these businesses as little more than cash cows, and it’s when these guys get their hands on our precious tales that the march toward death for creativity begins its steady drumbeat.
The Harry Potter story (SPOILERS approaching, kids) ends perfectly: the seven-volume-long story of a boy whose life-long destiny and battle with the single greatest force of evil ever to exist (for Voldemort was essentially the sometimes-physical embodiment of pure evil) concludes with a well-thought-out and deserved finale based on character and well-paced plot. Our hero, after years of fighting, has vanquished the greatest enemy in the world. In a coda, we see that he has grown up to have children and that he is now living a normal life. He has fulfilled his destiny. End of story.
It’s perfect. And so obviously, people want more. Because perfection isn’t enough. You want to experience that perfection again and again in exactly the same way. In a perfect world, we could erase the memory of reading or watching these stories so that we could go through that experience of discovery and excitement again. What is NOT possible is to continue a story that has ended.
Now, of course, it IS possible. Anything is possible. But it’s a mistake. It’s the storytelling equivalent of drinking just enough alcohol to feel fantastic and then doing one more shot of vodka – it doesn’t increase your pleasure, it starts to make things much worse. Once Cinderella has married the Prince, we’re done. The sequel is exactly five words: She lived happily ever after. Because there is no more story. Can you invent something? Sure. But it’s not going to work. It’s going to be something else. And there is a difference between a cinematic sequel and the kind of story continuation I’m talking about: without sequels, there would be no STAR WARS, LOTR or Harry Potter. The sequels were necessary to complete the epic stories. But you know when the story is done. You can feel it. When Luke Skywalker has made amends with his father and saved his soul, the story is done. When The One Ring has been destroyed, the story is done – it is so thoroughly done, in fact, that the hero of the story decides to die since he knows that the purpose of his life has been achieved and there is nothing left.
This isn’t real life, kids. It’s story. And the best stories have a concrete and satisfying and very FINAL finale.
There is the argument that people love the “world” and just want to hear more stories that take place in it. Well, okay, I can buy that. I am of the opinion that what makes a story is actually the characters and their choices – put the exact story and characters of STAR WARS in the Old West and change the requisite words and it’s still just as quality a story. I respect the desire to want to experience more of a certain world…. however it is rare that a world is created on it’s own. The world itself is not interesting if uninteresting characters do nothing inside of it. A story about Luke Skywalker having a drink alone in Mos Eisley then taking a nap is just boring as one about me doing the same thing in Los Angeles. And it’s certainly possible to create new interesting characters who live in the same universe as your original hero, but it’s rare that you would achieve the same affection for that character.
So what would the next Harry Potter book be about? It couldn’t be about the day to day work that he does as a magical police officer taking care of evil talismans or enchanted people – the guy has exorcised the greatest evil in the world… where’s the suspense and mystery now? To be anything close to as satisfying as the original series, it would have to involve Harry (and not his kids, because those are new characters we don’t yet care about) being somehow drawn into another life-or-death-the-world-hangs-in-the-balance scenario. And doing that does two things: it negates or cheapens the original story while simultaneously pandering to its audience by saying, “oh, no, we were kidding about that last thing being the most worst thing in the world – this NEW thing we’re telling you about is REALLY the even BIGGER obstacle and the stakes have never been higher!”
You had my attention and my devoted belief in your world and its rules for as long as it took to effectively end your story. To now go back and change those rules so that you can sell me more products makes me feel like I’m getting used and it makes me feel disrespected. It’s one of the (many, many) reasons that the STAR WARS prequels are abominations and that no matter how good or bad the Disney sequels are, they will never have any affiliation to the epic stories of original trilogy for me…. the story I loved began, it told an amazing tale, and it ended. Everything else is non-canonical fan fiction, I don’t care how “official” it is.
We all want to re-experience our favorite things for the first time. Or we want to see or hear or read a story about our favorite character in their world doing something new that mirrors the thing that they did before. But you can feel when something has ended. You instinctively know when a story has come to a close. And when you decide, whether it be for profit or nostalgia or for whatever reason, to push the story past its logical boundaries, unstable and often negative results occur. I cite INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL and all of the STAR WARS prequels as examples. Those stories were over. Indiana Jones LITERALLY rode off into the sunset. It was perfect. But then he came back. And it was nothing that we had said we wanted.
Did you know there’s a novel called AS TIME GOES BY which is a sequel to CASABLANCA? Who exactly wants a sequel to CASABLANCA? Who wants a sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ? Nobody. What we WANT is to experience CASABLANCA and THE WIZARD OF OZ for the first time and a sequel is the closest we can get.
Okay, I will step back for a moment and say that if the STAR WARS prequels had actually been fantastic, I probably would not be writing this. If KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL had been half as good as I’d hoped, I probably would not be writing this. And I’m sure there are aberrant examples people can cite to contradict everything I’ve said, but they would be rare. Also note that I am talking about a certain type of story – a larger-than-life hero’s journey in a heightened world with clearly drawn character types. (I also just realized that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy fits perfectly as another example).
Look at the fundamental things you love about these kinds of epic stories and look for other stories of that type to fuel the desire to revisit them. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is my favorite movie of all time, but the true continuation of that story and genre wasn’t KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, it was THE RUNDOWN.
Fans of the Harry Potter series may have been devastated to find that the possibility of another book was a hoax, but there is hope: there WILL be another story that will give you the characters, world and excitement that you experienced through those seven novels. I know it for certain. It won’t be a story about a boy wizard in a magic world, but it will be a story that affects you in a similar way – a spiritual sequel, if you will. After all, the story of Harry Potter, the special boy who must defeat the darkest evil in the world and save all of wizardkind is the spiritual sequel to a story about another special boy who defeated the darkest evil in the world and saved an entire galaxy far, far away.