Re-Hashing, Re-working, and Resurrection: The Cursed Child and Why Authors Cannot Settle for Re-Visiting their Texts.

In a few days, bookstores will be beset by eager readers, online vendors will mail out hordes of pre-ordered packages, and costumed fCursedChildWindowDisplay (1)ans will squeal with delight as they crack a fresh cover. Like the days of old when the release of a new Harry Potter book incited epic expectation and fan reaction, the publication of the rehearsal script for the first two parts of the play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is already surrounded by attention that not only echoes the releases of the seven books in the Hogwarts Saga, but that also recalls the kind of fascination and frenzy that has prompted other artists to do what J.K. Rowling has done: trying to re-create a phenomenon when the original source of that phenomenon, at least from an artistic and symbolic standpoint, has concluded and needs no further additions.

When C. S. Lewis completed his seven-book Chronicles of Narnia, he resisted requests for more installments, even suggesting that readers who enjoyed the novels should write their own stories. Other authors have not been as able to resist the attraction of trying to return, again and again, to the fictional worlds they have created, even when the journey has been completed. While J.K. Rowling is already being censured by Potterphiles and critics alike for engaging in an unnecessary new story or tampering with the cohesive artistic unity of Harry’s story by collaborating on what will inevitably be mislabeled the “eighth Harry Potter novel,” she  is certainly not the first author to engage in such shenanigans, and it is unlikely she will be the last. So why do they do it? Why do authors, like filmmakers, actors, and other artists, go back to a completed work and add to it?Give the People what they Want

One of the main reasons Rowling, like other authors, is doing this, is because it is what the public demands. Even with the resolutions and wonderful ring-composition closure of the Deathly Hallows, readers wanted more; we want to know who married whom and how many kids they had, who works where and does what. We, the readers, cannot let those characters go, and so we expect the author to continue giving us news of the people we have come to love, even when the story , from a story standpoint, is over.

We care deeply about our characters, sometimes even taking issue with their creators. Rowling’s sister reportedly threatened to never speak to her again if Hagrid did not survive, and Suzanne Collins, despite making solid artistic decisions with her Hunger Games books, faced fan ire when those decisions “killed” beloved characters or took them down a different path than the one some readers desired.

Sherlock_Holmes_and_Professor_Moriarty_at_the_Reichenbach_FallsSuch affection for fictional people is not a new phenomenon, and it has sometimes led to authors being forced to take drastic measures, perhaps none more drastic than Arthur Conan Doyle being compelled to literally bring Sherlock Holmes back from his watery grave at the foot of the Reichenback Falls.  When The Strand magazine published “The Final Problem” in 1893, in which Holmes presumably meets his death in the climatic struggle with his nemesis Moriarity,  people actually went around wearing crepe mourning bands. Doyle brought Holmes back to his devoted readers who were then justified in their belief that surely their clever, multi-talented Mr. Holmes could have escaped such a fate.

Show me the Money

Unfortunately, there is the rather obvious and less noble reason authors keep coming back to their completed work.  The outcry over Holmes’s death caused The Strand to lose over twenty thousand subscriptions, so the pressure to “say it ain’t so” came not only from Doyle’s readers but from his employers. The promise of more revenue provokes publishers to demand more of authors whose work guarantees sales.

Sometimes this leads to completely unjustified “sequels.” I was recently fascinated to learn that there had been a follow-up to one of my favorites from my college days, A Canticle for Lebowitz, by Walter Miller, Jr. But I was puzzled, as the book was so utterly complete, so completely not in need of a sequel, and Miller had died, a reclusive fellow still best known for that one book. When I located a copy of Saint Lebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, I saw quickly why I had not heard of it; published after Miller’s death, with some “editorial help,” the book was nothing like the masterpiece of Canticle. Not a sequel, but a companion book set between two of the original’s three novellas, Saint Lebowitz had none of its predecessor’s complexity and power, and was crude in every sense of the word, despite claims that Miller had written most of it before his death. Like Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s “sequel” for To Kill a Mockingbird, this one seemed as if it should be subtitled “The Publisher and Heirs Finally Get their Rewards for their Patience with the Reclusive One-Hit Wonder Author.”

Not all such revenue-influenced publication decisions are so disastrous. Publishers who hope to produce lucrative titles based on the success of an author’s earlier work do, in the long run, often publish worthwhile  texts, like Tolkien’s Silmarillion or even some of his more obscure pieces, that might not have been available to readers and scholars otherwise.

booksNor is returning to a financially rewarding world only done for greed. Rowling produced her companion books for the series–Quidditch through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,  and Tales of Beedle the Bard-– as non-profit fundraisers that have allowed her to benefit untold numbers of needy and hurting real people with more backstory on imaginary ones.

One More Time

In addition to satisfying the demands of their readers and their handlers, successful authors, undoubtedly, also are drawn back into those texts they have created, because they, too, cannot let go of that world, even when the piece is complete. Sometimes, this is because they are as “hooked” as their readers, the story an addiction that will not let them go. Perhaps Rowling, whose Minesweeper habit and expertise testify to her tenacity as well as explain some lengthy periods between books, has also been lured in by the “one more time” concept that keeps us playing video games, even when we lose, and which has made stellar hits of even ridiculous and ill-conceived games.

Perhaps authors also are driven by a desire for the elusive chimera of artistic “perfection.” Like George Lucas, who would, if he could, probably go back and constantly re-edit and “improve” his original Star Wars Trilogy films until the end of time, authors sometimes want so much for their world to be just right that they cannot leave it alone. When an author plans as well as Rowling did for Harry Potter, there is no real need to go back and make corrections, at least not to anything substantive, but authors who have not so carefully mapped the journey of their text may find themselves trying to add to it, rather like plopping additions onto an inadequate house. Like Scott Westerfield, who admits he went off the rails of “trilogy” by adding Extras to his Pretties, Uglies, and Specials, authors sometimes want to say more that does not fit into an already complete structure. While Rowling has the platform of Pottermore, the stage is a much more public space indeed.

Rather than adding to a complete story, sometimes authors tell another story, that is still the original, just with different furniture. Using a successful framework, they create a next installment that is actually the original story told anew. Like New Moon which follows each beat of Twilight, or Star Wars Episode VII which mirrors Episode IV, such a text uses the same framework as the original. This does not mean the following text is second-rate or a knock-off, as New Moon  and The Force Awakens actually work on their own (though Lucas has been assailed by fans who resent the unraveling of the additions to the Star Wars universe since Return of the Jedi), and each Potter book follows the framework of the first as well. Authors can also tell the same story from a different perspective, also a favorite of Stephenie Meyer and her hero, Orson Scott Card. Thus, they have the comfort of the familiar story, but told in an fresh voice that doubtless challenges them as well as the readers.

Re-visiting instead of Re-Hashing

Such a challenge is doubtless why many authors do not return to their successful texts. New York Times Bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb recently posted on her facebook page this quotation from George Bernard Shaw on the occasion of his birthday: “The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”  She notes,”This is also good advice about judging writers. A book I wrote 20 years ago no longer tells you who I am.” In presentations, she sometimes likens readers who want authors to keep doing the sajamesme thing to viewers who would expect legendary Oscar-winner Tom Hanks to do a reunion show of  his  80s sitcom Bosom Buddies.

When readers resist an author’s evolution and growth, they only want the same stories, over and over again, even when the story is done. Rather than expecting an author to keep adding to a completed text, perhaps we should more often seek to return to the originals ourselves, gaining new appreciation with each visitation. C.S. Lewis, in his ground-breaking Experiment in Criticism, claimed that one of the hallmarks of good literature was its ability to not only withstand, but to invite, re-reading. Potter Pundit James Thomas has made a wonderful study of the revelations to be found in multiple readings of the Hogwarts Saga.


After several months of hesitation after being understandably shaken by the end of Goblet of Fire, my nine-year-old has just announced herself ready to return to Harry’s world, and so, this week, I gleefully opened my well-worn copy of The Order of the Phoenix and warmed up my character voices (including  Luna, my favorite ever, and Umbridge, a distillation of every horrible teacher and administrator I have known in my many years in education). As we take this journey together, I am also looking forward to my own reading of the Cursed Child script, to the discussion and the analysis that we will have here and elsewhere, but it seems quite clear that even if Rowling continues to revise, re-work, and even re-hash Harry’s story for us, it is here, in revisiting the core text, in returning to the complete and cohesive story of the Boy Who Lived, that the greatest joy will always be found.


  1. Louise Freeman says

    Wonderful post, Elizabeth! Sequel issues get even thornier when something moves from “book” to pop culture “item” status, with enough money involved that the author’s heirs have an interest in maintaining the copyright. My understanding is that DC Comics must publish something with Wonder Woman in it every month, or the rights to the character revert to the creator’s estate. The “Scarlett” sequel to Gone With the Wind was commissioned by Margaret Mitchell’s estate in 1991 to maintain their ownership of the characters, which would otherwise have entered the public domain in 2011— they wanted an “authorized” sequel before anyone else could write an unauthorized one. Ironically, many fanfic writers could have come up with something better than the final “Scarlett” (see, but that’s another story.

    The point about “re-readability” is also a good one. I think that is one reason that the Cormorant Strike series hasn’t caught on to the extent that both their quality and the JKR name (even marginally disguised) would predict. Mysteries, perhaps more than any other genre, discourage re-reading because for many, the thrill is gone once you know whodunnit. Harry’s stories were a hybrid of mystery and schoolboy novel; we were motivated to come back and see Harry’s next yer at Hogwarts even after we knew who was trying to steal the Stone, and what was in the Chamber of Secrets. So far, people have not gotten as wrapped up in Cormy and Robin’s story, perhaps because it is not so explicitly heading toward a specific goal. Maybe if they had become an official romantic couple in Cuckoo’s Child? While I am invested in their multi-faceted story: Cormy’s war trauma, daddy issues, and psychotic ex; Robin’s rape trauma, career ambitions and pathetic-current, I think most people have not re-read the books enough to delve into that story. How many thirty-somethings are going back for a re-read of Goblet of Fire rather than The Silkworm?

  2. Prof. Hardy, Dr. Freeman,

    Id like to introduce another element into this discussion of rewrite/revision.

    Specifically, I’d like to take into account the idea that the fact that most audiences today (compared as recently as the release of the first “Potter” book in 97) have no incentive to place any kind of fundamental value on fiction or art as a thing, or element of life that has any kind of importance.

    I think what we’re seeing here is the result of what happens when art comes to be seen as something of less and less intrinsic worth. For instance, Douglas Rushkoff has written a treatise called “Present Shock” which details what might be called an idea of “Post-Narrative Theory”. A good overview can be found here:

    What this amounts to seems to be the advocating of the complete breakdown and collapse of storytelling as an idea, cultural inheritance, and collective social practice. In it’s place, Rushkoff seems to be siding with spinning a fiction as just a narrow form of identity politics and the like. Needless to say, Rushkoff’s thought is one I don’t agree with. However I think it is useful to look into these current insights into modern audiences may be looking at stories, because I think it help clarify why people are willing to misshape or distort an already complete and more or less perfect text.

    The key word here, I think, is T.S. Eliot’s “Dissociation of Sensibility”. There’s still some debate over what he meant by that. For me, what I think it means is the breakdown of the abilities and perceptive capacities necessary for either and author or the audience to properly engage with a text in the manner it deserves. In other words, I think Eliot is talking about the same breakdown in imagination as that discussed by C.S. Lewis in “Discriptione Temporum”.

    In that essay, Lewis talks about how the economic and industrial revolution of the 19th century caused fundamental changes in how people lived their lives. These changes left little room for not altering the way people thought of and viewed the world. One of the elements of life that were effected by this change seems to have been people’s relation to both imagination, and the art it produces. The demands of the marketplace and society insisted on a de-valuing of art in any substantial form, and hence imaginative capacities that had held up to the birth of, say, the Victorian Era, slowly began to crumble, until we’re left with the haphazard form in which we all have to live with now.

    That sounds like a lot to swallow, I know, however I think it goes some way toward explaining how fiction is viewed in the 21st century.

    As for Rowling, I think she’s more a victim than perpetrator here. I think she’s finding herself caught up in the marketing culture that’s been spawned out the the digital age, and is having to scramble to maintain ownership of her own creation, really.

    For what it’s worth.

  3. JKR herself told us that Harry’s story was finished. And I think we all agree that in every way Harry came full circle. It was perfect as is. Still for those of us who loved the Potterverse very much, we yearned for more. It’s only understandable. It’s a comfortable place to hang out. Eventually I explored fanfiction, tentatively at first. I was afraid my experience of the Hogwarts Saga would be tainted somehow by reading other stories with Harry and co. But it wasn’t and I became more eager to read a great variety of stories. AU, next gen, time travel, all sorts really. Nothing sacred anymore. I found I didn’t care how strange the premise was if it was well written and plotted. After all, unsatisfactory fics were easy to abandon since there are a million more available. It opened my eyes in fact to how many ways a story can illustrate his goodness and courage. How interesting many were. its a bit difficult to describe, but it’s comforting to be in a familiar environment settling down to a new plot and sometimes with different ‘Harrys.’ It never has disturbed my regard and affection for the canon books in any way. They are there on my bookshelf, perfect and untainted by my betrayal. But now there are other Harrys that I also love. It reminds me of Comedia del Arte. Stock characters we know well plonked down into new scripts. It’s brilliant really. I imagine the troubadours of the 12th century wandered from castle to castle telling their stories and adding embellishments of their own, some better than others. Can anyone know the true Arthurian story.? Or Robin Hood? Roland? I love that Harry is immortalized in many many stories now even though we will always know that there is a ‘true’ one. This new story, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is a fanfic written, sort of, by the original author. There are some flaws, holes, weaknesses, like a lot of fanfic, but there is still a lot to enjoy. Read it with no expectation that it in any way is a continuation of the Hogwarts Saga. There are thousands more just like it. And you would be wrong to think that none of them could be better than a fanfic written in collaboration with Herself. Indeed, I would be happy to list several that are many times better than this one. Writers like to write and some writers like to write about characters in a world we already know and love. JKR is no different. After all it is really a very safe and comforting place to be.

  4. Emily Strand says

    Great post, Elizabeth! You’ve got me a bit more excited to dive in to Cursed Child.

  5. Nana,

    It’s funny you mention books as a haven of safety. My experience has sort of taught me a lot different. I often come away from a favorite book thinking, “Man, I am so glad I don’t have it as bad as those guys!”

    For me, a lot of it comes from the fact that pretty much all fiction relies on conflict in order to ever be interesting. In this case, conflict means, more often than not, making the lives of its character nothing short of a living hell. As Harry himself once observed, “I don’t go looking for trouble; trouble just seems to find me”. Even JKR herself admitted that, if she were Harry, she’d some safe space to crawl into because she knew all the “Conflict” that would be necessary to make him an interesting character. That’s really kind of odd when you think about it, isn’t it? In a way, though, it also gets at the fundamental nature of fiction; which is artifice.

    For me, fiction is less about safety and more about at least the potential for learning a little about life in general. I never ask that a work of fiction deliver a lecture instead of a story. Nor do I ask that it be “true to life”. I don’t think it’s possible for fiction to ever be “realistic”, because its very nature as make-believe requires that its secondary world always be slightly exaggerated and caricatured. To give an idea what I mean, imagine Heathcliff and Kathy from “Wuthering Heights” having a dramatic “confrontation” in the middle of a crowded, modern day supermarket among ordinary real life people. Okay, now try and get a hold of your laughter.

    As for the question of fan-fiction, I don’t deny it may have a place, however I also have always maintained that every real story is a question of “Inspiration”. Tolkien said that this inspiration depended on whether or not the tale contained any “Truth” in terms of both thematic content and the narrative in general. In other words, I always think that any “Inspired” story has a certain narrative and theme, and that these essential elements have a value and integrity that should be respected and maintained by both author an audience.

    To be fair, I don’t rule out the possibility that a potential fanfic may be “Inspired”. The problem is the odds of creation really does seem to be like trying to bottle lightning. There’s no guarantee that all authors can be great. For my part, the fanfic I have read hasn’t really been all that good.

    Of course that’s just my experience. Though it does sort of raise an interesting question. What elements could make such viewpoints come to radically different conclusions in regards to the same work of fiction?

  6. In case anybody is interested – here is my review of the Cursed Child playscripts – without spoilers (and done without reading anybody else’s reviews or talking to anybody else who had read it):

    My main purpose was to advise whether or not a reader should tackle this book; and overall my evaluation is that it is probably better *not* to read it (with some exceptions).

  7. I have now read it in one go. Much to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it. I do not have any immediate disconcerting vibes and believe the characters are dealt their original (if more adult) selves in a respectful and appropriately extended matter. Parenthood has a certain effect on its practitioners and the offspring.

    Perhaps more explicit commentary after folks have had time to read it for themselves.

    Now, I have to re-read it for grasping more than just the surface. Which I thoroughly enjoyed, I must say.

  8. Michele,

    In that case, what would you say about George R.R. Martin’s reported issues trying to write his “Fire and Ice” series?

    For my part, I’m he’s proven that his imagination just ran out of steam.

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