The afterlife of Harry Potter

The final film adaptation is hardly the end

The afterlife of Harry Potter

IStock; Getty Images;Warner Bros; Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The marketing slogan for the July 15 release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, four years after the last Harry Potter novel was published, was: “It all ends here.” The final film adaptation was set to close the door on perhaps the most far-reaching pop culture phenomenon of all time. After Harry’s 14-year march through worldwide public consciousness, the vast majority of the human race knows who the boy wizard is, not to mention his best friends (Ron and Hermione), arch-enemy (Lord Voldemort), school (Hogwarts) and favourite sport (quidditch), and his creator, British writer J. K. Rowling (who has 400,000 Twitter followers, despite having posted, as of last count, a total of six tweets). Academics have found references to every aspect of Harry’s world in sources as diverse as Turkish editorials and Swedish parliamentary debates.

If Harry has rivals for cultural influence—of the stature of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and, from the far past, Sherlock Holmes—there is none to match his pure cash-generating power. The seven novels of Harry’s adventures have sold a collective 400 million copies in more than 200 “territories,” as publishers call them (the UN counts only 192 member countries). Author Rowling is a billionaire, the first person to ever reach that level of wealth by writing stories. That’s without counting the value of massive merchandising rights (40 million Harry Potter video games sold for $1 billion, to name a single product) or the film royalties. The first seven movies, having pulled in almost $6.4 billion, already comprise the most successful franchise in cinematic history; each ranks among the top 30 highest-grossing films of all time.

Deathly Hallows Part 2 will surely join them there, and high up that list. Part 1 left Harry, Ron and Hermione almost two-thirds of the way through the 600-page novel, having just escaped Voldemort’s Death Eaters at the cost of the life of Dobby, Harry’s heroic elf friend. Most of the action, though, is yet to come, including far more deaths of familiar characters, good and bad. Cramming most of the set-up to the entire series’ climax into Part 1 has left room—fully utilized, to judge by Part 2’s trailers—to ramp up the action in the series’ most cinematic storyline, including sequences that occur off-stage in the novel. And even though readers already know who lives and who dies, seeing it all come to pass will be a milestone moment for the emotionally invested Potter nation.

And that triumphal conclusion was supposed to be that: it all ends here. Except, of course, it doesn’t.

There may be no more books or films, but Harry’s world is still set to enjoy a robust afterlife. Physical reminders include a tiny gem: in King’s Cross railway station in London, from which Hogwarts students catch the train to school, a Platform 9¾ plaque has been wall-mounted along with half of a trolley cart lodged in the bricks, the better to seem as though it were passing through them to reach the Hogwarts Express. At the other end of the spectrum is a vast monument: a $200-million theme park attraction in Orlando, Fla. When “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opened a year ago, fans faced a nine-hour wait in the Florida sun just to get into the magical village of Hogsmeade, let alone quench their thirst with butterbeer.

The drink of choice for young witches and wizards in the novels, where it offers a mild buzz, butterbeer has become one of the theme park’s top-selling items, even though Universal’s version is strictly non-alcoholic. It took less than half a year for the company to sell its millionth cupful. The ingredients Universal uses are a secret, and Rowling hasn’t enforced any guidelines, mostly because she has none to offer. “I made it up,” she once told a curious interviewer. “I imagine it to taste a little bit like less sickly butterscotch.” Park spokesmen say to think “shortbread and butterscotch,” but imbibers universally report that cream soda is at the bottom of it.

Fans by the millions have come there to see a spectacular Hogwarts, inside which they can enter an “immersive” experience (Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey) that takes visitors through a dozen scenes from the boy wizard’s life, including a close encounter with a Whomping Willow. Elsewhere they can watch a wand choose its master at Ollivander’s shop, or listen to Moaning Myrtle as she haunts the boys’ washrooms. The theme park had experienced a large drop in attendance in recessionary 2009, but last year, in a turnaround park officials ascribe entirely to devotees’ hunger to be part of Harry’s world, visitors increased by more than 30 per cent.

That success hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially at Warner Bros. The filmmakers are soon to experience the same party’s-over crash as Rowling’s publishers underwent in 2007. The end of the Potter films will remove almost $1 billion a year from Warner’s annual revenue stream. The need to make up some of that, combined with the opportunity offered by the tourist-luring bonanza of the 2012 Olympics, has led the film giant to announce the opening, next spring, of Warner Bros. Studio Tour London—The Making of Harry Potter. The three-hour tour brings fans into contact with the sets—including the 40-m by 12-m Hogwarts Great Hall and Dumbledore’s office—costumes, animatronics, props and effects from all eight movies.

Popular as the physical Harry has proven, his most powerful afterlife presence is liable to be found online. In early June, during the heightened attention sparked by the approaching film release, Rowling—as savvy at marketing as she is brilliant at plot-spinning—created a new website, Eager fans immediately turned to it, only to find no more information than a countdown clock indicating a June 23 launch of?.?.?.?something. After days of frenzied guessing, Rowling then revealed that she will release her novels’ long-awaited e-book versions—considered to be crucial in winning her future generations of Potter fanatics—through Pottermore. She can do this because, remarkably, she retains complete e-book rights. When her publishers signed her up in the Jurassic era, digitally speaking, of the mid-1990s, they paid no attention to electronic rights that would have been worth—in their cut alone—tens of millions of dollars.

If publishers are gloomy, having no one to blame but themselves, online retailers like Amazon and Apple are downright grumpy. Rowling has opted to keep her novels DRM-free, meaning that they are not locked into one device or platform. (She is instead opting for digital watermarking, a process that links the identity of the purchaser to the copy of the e-book, and thus acts to at least cut down on copyright theft.) That decision is particularly galling to Apple, which had entertained hopes of tying the Potter e-books to its iPad in the way it brought the Beatles to iTunes. As one Apple watcher pointed out, “If Apple had been able to woo Rowling to iBooks, it would have been the literary equivalent of landing the Beatles.” But Rowling didn’t want Harry restricted to any one digital format, which would have had the effect of forcing her fans to conform to that format and its hardware. That desire—and, critics snipe, the 30 per cent commission she doesn’t have to pay the retailers—prompted her decision to sell the e-books herself.

Far more important for fans is the fact that Pottermore will also function as an online immersive experience. Rowling has already written almost 20,000 new words about Harry’s world for the site. Fans will be able to travel through the first Potter book by entering into the 44 interactive “moments”—visiting Gringotts bank to pick up currency for purchases, or exploring a carriage on the Hogwarts Express or approaching the Sorting Hat. (The hat asks users a few questions and then assigns them to their school houses.) What may prove most attractive of all for a potential new generation of fans is Pottermore’s social component—once inside, visitors can see where their friends are in the storyline, and meet up with them if they want.

Pottermore opens on July 31 (Harry’s birthday, and Rowling’s) for the first million fans to find a magical quill in an online treasure hunt. Their feedback will shape the final look of the site before it opens to everyone on Oct. 1. That date will also see the Pottermore shop open, with e-books available in five languages. The second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, will appear with its own interactive moments in 2012, followed, in due order, by the other books.

From immersive theme park experience to immersive website, the boy wizard still rules. Harry, who was secreted away as a baby and raised without knowledge of his true fate, has always had his close parallels with King Arthur. And his continuing afterlife offers yet another one. In 2011, Thomas Malory’s famous 15th-century couplet about Arthur could just as easily read: Here lies Harry, the once and future king.

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