Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne

Any avid Harry Potter fan has a difficult decision to make with the newest entry in the Harry Potter Universe: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that follows Harry’s son Albus and is based on a story idea by J.K. Rowling but written by another man.

On the one hand, those fans--myself certainly included--love Harry Potter and are eager to re-enter the universe through whatever means are available. On the other hand, there’s something a little wrong in doing so via another person’s creative talent and in a means so divergent from the original seven-book series.

A Facebook friend described the book as “good fan fiction,” and while I think the description is pretty apt, I don’t think it’s the writing itself that’s problematic. More distracting is the play format and the incredibly short and jarring scene structure.

The play is divided into over 50 scenes, each act having nearly twenty scenes. That means that just as you adjust to the setting and the characters’ style and tone, you’re thrown out of that scene and into a completely new scene with a new setting and new characters. These shifts would probably be less an issue if you saw the play live, since visual cues of setting and characters would make it easy to follow. But as a reading experience it’s incredibly frustrating. Just as you feel at home with good ol’ adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione, you’re tossed to Albus or a flashback.

Part of what made reading the Harry Potter series great was getting into the “zone,” fully immersing yourself in the magical world of Hogwarts, forgetting to eat lunch because you’re too entranced in Harry’s world. It’s unlikely anyone would have the same experience reading Cursed Child. You’re painfully aware of your presence in the play’s text at every moment, so the world never becomes real.

And though this may be an meaningless quibble, I was also bothered by the writers’ decision to completely ignore traditional play structure. Most plays have a few acts, a few scenes, and a few straightforward settings. In crafting the play instead like a fast-paced short movie, the writers have ensured that most theaters could never perform it (the breakneck speed and special effects would require an enormous budget and technical staff), and they’ve ignored what often makes plays so enjoyable. We can see movies any time, but we choose to see theater because it offers a more intimate glimpse into human emotion and experience. While there are plenty of heart-warming moments in Cursed Child, the intimacy of theater feels lacking.

Those significant issues aside, there are some joys in this newest Harry Potter story. Scorpio, Draco’s son, has the most memorable journey and the most memorable lines. He’s fully his own character, and his growth is more interesting than that of Albus. Harry and Albus’ relationship, though the focus of the play, is a little less interesting, particularly because Harry’s flip-flop between over-reacting dad and sympathetic dad comes too quickly.

Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny are happily all recognizable as their younger selves (maybe even too much so?), though the jokes about each other’s behavior perhaps seem a bit more stale when made by middle-aged adults.

In the end, Cursed Child is fairly un-memorable. Though I read it just a few weeks ago, I could probably only give you the barest plot outline. But, if I had the opportunity to see the stage version, I’d jump on the opportunity.

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