Harry Potter and the Holistic Review

Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverI just finished Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and I feel like it was one of the most multi-layered reading experiences I’ve ever had with a contemporary work. By multi-layered I mean that I was thinking about, and analyzing meta-textual elements while reading it—which is a common enough experience, when I’m reading old literature for my english classes, but pretty rare with recently published books and plays. So, rather than just reviewing the play as I might review Mr. Burns or Water by the Spoonful, I’m going to review the play in all it’s aspects—the things I noticed as a reader, as a writer, as a theatre person(ish), as a fan of the original books, and as someone interested in the publishing industry. I’ll mention plot elements throughout this post, so if you don’t want the play spoiled, halt now.

So, let’s begin.

The Title

The feeling that this title immediately inspired in me was, “meh.” It seems like there’s no mystery to it.

Some child’s going to be cursed. Harry’s going to fix it. Great.

Of course, that’s not the actual plot of the play, but the point is that this title didn’t open up any questions for me, unlike all the other titles. With the exception of Philosopher’s Stone (which is just one version of the title of the first book) every single thing that Harry is “and the”ing is something unfamiliar, that the reader has no way of knowing about—and has no way of knowing how Harry will interact with. Half-Blood Prince? Is this going to be the book’s antagonist? What are they the Prince of? Even the Deathly Hallows, which sounds the most obviously sinister of all the titles, is totally obtuse. What the heck are deathly hallows? Like saints? Is it a place? Are they people?

But “Cursed Child”—instantly it is clear that this is going to be a problem for Harry. There’s no ambiguity of whether it’ll be a good thing or a bad thing, nor any ambiguity of what it is. The title only becomes mysterious once you read the play and start to wonder which of these children is supposed to be the cursed one—though someone only reading the title, without further knowledge of the text, wouldn’t know how much the story was going to revolve around children. Which is the next point about the title:

Why “Harry Potter and the”? He’s not the protagonist. I understand that branding is important, but I can’t imagine that Scholastic would’ve forced anything if Rowling didn’t want it. Granted, I don’t have a better idea. If they’d named it “Albus Potter and the” then it would’ve seemed like they were starting a new franchise, which I would guess they aren’t. Okay, how about this for a title—The Mark of the Augurey; A wizarding world play.

I really don’t know why they went with “cursed child,” but I must move on.

Physical Aspects and Book Design

I’ve always thought that the Harry Potter books, and especially the hardcovers, are some of the most beautifully, charmingly designed books I own. Seriously, I could do a whole post on them. And this eighth installment does not disappoint. Mostly. The cover is actually pretty generic. Not that it’s a bad cover, but it looks like any old YA or middle grade fantasy book. The font is also less than thrilling, though I think it’s in keeping with the latest editions of the Harry Potter books, which have also switched away from the iconic lightning font for some reason.

Whatever. This play clearly struggles with how much it wants to be branded as part of the original series and how much it wants to be it’s own thing.

Interior design is marvelous. Lovely font, clean, well-spaced lines (maybe more so than was necessary, but it’s still pretty), big curtains between each act (by which I mean pages which are totally filled with a splotchy gray texture and the words “Act One” or “Act Two,”) and attractive little filigrees below the headers.

And of course, what many of these design elements are trying to get across is that THIS IS A BOOK!

This is a Play

I’m not saying that the book is being deceptive by looking more like a novel than like a play—what makes it look most like a novel is the fact that it’s a hardcover with a dust jacket and that it’s decently thick and that it’s published by Scholastic—all of which aren’t even really design elements. I don’t think anyone was trying to trick anyone with this play, but I do think that the publishers wanted people to approach it as they would approach a book. People don’t read plays much. Probably. I mean, I just spent twenty minutes trying to find some statistics on this, and couldn’t find a single survey asking people how often they read plays—which should be telling in itself. Thankfully I had stumbled upon a bit of info on this matter earlier (though it’s a fourteen-year-old survey, so it’s not ideal.) In a 2002 survey the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 3.6% of adults in America reported reading a play in the last twelve months (56.6% had read a book.)

So I think it’s reasonable to assume that hardly anyone reads plays. I understand why this is, to some extent, but it also makes me want to scream. One big problem with plays is that they’re over-priced, in terms of the amount of time you’re going to spend reading them. A novel that takes ten hours to finish may cost as much as a play that takes only two hours to finish. So why buy the play?

Because it only takes two hours to finish!

With an overabundance of media to consume, reading plays makes more sense than ever. But the biggest problem is that people don’t know that it’s okay to read plays. Maybe they think that reading plays is an inevitably lacking experience, because it’s meant to be staged—or maybe they just have bad memories of reading Shakespeare in high school. Whatever it is, it’s the reason most bookstores only devote a single shelf to theatre books. My biggest hope with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is that its success prompts other YA titans to return to their successful franchises with a play, and that it prompts a general growth in popularity of plays as reading material. One great candidate would be Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy, who could actually write the play herself as she’s done a lot of work in screenwriting.

So regardless of any other thing I write in this post, as a writer and a reader of plays, I want Cursed Child to be monstrously successful, a trendsetter—the way the Harry Potter series was when it first came out.

Characters

Oh my god, we’ve finally gotten to an actual story element! And this is what I find to be the strongest, most engaging part of the play. Scorpius and Albus, the two main characters, are terrifically written. Their dynamic is highly entertaining and realistic, and their struggles with their parents are equally interesting. Albus’s attempts to live up to the impossible expectations that the world places on him, and his desire to be a better person than his dad I found fascinating. Honestly, I would’ve been thoroughly satisfied with this play if it were just Skins in Hogwarts.

As for the old characters, the ones from the original series, they were all fine, and they all seemed like the logical extrapolations of their younger selves. I think Draco was the worst, though he wasn’t that bad, it just seemed like his potential was wasted. The fact that he’s persecuted for formerly being a death-eater is intriguing, but the play doesn’t delve into it much, and at times Draco seems childish in the way he interacts with Harry. With all the old characters, I didn’t feel like a lot was added—there wasn’t a lot of new depth brought with this play with the exception of Harry and Ginny. Seeing them as a mom-dad team, and seeing Harry struggle with Albus did add a new layer to their characters.

Still, the play’s not as focused on the old characters, so I didn’t mind any of the shortcomings there.

Execution of an Old Speculative Fiction Trope

Let’s kill Hitler!

Actually, this is more like Let’s save Anne Frank!

The plot of this book is Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy attempting to save Cedric Diggory by using a time turner. The immediate reaction to this should be, why? Harry Potter cost a lot of people their lives, why not save any of them? Because Albus overhears Cedric’s dad talking about—it doesn’t matter. Albus is pissed at his dad for being a callous prick and costing the blood of innocents, so he decides he’s going back in time to save Cedric. He’s a teenager, I’ll buy it.

So, the next immediate reaction should be, but then you won’t exist! Human conception is such a chaotic process, there is no way that any change you make, even a tiny one, could have so little effect that the same sperm and egg combined—never mind, it’s fantasy, let’s excuse it.

So, the next immediate reaction should be, oh, this again. These guys are going to try to change something, and then butterfly effect, and et cetera. But hey—it’s a fun thing to do, and it’s fun to see different versions of this world, so I’m down. Really. I may sound kind of snide, but I sincerely was willing to go along with this plot, and enjoy it, at the outset. The problem is in the execution.

For a start, the storyline implicitly establishes that Harry Potter’s success rested on a healthy dose of luck—and the same with Ron and Hermione’s marriage. Like, changing the circumstances of this one, fairly irrelevant student totally changed everything. I always felt like Harry’s love or whatever was pretty important, and he was destined to win over Voldemort because Voldemort was a heartless, noseless prick. Not that Harry could’ve won no matter what, but I figured the people who were key to his success were people like Hermione and Ron and Dumbledore and Snape, not Cedric Diggory. But I guess the boy who lived was actually just lucky.

So whatever. That’s kind of obnoxious, it throws a cynical light on the Wizarding World, but once I accepted it, I just moved on with the story. It wasn’t the biggest problem with the execution of this trope.

The biggest problem with the execution is that Jack Thorne approaches world-building with the subtlety of a rhinoceros. It’s not really a problem up until the world starts changing, because he doesn’t have to do any world-building—we’re all familiar with the Harry Potter world, and not so much has changed in the past 19 years, so he can rest on the well-developed scenery of Rowling’s first seven books. Fine. But when Albus and Scorpius start altering the timeline, the majority of information is delivered in interactions like this:

DOLORES UMBRIDGE: Scorpius, I’ve thought for a long time that you have Head Boy potential, as you know. Pure-blooded, a natural leader, wonderfully athletic . . .

SCORPIUS: Athletic?

DOLORES UMBRIDGE: No need to be modest, Scorpius. I’ve seen you on the Quidditch pitch, there’s rarely a Snitch you don’t catch.

(Act III, Scene 1)

“As you know”? “As you know”? Never say “as you know”! If they both know it, there’s no need to say it! Alright, I probably picked one of the most grotesque examples, but there really is an excessive amount of:

A: Exposition!

B: Exposition?

A: What are you crazy, of course exposition, and also more exposition!

Execution. That’s the problem here. It seems like Thorne has no conception of what’s been done with this trope, or how to get information across, or how stupid the audience is and how much they need to be spoon-fed information—and they’re not stupid. They’ll pick up on tiny crumbs, you don’t need to stuff whole loaves down their throats.

If anyone thinks, oh, well, this is how you have to do things in plays because you don’t have prose descriptions, then they’re mistaken. Mr. Burns; A post-electric play does a phenomenal job of world-building with out any clunky “as you know” BS. That’s the play that comes fastest to mind and best serves my point, but The CrucibleFood and Fadwa, and Pilgrims are all good examples too.

So that’s probably the greatest weak-spot of the book, as well as …

The World Itself

“Voldemort Day”? Really? “The Blood Ball”? Really? Everything is so aggressively evil and shallow in the Harry-Potter-is-dead world. The only part of it that I found interesting was Malfoy, because he seems like a real person dealing with the day-to-day struggle of bearing the responsibility of the security of the Wizarding World, and raising his spoiled son. Otherwise, there’s nothing interesting to it.

“Potter” is a curse? Really? I can see, maybe, “Potter” as a name (i.e. “you Potter!” “Stop being such a Potter,” etc.) but not just a random curse to replace “damn” or “shit”! What’s wrong with “shit”?

Oh, actually, calling Dumbledore’s Army “terrorists” was a nice touch. That was good. I wanted more of that kind of stuff. Stuff that feels real, and depressing, not stuff that feels like it’s trying to draw as much attention to itself as possible.

This Book as Fan Fiction

Yeah. This has been said, I’ll say it here, parts of this book (especially with the what-if stuff) feel like fan fiction. That’s because it is. The problem is when it feels like bad fan fiction, or fan fiction which is less about a meaningful, realistic portrayal of the characters and world, and more about serving the whims of the fan. Particularly the above mentioned world-building poop, and also some moments like:

RON: I’m scared.

HERMIONE: Kiss me.

(Act III, Scene 9)

I read most of this play aloud, but there were a few moments that I couldn’t bring myself to speak and just quickly subvocalized through and went on. That was one of them. Still, the book escapes this problem a lot by focusing on the new characters of Scorpius and Albus, so it’s not a serious issue. And as I said, in the main timeline, the old characters are all handled pretty well.

I’ll talk more about fan fiction, authority, and canonicalness in a moment, but first:

Could My High School Produce This?

This is a question I often ask myself when writing plays, the idea being that I should be conscious of the different budgets and abilities of different theaters, and how much of a challenge my play might be to them. And I use my high school as a baseline—not totally bereft of lights or costumes or actors, but also not swimming in money.

So, could my high school—

No.

Yes, of course—they could do a reading of it, and have someone read all the stage directions, but a full production?

No.

Granted, any theater could do a production of anything, but it’s a question of cutting corners. And to produce Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, they’d have to take a weed whacker to it. Things like the book case, the polyjuice potion, the transfiguration, the stuff on top of the train—it’s all too much. Even if there were low-budget workarounds to it all, there would not be enough time to rehearse the choreography, and ensure the lighting and sound cues happened at all the right times.

Well who cares? There are plenty of shows that my high school can’t produce, what does it matter?

Because this is a young adult play! How awesome would it be to get to perform as Harry Potter? As Albus Dumbledore? As the Sorting Hat? I got a kick out of it just reading it. And the play centers on two students, who are high-school-aged. My high school should’ve been able to produce this!

Sigh. Moving on.

Could my University Produce This?

No!

First of all, the play is two plays, so it’s really long. That’d be a stumbling block for my high school too, but I digress. The big problem that I’m getting at with this question is performance rights. As far as I can tell, these are owned by Rowling and by Harry Potter Theatrical Productions Limited, and they’re only really going to extend rights to big professional theaters.

So if my university sent them an inquiry about performance rights, they’d probably get turned down. This is how really big, successful shows work though. Phantom of the Opera held onto amateur rights for 27 years. Now, I’m not predicting that we won’t see universities producing this play for two decades, because I have faith in J.K. Rowling to not be a monster, but it will still be some time, and that’s a shame, because all of the people who grew up reading Harry Potter will be well out of academia by the time schools are able to produce it, or produce abridged versions of it, or however they may do it.

Is it Canon?

Who cares! The ability to decide what you believe is a wonderful thing, and if you want to believe that it’s canon, great. If you don’t, great. I can’t think of a better way to shatter the idea of a singular, canonical, official, author-endorsed storyline than with a play. Because even if you’re a super literalist, and you say, Rowling says this fan fiction is a part of her Wizarding World, so therefore it’s canon—well, which version? The fact that this is a play, and will be produced by different people and cast with different actors many times over means that the canonical story of Harry Potter ends in a big bouquet of diverging realities. In the current production, the actor playing Hermione is black. In another version she might be white, or Indian. The actress might play her as more authoritative, as more manipulative, as more childish, as more adult—what the hell is canon when each actor can invent their own fan fic backstory for the way they’re portraying their character?

Of course, this has always been the case with plays. Hamlet has seen thousands of productions, in dozens of languages. The idea of a definitive, canonical version is foreign to theatre—and I think that’s great. Essentially, this play opens the door to all kinds of speculation. That’s how I view the story, with regards to the original series. As a speculation. It’s something that could’ve happened, but didn’t, necessarily. There is no definitive ending to the Harry Potter books, no certain boundaries to the Wizarding World. Welcome to the magical, theatrical realm of well, what do you think happened?, Potter fans.

This is an Artifact, and Would I Recommend this Play?

If you just want a great new Harry Potter story, you can probably find better fan fiction online. The play doesn’t do much of replicating the warmth, charm, and imagination of the original series, so if you’re solely looking for that, I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re just looking for a decent play with a fantasy setting, then, sure, it’s pretty good. People who’ve never read Harry Potter would probably enjoy it even more (though I don’t know who those people are, or how willing they’d be to drop thirty bucks on the hardcover.)

More importantly, would I recommend this play to Francis of a month ago, before he’d read it? Yes. I enjoyed the drama of the play enough, but assessing, and thinking about, and interacting with all this other meta-textual stuff is what made this such a worthwhile read for me. Pondering the concepts of authorship and canon, of plays as popular reading material, and of executing fantasy tropes on stage was incredibly engaging, and left me arguing with myself as much as old works of literature have. The meta-text of this play is so complicated and interesting, and I rarely feel the need to write so extensively about a single book.

So, bravo, Thorne and Rowling and Tiffany. An okay play, but a terrific artifact.

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