Gritty Details

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tonight's Poet Corner: Introspection

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
"When the magic becomes unbalanced"
by Belinda Roddie

A review in lieu of an introspection.

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!

August 19, 2016

The Harry Potter series is an absolute leviathan. That cannot be denied. Taking the literary world by storm, it revitalized what was objectively viewed as a failing industry, bringing the love of reading back to the foreground of both children's lives and adults' experiences. It was the jumper cable that restarted the printed word's dead car battery, a jolt to a fluttering heart that desperately needed more oxygen in its blood circulation. Ultimately, to say that Harry Potter saved books is a fair assumption to make.

And that's not without merit. Yes, the series certainly has its flaws, which can be debated to high heaven, from the questionable motives of some of its characters to its more rudimentary structural and plot issues (It should not take an entire year of a Triwizard Tournament to summon Harry to a graveyard with a portkey, Voldy boy). But the characters were likable, and the story itself was enticing. It was another example of the hero's journey in motion, a reminder from Joseph Campbell's ghost that the epic sagas of courage and discovery that we love to this day are still relevant in our modern lives. Whether or not you were particularly fond of Harry, the titular character, wasn't relevant; we lived through his experiences along with him from our beds or chairs or couches, in our local libraries and bookstores and the comfort of our own homes. We began to "ship" characters, figuring out who should fall in love with whom. We stood in long lines to obtain the next volume, waiting until midnight over cheaply made butterbeer that was usually just ginger ale or root beer with ice cream on top. We memorized Latin words because we wanted to pretend we could cast spells and jinxes. We cheered on or booed the casting choices made for the movies, as well as argued over which parts of the books should have been kept in the films. And we overall felt connected to the world that the author, J.K. Rowling, created, something that we could easily access without traveling too far or wide for adventure.

Come to think of it, that's really the strongest part of the Harry Potter series: The world that was crafted within it. The plot and the characters are engaging, but they would never have been that engaging were it not for the magical and inspiring setting where they resided. There are many other stories with much better developed characters and more intriguing storylines, but they don't nearly get as much attention or praise. Why is that?

It might be because the worlds they live in aren't interesting enough. They're flat or clichéd or lack soul, regardless of how "unique" they might potentially be. Sometimes, they barely change or evolve, and in some rare cases, the author outright refuses to modify or refine the setting in reaction to the actions or decisions of its inhabitants. Rowling exposed us, the Muggles, to a world that we were not a part of before. It was a complex world, a detailed world, and it had spirit behind it. You didn't just get to explore Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or Hogsmeade, or the Forbidden Forest, or the Ministry of Magic; you also got to experience all the painstaking minutiae. Everything from the rules of Quidditch, the candies sold on the Hogwarts Express, the curricula and courses that wizard students took, and the multiple magical species as well as their relations with one another, was written in a way that was equivalent to poring over a textbook on geography or history - but much more fun, because we personally felt like we had a stake in it.

Hell, even the currency of the magical world was specified for us. The most avid Potterheads will be quick to let you know, for example, that there are a whopping 493 Knuts to a Galleon, once you apply the appropriate math. To this day, you can still buy Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans at your local candy shop, or hear children asking for lightning bolt-shaped scars to be drawn on their foreheads by the face painter at your county fair. And who can forget the glorious Hogwarts-themed weddings, the Quidditch leagues founded at universities across the globe, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, found in both Orlando and Los Angeles thanks to Universal Studios?

The point is, J.K. Rowling may have started writing about a young boy on a train, and we will always be able to find compassion in our hearts for the Boy Who Lived. But what really drew us in was the world that Harry, along with us and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, was able to explore, adapt to, and change. There was an equilibrium, a balance, struck between character and setting: One never overpowered the other, because they needed one another to work properly. And the characters, ultimately, were responsible for driving the plot and altering the environment accordingly, based on their desires, needs, and moral compasses. It reminded us that we, too, have the capacity to learn from and affect the world around us, expanding our ideas and prospects inside an ever-progressing and thought-provoking society.

It comes as no surprise, consequently, that Harry's story was not over just yet. Enter Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a play that was based off of a new short story and adapted to the stage by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and Headmistress Rowling herself. It opened to mostly rave reviews on July 30th, 2016, at the Palace Theatre in London, with a vibrant cast and what appears to be some rather impressive staging. When fans heard about this new installment, they were thrilled. We were already being flooded by new Harry Potter information almost daily. If one went to Pottermore online, they could be sorted into a house at an American wizarding school, called Ilvermorny. Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the movie adaptation of a magical creature guide that Rowling wrote (she wrote the film script, too), was already expected to be successful enough to warrant a sequel. More and more interesting tidbits and facts appeared on the web and elsewhere, leading both fans and critics to realize that Harry Potter wasn't going anywhere; it was growing. Much like George Lucas went wild with stretching out the Star Wars trilogy into a media and science-fiction empire, it seemed that Rowling, and anyone else who helped her, was determined to make Harry Potter an even bigger global phenomenon. And what better way to lure in your audience than to give them opportunities to watch their favorite characters onstage, their new story taking place nineteen years after the events of the seventh and final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?

A disclaimer, of course, becomes necessary here: This reviewer, as of now, has not been given the opportunity to watch Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in its authentic form in a theater, nor will they be able to watch it in the near future. Therefore, there is no way to critique the work in its appropriate medium. Theatrical elements such as acting, directing, staging, lighting, sound, and special effects just can't be taken into account. The only access most people have to the play, in the end, is the published manuscript, which was made available to the public for purchase a day after the play premiered. This is not a novelization or revision of what we're meant to see onstage, either - no, this is the rehearsal script. The real deal. A wave of nostalgic magic to bring us back into the world that we fell in love with from the moment we read The Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone. 

So the only way, for now, to review this play is in its raw, written, and unstaged form. And from that perspective, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child falls completely and utterly flat.

Most noticeable is its inability to go beyond its source material, to move forward from already established lore that we've seen in the previous books. It is shackled to words already written and plots already pounded out, meaning it lacks a true sense of originality that is needed when adding new elements to what is already a literary juggernaut. Instead of taking the opportunity to expand the already existing Potter universe - after all, the main character of the play is Albus Severus Potter, Harry's youngest son, giving us a fresh, new point of view - Cursed Child resorts to past events and a clumsily written through line, culminating in a splendidly awkward twist that will leave even the most faithful fans slapping their sweaty palms against their throbbing foreheads.

The strongest part of the script, and this is not surprising, is its characters. Thorne and Tiffany, we can assume, most likely got a lot of feedback from Rowling when developing the future versions of the trio, because Harry, Ron, and Hermione feel very real and very much planned out. The reader gets a sense that they have truly grown up, for better or for worse. Ron, ever the fatherly jokester, brings a sliver of light and optimism into a wizarding world that is once again going mad. Hermione, save for a strange alternate universe moment in which apparently she'd be a mega-snot without her man (Hear that? That's the sound of feminists getting reasonably annoyed), is upright, calm, and ever the pedantic and matronly witch that we began to love after some initial irritation. And Harry, bless his heart, remains the beautifully emotional mess that he has always been, grappling with his work life while attempting to be a good father to his son, even while he continues to deal with the trauma and pain that he experienced as a child and teenager. To expect Harry to be the perfect adult and dad is, for lack of a better word, silly. In order for him to be authentic, he must forever struggle, whether it be with his legacy as a hero or with the dark moments he endured, all while seeing loved ones die due to his existence alone. It makes him a powerful and sympathetic character; you want him to stop making sloppy decisions, but in the end, he is doing his best to be the kind of support for his family that he never got to have while growing up, even when he spent time at Hogwarts.

But perhaps the best two characters in the play are its protagonists: Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, the latter being the son of Draco Malfoy. Both Slytherins and both very different from their fathers, they clearly suffer under the shadows of their family histories. It is obvious that Albus does not want to be like Harry, and he resents the fact that he is always held up to certain standards based on his parents' reputations. Scorpius, who turns out to be a complete and total sweetheart that you just want to hug (especially after he loses his mom. His mom dies!), faces the cruelty of his peers who constantly accuse him of being the son of Voldemort. He connects with Albus due to their mutual status as outcasts, and although Albus doesn't necessarily serve as the best role model for him, Scorpius wants to do what's best for his close friend. Of course, this doesn't stop him from ripping into Albus for being so pissy about being Harry Potter's son later in the script, and the result is a monologue that makes the reader want to put down the book for only a moment just to start a slow clap.

The rest of the ensemble is fairly reminiscent of their roles in the book series, and there's not much difference to be seen because they're not the center of the story: Albus is. He is meant to be the core character, the awkward son who has turned out to be very different from the rest of his family. A boy who tries so hard to find an identity of his own but is continually challenged to be someone he doesn't want to be, who is sorted into a house that is considered evil, who becomes friends with the son of who used to be the enemy, and who ultimately can forge a destiny of his own.

This is the story that Cursed Child should have been. It should have focused specifically on Albus and his personal conflicts, his experiences at Hogwarts, and his persistent vendetta with a father who can't even handle his own past. Sure, some dark presence or enemy is probably needed to spur the story forward, but if the manuscript had focused on the cursed child (which is Albus. Don't argue. It's not Delphini. But we'll get to that) and the burden of already preconceived perceptions of his worth, it could have become a powerful character piece that continued to push the magical world toward new horizons.

The possibilities were endless here. Maybe we could have seen new characters and descendants of other former students. Maybe Hogwarts itself has changed dramatically. Maybe the world that Albus gets to explore is drastically different than the one his father grew up in, and there are new dangers and risks to the magical population. Yes, Thorne and Tiffany may have been beholden to Rowling's already existing rules and limitations within the universe that she created, and they may not have been able to get away with too much, but the concept of a story based more around Harry and Albus as father and son, while also branching out from already written plotlines in order to create a more vibrant world, could prove to be not only an appropriately provocative stage drama, but also an incredibly fun and diverse story.

Instead, we got this: A mess of onstage montages yanking us through about four years of Albus's life in fewer than five pages, with little to no emphasis on his experiences at Hogwarts, resulting in a convoluted time traveling adventure that actually includes an alternate timeline where Cedric Diggory becomes a Death Eater because he got his poor widdle feelings hurt during the Triwizard Tournament, and ultimately ending with the discovery that Voldemort, after getting into bed with Bellatrix Lestrange, had a daughter named Delphini, who pretends to be Cedric Diggory's cousin in order to bring Voldemort back and rule by his side.

You can't make this stuff up. Or maybe you can. Rowling, Thorne, and Tiffany did. Sadly.

Again, some elements of this dry and forced plot are admittedly fascinating. For example, the reader gets to see a wizarding world in which Voldemort actually won, with Scorpius proving himself as a worthy hero as he attempts to correct the timeline. But beyond that, the whole thing is so lazy. It's one thing to pay homage to books that have already been published; it's another to rely on them for content. We don't need to see scenes from The Goblet of Fire again, even from a different perspective; we already read that book. We're not interested in seeing what would have happened if Ron and Hermione never got married; we want to see Albus and Scorpius on their own adventure, free from the heavy shade of their family trees. Why were Rowling, Thorne, and Tiffany so interested in rehashing existing storylines that we don't need to see again, when they had such an awesome chance to create something new and exciting within such a vast and colorful world? Because of this, the play diverts from its true heart and soul - specifically, Albus's relationships with Scorpius and Harry - and decides to pander to the fans by giving them material they've already become extremely familiar with. And while that may seem like a good idea if you want positive feedback (and clearly, it's worked), it makes for very mediocre and stale writing.

Cursed Child, subsequently, feels unfocused. It's almost as if it can't decide whose story it actually wants to tell. And we know whose story it should have centered on: Albus Severus Potter's story, the story of the cursed child, the pariah attempting to be himself. What should have been a coming-of-age story for him is hijacked by a disruptive and messy plot that reads more like B-grade fanfiction, though I'm sure it sated some Gryffindor scarf-wearing Potterhead's fantasies of constructing bizarre what-ifs regarding the universe itself ("Hey, guys! Voldemort had a kid! And she makes Albus feel all tingly inside."). But the play is not fanfiction - it was OK'd by the main author herself. It devalues the strength and complexities of the characters who were able to stand on their own even as the events around them became more and more out there and even preposterous. Sure, Harry had to fight dragons and stab a giant basilisk with a sword, but there was always room in the Harry Potter series for the characters to explore their identities in the incredible world they lived in. That's why, despite the writing not always being top-notch, conversations and exchanges among the characters in the books were so refreshing because it pulled the reader away, albeit momentarily, from the temerity of the plot and allowed them to see these fictional people grow and change and learn. We were able to witness the ever-shifting world through the eyes of people like Snape, Hermione, Ron, and Harry, focusing more on what was happening rather than on what could have been happening.

This brings us to the overarching problem with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which may or may not be fixed by seeing it onstage: The play, in its purely written form, lacks a delicate balance. It depends on alternate scenarios and roller coaster-like twists and turns, all at the cost of developing its world and the characters who live in it. Characters who should have been allowed to naturally develop become static for the sake of a wacky plot device, when it should be the characters driving the plot, and not the other way around. Instead of seeing the wizarding world expand and change in response to the people living in it, we're subjected to a retelling of a story we already know and love in its original incarnation. And while we get wonderful scenes in the play of Harry and Albus struggling to connect with one another, it's upstaged (pun definitely intended) by weak and half-hearted storytelling that feels more like it's meant to manipulate the reader or viewer rather than let them enjoy the universe that they've grown partial to. Real chances to navigate characters' personal trials and tribulations are ignored for the sake of creating a legacy - which is ironic, because that's exactly the thing that Albus and Scorpius are trying to escape from in the first place. And that kills any likelihood of creating something new rather than something begrudgingly tethered to tales that have already been told, and should only be told, once.

Again, perhaps when seeing the play staged, disappointed readers' opinions could change dramatically. And again, the Harry Potter series has not lost its charm just yet. It stands as the epitome of childhood curiosity, of a belief that there could be something more beyond our narrow perceptions of the world we have grown up in. We all pined for our letters to Hogwarts and comforted ourselves with the idea that they were probably just destroyed during Voldemort's brief reign (Yes, some of us are secretly Muggle-Borns. You cannot talk us out of this theory). We sorted ourselves into the school's houses and dressed in robes and waved around wands at midnight book releases and film showings. We still love and cherish the brilliant cast of characters that J.K. Rowling has woven together in an unforgettable tapestry. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, when simply read instead of watched, stands as a shakily added thread within that tapestry. It doesn't quite add to it, but it doesn't quite remove from it, either. It serves, unfortunately, to slightly dull the magic of Harry Potter and his friends and family, when it should have brought a whole new dimension to it.

Maybe balance in the wizarding world is not all lost. Maybe a trip to the Palace Theatre in London is in order, after all.

1 comment:

  1. This is so well written and well stated, and it captures a lot of what I felt about it. You should look into doing more of these. You're quite good at them. :D