Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling

There will be spoilers for the original seven in this review, but I have whited out spoilers from "Cursed Child."

A true child of the Harry Potter generation, I picked my reserved copy of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" up at midnight and started it as soon as I got home. The fact that I fell asleep 100 pages in speaks to the fact that I'm not the energetic high schooler I was when "Deathly Hallows" came out, and that the bar exam was earlier the week and I still haven't fully recovered from that ordeal.

So I finished the last two-thirds this morning, and my feelings are decidedly mixed. As I noted in my Goodreads review immediately after I finished, this series was an enormous part of my childhood & I'll likely continue to be eager for new installments, and consume them in whatever form they take, problematic as they may be. And in that sense, "Cursed Child" fulfills its responsibilities. We're back in this magical, surreal, bewitching world, with the characters we know and love. For the most part, they behave like the aged versions of themselves that I had envisioned. Ron's dialogue is particularly good, as is McGonagell's. We get a new adventure with the new generation and friendship takes center stage. It's lovely. 

The original seven were inspired by Rowling's grief over her mother's death, and that grief and love of a child for an absent parent is inseparably woven into the main series. Now we have an older author, an established parent with three children in contrast to the single mother of a young daughter coping with her own grief who penned the original series. The change in life circumstances is apparent in the new installment, focusing heavily on parent-child relationships from the parent's perspective. We see both Harry reflecting on his trouble relating to his son Albus, and Albus reflecting on his trouble with his famous dad. We knew this was going to be the central relationship in the story & it felt like the truest element. I'm not a parent myself, but it seems a natural progression given the course of Rowling's life and how heavily it influenced her first books. On the whole it is this theme that allows for adequate comparison of this installment with the rest of the series, and that makes this play worthy of inclusion. 

But there are some problems. And this discussion of the problems necessarily involves spoilers, so highlight the next paragraphs if you've read the book and/or don't mind being spoiled. Stop here if you don't want to be spoiled (especially if you're reading on the mobile device, because I'm not sure whether the white-text spoilers will display as white text on the mobile site). Know that I'm glad I read it, but felt it didn't quite live up to the main series.

First, Draco. Building off my previous comments, Draco did not feel realistic. He starts the play in an uneasy position with Harry, much as we left him in the epilogue. They can be civil for short periods, but that pretense falls apart with extended time together. Then, their sons disappear together for a second time, and in just a couple pages of dialogue they have decided to be friends for their sons' sake. I believe this is the type of thing parents can and will do for their children. This just should have taken longer. At least Ron's discomfort and inability to let the past die easily feels true. 

Second, and most critically, this play has plotting issues, especially in light of the rest of the rest of the series. One of the things that makes the original seven such a joy & a masterpiece is Rowling's careful and diligent plotting. Most notably, she lays the groundwork for the horcruxes in "Chamber of Secrets," but there are also countless smaller bits throughout - seeming throwaway characters who pop up later with renewed significance, a certain diadem that takes on new meaning once readers know what they're looking for, etc. 

Delphi is an aberration. There is nothing from the original series that led us to believe Voldemort had a child. And that's a pretty big reveal, for someone who knows her world and her characters as well as Rowling. She knows their histories and their futures, but she left us no clues to this massive reveal. Further, the point in the timeline into which it is was inserted, at the Malfoy Manor before the Battle of Hogwarts is incongruous as well. We saw Bellatrix then, when the gang was briefly held prisoner in the basement, and there was no reference to a current pregnancy or recent birth. But if Bellatrix were to have had Delphi prior to the Battle, she should have been either fairly far along in a pregnancy or have had a baby somewhere in the house. 

If this was something Rowling had been planning all along, I cannot believe she would not have laid some small detail there for readers to find and ponder. Its absence makes it seem to me that the other two playwrights approached her with vague ideas of Voldemort's daughter and time travel, and how cool it could look on a stage rather than a screen, and she shoehorned their ideas into the existing timeline, instead of adhering to the histories she has already written for her characters. When the plotting was such a central feature of the original books, its abandonment here is conspicuous and disappointing, a disservice to fans who followed her breadcrumbs so closely they were able to identify all seven horcruxes before the publication of the last book

Third, and finally, there are distracting technical issues. I understand fully that this is a play intended to be seen live, not read on the page. But the playwrights, Rowling included, also knew the vast majority of fans would be consuming it as words on a page, so it is not unreasonable to hold them to the expectations inherent in producing a new printed, written installment in the most popular book series in history. There are moments where the other playwrights' writing pokes through in the stage directions. Most notably, on pg. 249 (of the US edition) there is a stage direction "This is almost a Spartacus moment" that is so out of sync with Harry Potter-style writing that I had to put the book down and Google. Luckily, it is the only such direct reference, but its significance bears discussion.

One of the elements that has made the series endure is its lack of dated elements - though we have a clear timeline with years, the lack of technology and pop culture references prevents the books from getting mired in a specific moment, so readers of all ages can read them unbound from the details that would typically place a work in a specific period. So a Spartacus reference stands out like a sore thumb, and made me, a reader who admits to only a basic understanding of what exactly that references means, feel left out and confused by a world that previously had been entirely accessible among its own pages. Rowling's writing is, of course, full of allusions and inspirations from countless mythologies, but those are bonuses to those who study them or bring such knowledge with them. Picking up on them is not necessary to one's understanding of the story. A stage direction in the sparse text of a script with a direct reference that goes over some readers' heads or prompts them to put down the book for a quick Google is leaving some of us out. And that's a bad feeling, one that Rowling avoided for seven books, whether intentionally or not. It makes it clear that this is a different type of work, and sets it apart from the original seven in an unfortunate way.  

On a much smaller note on the stage directions, there were several that seemed to direct how the audience was to feel at a given moment. For example, "VOLDEMORT comes through the back of the stage, and across it, and walks down into the auditorium. He brings death with him. And everyone knows it." (p. 294 of the US edition). Maybe the direction is referring to the actors on stage, but given that Voldemort has descended from the stage into the audience, that seems unlikely. Such a blanket description of the intended mood in theater struck me as either presumptuous if intended as an actual direction for the actors, or alternatively failing to show the reader of print rather than tell. 

See,that specific spoiler-y example is also a direction immediately prior to a scene cut, though it's a scene cut that doesn't actually change place or time from the one preceding it. So it would seem a cut made only for the dramatic tension of the reader of print. And if some decisions are already being made for the sake of the print reader, more attention could have been paid, confusion avoided with the addition of an extra stage direction or two, and more atmosphere built rather than simply stating the hoped-for feeling exists. 

I'm grateful that Rowling is providing us with more from the world of Harry Potter, and perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high. But I'll also argue that Rowling earned our high expectations in delivering an unparalleled fantasy series with a reach unlike anything that came before it, and then meticulously guarding her intellectual property and making careful decisions about how and when to expand the series and its surrounding world. It's a shame that there are parts of this story that distract too much to fully include it on the same level as the original seven.

Verdict: Jury's out. I'm happy I read this, and glad it exists to some extent. But more care could have given to devoted readers on a number of levels, and the incongruities are frustrating. I'm still hopeful, though, that the Harry Potter fandom will pick up on something that laid the groundwork for this that I simply missed.

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, published July 31, 2016 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

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