When fans heard that a new Harry Potter book would be hitting shelves in July of 2016, they were justifiably excited. What they weren’t necessarily expecting, however, was that while the new story (picking up 19 years after “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) was text-based, it would take the form of a script. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” was released as a two-part play on July 30.
For most Millennials, there are few literary characters as significant or impactful as Harry Potter. With 450 million copies printed of J.K. Rowling’s seven-book saga of “The Boy Who Lived,” numerous spin-off literary properties, movies, theme parks, video games, and various unauthorized properties, an official stage play is well overdue. Considering that the series has changed the way 18-to-34-year-olds (as well as other demographics) vote, view the world, and name their children, there is clearly a marketable target audience for just such a play.
Leading up to the West-End play’s July 30 premiere, ticket sales were through the roof, and as may have been expected, the published version went on to be the year’s most pre-ordered book. While critical and fan responses to the theatrical production have been positive, reactions to the the book have been far more mixed, with some outraged that it’s not a novel.
The biggest thing to note when approaching the text of a piece meant for theater is knowing that you’re only receiving a portion of the intended experience of the piece. It’s comparable to listening to a movie with your eyes shut. As such, reading “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” requires a bit more effort and imagination. Readers aren’t able to rely on Rowling’s skillful prose to set the scene for them; in the theater that’s the job of the scenic, costume, and lighting designers. The beauty of the collaborative art form of theater is that it immerses its viewers in the experience by putting them in the same room as the story they are being told. So, of course, the book lacks Rowling’s skillful world-weaving. It’s not a novel and can’t be expected to read as one.
Furthermore, the text was not written by Rowling. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” was written by award-winning playwright Jack Thorne. While it was based on a story developed by Rowling (alongside Thorne and director John Tiffany), the actual text was composed entirely by Thorne.
Criticism of the writing tends to revolve around missed opportunities and a tone of/ adherence to the tropes of fan fiction. Yet, in some ways, that is kind of what “Cursed Child” is. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, just like there wasn’t anything wrong with ancient Greek playwright Euripides writing one of the first accounts of theatrical fan-fiction,“Helen,” exploring what happens to Helen of Troy after the Trojan War. With “Cursed Child,” Thorne upholds a theatrical tradition that dates all the way back to the roots of the Western theatrical tradition itself.
While not perfect, reading “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is a great way to satisfy curiosity about what came after “Deathly Hallows” for Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It is a much quicker read than a novel of comparable length would be, even if your imagination has to do a bit more of the heavy lifting. Much like watching a film adaptation of a beloved book, it’s important to approach the piece with the understanding that it’s in a different medium — one that comes along with fundamentally different goals, aesthetics, and techniques.
It is also important to keep in mind that scripts are intended to be seen and heard, not read, so in merely reading the script there is often something left to be desired. So, overall, if you’re a Potter fan clear on the difference between a play and a novel, you’re sure to find “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” a worthwhile journey into the world that Rowling so lovingly created — even if this time around she’s not your tour guide to that world.