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Reading a Text for the Stage on the Page: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

Beloved boy wizard Harry Potter is making his return to the zeitgeist for the first time in nearly a decade but this time, he’s returning onstage rather than on the page. Does it make a difference?

By Entertainment

Illustration by Yen-Kai Huang

Illustration by Yen-Kai Huang.

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.

Thorne does a great job of distilling the magical essence of the book and film series into a distinctly dramatic story. Reading the play will leave you routinely wondering how the cast of characters might accomplish the acts you’re reading about on stage in front of a live audience. He also manages to introduce new characters into a world that is near and dear to so many people’s hearts, and have them interact with the iconic characters that made that world matter so much in the first place. But where Thorne is able to find the voices for his new characters with ease, there are moments where his writing for the existing characters feels less organic. In particular, some of his lines for Hermione and Ron seem, at the very least, to lack the subtleties and complexities Rowling imbued into their relationship and interactions.

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.

5 Theatrical Adaptations of Books That are Also Movies:
  1. “Let the Right One In.” An awesomely moody, Swedish vampire novel, was adapted to an equally awesome and moody Swedish film (a pretty good American one, too), and also a killer stage play, written by the same Jack Thorne that penned “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
  2. “Misery.” Yep, the classic Stephen King novel and equally classic Kathy Bates movie, has been adapted for the stage as well.
  3. “The Grapes of Wrath.” John Steinbeck’s iconic story of American hardship during the dust bowl was made into a 1940 film starring Henry Fonda, and a Tony Award Winning play version by Frank Galati, first done here in Chicago at The Steppenwolf Theatre.
  4. “The Color Purple.” The Pulitzer Prize Winning novel by Alice Walker was turned into an Academy Award Nominated film and a Tony Award Winning musical.

  5. “The Phantom of the Opera.” Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s iconic Broadway musical was based on the 1909 novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra” by Gaston Leroux, and was first seen on the silver screen in an equally iconic 1925 Lon Chaney feature.



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