By Sally Allen, author of Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers
Predictably, the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the rehearsal script for the play of the same name currently running in London, generated passionate fervor not seen since, well, the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows nine years ago. Midnight release parties, fans decked out in fancy dress, sorting games, and 2.5 million copies sold in the first day.
And yet… in our age of disposability, the rosy glow wears off ever more quickly. Collectively speaking, we’re like a cat that meows persistently at a closed door. You know that cat, right? You rush to open the door only to have the cat stand in exactly the same spot, staring at you like it had nothing to do with your decision to open that door. And why would you open it anyway? Weirdo. Then the cat flicks its tail and flounces off to find a box in which to sit and from which to glare menacingly at you.
Entering week two after the script release, resentful criticism keeps pace with the rising sales figures. The plot is clumsy and unbelievable. The time travel doesn’t work at all. Why did Rowling collaborate with lesser mortals? The characters are stilted. The dialogue is terrible. What has Rowling wrought? It’s a betrayal! It’s a travesty! Commence hand wringing and garment rending.
My personal favorite critique (by which I mean the critique that causes steam to issue from my facial orifices) demands that Rowling cease and desist writing. One hyperbolic piece was laced with the suggestion that it may be time Rowling went on to what Albus Dumbledore called the “next great adventure,” which would be death, if we’re being literal with our interpretation. In the Anglo-sphere in 2016, when we are not pleased, we really do wish you’d go, again in the words of Dumbledore, “on.”
I hate to point out the obvious, but did you know? It’s actually entirely possible to choose NOT to read Harry Potter. Or anything Harry Potter related. I happen to know this because it’s exactly what I did last summer when Go Set a Watchman was released. I usually refer to it as the title-that-must-not-be-named. I’m making an exception here, for clarity. In the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the script sold upwards of two million copies in the first day because of passionate audiences who do want more. They filled independent bookshops and their Instagram feeds with their enthusiasm and passion for Rowling’s characters and their stories.
Between you and me (shhh, don’t tell), I can understand what has critics riled up. After a fashion, we want the story to be finite. Thanks so much, we might say to a beloved author about her or his story. We’ll take it from here! We want, as readers, some control to shape the story in our imaginations, to take it where we want it to go. Books become repositories for our memories. They offer opportunities to reflect on our lives. They stimulate our creative muscles to fill in the story gaps. Adding more layers messes with what we have going on. Get off my lawn, author!
Yet it’s this same power books have – to hold memories, invite reflection, stimulate creativity – that makes hearing the next part of the story intriguing for some of us. In the case of Harry Potter, after 10 years, seven books, and thousands of pages, the characters can come to feel as real as any person we are acquainted with in three dimensions.
In the depth and breadth of his story as well as his popularity, Harry Potter is unique in our time. Perhaps not since Charles Dickens or Mark Twain has an author been such a super charged celebrity. No matter how much hand-wringing Harold Bloom and his type engage in, Harry’s story resonates in the same way that much of the classic literature that informs it does – because it explores timeless themes of loss, redemption, imperfection, community. Because it makes us feel connected, uplifted, and inspired. Because it makes us feel. At least according to the 2.5 million of us who rushed to acquire our copies on day one.
If one wishes to find the problems with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I daresay it will take no great pains to do so. Inevitably, the script has its issues. No work of art is perfect, just as no critic is perfect. One can also choose not to engage with the script. I hear other books have been published in the month of August (go figure). Of course, another option exists – to find and cherish the story’s beautiful, heartening moments and to bring that joy and empathy into a world sorely in need of it.
Sally Allen is the author of Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers. She is the founder of Books, Ink at HamletHub, a website dedicated to Connecticut books news, where her writing has earned her three Connecticut Press Club awards.