The following post contains spoilers for the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2 and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I have seen the production of Cursed Child in London but have tried to limit my spoilers to what is in the published text alongside some light references to elements of the staging.
July 21st, 2017, marks ten years to the date since the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final novel in the Harry Potter series. In the time since the book’s publication, however, the series has grown even more.
In particular, 2016 was easily the biggest year for Harry Potter since 2007. The year saw the release of two new pieces of supposed Harry Potter canon: the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2, billed as the eighth Harry Potter story, and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a spinoff film series set several decades before Harry’s story.
Naturally, fans approached the new developments with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. But did they live up to expectations?
It is a fair generalization to say that, among fans, Cursed Child has been met with mixed to negative reactions, whereas Fantastic Beasts has been met with relatively positive reactions. The reasons for this stretch from story to marketing and distribution and all the way to authorship.
There is no mincing words: the story of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is bizarre. I generally like the play, which is especially magnificent live, and even I scratch my head at the choice of plot. The story comprises of the following strange elements:
- A hackneyed time travel plot where people go back in time to change something simple only to find their whole world turned upside down
- A bizarre twist that reveals that Voldemort had a secret daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange
- A few downright odd scenes, particularly the trolley witch with her pastry grenades and talons.
In particular, the time travel plot makes the play tamper with various elements of the book series, including the Triwizard Tournament of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And fans have noted that the idea of Voldemort having a daughter clashes with his characterization in the book series, for he had planned to live forever and thus would not have needed progeny to carry out his plans.
These issues aside – though don’t underestimate them – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is still too tied to the original book series to stand on its own. It takes beloved characters and ages them in ways that expose their flaws, and it refers directly to – and changes – several instances from the series. And given the ring composition of the original seven books, it is clear that Cursed Child was not originally part of the plan – and thus, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
On the other hand, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does not have the same baggage:
- It has a linear plot
- It focuses on a new character, albeit one briefly mentioned in the series
- It takes place in a different country and different time.
By giving fans new protagonist and by separating itself from the Harry Potter series both geographically and temporally, Fantastic Beasts allows itself to be considered on its own merits. Furthermore, the elements that do tie to the book series – particularly, the Grindelwald plot – connect to the series in ways that do not conflict with the series but rather provide more color to background events.
These elements allow Fantastic Beasts to be taken for what it is: an extension of the Harry Potter universe.
Marketing and Distribution
There is an inherent problem with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: it is a play performed in only one theater in one city in the world. The demand for tickets has been through the roof; each time a batch of tickets has been released, there have been thousands of fans in the queue, though it has recently become easier for fans with the means to travel to London to find returned tickets by monitoring the official ticketing sites. Though there are plans for a Broadway opening in 2018, that would still make it inaccessible for a large number of fans across the world.
As a film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had the advantage of opening around the same time in most major markets throughout the world, so fans could experience the new story together.
A topline comparison of the marketing and distribution of the two works, including the publication of their scripts in book form, already exposes the tensions between the two approaches.
- Marketing: Marketing for both the script and the play touted it as the “Eighth Harry Potter Story,” and specific marketing for the play urged fans to #KeepTheSecrets.
- Distribution: The play had its first preview in June 2016 and opened in July 2016, and the script was published in book form the day after the play’s official opening.
- Marketing: The trailer for the film proclaimed, “J.K. Rowling invites you to explore a new era of the Wizarding World.”
- Distribution: The film opened in most major markets at the same time, and the script was published in book form the day of the film’s release in November 2016.
Marketing: Extending the Series
Although the marketing surrounding the release of the Cursed Child script avoided the word book, its publication in book form tied the script strongly to the Harry Potter book series. Its marketing as the “eighth story” also made the script the object of much attention and excitement, making it appear to be the official continuation of Harry’s story rather than a play that can stand on its own two feet.
Upon its publication, many uninformed readers expressed disappointment that the script was not, in fact, a novel. People missed J.K. Rowling’s prose and had difficulty visualizing the story given the sparse stage directions.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, on the other hand, was never supposed to be a continuation of the Harry Potter series. Upon its announcement in 2013, it was to be the first part of an expanded creative partnership with J.K. Rowling. Therefore, it functions as an extension of the story; as the trailers proclaimed, Rowling was inviting viewers “to explore a new era of the Wizarding World.”
Distribution: Encouraging Exclusivity
Ties to the book series aside, part of the problem with the reception to Cursed Child was its early release in book form, far before the majority of people saw it in the theater. I imagine that this was supposed to have a democratizing effect, for it ensured that fans could experience the story at the same time – but they were experiencing only part of the story: the words on the page.
Cursed Child has been better-received among those who have seen the play (myself included), but sadly, the majority of fans across the globe have not been lucky enough to snag a ticket and travel to London to see it. If the publication of the book had been delayed until after more people had the chance to see the play fully realized – even through a filmed version of the live production – perhaps the reception would not be so negative.
Furthermore, ahead of the play’s opening, the production released a video of J.K. Rowling urging fans to keep the play’s secrets and not spoil other fans, leading to the birth of the #KeepTheSecrets hashtag. At the conclusion of Part 1 of the play, theater staff hand out yellow buttons featuring the hashtag.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as a motion picture, has no such exclusivity problem, for fans could see it in their local cinemas.
Furthermore, as with Cursed Child, the script of Fantastic Beasts was published in book form the day it opened – but by the time most would read it, they would have already seen the film with all its visuals and performances.
Fantastic Beasts had the advantage of being initially experienced in its proper form the first time – and at the same time – for most fans, whereas Cursed Child was not. It’s no wonder that Cursed Child is the object of much fan scorn.
Despite all these contrasts, the key site of difference between Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts lies in authorship, for Cursed Child was written by Jack Thorne based on a story by him, Rowling, and director John Tiffany, whereas Fantastic Beasts was written by Rowling herself.
One of the most frequent complaints I read about Cursed Child was that the characters didn’t sound like themselves, which could be a result of their age – or Thorne’s voice speaking through the dialogue. And again, this proves that Fantastic Beasts‘s focus on a new character worked to its benefit: audiences had no pre-conceived notions of Newt Scamander before Eddie Redmayne portrayed him.
But Thorne’s writing Cursed Child brings up an important point: who exactly is the author of the Harry Potter series now?
In fact, there are now several layers of authorship in the Harry Potter series:
- J.K. Rowling, who wrote the novels and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (and whom most would consider the primary if not sole author of the series)
- Jack Thorne (and John Tiffany), who wrote and contributed to the story of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, alongside Rowling
- Steve Kloves and Michael Goldenberg, who adapted the novels into the films
- Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates, who have directed the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films
- David Heyman, who has produced all the films and was primarily responsible for bringing Harry’s story to the big screen
Of course, I define “authorship” here as not one who necessarily writes but one who contributes to the vision of the world and perception of the story. One could easily add in the other producers and scores of other talent who worked on both the films and the play, not to mention the original editors of the book series and the editors of Pottermore.com, which publishes backstory.
Even with all these layers of authorship, most Harry Potter fans would still consider J.K. Rowling far and above the other layers, with good reason. This makes it much easier to accept Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as “Harry Potter canon.” Even though Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has Rowling’s contribution and endorsement, the mere fact that she did not put pen to paper leaves some fans questioning its legitimacy in the story.
Conclusion: Musings on the Harry Potter Canon
A series of articles on Mugglenet.com, a popular Harry Potter fansite, has posited that there are now three levels of Harry Potter canon: the books, the films, and theater. This may, in fact, be the simplest way to sort through this canonical conundrum, but there are still wrinkles.
If we separate out the books from the films on canonicity, but if we put everything written by J.K. Rowling on the same level, how does Fantastic Beasts fit in? Does it only relate to the film series, or can we apply elements of it when analyzing the books?
On one hand, the film has the same visual aesthetic as the Harry Potter films, using the same director from the last four and production designer from them all; on the other, it was written directly by Rowling. So, for example, can we apply the Credence subplot of the film, which shows how suppressed magic can spin out of control into a dangerous Obscurus, to the story of Albus Dumbledore’s sister Ariana, whose story is barely mentioned in the films?
And what about the backstory of Gellert Grindelwald? From the way that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends, it is clear that the rest of the planned five-film series will play out exploring this character, a subject who is no doubt of more interest to those who read the books rather than those who only saw the movies.
And so, the great canon debate has no doubt just begun. Whether fans ultimately accept the Fantastic Beasts films as true canon or movie canon remains to be seen. But 2016 was no doubt a fascinating year for this ever-expanding universe. For the first time in a while, fans had big issues in the fandom to debate. Imagine if there is ever a Harry Potter-related television series…