Although first published in June 26th 1997, Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone in the USA – don’t get me started on that one…) crept quite quietly initially into the lives of many young readers, but soon exploded into the globally recognised must-have on any self-appreciating fantasy reader’s bookshelf. Sod the fact that it was initially a children’s book.
It was at the turn of the century that the popularity of Harry Potter became mainstream-media acknowledged with the much lauded statement that J.K Rowling, and her Boy Who Lived had sparked and engaged a whole new generation of readers. That is quite some recognition and a major pedestal to sit upon.
Did Rowling deserve such praise? Well, in my humble opinion – yes. She did. At a time of significant change in childhood culture: the rise of technology and vast improvements in computerised gaming experiences, the generation of youngsters Rowling was aiming at were a fast-paced, excitable and frenetic crowd. To sit and read was alien to a significant proportion of these kids.
Then along comes Harry Potter, the wizarding world and the thrill of Hogwarts. Battles between good and evil, a whole host of mythological creatures and daring adventures captivated imaginations across the world. The Potter universe was made all the more accessible by the sense that the characters contained within actually grew up and changed and developed. Sometimes this was excruciating: Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix could easily be retitled Harry Potter & the Hormonal Angst. It was, however, this ability to move between reality of teenage growth and the magical world in which they were growing that continued to captivate readers. These characters were not held in a strange Calvin & Hobbes/Simpsons dimension where time stands still. Rowling was determined that her characters would experience the entire process of teen lives and adolescent shifting that every schoolchild undergoes.
A number of studies have been conducted into the phenomenon of the readership interest for Harry Potter. The main conclusion or consideration that is often cited is that Rowling was successful in making the world of reading and the world of Harry Potter accessible. Children were actively excited in waiting for the next instalment and were even more enthralled when the book was to be an extraordinary tome thicker than the last… Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire was exemplary for this – together with its well-woven series of subplots – where Order of the Phoenix was not as successful.
It was not just the kids who were excited though. As the series progressed and the adult-cover books were launched (personally I took pride in sharing my original book covers with the world on public transport), it was adults and youngsters alike engaging with Harry. A platform accessible on all levels with no ages barred and no judgements made among the loyal readership. Adults could be heard discussing the possible intentions behind Snape’s actions on the train with each other. Kids were chatting away about the location of the last Horcrux. Perhaps even more important: adults and children were able to discuss moral implications, values and merits with one another. A balance was struck with this expansive storyline. Accessible it most certainly was. Did Rowling engage a new generation of readers? Yes, she did. And it was/is multi-generational.
The Cursed Child Captivates
In the release of the latest and (according to Rowling, herself) last instalment we see the eighth book launched to coincide with the world premiere of Harry Potter & the Cursed Child (parts 1 & 2) on the stage. Written by Rowling together with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, this Harry Potter outing sees Harry…
…grappl[ing] with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
This has excited the whole fan base of Harry Potter and reinvigorated the world we all loved once more by leaping 19 years into the future of Harry’s life.
At this point I must make it quite clear, I have not yet read the script. SHOCK HORROR! BOO…! GASP!
I am currently in the full throes of a love/hate battle with myself over picking it up and getting into its pages. I absolutely want to read it, and looking at that enticing golden cover is like looking at the most delicious chocolate cake when on a diet. I’m resisting because I also want to see it at the theatre first. This is a devastatingly frustrating position to find myself in. I’m all for reading the book before a film comes out. But in this instance the book is exclusively driven by its theatrical modus operandi. As a theatre person, I feel compelled to see it on stage before I read it. My psychological position here is akin to Harry in the Order of the Phoenix. Aaaaargh! So many choices and I know what I want to do and what I should do, and nobody understands me! My literary friends are all about my reading it now. My theatre friends are all about waiting until I see it. But that could be late 2017! Decisions… But let’s put that aside for now. The fact I haven’t read it yet doesn’t stop me seeing the Rowling Effect once more. Allow me to explain…
So, Just How Has Rowling ‘Done it Again’?
As a theatre person, I am ever astounded how difficult the average reader finds it to follow, appreciate and imagine a script. Why? It is primarily down to the fact that most scripts rely entirely on character dialogue. There is usually little emphasis on description and the world is usually not detailed in any way. Classical texts are completely devoid of this, with the exception of helpfully indicating when characters enter and exit. Contemporary texts usually have some set descriptions and may offer particular actions/stage directions – but these are indicative only, and are often littered with an entire coded language that only theatre people really follow. Seriously, many readers would find the following very difficult: “MARK turns DSL picks up the torch. Ad lib dialogue with JEANETTE as she moves USC…” To those of us in theatre this makes perfect sense.
To be fair, with a little common sense it makes sense to anyone. But that does not make it imagination-accessible.
This is compounded further by the high school education system where scripts are many times taught without appreciation of dramatic structure. Instead there is often a literary analysis (dry and looking at authorial intent instead of characterisation) and the deep-seated terror many school kids feel as their turn to read out loud in class approaches.
Drama classes pre-GCSE often do not have time to discuss text analysis on a dramatic level. An hour long class is barely enough to discuss theme let alone character subtext and context! *I feel for you secondary school drama teachers out there, I really do! *
So, playscripts are often viewed with the same abhorrence to which I view a car manual. Or a sports journal. You get the picture.
However, through Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, Rowling’s universe has once again prompted a readership hitherto unlikely. The average reader would not consider a script or play to be a natural reading choice. Yet, here we are with Amazon finding the greatest pre-order numbers since the mid-2000s and all for a theatre script. Think that happened when Dennis Kelly published his After the End text?
(For those of you who don’t know who Dennis Kelly is, I’m not going to shame you. He is the book writer of the musical Matilda (as in the script, not the songs… Wow, theatrical terminology is a minefield))
Why Has a Script Now Become a Coffee Table Favourite?
The fact is (in the same way that the original Harry Potter series drew on the public consciousness and recognition of ancient myths and legends, and most readers connect to the westernised universal themes of school, alienation and growing up) this new instalment benefits from the reader’s prior knowledge of the Harry Potter world and characters. This simple connection supports the accessibility.
Don’t tell anyone my secret thoughts on why this has happened, but… The readers of the script do not have to worry about lack of major description. They already have a strong imagined sense of the world/environments, the costumes, the actions (who cannot recall wand work? Swish and flick everyone!), the characters and their back-stories. In theatrical terms the readers already have a complete familiarity with the context of the play. It will not matter that stage directions do not explicitly determine actions. We all know Harry Potter. We know the kind of action/activity he would undertake – and we can translate this across all characters both new and old in this script. Familiarity has made this accessible.
We are already so comfortable with the platform on which this play rests, we can allow ourselves to submit to dialogue. Think of the final sequence in King’s Cross station in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: here we, the readers completely succumbed to essentially just a verbal exchange between Harry and Dumbledore. Description barely mattered. It was what the characters were saying that meant everything. Exposition happened through the dialogue.
In this way, Harry Potter has taken an extremely wonderful leap to taking readers to a different format of text and reading.
Why Do I Find This Important?
Well, developing a fearless approach to plays/scripts for the average non-theatre reader suddenly opens a whole world of stories to a new readership who may now be more inclined to pick up a copy of The Glass Menagerie, or Jerusalem, or any other contemporary play of our recent times. This would be wonderful. The format may now feel more accessible. The reader will now hopefully trust their instincts more in imagining action and emotional intent.
For me, anything that makes the world of theatre seem less privileged and more accessible is a good thing.
I commute daily and now I see the flashes of gold/amber book sleeves adorned with the nest – this fills me with hope. I hear people discussing how easy it is to read. Amazing! I have also heard some dissent to having to do more of the imagining – but still importantly these people have persevered with the text.
Can scripts now become popular for readers beyond theatre enthusiasts? If it worked for adults in the early days of Harry Potter (now reading children’s books in public) and prompted children to read multi-hundred page books, then I do believe that she has done it again.
Harry Potter has once again produced a whole new generation of readers: this time of dramatic literature. Go Jo!
Also published on Medium.