Harry Potter and The 36 Chambers by J.K. RZA
I used to be mad into Harry Potter. By the time the first film came out when I was eight I’d read the first four books at least 3 times and I went to the midnight launch of the fifth book when I was ten (10 year-old me was a massive fucking nerd). Technically I’ve even got a Harry Potter tattoo, although that’s mainly because I was drunkenly doing some stick’n’pokes and I got bored and let one of my friends draw whatever they wanted into my skin, forever (20 year-old me: less of a nerd but pretty rogue). On paper I’m the exact filthy Buzzfeed millennial that should be dropping a month’s wages on two tickets to see J.K. Rowling’s new play, ‘Harry Potter and The Cursed Child’, but I have absolutely no interest. This is partly just because I outgrew the stories, but I was also driven further from the series due to the fact Harry Potter and social media is a terrible combination. I could write a book on why Harry Potter Stans might be the worst in the world, but a big part of it is the hundreds of ‘This fan theory about Neville’s second cousin’s pet rabbit will break your heart’ articles. Get fucked, if it was important it would have been in the books. There’s also the annoying habit of people treating Harry Potter like it’s literature’s greatest achievement and that it will single-handedly save humanity. Rowling’s internet presence doesn't help this, with her legions of fans acting like every sanctimonious Tweet is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. And this all ties in to the big reason I’m not down for ‘Cursed Child’, it feels very hypocritical.
Harry Potter isn’t as great and important as people make it out to be, but it has undoubtedly done a lot of good in the world and it would be wrong to suggest otherwise. It got a generation of kids into reading, Rowling’s charity has raised a lot of money and you do see nice stories like this involving good deeds inspired by Harry Potter. Rowling encourages this image of Harry Potter on Twitter and every blogging site rushes to write gushing articles about every little thing she posts. The whole branding around Harry Potter is that it’s for everyone. That it helps people who feel left out or excluded. That it saves lives. This branding is all directly in contrast to a play in two parts with £100 tickets showing in one city in the world. That most certainly isn’t for everyone. That’s something only the well off in the U.K. (or the offensively well off in other countries) can experience and it flies in the face of the general message of Harry Potter that everyone is so keen to spread.
Yes the screenplay has been released and pretty much everyone can get that, but the actual story is pretty atrocious. It’s full of plot holes and centres on a premise that feels like Rowling reacting to what many perceived to be something that was overlooked in the original series (without giving too much away, it’s all about time travel and Time Turners). It’s also not an amazingly well written screenplay and it seems like it’s the spectacle of the performance that makes the show. Even if ‘Cursed Child’ had an incredibly detailed script, it’s simply not as fulfilling to read a screenplay compared to a novel, as many disgruntled fans are now finding out, and many academics actually think it’s an inherently pointless exercise. Plus, if you can’t afford tickets now but hope to see the play in the future you’re not going to want to read it because you’ll ruin the surprises. On pretty much all fronts the screenplay is a poor replacement for a novel, especially one that was explicitly branded as the 'Eighth Harry Potter story.’
I’ve got no problem with Rowling wanting to experiment with different artistic forms in her work - I’m not the boss of her and experimentation often creates amazing art - but if she wanted to do a play couldn’t she have just written a story from scratch? Or if it had to be Harry Potter couldn’t she have put it somewhere else in the extended universe without affecting the original stories? At the very least they could have filmed the opening performance and put it online or in cinemas for like £5 (it’s not like they need the money).
For me the best comparison is, and stay with me on this one, Wu-Tang Clan and their single copy album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Early Wu-Tang is comparable to the Harry Potter books in quite a few ways. They got a generation of kids into lyrical, political hip hop, were beloved by pretty much all hip hop fans, produced amazing bodies of work and had a strong positive message, best encapsulated by ODB’s famous Grammys declaration in 1998; “Wu-Tang is for the children.” Over the years however the group has slowly fallen into infighting and gotten further away from their original message. This is perhaps best encapsulated by Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, which was recorded in secret over six years, stored in a guarded Moroccan vault and limited to a single copy sold for millions via auction in 2015. It’s an interesting idea as an art project, a piece of music that can only be experienced in its original form like a great painting, and I have no issue with the concept. However, as with Rowling and ‘Cursed Child’, if RZA, the de facto leader of Wu-Tang, wanted to do it, couldn’t he have done it with a solo album or one of his side projects? Did he have to do it with a Wu-Tang record? Something that means so much to so many but will be experienced by so few.
When you dig a little deeper there are actually more similarities. RZA and Rowling were both beloved by people for their original creations, but over the years both have arguably started to believe their own hype a bit too much. RZA has gotten into fights with the rest of Wu-Tang and taken the group in questionable directions. J.K. has clearly started to enjoy the attention and dopamine releases of retweet notifications a bit too much, leading her to tinker and mess with stories that she should have just left alone. They’ve also both branched out into side projects with reasonable success – Rowling with ‘The Casual Vacancy’ and her Robert Galbraith detective novels and RZA with his side projects and film work – but without capturing the imagination of millions like their original work did. Even the recipients of ‘Cursed Child’ and Once Upon A Time In Shaolin are humorously similar. Martin Shkreli, the big pharma cunt who did a price hike on HIV drugs, bought Once Upon A Time In Shaolin for him and whichever Taylor Swift lookalike he’s trying to trick into a bad decision on any given week, and ‘Cursed Child’ is playing in London. If any city was the embodiment of Martin Shkreli - driven by the relentless pursuit of money through dodgy business practices and the co-opting and commodification of culture by rich white guys - it would be post-Boris Johnson London. The big difference though is whilst Wu-Tang got a lot of stick for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, bar the complaints from people who didn't know it was a screenplay, Rowling has largely escaped unscathed.
Maybe I’m looking too much into this. Maybe I just hate the sound of everyone agreeing so I’ve concocted some bullshit sanctimonious excuse to be against it. Maybe I’m right, but ‘who the fuck cares, Tom. Life is unfair! You get paid to write blogs and Tweet whilst other people work in mines from the age of nine. If you care about fairness so much stop writing about Harry Potter and do something that matters!’ Regardless, all I’m really asking for is for a bit of consistency. Either J.K. Rowling is the most pure-hearted author to grace our muggle existence or she’s an astute businesswoman who knows her way around a pen, but I’m not sure she can be both. And whereas for me reading 'Cursed Child' was basically an excuse to write something silly, I do feel for those people who still love the series and are finding this screenplay a massive disappointment that alters one of their favourite childhood memories. Most of all I feel for the kids in different countries around the world who dress up and believe as much as I used to, but may never get the chance to see 'Cursed Child' properly, so will always feel like something is missing from this world they love so much.