This is not a Cursed Child review

cursed childQuestion: if you’re not exulting over Harry’s latest adventure on social media, are you dead inside?

For the past few days, I’ve been seeing status updates, celebrations of the new Harry Potter book (or, to be more pedantically correct, script) that released this morning. The last time this happened, many claimed, was 2007, when Deathly Hallows made its triumphant and heartbreaking entry onto the scene. Since then, there has been one book (The Tales of Beedle the Bard  [2007]), four movies (Order of the Phoenix also released in 2007, incredible as that might seem), news of three more movies, two versions of the same website, and finally, a play which opened its doors to the public yesterday in London.

Since Rowling seemingly bid adieu to Harry in 2007, she’s released four books, three of which she didn’t even publish under her own name. This is not counting the odd bits and pieces of information she dots about Pottermore, all of which, taken together, could probably build up that substantial Potterverse encyclopaedia we were promised aeons ago.

Besides this, there have been re-reads and re-reads, and controversies, and news trickling in about manga adaptations and Pokemon-Go-style HP games…so really, if you think about it, the magic’s never really left to come back again.

I confessed to a friend that, contrary to expectations, I was not jumping up and down over the new book. I confessed that this made me worry whether I had died inside, if I no longer found joy in the small things and had ‘grown up’ too much to want to pose with a book and write inspiring things about Harry and Hermione and Sirius and all the others who populate my blog. After all, if I’m not happy about a new HP book, can I be happy about anything?

Then I decided that I would stop over-thinking it and accept the facts: I do not feel the need to ‘revisit’ HP because it is so much a part of my life, my literary sensibilities and my fantasy footing that I never felt it go away. There’s nothing to revisit. It’s all still there, and I’m still referencing Rowling’s work enough in daily conversations that there hasn’t been enough of a break to make a new book—or script—feel like a ‘return’ to anything.

And I don’t think it’s just me. Harry, it’s safe to assume, has entered that rarefied realm of popular culture whose inhabitants are, for all intents and purposes, commercial or

MSDHAPO EC040

I will always be watching you.

otherwise, immortal. He’s right up there along with Indiana Jones, Batman and his merry rogues’ gallery, Superman, even (if you’re Indian) the characters of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He’s already been reinvented twice in our lifetime, played by two very different actors on very prominent platforms. New readers come across his adventures every day, in 79 different languages, and new viewers, if they have access to WB or MoviesNow, can catch up on the cinematic versions (seriously, there’s a Harry Potter movie playing every other day). Harry is here to stay, and nothing proves that like the two (TWO!) theme parks that continue to attract huge crowds, huge prices notwithstanding.

Perhaps my lack of discernible excitement is thanks to this knowledge: that there’s no need to ‘go back’ to anything about Harry, or the time in my life when I first met him, because he’s always been, and will continue to be around. I remember what my life was like when I read Prisoner of Azkaban, and while some things about being 12 years old are great, not everything was wonderful. Puberty was scary, and while adulthood may suck at times, I’d choose the uncertainty of my 20-something life over not understanding what was happening to my body, or the lack of deep friendships that, now, mean the world to me.

But everyone celebrates in their own way, and just because I don’t feel the excitement necessary to join in the party doesn’t mean it shouldn’t go on. That’s a thing Harry Potter taught us, right? That people express happiness, bravery, and their ideals in different ways, make different choices. And that’s a lesson the world could do with a lot more of, so really, it’s all to the good that there’s another book here, telling us about it once again.

Harry Potter, the Everyman Hero

Recently, in a letter, I tried to describe what various books mean to me, the relationships I share with them. Of course, most of those described were fantasy books, ranging from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the stupendously weighty (literally) Wheel of Time books. I called The Lord of the Rings my ‘Bible’, the book that I harry sorcererslove and, as much as I might find elements of it jarring or disturbing, would not presume to pull down from its hallowed space. And I called Harry Potter a best friend, a companion found early on whom I tussle with, ignore sometimes, but ultimately, and overwhelmingly, adore.

Enough and more has been written about the books, and what they’ve done for readers across the world. Fans have started charities in the name of Harry Potter spells, Emma Watson has channeled Hermione-like spirit and called for change in the name of feminism, and there are probably fans everywhere who try to live by the tenets embodied in the characters: justice, patience, and acceptance. But what does Harry himself, the character, mean to someone who is, now, approaching the not-so-YA age of 26, who has declared on many occasions that Harry is far from her favourite character, and would rather be sorted into his rival house than the one he himself is in?

(I think that last might be wishful thinking though. Honestly I’m more likely to be a moody and tempestuous Gryffindor than a calculating Slytherin. But hey, the Sorting Hat judges us on the basis of what we choose, right?)

Who is Harry Potter? You can get the biographical details easily enough. He’s a fanciable Dark Wizard destroyer, who carried the burden of his destiny from a young age. He is a
harry_potter_-_quidditch_hbp_promo_2social media celebrity in the age before social media celebrities, the sort of boy who might have become the star of a Vine or Youtube video made by other people, against his will. Through this relatively innocent character, Rowling explored a magical world that has delighted a host of us, imparted some lessons about good and evil and inspired a wave of fanfiction, some of which (gods forgive me) builds upon her creation so amazingly well that it’s been hailed as better than the original.

But after the initial rush of reading the series, it’s easy to let Harry himself slide. He is, after all, a stand in for the reader more often than not, a relatively empty canvas upon which you can paint yourself and stand in to better observe the people around him. It’s the other characters—Hermione, Snape, Dumbledore, SIRIUS— who command my attention as a reader, who make me want to go back to the books again and again and have consumed a majority of my posts. Harry? He sort of slides into the background.

This is obviously a deliberate move on Rowling’s part, to make it easier for people to step into Harry’s shoes and sympathize with his dilemmas. She allows her readers to make Harry a character of their own, to become a part of themselves in an unconscious manner. You might not love Harry as an individual—and god knows I have enough problems with him—but you can’t utterly detest him either. If you did, you wouldn’t be able to read the books.

And Rowling does a brilliant job of making him so utterly believable. I can’t think of another YA/fantasy (not the GRRM variety!) whose hero is as flawed, and yet heroic as Harry. He’s an average sort of boy—he’s okay with his lessons, but Hermione’s always going to be better. He’s great at Quidditch, but even here, he’s aware that there are some people,
harry-potter_original-new-harry-potter-movie-trilogy-announced-jpeg-42959Viktor Krum and Diggory being examples, who are better and always will be better than him. He’s pleasant looking, but he’s no Bill Weasley, able to pull off long ponytails and dragon fang earrings. He’s funny, but he’ll probably never be known for it. He’s not wise in the same manner as Luna, or as successful on his own as Neville. And he’s certainly not half as conventionally popular as his girlfriends—Cho or Ginny.

Even his bravery, the sort of quiet, steady strength that propels him through his quest, is not flashy, not the hijinks of Sirius or Fred and George. What really sets him apart from his fellows is his faith in himself, and his ability to simply push on and, in spite of everything, to trust people. These are not qualities that are sexy, easy to impart. They’re the reason someone like Frodo isn’t the most attractive character in LOTR. Both of them would be dead meat in the world of Westeros, you know, the character most similar being Sansa Stark, and even she’s changing to cope with the big, bad world.

But it’s Harry’s very averageness that makes him a hero, and makes him so much more of a friend than his compatriots in the Potterverse. He is easy to slip into, to see oneself in, and he provides consolation more often than any other character in the series does. It doens’t matter if you’re not the best, not the smartest or most popular. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you’re wandering mindlessly through a forest, circling around a goal you’ve told yourself you need to complete, that seems, at the moment, impossible. Harry loses his way spectacularly, and then things fall into place by sheer luck, or coincedence, but they fall into place. Being lost is okay, he seems to show us, you’ll pull through it in the end.

HP7-1-FP-0484 
DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 1,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.    Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In my 20s, this last has become increasingly important. It’s been a time of some confusion but, as a very very wise person told me, ‘everything passes’. And as long as I, like Harry, have my Rons, Hermiones, my Siriuses and Dumbledores and Lupins, my Molly Weasleys and Nevilles around, things will be okay. The Dark Lords will be defeated, the woods will end, and all will, eventually, be ‘well’.

Keep on Keeping On

Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.

Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.

Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.

What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator.  The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills. frodo and sam

Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.

harry deathlyThe same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.

I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.

And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.

That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.

Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.

How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?

It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.

I AM Harry Potter

Imagine being famous for doing something you can’t even remember, or did when you were a child. It’s a little horrifying.

Kill Your Darlings screening - 57th BFI London Film FestivalI remember reading an article years ago, headlined with the provocative words ‘I AM Harry Potter’. The piece was one of those generic ones about the up-and-coming Daniel Radcliffe, written shortly after the second film had been completed. Radcliffe had gone on to sign for the remaining Potter films in that time period—that was the article’s main focus.

When I first saw Daniel in the various newspaper clippings and magazine articles that came out before the filming of Philosopher’s Stone, my one thought was: ‘Yes, he’s cute, but why does he have blue eyes?’ I was shocked that no one had disqualified him on that basis (shows what I knew about the movie industry, or any industry, for that matter). I decided to dislike him, no matter how cute he was, or how adorably he tried and failed to bring Harry to life. The Harry I saw on screen was NOT, i thought, the ‘real’ Harry Potter. For all his Englishness and cuteness, Dan Rad could never do justice to my childhood love.

This is, in retrospect, a very uncharitable feeling. I refused to take into consideration the fact that this boy was my age, struggling under the weight of expectations that most 11 year olds never have to bear—that of starring in the leading role of a franchise that was still very new, whose first readers were very much alive and waiting to judge what a big-budget studio would make of their favorite books. As he signed on for more films, Daniel agreed, whether he knew it or not, to grow up in the public eye. He might have known what this entailed at the age of 12. If so, he was a prescient child and wise beyond his years. Certainly, I would have seen nothing but the glamour and appeal of being a movie star.

Because of my (unfair) expectations and (unjustified) disappointment, I dismissed his claims of ‘being’ Harry Potter. ‘He wishes’, I’d sneer, and dive back into contemplation of my Harry who had, thankfully, the proper emerald eyes so reminiscent of fresh pickled toads. It was only years later that I began to appreciate Radcliffe at all—after I matured and decided not to sit around being bitter about a little boy’s inability to deliver exactly what i wanted. Instead, i realized that he had been right. He was, still inescapably is Harry Potter. Deathly-Hallows-daniel-radcliffe-16653482-442-334

What makes Harry different from many of his fantasy hero brethren is the fact that he is famous before he even enters the story in any conscious manner. Frodo, Rand, Arthur—these heroes are perhaps prophesied and awaited, but they have to consciously do something in order to earn that approval and mantle. Harry becomes a hero almost by default, because of the actions of someone else, and he grows up entirely unconscious of this before being thrust summarily into the public eye. Once he enters the magical world, he becomes somewhat of a celebrity, stalked by the paparazzi (in Goblet of Fire), recipient of hate and fan-mail both and, later, gets painted as a major terrorist in a sustained media campaign. Harry’s actions and words are constantly judged and scrutinized, with little or no heed paid to context. Even his time in Hogwarts, within the school walls, is marked by this celebrity-dom, at least for the first half of the first year.

Harry, for these reasons, grows up aware of his importance, and is never entirely able to escape the weight of expectation that comes with it. Everyone is waiting for him to do great things, based on an event he remembers only as a flash of green light. This first encounter with Voldemort quite literally marks him for the rest of his childhood, and despite his decision to let it go at the close (by giving up the Elder Wand), I doubt his success, especially since he went ahead and joined the Aurors.

Dan Rad is, in many respects, similar to Harry. He got a HUGE role at the age of what, 11? That role defined his life for the next ten years. The world watched him grow up and through the films, scrutinized his relationships and decisions and wardrobe choices. He’s gone on record saying that he wants to shed the image of Harry Potter, a desire that prompts him, perhaps, to take up more ‘adult’ and ‘dark’ projects like Equus and Horns. But despite all he does, the distance he tries to put between himself and that first role, I think he’s pretty well marked. As long as he, and the generation he brought Potter to life for are alive, he won’t be able to run away from that first step.

Grandiose claims, maybe, to call himself Harry Potter. But you have to admit that guy’s got a rather bittersweet truth to his statement. The fact that he seemingly bears up under the weight of that label is impressive and, acting be damned, I think I like him just for that.

Darken her skin for me!

I don’t know why, but I always thought of Egwene al’Vere (from the Wheel of Time series) as dark-skinned. Perrin too, despite a great deal of fan art that would argue otherwise. When people are described as ‘dark-haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’, I suppose the postcolonial in me automatically jumps to the conclusion that hey, here’s a (western) fantasy character I could impersonate!

It was such a taken for granted thing for me–that Egwene is dark-skinned. I was so convinced of this (for no apparent reason, except for the aforementioned ‘dark haired’ and ‘dark-eyed’ thing), that I was surprised, shocked even when people exclusively mentioned white actresses when they filled out their fantasy cast lists for a Wheel of Time movie. When I searched ‘Egwene al’Vere’ in the Google image search, I found no artwork that depicted her as brown skinned either. I wondered if I was just delusional, if I had missed something in Jordan’s descriptions.

But when I went back and checked, I realized that I hadn’t missed anything. Yes, Rand and Mat both have hair and eye colouring that is typically associated with white skin, but Egwene, Perrin, Min and Nynaeve’s ‘dark hair’ and ‘dark eyes’ could belong to someone of a darker hue. I suppose this was my subtle response to the ‘white until proven otherwise’ rule that governs much of mainstream (Western) fantasy–I refused to bow down to it. Unconsciously.

Which is, I guess, really the best way to do it.

Does my thinking of Egwene as not white matter a great deal? Not really–I don’t think it changes the way I view her, or Perrin, or Min for that matter. All it did really was give me hope that I could play her if and when a movie series or a miniseries based on the books made it to production. After all, I missed my chance to waltz around with Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Goblet of Fire’. I’ve never quite forgiven my parents for not buying me a ticket to London the minute auditions for Parvati and Padma Patil were announced. The resentment has become a cornerstone of my self-actualization or lack thereof.

But is Egwene being coloured a political statement? Would it mean anything if she were? That’s a question to keep in mind when next you read the Wheel of Time.