Examining Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and theatrical adaptation.
In an 1885 letter advising a dear friend on how to cope with feelings of unhappiness, Lewis Carroll philosophised on humanity’s opposition to change:
“I can quite understand, and much sympathize with, what you say of your feeling lonely, and not what you can honestly call “happy.” Now I am going to give you a bit of philosophy about that — my own experience is, that every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant… Our mental nerves seem to be so adjusted that we feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life; but, after a bit, we get used to them, and cease to notice them; and then we have time to realize the enjoyable features, which at first we were too much worried to be conscious of.”
Carroll penned these musings in the midst of a social psychological revolution that would help shape our present day understanding of humanity’s resistance to change. Ironically Carroll’s most renowned work, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it’s sequential Through the Looking Glass, encouraged the very same.
Recognised as some of English literature’s most abrasively confronting work, the Alice novels continue to defy the reader’s conditioned response to the unexpected. In a world that is historically affronted by the very idea of change, how is it that a literary work bending the English language’s rules became the basis for no fewer than 50 artistic adaptations for the stage and screen as well as the foundation for examinations in Quantum Physics, Linguistics, Psychology, Mathematics, Logics, Theology, and History?[i]
In Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate, Kamilla Elliott examined the relationship between novel and film, with particular emphasis on the ways in which artists have historically attempted to translate one to the other. Exploring analogies as a means of adaptation, Elliott turns to Carroll’s Alice and compares the original book to its successors, including inter-art translations that were well received and those that were not.
Among the book’s chosen success stories is Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, a 1988 stop-motion animation that Elliott argues was a successful adaptation of its original text because of Švankmajer’s success finding visual equivalents for Carroll’s verbal expressions. In doing so, Švankmajer’s Alice paid homage to Carroll’s novel by finding confronting physical and visual representations for the book’s English language disruptions. As a result, Švankmajer was able to pursue the author’s original objective and maintain the spirit woven throughout the book, without attempting to visually replicate it.
Was this same methodology the key with which Jack Thorne was able to translate the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s original Harry Potter series into a soaring West End success? Or perhaps the model that allowed John Tiffany to transition the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child from page to stage. As artists surrounded by a plethora of inspirational material that could act as a springboard for new creative works, we have to wonder: what was it that enabled Thorne, Rowling, and Tiffany to mine the spirit of the beloved Harry Potter world and so successfully execute it on stage?
Since Elliott’s examination of Alice, several other novels historically written ‘for children’ have also been developed into successful live-action performances. Though history dictates most great literary works do not successfully translate for the stage, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Wicked – a musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which is in turn an interpretation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz) have shared much similar success as Harry Potter’s stage debut. Though no single adapted work could limit their success to one methodology, it would be worth noting the reoccurring theme strung through the above works.
Similar to the Harry Potter series, Dahl’s Matilda was originally published as a ‘children’s novel’ and became the foundation for Matilda the Musical – a 2011 sensation originally trialed by the Royal Shakespeare Company – that has since been performed in the West End, on Broadway, and received the 2012 Olivier Award for Best New Musical. Considering that Dahl and J.K. Rowling are first and foremost recognized as ‘children’s authors’, one has to wonder if the accessibility and fantastical qualities of texts written for young people is related to their feasibility to be successfully adapted for the stage.
Though writing for young people is not always held with the highest of literary regard, Russ Kick, series editor for The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature, is just one of many authors who have historically scoffed at the idea of ‘writing for children.’
“Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”
If Kick is correct in assuming that children’s work could include all of the components to great literature, one has to consider if it is these very same components that make for excellent storytelling and theatre (just look through any Shakespeare play for excellent examples of heightened language at it’s finest). Could it be that these features of good literature, coupled with an international best selling record before being adapted for the stage, are conducive to a text that could be easily translated to another medium?
Choosing to adapt Carroll’s Alice would be much the same. By Kamilla Elliott’s examination in 2003, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and it’s predecessor Through the Looking Glass had been reinterpreted for the screen no fewer than fifty times[ii], a figure that did not include adaptations for the theatre or Tim Burton’s 2010 and 2016 productions. With all of the above reoccurring themes present – a text adapted from a preexisting novel initially written for a young audience that evolved into an international sensation – Alice has continued to act as the basis for artistic examination and development for over 151 years.
All of these questions beg to ask – when looking at translating any preexisting work for the stage, should we, as artists, attempt to find verbal to visual translations through exact physical replicas for the original text or, like Švankmajer, pursue the same objective as the originating author and explore it’s execution in a way best suiting the new medium? Finally, by choosing to translate a work that was considered a success in it’s original form, does the adapter pursue the opportunity of a preexisting market at the risk of translating the work in a way that is rejected by the very same?
As artists, this conundrum begs us to wonder: Would you risk the venture of reinterpreting a work for an inter-art display?
- Baum, Frank L. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. George M. Hill Company, 1900.
- Burton, Tim. Alice in Wonderland. Walt Disney Pictures, 2010.
- Burton, Tim. Through the Looking Glass. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016.
- Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Macmillan, 1865.
- Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass. Macmillan, 1871.
- Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Jonathan Cape, 1988.
- Elliott, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge University, 2007.
- Jost, John T. Resistance to Change: A Social Psychological Perspective. Social Research, Vol. 82: No. 3, Fall 2015
- Kick, Russ. The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals. Seven Stories Press, 2014.
- Maguire, Gregory. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. HarperCollins, 1996.
- Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.
- Švankmajer, Jan. Alice. 1987.
- Thorne, Jack, Rowling, J.K., and Tiffany, John. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Part I and II. Little, Brown, 2016.
“Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve.”
- 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living, Maria Popova, 2013
“The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius… They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.”
- Your Elusive Creative Genius, Elizabeth Gilbert, 2009