Originally published in The Worcester Journal on October 14, 2016
In my home growing up, summer meant reading. More the indoor, imaginative types than rough-and-tumble summer camp kids, my siblings and I reveled in our library’s summer reading program, and savored those blissful months of seemingly infinite time to read.
Now, as a graduate perpetually attempting to stay caught up with the excess of pop culture news and trends that invade my social media, I find reading for reading’s sake is a slow-paced and almost impossible luxury. Now, however, as my first post-collegiate summer draws to an end and the years of True Adulthood loom ever more closely, I was recently brought back to those elementary and middle school summers, in ways both parallel and disparate, with two of the latest and most significant commodifications of literature of my childhood. First, there was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part (confusing way of saying ‘four act’) play written by Jack Thorne based on J.K. Rowling’s universe and story (supposedly), which came out in the tradition of those golden midnight release parties of yore on July 31 of this year, a holy day for any true Potter fan who knows it to be the birthday of both Ms. Rowling and Harry himself. Then Mark Osborne’s feature-length animated take on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 novella The Little Prince premiered on Netflix after being rejected by Paramount for unknown reasons just a week before its scheduled release in spring.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that both The Little Prince and the Harry Potter series are among the most significant and timeless works of children’s literature written thus far, along with others like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia—both of which, in case you haven’t seen, have already received (and, as has been recently announced, will continue to receive) their 21stcentury commercial cinema treatment—which is why I find the coincidental timing of these two releases almost as eerily enchanting as when Toy Story 3 came out dangerously close to my own high school graduation and hometown goodbye. I think it’s also safe to say that, although there are certainly merits and weaknesses to both Cursed Child and Little Prince, what their side-by-side premieres illustrate most glaringly is that there is a right way to handle such beloved material—with a true sense of the original’s spirit and values, a deep respect for the characters and their creator, and the creative sense and imagination to invent something wholly new while preserving the integrity of its source material—and there’s a wrong way.
Other Potterheads may disagree, but I have to say that Cursed Child does it wrong. I’m not even one of those anti-revisionist fans who spew bitter canon-only comments about Pottermore and the seemingly boundless lengths the film industry will go to ensure the immortality of the franchise (in fact, while I’m not convinced of the necessity of five of these prequel films, I’m quite looking forward to seeing Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander in the upcoming November release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)—no, I was fully prepared to give Cursed Child all the chances in the world. Having read positive reviews of the West End production in London and (internally) cheering when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Adult Hermione, I went to Nonesuch Books straight after work on August 1 and paid full price for my hardcover copy of the rehearsal script.
The summertime connection with the series was always especially felt, for although reading any Potter book by a fire in the middle of a snowstorm is sure to evoke the Hogwarts coziness from the first two films, one can never quite erase the seasonal association with the book release parties, Harry’s birthday, and the fact that summer was always the worst time for Harry. His isolation among the Dursleys paralleled our own as we immersed ourselves in his world and looked forward to getting to his school year, which was always rich enough to fill the empty space of summer vacation. Indeed, I recall one summer between fourth and fifth grade when I read almost nothing but Prisoner of Azkaban, starting and finishing and starting over until I’d read it cover to cover a total of—I believe—36 times. Cursed Child hardly ranks that high on any scale of engagement, but it was a sort of pleasant surprise when I actually lay in bed reading late into the night as I had not done in years, smiling at some of the surprises that came up. (Albus as Slytherin! Hermione as Minister of Magic! Scorpius as sweet and completely benign!) Those were the moments that almost made me feel like a fourth grader, eating up the magic universe for the first time again.
Unfortunately, those moments were few and far between. Before I even attempt to address the myriad plot failures and character mutilations, the physical act of reading the script is jarring in itself. Even for someone who’s read a fair share of scripts and screenplays in her life, the scene changes happen what feels like entirely too fast for the most part, with blackouts and elaborate set changes on nearly every other page. Though I tried to assure myself with each jolting transition that it’s probably better if you see it onstage, I have sincere doubts about the efficacy of whatever stage tricks and technical effects they’re using to create the magic described in the somewhat poorly-written stage directions. Has Jack Thorne ever read a play before? I was forced to ask myself at times. Has Jack Thorne ever read a Harry Potter book, even? Based on his characterization of Ron alone, I’m inclined to say no. I would hope that any Potter fan would be capable of portraying Ron as more than the flat caricature of comic relief he apparently grows up to be, and able to paint Harry’s feelings toward fatherhood with significantly more nuance. Cursed Child was obviously not written by Rowling’s pen and, providing almost nothing but dialogue, the play glaringly lacks the distinct narration of the novels. The lines in between conversations were full of descriptions and details in Rowling’s own voice which were just as much a part of the reading experience as the intricate plotlines and complex characters.
Speaking of plotlines…ah, where to begin? To be honest, I’m not even sure I should. I initially allowed myself to be entertained by the absolutely labyrinthine mess of the plot Thorne concocted (from what I now confidently assume were photocopied pages of the back cover summaries), but the more I read reviews comparing the whole script to bad fan fiction, the more I can’t help but surrender to the plain and simple truth that not every fan theory deserves to be brought to life. (Unsurprisingly, comparisons have already been drawn to the infamous “My Immortal” fanfiction from 2006-2007—if you haven’t heard of it, it is imperative that you read a few lines, any lines, or at least read the Wikipedia article about it.) Yes, sure, I appreciated the bones thrown to the Malfoy/Hermione shippers and the Bellatrix/Voldemort shippers, and yes, the idea of an alternate world where Hermione is a fugitive warrior queen and Cedric is a Death Eater is undeniably intriguing, but this sentence alone captures only what I estimate to be around 7% of the totally unnecessary and indiscriminate events that occur in the course of this four-act play.
The Little Prince, by comparison, is an enormous success. Running at 108 minutes with an all-star cast of voice actors, Osborne’s vision of the little boy who lived on a planet hardly bigger than himself uses the skeleton of Saint-Exupéry’s story and manages to build it into a completely new narrative. This is clearly what Cursed Child attempts or overconfidently thinks it is doing, but this new version of The Little Prince is remarkable for how harmoniously it seems to create a contemporary fable while also capturing the soul of the original book. Adaptation is a tricky thing, for both adaptors and observers; many film scholars don’t even really consider it worth studying, because how can you truly compare one medium to another? It’s apples and oranges, most of the time. In this case, though, the differences are not quite so vast; more like oranges and nectarines.
As with Cursed Child, or any adaptation, The Little Prince takes some liberties with its source material, adding the entirely new characters of The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) and The Mother (Rachel McAdams), who exist in a busy, modern world not unlike our own; obsessed with progress and productivity, training from an unreasonably young age to prepare for adulthood, studying all the answers test-makers want to hear, forsaking play for work, even on summer vacation. Just as in the book, there’s an emphasis on the “strangeness of adults” that feels more relevant and more heartbreaking than ever. The film swings heavily at helicopter parenting, standardized testing, and the educational application process that seems to be starting earlier and earlier, encouraging the pursuit of extremes to the disadvantage of anything in between.
Most of these details are not in Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 book, but it is exactly the kind of society for which the wisdom of his Little Prince was an antidote. “What is essential is invisible to the eye” remains one of the book’s most famous through lines and main themes, and comes up both directly in the film’s presentation of the aviator’s story and discreetly in the beginning, as we see a row of intimidating posters in the bleak hallway of an elite academy: “What will you be when you grow up? Essential.”
The movie is playful and clever in all the ways the Prince would want it to be—even Osborne’s decision to use both the Pixar-like computer animation for The Little Girl’s world and stop-motion animation for her vision of the Little Prince’s adventures demonstrates this—because why not? These are the kind of creative choices that make the movie feel so novel while carrying on what was at the heart of the classic little French tale, giving us all its sweeping philosophical suggestions and simplicity.
Striking, too, is how seamlessly Osborne fits his film into the theoretical canon of the original book. When The Little Girl befriends the aviator (Jeff Bridges) and begins saving the pages and illustrations he sends to tell the story of The Little Prince (which, in another wonderful detail, appear to be in their original French), we know that what she is collecting will become the book from which her own story originates, the one the world grew to know and love enough to want to see this very movie. Even with a few forgivable lines thrown in for pure comic effect and perhaps one too many extraneous endings, Osborne’s version of The Little Prince is undoubtedly one of the finer examples of an adaptation that lovingly respects its source and provides a modern retelling of the wisdom of children to enchant another generation.
Ultimately achieving what the Harry Potter books and others like them did and still do, the film creates a space of pure escapism that still, somehow, feels like it is about you and your world—because, really, this is what all great children’s literature does. As we transition through seasons and slowly grow into adults, these stories and these characters continue to remind us not to forget how it felt when everything around us seemed like magic and all the magic seemed to be real.
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