Thursday, August 25, 2016

Is Snape really speaking directly to the readers?

Do you think it's possible that J.K. Rowling wrote the scene near the start of The Half-Blood Prince in which Narcissa and Bellatrix visit Snape at least in part to respond to suspicions raised by her readers?

As you no doubt know, the question of whether or not Snape is on the side of good or the side of evil is one of the principal tensions that underlies the greater story arc of the seven Harry Potter novels and one that the author cultivates very carefully.

Rowling is so effective at maintaining that tension, at keeping the truth hidden, that the revelation of Snape's true story at the climax of The Deathly Hallows is one of many emotional highlights of the entire series.

By the time J.K. started to write the six novel, the Snape conundrum was already the subject of much discussion and debate among fans. Rowling gives us a great deal of material to support the argument that Snape is a Death Eater and has not renounced his evil ways. She also gives us some grounds to support the argument that he is not, grounds that many readers latched onto to suggest that Rowling (as an extremely clever writer) was pulling the wool over our eyes.

In the scene at Spinner's End, Rowling gives Snape the chance to defend himself from those who argue that he is not a true Death Eater, that he is a spy for Dumbledore. And she does it very cleverly, by having another major, fearsome character challenge him with just the kinds of suspicions that her readers had at that point in time.

It's a great scene. And an effective one. Snape takes the time to address everyone one of Bella's concerns and, in doing so, convinces the reader as well.

Amazingly, one of the main planks of Snape's argument is that Voldermort himself has accepted Snape's explanations. We are convinced because Voldemort has been convinced.

Rowling quite brilliantly address our concerns as readers by referring to an authority that she herself created. I don't know about you but, when I first read the Spinner's End scene in THBP, I said to myself: "That's right. Snape convinced Voldemort so he can't possibly be a spy for Dumbledore. The Dark Lord would be able to see right through any form of deception".

And I was satisfied with that. As Rowling wished me to be. And I was blown away by the revelation at the end of the series.

It's great writing. But I also wonder if it was writing that responded to the fans of the books (a consideration outside the magical world of the novels) as much as to the reality created within the book itself.


A chance Potter encounter in a strange place

I am currently reading The Half-Blood Prince in French. Yes, I've made it that far... I am quite proud of myself and very much enjoying this new way of reading Harry Potter.

And it led to an interesting conversation with a blood technician at our local hospital. I was sent, you see, to have blood drawn for some routine tests and, thinking I would likely have to wait in several lines for an hour or more at the hospital, I brought my HP book with me..

Surprise! Surprise!

With their new scheduling and check-in system, the hospital has actually managed to streamline its process immensely and I spent no longer than 5 minutes in total waiting. Impressive.

It turns out the young technician who took my blood was both a native French speaker and a Harry Potter fan. He spotted my book immediately and complimented my on my taste in literature. This led to a conversation about what it's like to read Harry Potter originally in French.

He laughed at my questions about the challenges posed by reading an English book in its French translation in which, while most characters speak English, several recurring characters speak French or, at times, English with a French accent.

I asked him specifically how a French reader would deal with the situation, as takes place in The Goblet of Fire, where the main characters (who are English but, in the French translation, are speaking French) encounter a group of Beauxbatons students (who are French and are, in the French translation, are still speaking French) and yet cannot understand each other.

He thought it was an interesting question. "I guess," he said, his eyes wide, "that we just naturally read it with the understanding that they are speaking different languages, even though they are both written as if they are speaking French."

Then he realised how bizarre his statement sounded and laughed out loud.

But it made sense to me. In order to cope, French readers of Harry Potter must make some mental note that differentiates between the English speaking characters and the French speaking ones.

It was a fun and interesting conversation, one that made what I had anticipated would be a difficult experience actually rather enjoyable.

Two other thoughts that arose in this context:

1. Despite the fact that I have always been angry that Scholastic Books in the U.S. required that the original books be "Americanized" for publication in the States, I have come to realise that it would be more profitable if I treated the Scholastic Books version as translations of the original: from English to American.

2. On several occasions now, I have noticed that the French translator (Menard) has substituted appropriate French metaphors and sayings for the English ones that Rowling originally included. There is so much more to translating a novel than simply translating the words!!!!

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Cursed Play and the death of subtlety

That must be some production in London to be getting all those rave reviews.

Because, having now read the "Special Rehearsal Edition Script" of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 and 2), I can tell you: it's a really bad play.

Worse still, it's bad Harry Potter.

I had high hopes for The Cursed Play, looking forward to seeing what J.K. Rowling, who (to my mind) is a brilliant, masterful writer of prose, would do with a Harry Potter script. Could she translate her remarkable gifts into this very different style of writing?

But this play was not written by Rowling: it was written by Jack Thorne, "based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne", according to the new book's cover.

What exactly does that mean? It's clear that J.K. has endorsed The Cursed Play -- she promotes it every chance she gets -- but how much input did she really have in the its writing?

From the quality of the written script, I would say, "Not much".

The plot is as complicated and silly as they come. Albus makes friends with Scorpius, two loners who find each other as they try to survive their first year at Hogwarts, each struggling under the weight of his real or suspected lineage.

Albus hates his father (though we're never sure exactly why) and so, when he overhears Harry Potter refuse old Amos Diggory's request that he use a newly discovered Time Turner to go back to the Tri-Wizard Tournament and save Amos' son Cedric, Albus decides that he and Scorpius must steal the Time Turner, save Cedric and put his father forever in his place.

All kinds of mayhem ensues, including multiple incursions into the past, the creation of several alternate (and successively darker) timelines, extensive dream sequences, murder, deceit, and the inevitable return of Lord Voldemort.

Thorne manages to introduce or mention just about every character of any stature from the original seven Harry Potter novels, to revisit location after location from those books and to raise for discussion most of the major emotional themes Rowling wove so carefully into her original story.

It's like really bad fan fiction. Or like a rabid Potter fan wrote down every character, location and theme they could think of, threw the list at the playwright and said: "Write a play that mentions every one of these, no matter how long and convoluted it becomes." And Thorne seems to have accepted that challenge as ranking in importance above any need to structure the plot, for example.

Worse still, Thorne's dialogue is remarkably bland and banal. If he isn't copying directly (or at least, semi-directly, with whatever revisions he sees fit to make) from the books themselves, Thorne is typing out long-winded, white-bread dialogue the voice and diction of which changes little from character to character and which often has characters displaying remarkable, unbelievable levels of self-awareness.

Whereas Rowling managed to tailor her dialogue perfectly to her different characters, to create unique voices for each (using everything from word choice to the rhythm of their speech), Thorne uses a one-voice-fits-all kind of approach. I guess he figures he should leave it to the actors to give his dialogue personality. To some extent, that approach makes sense but it doesn't excuse the absolute lack of personality in the dialogue.

I can imagine that the stage production of the play is fantastic. The budget must be enormous to create underwater scenes, dream sequences, wand duels and all kinds of magical effects. Add to that a total of 75 scenes across four acts and a cast of more than 30 actors playing uncountable numbers of roles.

What really worries me, however, is that The Cursed Play does not even seem to me to be good Harry Potter.

For example, isn't it well established that no witch or wizard could even see the Potters' home in Godric's Hollow while James and Lily were still alive unless they had been told where it is by the Secret Keeper, on account of Dumbledore's powerful Fidelius Charm? So how do Scorpius and Albus look in its windows when they arrive to intercept Delphi?

And isn't it also well established that Polyjuice Potion takes months to brew? If so, then how do Scorpius, Albus and Delphi manage to get some for their highly derivative incursion into the Ministry? And why do they ever consider using it in Godric's Hollow?

And, although never clear, isn't it true that Harry's scar hurt because 1) he had a bit of Voldemort's soul inside him and 2) Voldemort was either nearby or really emotional? So how come Harry's scar hurts in this book when the bit of soul is gone and Voldemort is long dead and nowhere near?

And why does the transfiguration of Harry wear off?

Those are small questions. Even more problematic in my mind are the several scenes of dialogue in which characters attempt to address moral, philosophical or emotional questions left hanging in the original novels. Particularly egregious among these is that awful scene in Act Four, Scene Four where Harry and Dumbledore (through the former headmaster's portrait) manage to say all the things that were left unsaid at the end of The Deathly Hallows and to pledge their eternal love for each other.

It's bad enough that anyone attempts to write a scene like this when Rowling went to such great lengths to create a lovely, balanced, strife-ridden, subtle, often unspoken relationship between the two major characters. It's worse when it's someone of the evidently limited talents of the current playwright.

Perhaps the greatest sin of The Cursed Play is that it puts the lovely subtlety of J.K. Rowling's original novels to a slow, agonizing death.

I'm not sure what's going on with Rowling. For a long time, she seemed prepared to leave Harry Potter behind, to view the seven original novels as perfect and complete. She turned her attentions (and prodigious talents) to other projects, including the creditable series of detective novels she penned under the name Richard Galbraith.

Now, she can't seem to leave Potter alone. We've got a new movie, this new play and, from what I saw when I picked up my copy at my local big-box bookstore, a veritable gift shop full of new Harry Potter paraphernalia, cheap plastic tidbits that years ago Rowling delighted in decrying.