Harry Potter and the Force Awakens: How Nostalgia is Crafting the Future of Storytelling

 Telling a story within an established universe has become more prevalant, but media based on franchise familiarity has a new set of pitfalls.

Telling a story within an established universe has become more prevalant, but media based on franchise familiarity has a new set of pitfalls.

By Tyler Scruggs

Like many folks who grew up with and around all things Harry Potter, I just finished reading the new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, an ambitious sequel to the original Harry Potter series of novels and one of two expansions in the Potter universe we’ll be experiencing in 2016(the other being this Fall’s spin-off film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). Five years after the climactic finale we saw in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 and the world is begging for more from the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

Which is understandable, Potter is a worldwide phenomenon, and a particularly rich universe to mine, with more than a couple interesting side characters and history genuinely worth exploring. Cursed Child curiously wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling herself, Jack Thorne did, but she did write the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, which takes place in the United States circa 1926, a completely different setting than the Potter films. Which is cool! That’s what spin-offs should be: completely new stories that are merely tangentially involved with what we’re familiar with.

With the promise of a trilogy surrounding Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Harry Potter spin-offs are already off to a more interesting start than, say, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first Star Wars film not revolving around a Skywalker offspring (let’s hope Darth Vader is featured no more than a glorified cameo), and with the future spin-off line-up revolving around Han Solo, Boba Fett, and other familiar faces, it’s likely we won’t soon be getting a Star Wars spin-off about like, Knights of the Old Republic or something; a story that shares a setting with our iconic characters, not blood.

Reading Cursed Child I couldn’t help but compare it to last year’s epic Star Wars outing, The Force Awakens. Both expansions take place decades after the originals, feature such iconic familiar settings and characters, and revolves around the troubled children of our now-aged heroes. The Force Awakens has its fans, myself included, but many detractors found it lacking. Criticism of Episode VII was directed at the dimensionality of the new characters and story, calling it a retread of A New Hope with an uber-talented fan-fictional superstar character injected. Though, I don’t agree personally that Rey was too strong, or that the many visual references were an unnecessary carbon copy of A New Hope. Both hold a distinct purpose in an effort to redirect attention and trust towards the future of the franchise after the much-maligned decade Star Wars has faced as a franchise.

To praise Cursed Child, no such criticism can be made. This story acts as both an expansion of the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and a celebration of the series itself. Not only are scenes from the original series remembered upon, but with Cursed Child’s time-travel plot, they’re reexplored, recontextualized, and enriched as a result of this new story, and that’s the best someone can hope for from a sequel so many years after its precedecessor. So easily could this have been a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back for building the world of Harry Potter and a way to sell fans on yet another Potter outing, but I believe Cursed Child acted more as a cross-examination of the series, still distancing itself from the original saga and the in-universe war that is now only read about in history books, it instead questions and attacks Harry Potter as a character, asking him why he deserved to have so many give his life to save him and the toll understanding that can take on a real, actual human being, wizard or not.

New-characters-annoyingly-named-after-other-characters Albus Severus Potter, Scorpius Malfoy, James Sirius Potter, and Lilly Luna Potter are much more dimensional and full-of-life than their names suggest. The relationship and bond between Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy is one of the richest in the entire series. It comes off as an incredibly genuine and joy-inducing celebration of brotherhood, reaching heights Harry and Ron seldom had.

It was a strange experience living in such a franchise-expanding, calculating, and ‘universe building’ state in entertainment and reading a story so uncynically simply telling a story. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child reminds you why you fell in love with this world, while also asking you why you think it should exist in the first place. No seeds were planted for the future of Harry Potter and co in Cursed Child. There aren’t any cliffhanger or questions left unanswered for a sequel some years from now. It was a story that felt like it needed to be told, even in such an episodic fashion. Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Transformers, whatever, are seemingly uninterested in telling a complete, standalone story like the one Cursed Child provides. Even if this isn’t the end (and I highly doubt it is), I’m not left wanting more, but wholly satisfied with my experience, like a delicious cake you only want a slice of. I hope these other franchises take a page out of Harry Potter’s post-existence existence and learn that memorable moments are built from the idea that it may be the last.

Tyler ScruggsComment