You’ve Got that Fanfic Feeling

 

Like a lot of children of the Nineties (and adults of the Nineties, really), I recently bought and read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Before I go any further, I feel that it’s fair to warn you that I can’t actually write this post without discussing major plot elements from the play. While I’ve tried to keep this to a minimum, if you are spoiler-averse and have yet to start or finish it, I suggest stopping right here.

This isn’t going to be a review of Cursed Child because, honestly, I can’t say anything about it that hasn’t already been said. Unlike what seems to be a lot of people, though, I did kind of like it. Even though they can be done really badly, I’m actually a fan of time travel and alternate universe tropes just because I’m fascinated by the idea of what could have been. I haven’t seen very much fiction that explores what happens to the Chosen One after what they were chosen for is done: that can’t be an easy emotional journey, and I was glad to finally see someone’s take on it. What also seems to go unexplored in fantasy fiction is the Chosen One’s family life beyond “It’s not you, it’s my enemies” or “I have a girl waiting for me when I get home”: the arguably more mundane problem of a father and son struggling to forge a connection, when framed by magic, feels just as fantastic as trying to fight against a great evil. This, and the fact that the themes of love and friendship conquering all that made up so much of the novels were revisited (if possibly a bit overshadowed by the magic at times) helped this installment feel a bit more like the novels I loved.

Again, to say that I liked the story would be true. The thing is that I only liked it as a story. As a continuation of the Harry Potter series, though, I’m sad to say that I didn’t care for it, despite its (and my) best efforts. This is the point where I start to agree with the other people who have done more thorough reviews.

Despite having a lot of practice reading scripts, having a Harry Potter story in play form is a strange reading experience. While I’ve been told that seeing it staged makes it feel more like the books and movies, I’m not confident that it’s an experience that will substitute for Rowling’s prose (which is to be expected, because while she contributed to the story and gave it her seal of approval, she did not write it, at least not alone). There were moments of the plot that, if memory serves, contradict with the canon of the novels. And I share the assessment of a lot of readers that it has a very “fanfiction” kind of feeling.

So what do we all mean by that? Based on my exploration of the reviews, the reason that Cursed Child feels like fanfiction comes down to five things, not including the fact that the final story was not (completely) written by the original writer:

  1. The time travel/alternate universe plot device, which is an extremely common fanfiction trope. On a related note, the use and apparent alteration of the device that made this time travel possible, as well as the “type” of time travel that took place—in this case, a change from stable time loops to “The Butterfly Effect.”
  2. The characters from the series are rendered two-dimensional versions of themselves, if not complete alterations, even in the “true” universe/timeline. In fanfiction, this serves to make the original characters fall into line with a non-canonical plot or to make way for original characters if it’s not the mark of an inexperienced writer.
  3. A lot of the plot points were either glossed over or extremely contrived in order to allow us to get to the “good parts,” where part of the fun of the original was seeing the worldbuilding, preparation, and rules in action. In fanfiction, this is more because the source material already explained things and the fic is focused on exploring the new storyline instead.
  4. It continued a story that already had a clean resolution, even if it wasn’t a resolution you cared for. So much fanfiction involves either creating an epilogue because the original series ended prematurely or the writer just wants to explore some more or altering the ending to fit with what they had in mind.
  5. Signs of pandering to the audience instead of moving the story forward. In the case of Cursed Child, this took the form of quoting lines from the books and movies verbatim as well as literally reliving pivotal moments in the series.

Is comparing a published manuscript to fanfiction a little harsh? Perhaps. But with these points in mind, I considered another series that I felt got the fanfiction treatment in the form of a film.

I’m a casual anime fan, and one of my favorite series to date is Puella Magi Madoka Magica. A few years ago, the series got a sequel movie in the form of Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion, and as soon as it came to Michigan theaters around the time of its U.S. debut I was there. Skeptical, because I thought the original series wrapped up so well, but there. Incidentally, this is another place where I feel that a spoiler warning is fair, especially because this series is only twelve episodes (or two compilation movies) and one sequel movie long: talking about literally any part of the plot will spoil something.

Broadly, the original series was Faust, but with magical girls and from the perspective of Margaret/Gretchen rather than Faust. It was a deconstruction of magical girl tropes, especially when it came to the power of love, friendship, and optimism. In a normal magical girl show, these would win the fight against evil; in this series, they all either outright killed or psychologically broke someone beyond repair (which in this case means transforming into an eldritch abomination that then goes on to kill people). It even used time travel tropes: one of the lead characters used her time-based magic to relive the same month countless times in an effort to keep the title character from becoming a magical girl and instead makes the situation even worse with each passing recursion. At the end of the series, bolstered by all of the karmic energy from these recursions, the title character uses her contract, wish, and inner power to change the magical girl system, becoming a veritable goddess in the process. In a bittersweet ending, although she gets what she wants (namely a sense of purpose and the ability to help people) and creates a better world, she is, due to the nature of the thing she’s become, separated from the girl who gave up literally everything to fight for her. It was a beautiful series with a beautiful ending that, while it might not have been the perfect outcome for the characters, was perfect for the series as a whole.

But, as tends to happen with a story that becomes popular, there needed to be a sequel for the money-making potential. So Rebellion was born. I was careful to avoid having the plot spoiled for me, but this is the movie that made me decide that reading spoilers before you go see something might be a prudent idea if you don’t want to be confused or angry.

The experience threw me for a loop. The first twenty minutes embodied the magical girl tropes that the series worked so hard to mercilessly rip apart and put back together. It took common elements from fanfiction, up to and including heavily implied romantic feelings where before there was merely subtext, and presented them as fact.  The traits that made the characters dark or tragic were played for humor, and some of their personalities were changed, making even the hardened cynics naïve everygirls. The goddess is an ordinary magical girl again and has no memory of being anything else. One of the most pivotal and terrifying (and fan-favorite) monsters from the main series appears as a magical girl and is inserted directly into the main cast with few, if any, questions asked. You’d think that the revelation that the world isn’t real would be a relief, but it wasn’t. The nature of what was really going on (that the time-traveler from the series turned into a monster because of her grief and sucked everyone else into her fake world without realizing it) was explained by the antagonist in an exposition dump of a monologue and resolved in an admittedly really awesome fight scene. The movie ends with the time-traveler, who has gone completely and even understandably nuts at this point, ripping the goddess out of the sky with her bare hands, stealing her powers to turn into what she calls a “demon”, and reshaping the world and wiping memories until she can finally protect her. None of this is given an explanation except “love,” which is presented in this movie as being totally different from the love that a lot of the characters, including her, sacrificed their souls to earn or protect.

The movie was very divisive among the fandom: you either loved it or you hated it. I tend to fall in line more with the latter, but concede that the film is gorgeously animated and that I loved seeing the characters again. So while Cursed Child on the whole seems to be less “love it or hate it” and more “I wanted to like it, but it just didn’t do it for me,” the phenomenon of sequels that feel like fanfic is totally real, and to date I’ve been burned twice. What can I say? When a series earns my love, I’m loyal to the end, even if there are some missteps along the way.

If a series is over and had a chance to come to a proper end, I would rather that it stay done than try to force itself to continue. As a creator, I wouldn’t want to stretch a story to its limits, and I would want to explore other ideas. As an audience member, I would rather have my fond memories than more of a series that runs a high risk of overstaying its welcome. Unfortunately, this can’t work in today’s media culture. So many movies that are out right now are cinematic universes, adaptations, sequels, and remakes: it’s easier and safer to bank on the built-in audiences that come with those stories, so why wouldn’t you produce more of the same thing? But in being safe and giving audiences what we think they want, we run the risk of creating something that isn’t as good in the name of keeping a good thing going.

Have you ever gotten that fanfic feeling from a sequel, Harry Potter or otherwise? Would you rather your favorite series completely end or stay alive, even if that means it can’t be the same?

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