‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ Playwright Jack Thorne’s Approach to Storytelling (Exclusive)

Jack Thorne
John Phillips/Getty Images

The writer behind Broadway’s ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two’ and ‘National Treasure’ on Hulu explains that these two very different projects are rooted in the same philosophy of storytelling.

Whether crafting a colorful fantasy or a starkly realistic drama, Jack Thorne always find shades of grey. At a time when ambiguity and nuance can seem like endangered qualities, the English screenwriter and playwright, whose current projects include the smash stage hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and a new installation of the acclaimed TV series National Treasure, insists they are necessary elements in art and life.

With National Treasure, an anthology series launched by Channel 4 in the U.K. in 2016 and available in the U.S. on Hulu, Thorne’s intent was to create “a trilogy of shows that would each tell a story about the way blame works in this world -- the way it’s so quickly apportioned in our media age, so that someone becomes either a victim or a perpetrator.”

The first season cast Robbie Coltrane as a popular performer accused of rape and sexual assault of a minor. In the second, National Treasure: Kiri, premiering April 4, a young black girl in foster care goes missing during a visit to her birth family -- an outing suggested by the girl’s social worker to the white couple planning to adopt her. As gender was a prominent issue in the first season, Thorne wanted Kiri -- shown in four parts, like its predecessor -- to focus on race and its role “in the way we categorize people.”

As suspects emerge in the investigation of Kiri’s disappearance, fingers are also wagged at the social worker believed to have put the girl at risk. Thorne says that character, Miriam, played by veteran British actress Sarah Lancashire, was inspired by his mother, herself a care worker. “The central thing about my mum is that she believed she could make any situation better. There’s so much good in the character, but also some danger.”

That complexity and generosity of spirit are central to Cursed Child, which Thorne wrote from an original story developed with J.K. Rowling and celebrated stage director John Tiffany. The play, which debuted in London in 2016, is now in previews at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre, where it will officially open on April 22. It is performed in two parts, which give rich emotional lives to old and new characters -- among the latter are the sons of Harry and his old nemesis Draco Malfoy, who are only briefly introduced at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in Rowling’s series.

As a huge Harry Potter fan -- Thorne was 18 when Rowling published the first book in the series, then found himself rushing to stores, “devouring [each new installment] as fast as I could” -- Thorne initially struggled “not to be overwhelmed” by the task of putting these characters onstage. “I’ve always loved fantasy, because the stakes are so huge, the possibilities massive,” he says. At the same time, “We knew that what Harry was going through and what [his son] Albus was going through would be the core of the show; that was at the heart of everything we discussed.”

Jamie Parker as Harry Potter in the London production. - Manuel Harlan

Thorne notes that he and his wife were trying to conceive while he was working on Cursed Child and National Treasure. And that preparing for the arrival of his son -- who is now approaching his second birthday -- made him think more about parental responsibility, and the challenges posed by youth. “I wasn’t a very happy teenager,” he admits.

The 39-year-old writer is clearly grateful for, and gracious about, with his recent successes, including co-writing the acclaimed film adaptation of Wonder. Asked about reports he was attached to the third film in the new Star Wars trilogy, and if and why he bowed out, he explains politely -- almost apologetically -- that he’s not at liberty to address it. However, Thorne’s plate is plenty full at the moment; he wrote the libretto for a musical adaptation of King Kong due on Broadway this fall, in which the central female character will be “less of a damsel in distress; we wanted to make it modern, though it’s set in the same period.”

There are more TV projects, as well, among them Netflix’s upcoming The Eddy, which will pair Thorne with La La Land director Damien Chazelle. Set in a Paris jazz club, the series will incorporate music and have “a political element, though I can’t discuss that in great detail.”

Thorne notes, “With TV and stage, the rhythm of the storytelling can be completely different. But the intention is the same -- which is to tell the truth.”