Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling and Jack Thorne
Release Date: July 31st, 2016
During the summer of 1999, my mother became frustrated that I wasn't doing my optional summer reading. So I came home one day to find that she had dropped two books on my bed called "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. The covers seemed a bit childish to me, but she insisted they were supposedly the hottest things right now, so I opened up the first one and gave it a shot. I had been a voracious reader when I was younger, but as I got older, I found reading less appealing. But this series changed something in me. I was hooked. That's the story of my introduction to the world of Harry Potter, and it's not an uncommon one. The series had kickstarted the reading habits of many people when it came out, and along with the Lord of the Rings films a few years later, helped launch the mainstream popularity of fantasy that we enjoy today. I've religiously read the books, seen the movies, purchased the merchandise, and been to "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" in Orlando enough times that I should probably be paying rent. The series isn't just about magic, it is magic.
But Harry Potter has one problem. One George Lucas-sized problem. Its creator won't completely relinquish the reins and allow the series to expand. As such, the quality of Harry Potter related media, while often covered in the bells and whistles that only a wealthy franchise can support, pales in comparison to the original books and movies. The few extraneous books that were released about fantastic beasts and Quidditch and the Tales of Beedle the Bard have been light entertainment, but are still mere fragments of the joy that is reading, say, Goblet of Fire. Even now with the imminent release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (part one of lord knows how many), I can't help but wonder how good will this actually be? Harry Potter is a franchise that could rival other long-established and beloved properties, hell, it could be the fantasy equivalent of Star Wars. Books, comics, TV shows, movies, games... it's an intellectual property ripe with possibilities if given to competent and willing creators. But first, Rowling needs to let it go.
Or at least, that's what I thought. Rowling seems willing to hand over some of her creative power to playwright Jack Thorne, who is said to be the predominant author on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. What should have been a triumphant return with a fresh creative angle has become something bizarre. Granted (and I need to make this very clear), The Cursed Child is a play, and as such it is supposed to be seen and not read. But since I can't easily get tickets to fly to London or to see the show, I'll have to settle with reading the script.
Quick Summary (Spoilers Ahead!)
Harry's son Albus doesn't get along with his father for some reason. People at school make fun of him, I guess because he's a Potter that was sorted into Slytherin? I don't know. He hangs out with Draco's son Scorpius, who's the best character in the play. As it turns out, there's a rumor going around that Scorpius is actually the son of Voldemort, via some convoluted story involving a time-turner. A lot of weird stuff happens and Albus and Scorpius get access to an actual time-turner, screw shit up a lot like some horrible mix of Terminator, The Butterfly Effect, and Back to the Future, and then battle the real child of Voldemorte, who has been hiding in plain sight and god damnit this doesn't make any freaking sense. Also father-son issues, I guess?
If you couldn't tell from my summary, I was not impressed with this play. I find it hard to believe that this story was developed or even OK'ed by Rowling. It would be upsetting to think that she herself penned the full concept of the story, which is itself a poor shadow of the seven novels that came before it. Rowling's strengths have always been plotting, world-building, and a beautiful command of the English language. Because the play was primarily written by another author, a lot of these strengths are missing. Most importantly, the play lacks one of the essential features needed for quality playwriting: subtext. Characters are blatant with their thoughts and feelings. It's not enough that a character feels they have something to prove, they have to say it as well. We're not shown that certain characters have issues with each other: we're told directly. The tone of the characters is at least consistent. Scorpius is funny and talkative, Ron seems to stumble around his words, and Professor McGonagall always knows exactly what to say and how to say it.
The script's biggest flaw are the stage directions. It's almost as if they had never read a play before and didn't know what stage directions were used for. We are told that scenes are supposed to have "real emotion" and that the scene is "infused with magic." At times, we're even asked hypothetical questions, akin to the end of an old TV serial asking us "Is this the end of our heroes?"
The length and scenes are a mess. I'm not sure why the play is split into two parts. Are both playing in the theater at the same time? Why split it into "parts" then? Why not just split it into the four acts? The scenes themselves are rarely more than a page or two long. It appears that Jack Thorne felt that every single change of venue needed a fresh scene, even when characters don't leave the stage and continue their dialogue uninterrupted. The play's length could have been cut in half once extraneous scenes were removed. For example, during one time-traveling stint, a Ron and Hermione that had never married carry on for a quick two pages wondering what it would have been like if they were together. Why is this there? How does this help the story? Whose story are we telling here?
Some of the character moments in the play are quite enjoyable. Scorpius was my personal favorite, having the best lines of dialogue and characterization. Albus is pretty close behind him, and the two of them working off of each other is pretty solid. The scenes that involve Draco and Harry, or Harry and Albus make for some of the best moments in the play, and more focus on these relationships probably would have strengthened the play. There's also a fantastic scene near the end of Part 2 where Harry is talking to a painting of Dumbledore that is absolutely heart-wrenching.
There are a few out-of-character moments as well. Snape acts far too sentimental and even makes a some very un-Snape-like quips. Cedric Diggory speaks like a knight from a Medieval romance for the five seconds we see him, and apparently being humiliated in an alternate timeline was enough to turn him into a Death Eater. But no change is more egregious than the play's treatment of Ron. Ron seems to have gone the way of "plucky comic relief," and the play wants us to focus on his appetite, humor, and the repeated eye-rolls he receives from Hermione. Ron was already well on his way to this state in the transition from book to movie, and the play seems to cement this.
If the play had focused on the adventures of, say, Albus, Scorpius, and Rose (Hermione and Ron's daughter, who we rarely see) going on their own adventure, that would have made for a more focused story. If we had gotten a play almost entirely about Harry and Albus, or Harry's struggle being a father, we would have had a tighter script. Instead, the play wants to compromise on its focus, and incorporate one of the messiest forms of story-telling known to speculative fiction: time travel. The play becomes a complex mess of alternate-histories and alternate-characters saying and doing things, giving us all sorts of different "What If?" scenarios that no one was asking for. Apparently the difference between a world where Voldemort is defeated and one where he rules hinges on key moments like Cedric's success during the second task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, or Ron and Hermione's relationship somehow revolved around her going to the dance with Viktor Krum (you know, ignoring all other developments between the two for the three and a half books before that).
What Rowling did in every subsequent Harry Potter book was peel back the veil of the Wizarding World bit by bit, showing us something new with each book. The Cursed Child just wants to sit on the franchise's laurels. "Remember Goblet of Fire?" it asks, poking us over and over with flashbacks and references of things that happened to characters over two decades ago. "Remember this?" The few new things we're introduced to are shallow and dissonant with the established world. For example, the Trolley Witch (the one who asks students if they want any candy or sweets while on the Hogwarts Express) is apparently ancient, turns her hands into spikes, and throws pumpkin pasties grenades like some sort of geriatric Green Goblin. Moaning Myrtle's full name is the same as a US Senator. Harry Potter hates pigeons. This is what you give us? This???
A common term some reviewers employed was "bad fan fiction." I don't want to disparage people who write and enjoy fan fiction: it's a perfectly acceptable way to train writing talent and creativity. What I believe these reviewers are saying is that this play uses common tropes often associated with poorly-executed fan fiction. Specifically, creating children of preferred character-couples, time travel to revisit or rework past events, and conversations that you wish characters would have, but never did. It's wish-fulfillment. Because the writing never reaches the level of Rowling's own prose, it has the flavor of illegitimacy that comes with an amateur trying to recreate a master's work.
When I think of the Harry Potter series, I'm not going to think about this play. Not because I disliked it, but because it is ultimately forgettable. I can barely take the play seriously. I'm not going to be hyperbolic and say nonsense like "this play has ruined my childhood" or "ruined the series for me," because that's just as silly and useless as the play is. The Cursed Child is a weird anomaly that I hope is quickly forgotten, like the Star Wars Holiday Special. If it ever comes to a theater near me, I probably will see it. I want to know what a live performance is like, and to observe it in its actual medium. But as for a reading experience, I cannot recommend it.