Obviously I’ll be spoiling the heck out of The Cursed Child in this post, and I’m going to kind of assume that if you’re reading this you’ve already read it (or don’t care). Actually, if you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a solid and take this fun and totally spot-on quiz of Real vs. Fake Cursed Child Spoilers. More than half of them are true. Can you guess which ones?
And really, that painfully hilarious tumblr post sums up The Cursed Child with more warmth and wit than any review I write possibly could, because, as they used to say on Seinfeld, “I’m speechless. I am without speech.” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the brainchild of J.K. Rowling, director John Tiffany, and playwright Jack Thorne, has to qualify as one of the most bizarre reading experiences of my life so far. Under the tutelage of C.S. Lewis I’ve tried to resist what Corey Olsen has termed “crit-fic”: The fallacious practice of mistaking the attempt to read creators’ minds with actual literary criticism. We can’t always help this impulse, and sometimes it can be quite fun, but at the very least we should recognize it for what it is. And yet, I found The Cursed Child so trite on so many levels that I have to admit that my own crit-fic is in some ways more interesting than the text itself. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall of those conversations. What were they thinking? I don’t even mean that in an accusatory way. I’m just genuinely curious to know what they were thinking, because I simply can’t fathom. I’ve been delaying rating the book on Goodreads and writing this review, trying to come up with some sort of coherent take on this whole thing, and it’s a struggle.
But all right, Jack, if we’re going to criticize this “official 8th story” then let’s stick to the text and not waste our time trying to read minds, or just jump to unfounded and/or cynical conclusions (such as “money”). Let’s start with the overarching plot structure. The play picks up exactly where book 7 left off on Platform 9 3/4. Things are briefly warm and nostalgic, and then the magical Hogwarts Express that’s taking us all on a welcome and wonderful journey back to the magical palace of our memories starts barreling ahead at breakneck speed, jumping the tracks like some out of control Amtrak car. I mean this literally: Four years pass in the first act of the play (and remember that there are four acts in total, this play being in two parts and all). The story grinds to a halt somewhere in Albus’ third of fourth year, and things more or less park there for the remainder of the story. For a story so obsessed with mining the series past and playing spot-the-reference with as many characters and surface plot elements as possible, the imbalance genuinely upsets the pace and flow of the piece. This is more than a little disappointing, given that we’ve come to expect extraordinarily sophisticated plot structure from Rowling. Harry’s story had a beginning (books 1-2), middle (books 3-5), and end (books 6-7), with a repetitive and elegant structure where the beginnings and ends of the story echoed each other and where his journey was subdivided into seven individual adventures which had their own beginnings, middles, and ends complete with echoes and subdivisions, etc., etc. Circles within circles, and all that. If you doubt the intricacy of her plotting, I recommend John Granger’s lecture notes Harry Potter as Ring Composition and Ring Cycle, available in PDF and book form. The kinds of literary stunts invented and perfected by Dante and Shakespeare (did you know that “a plague o’ both your houses” is the exact center-point of Romeo and Juliet?) were also very much practiced in Rowling’s Potter books. To go in expecting, if not that level of detail, then at least something reasonably well-paced, and to get instead the Cliffs Notes version of Albus’ Hogwarts experience is jarring to say the least. We go in a matter of pages and montage-like snippets from Albus’ worries about being a Slytherin, to his sorting, to sudden angry rebellion against his father and all things Gryffindor. I don’t object to any of these plot points, as such. In fact, Albus being a confirmed Slytherin is far and away my favorite part of The Cursed Child. Yet Thorne’s play spends none of the time on the things that made Rowling’s world so beloved and successful: smart and well-paced plotting, detailed and memorable characterization, quirky world-building. It shocks me to hear fans say that The Cursed Child returned them to the world of Hogwarts. What world? We spend literally two pages with the Sorting Hat and the first flying lesson before we’ve vaulted ahead to the next summer, back at Kings Cross. We barely spend time in the present of Hogwarts at all. The keystone of the defense of this play has been “at least it brought me back to the world I love and remember,” and it barely does this at all. Instead, the script feels compelled to skip over the opportunity to rediscover Hogwarts through fresh eyes and instead spends the bulk of its time retreading the most infamously plot-holey sections of the entire Harry Potter series: book 3’s time turner plot, and book four’s Triwizard Tournament. The Cursed Child doesn’t cash in on our nostalgia for the Wizarding World at all, but rather for the specific plot-beats of the Harry Potter books. This is a shame, because it misses the opportunity to tell a new story while leaning on the well-established strength of Rowling’s worldbuilding and instead forces the reader to reflect on how much better Rowling told these stories.
To accommodate the overzealous plot we get simplistic characterization. The main returning characters are reasonably well-drawn. Harry is suitably anxiety-ridden. Hermione (in what is admittedly a pretty awesome piece of casting) is adjusting nicely to her new-found authority. Ron’s voice is actually quite good; better than the movie Ron, even. This is pretty faint praise, though. Thorne had 7 books, 8 movies, countless fan and analog materials, ten years in the cultural conversation, and the author herself at his disposal to get this trio right. Where things get screwy is with the new kids. Even though Scorpius is easily the most engaging character in the play, all three (Albus, Scorpius, and Rose) feel like slightly strange amalgams of the previous generation: Harry’s saving-people-thing + Draco’s sullenness = Albus. Hermione’s intelligence + Ron’s goofiness=Scorpius. Both Draco and Ron’s prejudices (both conscious and dysconscious) seem to somehow combined to create the strangely judgmental child that is Rose Granger-Weasley. Oh, Rose. I had so much hope for you. The little involvement she has is spent sneering at Scorpius (and by extension her cousin Albus). These three do not form a new Trio, for we never see them unified. Instead it’s a boyish dynamic duo, and the snobbish girl who’s too cool for them.
Oddly, Scorpius is a more plausible Granger-Weasley child than Rose. That’s how Rowling did family genetics, anyway. Take the Black family. All of the Blacks (and their extended progeny) were some combination of haughty aristocracy and batshit crazy, just dialed up and down in different combinations. Think of Bellatrix. Sirius. Tonks. Regulus. Draco. They’re all different, but clearly fall along the same continuum. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or even unrealistic for a family to have a child who simply does not conform to previous personalities and expectations, but it doesn’t fit with how characterization in Rowling’s world works, and so The Cursed Child swims awkwardly against the current. My main objection against The Cursed Child as canon has less to do with who wrote it, or the fact that it’s on stage, or even that I care much about canon at all (I know this is about Doctor Who canon, but it gets right to the heart at the general silliness of the idea of canon). It’s simply that it’s in such a different style to what’s come before. Is The Cursed Child really the eighth Harry Potter story? I don’t know how to answer that question, but I know it doesn’t feel like one, and the problem is in the fundamental approach to storytelling, world, and character.
And then there are the greatest hits of Potter secondary characters, and their bizarre, shoehorned actions. Voldemort. Snape. Dumbledore. Umbridge. We got ’em all. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this many returning favorites packed into this damn play. It’s tempting to complain that the only characters NOT used are the ones I’m most interested in. Lord knows I would be dishonest to say I hadn’t wished for a Marauders prequel more than once in my life. However, I think this brings up a salient point. If you’re going to do the fanfiction thing of re-examining the story from another angle, you have to choose a new frakking angle. Exploring Harry’s grief over his dead parents, with help from Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and also bringing in his complicated feelings towards Dumbledore and Snape all while trying to stop the rise of Voldemort… That is a well-ploughed furrow. In fact, let me go one step further. Reading it all out like that, it’s clear that that’s not an eighth story. That’s the seven stories we already have. It’s important that everyone put the qualifier “bad” in front of the word “fanfic” here, because good fanfic doesn’t do this. Let’s call it the Stoppard principle: It’s great fun to watch Hamlet imagining that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just behind the curtain in the closet scene. By changing the angle, we gain new understanding of the old story whlie also telling something new. Stoppard knows better than to try to top Shakespeare’s explorations of Hamlet’s psychology, so instead he writes Rosencrantz his own soliloquy on death that is very nearly as iconic. This is the appeal of the Marauders, to me: their shadowy potential. We know the skeleton of their plot, their basic motivations, but everything is still there to be explored fresh in detail. Or, forget the Marauders. Take Teddy freaking Lupin, who is alive and well in this timeline and yet somehow manages the titanic feat of not making it onto the stage or even getting mentioned, because that would just be one character too much. If you want to explore the abandonment daddy issues of a cursed child orbiting the fringes of the great Harry Potter’s narrative while struggling to find his identity as he heads off to Hogwarts, there he is, all wrapped and ready for opening. Making everything about Teddy wouldn’t have fixed the play, but I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have taken the story in more interesting directions. In fact, this makes me, if not more excited for the Fantastic Beasts movies, at least more interested in them. Newt Scamander, collecting and categorizing obscure magical creatures in the 1920’s, is exactly the kind of impulse that lies behind the more successful kinds of fanfic. It realizes that Harry Potter isn’t just about Harry Potter. It’s about the world. The world is so much wider than Harry Potter.
And then there is the what we can only call character assassination of Cedric Diggory. Of all the potential spoilers in the link above, how many of you would have chosen this one? Look, Buffy did an alternate universe plot where a lot of our heroes are now evil bad guys. But, they were turned into soulless vampires. Cedric straight-up becomes a Nazi and murders lovable, squishy Neville Longbottom because of embarrassment. He loses one measly task in the Triwizard Tournament and it’s all downhill from there. That is a mightily slippery slope. It’s not just the sheer dumbness of the notion, it’s the meanness of it. At least Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour are portrayed as competitive, even ruthless, magical champions (Viktor is a shark, right?). What makes Cedric in The Goblet of Fire so attractive, heroic, and infuriating is his sportingness. We all know people like this: who are so nice that you can’t even hate them for beating you at life. He’s good at everything, and couldn’t care less. Sure, he’s talented and tries his best at all times, but he also shares tips and secrets with Harry like the good Hufflepuff is. He gets to go out with Harry’s crush, but we’re all thinking, “Well, can you blame her?” He is the archetypal Hufflepuff hero: hard-working, fair, and totally without ego. You know what I think might’ve happened if Cedric Diggory had lost the Triwizard Tournament? Nothing much. He would have lived a perfectly happy life. His tragedy is that he won. The entire premise of the play is based on this fact. This is exactly what Albus and Scorpius expect to happen. It’s why they go back in time to save him. And yet, the plot contradicts this bedrock characterization for…reasons.
In true Rowling fashion, let’s circle back to that tumblr post because it exemplifies the most glaring, if not the most damning, sins of The Cursed Child: the basic absurdity of its ideas. It is deeply, deeply silly. I’m sure Tiffany’s production is worth seeing for how it brings the magic of the Wizarding World to the stage, but from a simple script perspective nothing is new here. The spells, magic, creatures, and locations are all recognizable from the books. What’s so strange are the twisted ways in which Thorne applies these elements, almost to the point of parody. Yes, the Trolley witch is revealed to be a guardian beast who chases the boys onto the roof of the Hogwarts Express while pelting them with pumpkin pasty grenades (before letting them escape by simply jumping off). There’s the use of polyjuice potion to turn into Voldemort, to stop him from reuniting with his long-lost daughter. The sheer angst surrounding the question of Scorpius’ paternity. It has been pointed out by many others that these plot points have long been a part of Harry Potter parody as perfected by Team Starkid, but that’s just the thing. The majority of The Cursed Child reads like parody. Unfortunately Starkid is far better at parody.
I’m aware that this review is even more of a hot mess than The Cursed Child,
and at least The Cursed Child is an interesting mess. To try to wrap things up, you should read my tone as not so much angry as befuddled. I don’t feel angered by this play. I didn’t have hugely low expectations for this play, but neither did I have hugely high ones. I don’t know what I expected, frankly, but I know it wasn’t this. I’d like to keep thinking about it and see if a more coherent “hot take” comes to mind, but at the very least I wanted to vent some of my exasperation with this strange (and ultimately ill-conceived) new branch of the Potter tree.