Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildBy Alan Mattli

WARNING: This review contains major spoilers.

“You have the the whole world of Harry Potter-related storytelling before you, you go for time travel?”

In a book full of frustrating things, perhaps the most frustrating realisation is that this really could have been so much better if the author(s) – Jack Thorne wrote the script based on a story by J. K. Rowling and John Tiffany – hadn’t insisted on playing the tearful nostalgia fiddle so much. A play about Harry dealing with Albus’ increasing estrangement from him after being sorted into Slytherin and struggling with all the expectations placed on him? Count me in!

But, of course, that’s not quite the kind of set-up that sells out theatre tickets more than a year in advance. Old ground needs to be retread, old passions rekindled, emotional buttons pressed. So Harry Potter and the Cursed Child swiftly undoes J. K. Rowling’s wise decision to do away with Time-Turners in Order of the Phoenix in order to present the world with a half-baked time travel plot that’s lifted from pretty much everywhere, from Back to the Future to Life Is Strange (and, I assume, plenty of fan fiction).

Potter-Weasleys

On stage, this probably works a charm. If the stage directions are anything to go by, seeing a Cursed Child performance is a spectacular thrill ride full of breathtaking on-stage action. And it’s probable that they don’t cover everything, so niggling little breaches of continuity (like Harry suddenly having a wand again in the final battle after being disarmed) can be excused.

What’s harder to excuse, however, are all those instances where the play follows neither the series’ nor its own internal logic, where the Time-Turner opens up all kinds of narrative cans of worms, where characters’ motivations are questionable at best, where entire characters are reduced to flat caricatures of themselves (*cough* Ron *cough*), where fan service gets ahead of cogent storytelling, where the play piggybacks on earlier installments in order to create emotional moments.

There are so many things wrong with this book that it’s hard to write about it without just listing a bunch of things I thought were bad, so I’ll try to limit myself to a few elements that spontaneously come to mind.

  • Burdening the Harry-Albus-Scorpius-Draco plot with an overblown time travelling story, among many, many, many other things, deprives us of meaningful contributions from people like Ron (one-dimensional comic relief) or Hagrid (one scene). Professor McGonagall at least is somewhat present, even if the interpretation of her is unfortunately inconsistent at times.
  • In fact, Rowling herself has even admitted in the past that Time-Turners are a huge in-universe problem, which is why she wrote them out completely in the fifth novel: “I went far too light-heartedly into the subject of time travel in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban“, she wrote on Pottermore in 2013. “While I do not regret it […], it opened up a vast number of problems for me, because after all, if wizards could go back and undo problems, where were my future plots?” Where, indeed.
  • Albus and Scorpius’ plan to sabotage the Triwizard Tournament from Goblet of Fire should be over when they realise how badly they screwed up the present the first time. Them continuing their idiotic plot just seems contrived.
  • Why does the play go to such lengths to simultaneously undermine and hammer in the depth of Hermione and Ron’s relationship? Suggesting that they only ended up together because Ron was jealous of Viktor Krum and turning Hermione into a bitter and mean-spirited spinster in that scenario is nothing if not a problematic character reading.
  • Why does Harry suddenly turn into a tyrannical parent who does not listen to a word his son is saying to him, opting instead for surveilling him with the Marauder’s Map? You’d think Order of the Phoenix would have taught him that being a teenager in a world where adults don’t listen to you isn’t an agreeable place to be.
  • Where’s Teddy Lupin, Remus and Tonks’ son? In the epilogue of Deathly Hallows, we are given to understand that he spends most of his time at Harry and Ginny’s place.
  • Voldemort had a daughter? Really? Based on the series, I’d argue that sex and procreation couldn’t be further from the Dark Lord’s mind. It’s almost like this was just written in so we could have a shock twist somewhere.
  • What is the point in constantly implying romantic tension between Albus and Scorpius if you just lazily cram in heterosexuality at the end? This is queer baiting at its worst.

I could go on. The point is that there’s hardly a scene on display here that does not raise at least one probing question, that does not seem like the original source material is either being misinterpreted or retread.

Scorpius

It’s not all bad, though. Scorpius is a wonderful character that would have thoroughly deserved a less sensationalist story in order to shine in a more everyday way than he does now. Also, Draco is probably the only established character – maybe besides Snape, who also gets his time to shine – who is treated to a deeper, more well-rounded characterisation. Him being a widower in this scenario, coupled with his Death Eater(ish) past and his strained relationship with Scorpius, adds layers of drama that the books did not really deliver, at least not pre-Half-Blood Prince. It’s nice to see him being more than a mean antagonist.

And I’d be lying if I said some of the scenes didn’t move me. But it’s rarely on account of the play being particularly good – mostly, its impact relies on the reader’s pre-existing relationship with Rowling’s seven novels. That works in some places, but even in most of those, the whole thing cannot make you forget that it’s just being manipulative in a rather pleasant way.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is fun – but in my opinion, it’s a stretch to place it in line with the original series. This is a Rowling-sanctioned fan fic, and not a very good one at that.

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