Harry Potter and The Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling
by Leighton Seer
(Note: Fear not, friends. The first half of this review will be spoiler-free. After the cut, I will discuss the play’s plot, including spoilers.)
It’s been a month since Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was released, and I’m still grappling with my feelings about it.
Allow me to backtrack. Like most twenty-somethings, I am deeply invested in Harry Potter. Okay, you might say obsessed. It’s a sentiment that’s been said repeated endlessly by readers the world over, but it remains true: those books were my childhood. I was seven years old when I read the first book, and sixteen when the final installment hit the shelves. Harry and I grew up together. If I’m being truly honest, I don’t think I ever wished harder for anything in my life than an acceptance letter to Hogwarts. (Incidentally, I finally received one in my stocking last Christmas, and it is one of my most prized possessions. I’m probably a bit too old now to be a student, but I think I’d make a pretty great divination teacher, being a Seer and all.)
All of this is to say that when I found out that there would soon be a new Harry Potter story, I was over the moon.
I must admit that, until I had my hands on a hard copy, I had no idea that J. K. Rowling had not written the play herself. Terrified of being spoiled, I had avoided any and all news about The Cursed Child, and had thus completely missed this crucial fact. Believe me when I say that I was and am still traumatized from having the major Half-Blood Prince plot-twist spoiled for me two days before the book was released. It’s just something you never recover from. I knew, of course, that the play had been developed with others, but I hadn’t realized that entirety of the text had been written by others—namely Jack Throne and John Tiffany. This was my fault. However, readers should definitely know this going in.
Let’s start with the good. First, the obvious: Re-entering this beloved world, getting to experience it in a new way for the first time in years, was thrilling. I tried to set the book aside when I came home so that I could work on an important assignment, but was unable to focus with the book sitting there, begging to be read. I could practically hear Rowling’s soothing voice reminding me, “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”
Second, the play is certainly imaginative. Thorne and Tiffany make use of, and in some cases build on, the world Rowling has created in surprising ways. Although the magic is of course the draw, more interesting, perhaps, is the way they were able to imbue these character’s fantastical lives with a sense of normalcy. There is a kind of domesticity seen in the scenes between Harry, Ginny, and their children that feels very realistic and down-to-earth.
We also see an interesting parent-child dynamic develop between Harry and his youngest son Albus. The tension that builds between the two of them—and which plays out over several years, as the first part of the play moves very quickly through Albus’ first years at Hogwarts—stems from the tragic and magical events of Harry’s past, but it is entwined with the very real, relatable and human emotions of a child who feels that he doesn’t fit in. More than anything else, I believe that emotion is The Cursed Child’s strength.
Lastly, it bears mentioning that the standout character in this play is Albus’ best friend Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco Malfoy and his wife, Astoria Greengrass. He provides much-needed comedic relief throughout. At times, I actually found myself laughing out loud at his dialogue. He is an extremely lovable underdog who finds himself the subject of nasty rumors from the moment he sets foot on the Hogwarts Express.
Now, I’ll discuss the aspects of The Cursed Child with which I struggled. There were things I was prepared for. Armed with the knowledge that this would be the text of a play, not a novel, and the fact that it was not, in fact, written by Rowling, I expected the dialogue to feel somewhat stilted on the page. Words sound very different on a script page than they do once a flesh-and-blood actor breathes life into them. I also knew that The Cursed Child would not contain the sorts of lavish, atmospheric descriptions I’d come to expect from a Harry Potter book. Both of these things were understandable, and completely fine.
What I was not prepared for was the way that the established characters (Harry, Hermione, etc.) did not sound like themselves. Even if I tried to take their ages into account – after all, Harry is about forty years old in The Cursed Child—their speech, and even their personalities, often just felt off. Again, I have to reiterate that I believe that this is the sort of thing that won’t necessarily be true on stage. I have great faith in the power of acting. On the page, though, this could sometimes throw me off. More than once I found myself setting the book aside for a moment, because I was just completely drawn out of the moment. The strongest example of this is the character of Ronald Weasley. He is hardly a part of the story, and when he is, he is presented as merely lame and bumbling.
My main issue, however, is the plot. The storyline was unexpected, and felt like a retread of old territory, rather than what the back cover promised: “The eighth story. Nineteen years later.” Many have said that The Cursed Child reads like bad fan-fiction. As much as it pains me, I must agree. It feels so alien, and often so amateurish, that it is sometimes hard to believe that this play is now considered a canonical part of J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.
When I closed the book after a night spent doing nothing but reading (which reminded me of those nights that I would race home after a midnight release of a Harry Potter book, open it with a sense of excitement and wonder, and completely shut out the outside world until I had finished), I avoided admitting to myself for a long time what I was really feeling: disappointment.
I remain firmly convinced that the play will be wonderful. I have my own tickets to see it in 2017, and am still overjoyed at the prospect of seeing it on stage. It has gotten rave reviews by critics and the public alike, and although the story is what it is, I do believe that seeing the play will be something completely different unfolding on stage with all the wonderful stage-magic that goes along with that. I recently grilled a friend and fellow classmate about her experience seeing The Cursed Child in London. She assured me that she loved it, that it was amazing, and was very emphatic about the fact that the plot was almost irrelevant. She and I both agreed—The Cursed Child just doesn’t work as well as a text.
I will discuss the plot, including spoilers, below the cut.
So, let’s get to the heart of it: This was a time travel story. In some ways, it felt like a response to those who always ask why Harry didn’t just use a timeturner to go back and stop his parents from dying. As fans have always said, and as the play itself explains, this is because all of the timeturners were smashed, and they’d never worked that way to begin with. In The Cursed Child, however, Harry—now the head of Magical Law Enforcement—finds an illegal, experimental timeturner that is capable of going years into the past. The catch, as Albus and Scorpio learn, is that they are only able to stay in the past for five minutes at a time.
Rumours of the timeturner’s existence have been around since Voldemort’s disappearance. In fact, Scorpius Malfoy is plagued by whispers from the magical community that he is not Draco’s son at all, but the product of a timeturner-enabled pregnancy of Astoria by Voldemort in an effort to create an heir. Word of this illegal timeturner’s seizure reaches Amos Diggory, who visits Harry at his home to ask him to use it to go back and save his son. As Albus eavesdrops, Harry denies the object’s very existence, and Diggory leaves angrily.
Later, Harry and Albus’s already strained relationship reaches a head when the two of them fight. Feeling that he has always lived in his father’s shadow, and never lived up to or been able to relate to his father (did I mention Albus is in Slytherin?), tells Harry that he wishes he were not his father. Unbelievably—quite literally, for many readers—Harry responds that he sometimes wishes Albus were not his son.
In the aftermath of this fight, Albus decides to take it upon himself to find the timeturner he knows exists and right Diggory’s death, which he considers to be one of his biggest mistakes.
The rest of the play follows Albus and Scorpius as they steal the timeturner, and with the help of Delphi, Amos’ attractive young niece, seek to change the events of the Triwizard Tournament so that Diggory loses and never ends up in the graveyard to begin with. Needless to say, this does not go well, and what ensues is a string of alternate-presents in which certain characters have or have not died.
I won’t go into detail, but I will say that the whole thing felt very bizarre. Again, it genuinely felt like fan-fiction, like the fevered imagination of someone who’d read the books and then decided to write a story, making up their own rules along the way. There were moments where I found myself saying aloud, “No. That just wouldn’t happen.” For example, in one of these alternate timelines, Hermione and Ron do not get together, with the result that Hermione ends up a bitter, mean professor. Excuse me? Under no circumstances would Hermione not achieve her lofty ambitions simply because of a romantic disappointment.
Even the magic felt “off” in ways that are hard to articulate, because sure, it’s magic. Technically, anything is fair game. But sometimes the magic in The Cursed Child just didn’t feel like the sort of magic we’d see in Rowling’s Wizarding World. It just felt wrong. The primary example of this is the trolley witch who, we learn in a bizarre train-top scene during which Scorpius and Albus are attempting to escape the Hogwarts Express, is a timeless being tasked with keeping the children on board at all costs. Her hands literally “transfigure into very sharp spikes.”
What I wanted, and what I believe many others wanted, was a new, fresh story. I wanted to return to Hogwarts with this new group of students and experience this familiar world in an unfamiliar way. Instead, as I mentioned earlier, what we were given felt like a complete retread of stories we’d already been through. In one of the final scenes, Harry actually watches his childhood home from a distance as Voldemort enters it and kills his parents.
Regardless, I think that the play is worth reading, especially for those who, for the time being, will not have access to the play in London. Still, I cherish a dear hope that this is only the beginning of the new Harry Potter stories, and that it will open the door for more actual novels to come out. Call me foolish. Rowling has me in hand. Whatever she writes, I will read without hesitation. One strange story can never dampen my love for this wonderful world she’s built.
— Leighton Seer was raised in Texas by her Welsh father. She holds a BSci in Radio-TV-Film and an MA in Animation. She is currently studying for an MFA in Creative Writing. She moved to England in 2013, became a dual citizen, and has been searching for a decent margarita ever since. Her future plans include being the neighbourhood witch and taking up beekeeping. She is currently working on her first novel.