Ok, if you haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by now, that’s your own fault. Consider this your SPOILER WARNING.
(And yes I know I am months behind the rest of the world, but that is what happens when you’re writing a book. 😛 )
In case you need a plot refresher: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is basically Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: The Epilogue: The Play. Harry is a dad of three and the harried and overtired Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, and his middle child Albus hates him, proving that adulthood sucks even if you’re a wizard. As if that’s not bad enough, his past keeps coming back to haunt him in the form of scar pains and lingering threats that Voldemort may somehow be returning. This past haunts Albus, too, as his father’s legacy weighs heavily on him, but he is his father’s son, and when it comes time to get into trouble to save the wizarding world, he does just that.
I’d really hoped to first experience The Cursed Child as a play rather than a script, but I also hate spoilers, and this is the Internet age, and none of those things combine well. After reading, I do think The Cursed Child probably works better as a performance, and it is ultimately entertaining. However, it has some very problematic parts that not even performance can save it from.
One is pacing; plays have very different pacing demands than novels do, and a reading of The Cursed Child suffers for this. Years pass in the first act within the space of a few pages. While the visual metaphor used to convey this is cool to behold (I imagine), it robs the reader of the connection one would form with the characters if given a chance to see those years played out in prose form. I didn’t feel any connection to most of the characters for much of the book (except Albus and Scorpius; more on that later), which was especially disheartening, considering that I spent seven years of my young life reading about the younger versions of some of them.
The second is that it bends, if not totally breaks Harry Potter canon to make its story work. For complicated reasons, the plot hinges upon Albus and Scorpius using a Time-Turner to keep Cedric Diggory from dying during the Triwizard Tournament of The Goblet of Fire…even though The Prisoner of Azkaban clearly establishes that Time-Turners can’t be used to alter history. The story tries to wiggle its way out of this by having Harry lament that Time-Turner technology has changed since his day, as if Time-Turners are as (comparatively) simple as computers – and also as if anything in the wizarding world has advanced in the past several hundred years.
This disregard for the rules of its own world contributes to the third problem, which is that 80% of the play reads like fanfiction – well-written fanfiction, albeit, but fanfiction nonetheless. Each of Albus’ and Scorpius’ trips into the past (there are several) alter the timeline in ways that eventually become nothing but fan service. Umbridge shows up so that readers/viewers can hate her more; Snape shows up and admittedly steals the scene he’s in, but the fact that the play undoes his death – however briefly – inadvertently cheapens it. In fact, the whole idea that the future can be so radically and easily changed by a simple Time-Turner trip makes the entire Wizarding World seem very breakable, which is jarring for a reader who’s accustomed to the solid world-building of the main series.
Because of all these, there were moments when I was afraid the script was going to be a disaster.
However – and it’s a big however – despite these flaws, the play is worth reading for what it does well.
In fact, it’s worth reading for Scorpius Malfoy alone. Ah, Scorpius. You were destined for an unfortunate school experience the moment your parents named you Scorpius, but you took your insecurities and rocked them.
Scorpius is adorkable in the best way, a shy, awkward nerd who inadvertently spins that awkwardness into endearing charm. (A discussion where he tries to compliment Rose Granger-Weasley by telling her she smells like bread is priceless.) He’s isolated from all other Hogwarts students because of a nasty rumor that he might be Voldemort’s child (another bit of fan thinking, with equally fannish developments), but when he and Albus bond over their respective daddy issues, the relationship that results is worthy of J.K. Rowling at her height. Any scene featuring the two of them together is a delight to read, not only because of their interactions, but because these are the scenes that most closely approach what longtime fans love about Harry Potter – the adventure, mischief, and magic. In particular, the scene where the sweets-purveying Trolley Witch tries to prevent them from escaping the Hogwarts Express is so fun that it feels like a genuine piece of Rowling’s imagination.
If this play had been nothing but Albus and Scorpius going on adventures, it would have been perfect.
Unfortunately, the scenes involving the adult versions of the iconic characters were my least favorite part. It’s simply not fun to read about overworked, miserable, grownup Harry, Hermione, and Ron. In the original books, readers could read them and say, “Sure, things may be terrible, but at least they have magic!” but in The Cursed Child, it’s “Ugh, they have magic, but things are still terrible.” All of them have lost the spark that made them so interesting in the original books, and Ron in particular is reduced to nothing but comic relief (even more so than movie Ron). It’s like looking at enchanted portraits that only captured their least heartening qualities. One could argue that it’s a realistic depiction of adulthood – After all, even happy adulthood can’t compare to the high points of childhood – but who reads Harry Potter for realism?
All the characters become a little more interesting when the father-son issues are resolved, and the climax – which sees grownup Harry Potter at Godric’s Hollow in the past, at the very moment when his parents are murdered, unable to do anything without ruining the timeline – is deliciously heartbreaking for fans. But so much potential was squandered on the rest of the story that it’s depressing to even think about it.
The actual identity of the titular Cursed Child is also left ambiguous – maybe it’s Albus, maybe Scorpius, maybe Harry himself. Maybe it’s even this other character, who I will not disclose but is also fan service. It’s neat to have all of those possibilities, but I would have at least liked the story to hint significantly at one and then invite the reader/viewer to go “Ooo, but what if…?” Compared to everything else, though, that’s a quibble.
All this said, my reactions to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were nearly as convoluted as the play itself. The parts that I disliked, I really disliked, but the parts that I loved have me desperate for some good Albus/Scorpius fic.*
*Or perhaps to read Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On because let’s be real, Albus and Scorpius are basically Simon and Baz and you know they’re going to Discover Things About Themselves when they reach the right developmental stage.