Angela Hicks is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing programme in 2016 and was one of the storytellers for Edinburgh City of Literature’s Story Shop 2017. She is currently working on her first novel.
Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
As part of the Harry Potter generation who grew up with the original book series, I was naturally interested when, in 2016, J.K. Rowling announced a new sequel of sorts in the form of a play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (written by Jack Thorne, with story by Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany). But I was also apprehensive–would the magic hold after all these years? I resisted buying a copy of the script for several months; the seventh book ended with the line ‘all was well’–did I really want to discover that that might not be the case? A slew of positive reviews from the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, and other mainstream newspapers convinced me to give it a go. Nevertheless, I was aware before I picked up the script that a portion of book-fans disliked Cursed Child, muttering that it was little better than fan fiction and resolutely refusing to view it as canon no matter what Rowling said. Thus I embarked on the task of reading the script with much anticipation and a certain degree of trepidation.
The first thing to say about CC is that the plot, in the broadest terms, is fine. It’s a time travelling romp; there are tense scenes and humorous moments. The concept of a character travelling to the past and thereby altering the future is not new (think the Back to the Future trilogy), but CC manages to be an enjoyable narrative for all it lacks in originality. Time travel plots often suffer from their sheer illogicality–if one stops to consider what’s really happening, things tend to fall apart pretty quickly–but CC has so much going on that there’s no time to think, much less care, about whether it holds together. One doesn’t dwell too much on what paradoxes are being created, nor how likely certain things connected to Voldemort are, because you’re caught up in the story. Similarly, it just about gets away with most of its more outlandish moments (such as the transformation of the Trolley Witch in 1:11) because of this fast pace as well as the quick and often light-hearted dialogue.
That dialogue (along with the stage effects) is probably the element which translates least well from the stage to the page, since we’re given no sense from the script alone how certain lines should be delivered. As just mentioned, there are a lot of one-liners or rapid fire exchanges (predominantly between Albus and Scorpius, but also between Ron and Hermione). It makes for a fun read, although there’s the sense that the writers were more concerned with making their protagonists witty and amusing than in having them speak like normal people.
There’s also the peppering of colloquialisms and slang throughout the script. On the one hand, making them sound more like today’s teenagers is a way of differentiating the younger generation of witches and wizards from those in the original series. However, part of the reason that the Harry Potter books have stood the test of time (20 years since the publication of Philosopher’s Stone) is probably because they manage to not be period-specific–they exist in their own private sphere outside most real world influences, and they avoid obvious time-markers such as slang. I doubt CC will age so well.
I also wonder how future generations of playgoers will react to several of the character portrayals. To begin with, there is Albus and Scorpius’ friendship/relationship. The script spends a lot of time and energy setting them up as a couple before finally deciding that they’re both straight. Naturally a very deep friendship between people of any gender can exist without it needing to transform into love; however, the script actively promotes the idea of their blossoming romance for nine-tenths of the narrative. One reason I’m upset that Albus and Scorpius don’t become a couple is because of the blatant disregard for the author-reader contract. I would be annoyed that CC laid this groundwork and then didn’t follow through regardless of whether it was about a gay relationship, or whether it was about Albus getting a pet dragon/becoming an animagus/introducing Irn Bru to the wizarding world. Following the principle of Chekov’s Gun, when a piece of fiction sets something up, your expectations are raised and if–as is the case with CC–it doesn’t deliver, the reader ends up feeling frustrated and betrayed.
In a less literary vein, it would have been nice to have the leading characters being a gay couple. CC as a stage-play has rightly been praised for its representation of minorities through its casting of black actors in major roles (Noma Dumezweni was the first actor to play CC’s Hermione in the West End, followed by Rakie Ayola when Dumezweni reprised that roll on Broadway). However, these casting decisions were made by individual productions and aren’t guaranteed to always be the same; it would’ve been better if the script itself included representation of minority characters. Moreover, leading with a gay couple would have worked well with CC’s plot: the play focuses on people not fitting in and being pressured by society, and other’s assumptions about them, so it would have made sense to add coming to terms with one’s sexuality into the piece. I feel like several opportunities were missed with Albus and Scorpius in this respect.
There are also problems with other characters. There were elements of disappointment with the ‘old cast’, as it were, from the books. Some of these are more overt, such as the fact that Harry–someone who was always portrayed as a caring, well-balanced individual who just happened to be fated to fight the Dark Lord–has transformed into a grumpy and distant parent. Others only occur on reflection; it’s slightly galling to learn that an unmarried Hermione is considerably meaner than a married one. It’s also disappointing to discover that Ron and Hermione, again people who in the original series were generally depicted as nice children who weren’t particularly prejudiced, have raised a snob like Rose.
However, the most egregious discrepancy between the original series and the book with regards to characters is Cedric Diggory. Although he appears for a limited time only in Goblet of Fire (and is briefly mentioned in earlier books), he is clearly depicted as a good person–he helps Harry figure out the second challenge and accepts Harry’s proposal to be joint winners of the tournament. In CC, however, his innate goodness is apparently so flimsy that he turns completely to the dark side when he’s laughed at. Not only is it a shame that probably the most famous member of the often least well-regarded house turns out to be evil, but it’s also infuriating that no one comments on how stupid his reasoning is. Being laughed at is never a good reason to commit mass murder, and I really wish that someone in CC had remarked about how messed up Cedric turns out to be, instead of tacitly endorsing his behaviour. Or better yet, not made him so messed up. It wouldn’t have been difficult to change Cedric from incompetent Death Eater into incompetent good guy–Neville could easily have died shielding Cedric, or in friendly fire from him. Instead, the script goes out of its way to portray Cedric as someone who is only nice when people are nice to him. Moreover, the audience/reader’s knowledge that Cedric became a Death Eater really damages the ending of CC–Harry visits Cedric’s grave and has a sort of poignant moment with his son about how he goes there to tell Cedric he’s sorry (4:15). That would be a beautiful ending if only we weren’t all thinking that Harry is wrong to be sorry because Cedric would have probably turned out to be a terrible person in this time-stream too.
Perhaps my expectations about Cursed Child were too high, both in terms of the script itself, and also in its ability to bring back my childhood. I certainly found it enjoyable while I was reading it; as a play script, especially one primarily aimed at a teenage audience, it was a quick read, and it was nice to romp through the wizarding world again, albeit briefly. But once I’d finished, the illogicalities and odd choices started to pile up, while my regrets at the script’s missed opportunities, particularly with regards to characters, became harder to ignore. While a lot of fans of the original series have embraced Cursed Child, the vocal minority describing it as nothing more than fan fiction remains undaunted. For all that I want to love this new addition to the Harry Potter universe, I cannot help but regretfully side with those who prefer to view the play as an Aunt Muriel of the books–invited to family gatherings when it has to be, but generally best left forgotten.