Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had very mixed reviews on Amazon. While more people gave it 5 stars than 1, the fact that there is such an even distribution of ratings out of 1786 reviews five days after the book was released is rather interesting to me.
A fair number of folks have left negative reviews. People are disappointed with the use of Time Turners, with the re-hashing of old scenes. So the question becomes…what is the purpose of this story? Should this story have simply moved forward, explored the conflicts of a whole new form of evil that Albus and Scorpius would have to fight again and again? Why did this particular story resonate, why did this particular piece of fan fiction gain traction and gain J.K. Rowling’s support, where others have not?
I love plays. There’s something very appealing to me about reading a story made up mostly of dialogue. The same story elements are necessary—plot, character, setting, conflict—but all this has to come through in dialogue.
But to truly determine what made J.K. Rowling endorse this script, and made many people watch the play on stage and rave about it, we have to consider the purpose of the play. A cynic may argue that it’s to keep milking the cash cow that is the Harry Potter franchise, but a visit to Harry Potter World at Universal Studios shows that if you pay attention to little details, you can bring this world alive for people and the cash will keep coming in. Indeed, this series’ place in storytelling history is safe. Between continued sales of the books, the success of the movies, the popularity of the parks, and the brisk sales of any materials with any HP likeness on it, there’s no need to do more. The books can be continually mined for more products to sell for years to come. One day, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Pinterest pages posting pictures of a Mandrake Garden, see an ad touting a Fantastical Beast Zoo, or wander past a Potions stores in my local strip mall.
Sure, we’re excited about watching the Fantastical Beasts movie in November. We’re ready for America to have its own places of magical significance. And I, for one, am eagerly looking forward to Niantic’s Harry Potter version of the Pokémon Go game.
But people want more. This summer I learned about a showing of the first Harry Potter movie, complete with live orchestral accompaniment. I couldn’t attend, but I thought it sounded brilliant. One of the things I most loved about the Harry Potter series is that it brought droves of people, lining up outside a store for hours, awaiting the release of a book. It demonstrated a passion for literature that is normally seen for video game consoles and theater tickets (not arguing against either of those, just happy to see book geeks have something in common with music and gaming geeks).
Now, I’ve heard some great things about the production. It is a two-part show, and you can read all about it in GeekMom Sophie Brown’s recent review of the show.
Let me take a moment and remind people that the HP books were not flawless. They were wonderful, engaging, and weaved this magical world that we happily revisit. But the fact that all the early books ended with a long scene of Dumbledore explaining to Harry the significance of what had happened, of the plot being told instead of shown, that the story was not complete without the explanation is just one shortcoming that we have long ago forgiven (and seemingly forgotten). Others have pointed out other problems and logical inconsistencies in the series, but I have no desire to explore that. I mention it only to remind folks that what makes Harry Potter magical and engaging is not its flawlessness.
This new story, while not perfect, serves its purpose well. If its goal is truly a theatrical goal (and as it is a play script, then it most certainly has that goal), then we must regard this story for what it is. A play. A staged production that must meet the needs of its audience.
And the needs of an audience attending a Harry Potter play include revisiting the past and glimpsing the future. We want to see Harry as an adult. We want to see him as a dad. We have spent years surmising about what their futures would be like, whether Ron and Hermione would really be happy together, and what kind of parent Harry would be. We have spent plenty of time asking, “What if?” Well, so does this play.
So now for the spoilers. If you haven’t read the book yet, consider yourself warned. I’m going to go over the various elements of the story to see where the mixed opinions come from.
One of the challenges that many playwrights face—that this play clearly did not face—is economy. Namely, a playwright has to consider the cost and difficulty of bringing the play to life on stage. Most playwrights must consider how expensive and difficult it is not only to build multiple sets, but also how much time and effort is involved in switching from one scene to another during a show.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes place on quite a few sets. I don’t think every production needs to be low-budget, and I certainly look forward to one day seeing this show performed on stage. It’s just important to consider this fact when comparing it to other plays.
That said, the script feels a bit like a trip down memory lane, a “greatest hits” performance. We visit King’s Cross Station, Hogwarts Express, Ministry of Magic, Privet Drive, Triwizard Tournament (all three settings), Hogwarts Hospital Wing, Godric’s Hollow, and several locations around Hogwarts, including the staircases, library, headmistress’s office, the girls’ bathroom, potions classroom, and the owlery. In addition, the play includes a few settings not visited during the original series, yet ones that are referenced, including St. Oswald’s Home for Old Witches and Wizards and a Slytherin dormitory (and no, we only saw the common room, not the dorm). Finally, two new locations were introduced, namely Harry and Ginny’s House and a Scottish Highlands train station.
Without having viewed a production, I can’t speak to how the frequent set changes affected the flow of the play, but one benefit that this script has over other plays that would visit so many different sets is that the script doesn’t have to spend the requisite time other plays would in describing the settings. This is, after all, a well-known world.
Some complaints focus on how Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Draco lack the depth that their characters had throughout the original series. To this criticism I have two responses. First, we’ve already explored them. We already know them. The depth of their characters—their special quirks, the relationship between them—require the actors. The script “lacks depth” because we are not seeing what the actors bring into it. If we read this imagining Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, Bonnie Wright, and Tom Felton in the roles, we bring to the story what they’ve already brought to the roles. But this script allows different actors to bring their own interpretations into the production, without forcing them to simply repeat what their predecessors brought to the roles.
Secondly, and more importantly, Cursed Child is Albus and Scorpius’s story. And as such, the parents (and that is what our heroes are now) are necessarily different. They’re not the magic-world equivalent of those college partiers who keep trying to relive their glory days (which, you have to admit, weren’t so carefree and fun) by hitting the bars weekly and getting home late. No, these would be the folks who understand the burden of dark magic, and take their responsibilities seriously. Add to the responsibility of protecting the world from darkness, the stress of raising magical children, and yeah you’re looking at a more serious version of them.
As for Albus and Scorpius? These characters had their own strong motivations that drove them, high stakes, and character development. As for Delphi, she too had a clear motivation and high stakes. Her choices made sense as her truth was revealed. Her actions made sense. Yes, her origin story was handled a little cavalierly, and I’m sure we could re-read certain scenes of the original books to question the reality of the assertions, but the original series should have long trained us not to look too closely.
So then I have to ask what the central conflict of this play is, and whether it could have been achieved more efficiently. What was the point of the first few years? Why did the play start where it does?
1) ties it to the final chapter of Deathly Hallows
2) introduces characters and relationships – namely Albus, Scorpius, and Rose
3) introduces the concept of time travel in the context of the play
However, as the main action of the story doesn’t occur until their fourth year, I would contend that the same information could easily have been conveyed by starting at King’s Cross Station at the start of Albus and Scorpius’s fourth year. Or even just before, at the Potter house, when Albus overhears Harry talking to Amos Diggory about the Time Turner. The subsequent scene on the Hogwarts Express could easily have expressed everything that the earlier scenes conveyed—namely the friendship between Albus and Scorpius, the awkward relationship between Albus and Rose, the strain between Albus and Harry.
But that’s not the only purpose of the early part of the play. The fourth purpose is to welcome the audience, to ease the reader back into this new world. A quicker introduction, one that gets us right to the inciting incident and jumps right into the action of the story, wouldn’t sit right with us either. No, we would have balked at how quickly Harry and his buddies were relegated to supporting roles, and how Albus and Scorpius aren’t nearly strong of characters (or whatever folks might have complained about).
Which just goes to show that this play has its own set of requirements that other stories don’t have.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child bridges the gap between brand new story and nostalgia. I wrote a paper during grad school about jukebox musicals (musicals that start from a collection of known songs and build a story around that—think Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys) and learned that the most successful stories, the ones that people returned to the theater to watch again and again, were optimistic, included a simple plot, and provided a pleasant diversion. In his book Our Musicals, Ourselves, John Bush Jones argues that “the public was primed to escape…to succumb to nostalgia, the psychic equivalent of comfort food” (Jones 308).
What does that have to do with Harry Potter, you ask? It’s not a musical, you say. Yes, but while James and Lily Potter may not have actually died on October 31, 1981, and while there may not have actually been a Battle of Hogwarts on May 2, 1998, still on those days people post memes commemorating the events. Because real or not, people who have spent so many years visiting and revisiting the magical world of Harry Potter feel an acute sense of nostalgia, not necessarily for any particular scene in the series, but for the magic of reading the stories for the first time, to our own innocence and sense of unfolding wonder. Reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child takes us back there.
One thing I’d like to mention is how Albus called Harry in to help save the day at the end. One basic tenet of children’s literature is that the child has to be the one to resolve the conflict. Well, this story leads to quite a quandary in this situation. This is a part of the Harry Potter canon, and Harry is the hero of that story. But he is an adult, and these stories, being children’s literature, are meant to empower children.
I think in the end, that concern was properly addressed. The story is, after all, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, not “Harry Potter’s Cursed Child” or “The Cursed Child, a Harry Potter story.” The underlying message of this particular story seems to be that you don’t have to go it alone. “I’ve never fought alone, you see. And I never will.” Albus sent the message. Albus brought them back. But Albus is not alone. Harry is an integral part—a necessary part—of the final conflict. This satisfies both requirements. To dwell on one or the other can dissatisfy. But carefully walking the tightrope is what this story does.
Overall, it certainly seems that if, at this point, you need something more than to revisit the previous stories, but aren’t ready to completely let go of the old, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child offers that perfect bridge. So maybe the issue is not that the script isn’t good enough, it’s that we’re still not ready to say goodbye. After all this time, this story leaves us wanting more.