Nobody can leave well enough alone these days, can they? This is the third time in a year I’ve reviewed continuations of long-dead properties whose original run ended on a perfect note but felt that there’s still some more money to be squeezed out of it. Rowling was a bit more clever than most— she said, “I’m not going to write another book!” and then wrote a play instead. One of the Marauders would pull something like that. She did get someone else to write the play, which should help matters, but makes her seem wishy-washy instead. If you’re gonna go back on your promise, you might as well go hard. But who cares, right? Good lit is still good lit. And I haven’t despised the continuations that I’ve experienced. I enjoyed The Force Awakens, and I believe that Go Set A Watchman was at least worth the attempt, considering its goals. I can’t say that Cursed Child is a cash grab for certain (although, let’s be real, it is), but great stories can still be told from beginnings like that.
And I do have a history of underestimating J.K. Rowling. While all my first and second grade friends were casting spells and speaking Parseltongue, I could never get past that boring first chapter in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. But on one slow, hot day, I grinded my way through Chapter 1 only to discover myself flying though the rest of the books in record time. I can still finish reading Philosopher’s Stone faster than it takes me to watch the movie of the same name. So yeah, I was a Potterhead. I still am. Cursed Child, while not as earth shattering or powerful as the original books, still serves as a delightful conclusion to what (I hope for real this time) will be the end of the series.
Remember the epilogue to Deathly Hallows where Harry sends off his son Albus to Hogwarts? That’s the last happy moment between those two characters for a long time. From Albus ending up in Slytherin to Albus and Harry’s constant fights, the Potter family life fractures to the point where Albus takes some drastic measures. Albus and his friend Scorpius (Draco’s son!) steal one of the last remaining Time-Turners. They try to go back in time to save Cedric Diggory, to set right some wrongs such as Voldemort’s return. And let me ask you: how many stories have you seen with that kind of set-up where they change time once and everything’s all buttercups and rainbows for good?
Harry Potter has gone introspective in its epilogue by way of It’s A Wonderful Life… or, if I wanted to be cruel, by way of Shrek Forever After. It’s easy to see this story as a response to all the fanfiction that Harry Potter resulted in. Rowling did give her blessing to that community, but that community has caused her grief before. One of Cursed Child’s goals is to show how crazy things would’ve gotten in the original series without Rowling’s tight control on the story (which is her greatest strength as a writer: future generations might even change “Chekov’s Gun” to “Rowling’s Wand”). But, more than that, Cursed Child is about looking back and resisting the impulse to fix things. I joked about how Rowling can’t leave well-enough alone, but, given Harry’s character development in this play, I’d say that Rowling’s aware about the fact that constantly revisiting Harry Potter brings problems with it. Sure enough, the play ends with a “Despite all the bad, we should be ok with where we ended up”” message. Just the fact that Time-Turners feature heavily in this story reveals this theme. Time-Turners— the most illogical part of a universe that has plenty of illogic to it— make a return, not just to make the devices seem less random in the original arc, but to also justify the play’s message. It’s like Rowling’s saying, “Look! Putting time-travel in the third book wasn’t a mistake… it’s now important in Book Eight! See how important time-travel is to the mythos! And Time-Turners teach the characters to be ok with bad stuff happening in the past… like, say, for example, messing up a little in Book Three and giving mastery of time to a schoolgirl so she can take an extra class!”
A lot of Harry Potter’s strength comes from its characters— wonderfully dynamic, instantly recognizable, and surprisingly deep no matter how minor. And in this grand continuation of the esteemed Harry Potter saga, the new characters are pretty ok. The good characters from the previous books are still great— Draco and Harry, for instance, evolve in appropriate and touching ways. Ron’s a complete joke in this story, but considering his personality, it’s not like he was going to become a doctor or anything. Albus and Scorpius, on the other hand, don’t seem to have much backbone to them. They have history and motivation, just not a particular defining feature. There’s more to, say, Hermione, than just being “the smart one.” But if you read an out-of-context line in this play that sounds like a formerly insufferable nerd— and you know that Hermione’s “the smart one”— then you could point at that line and say “Hermione said that.” I don’t think I could do the same with the two teen leads. Each one has interesting backstories, but thousands of character types can result from the same background. They’re not bad characters, they just fall below this series’ high benchmarks.
One other thing about dialogue. It’s something that only long-time readers of Harry Potter will pick up on. So, hey, Potterheads: do you know how weird it is to see the word “übergeek” in a Potter book? There were a bunch of word choices like that in Cursed Child that gave me pause. And that’s a good thing! Not because it makes the series “hip”— in my mind, Harry Potter is timeless. But the word choices shows that this new generation, while still wizards and witches, grew up different and just are different to the original trio. I stand by my criticism that the new kids aren’t as good as the old. But the point of the word choices (and the point of the play) is that the new kids shouldn’t try to be copies of the old. I keep crediting this story to Rowling, but that’s because Jack Thorne is great at imitating her while also bringing subtle touches like word choice to the narrative. The change from novel-to-script also highlights the changing times in between stories.
And that’s also the problem: Harry Potter didn’t change enough. When I found out that this story would be a play, I envisioned a completely different follow-up. The original stories, from their light and fun beginning, grew darker and more adult with each installment. I expected that progression to result into a full-on mature drama for Cursed Child. There would be magic, sure, but the problems wouldn’t be solved by magical artifacts or quick thinking, but by butting heads with their own internal and external relationships. The series started out for kids, evolved to be for teens, and then would end with a story for adults— not adult in terms of gross content, but it terms of nuance and themes. This is not my way of criticizing the story we got… it’s a good adventure, and Rowling’s not beholden to my personal fantasies. But, nonetheless, this book passed up a chance to evolve. Rowling has millions of readers that not only love her, but also grew up with her. She (well, Jack Thorne technically, though the original story belongs to her) could’ve pushed the boundaries a little, really wowed us in a way we never would’ve expected, and still outsell the Bible. But, in the end, it’s just another Harry Potter story, with is familiar background mysteries and rule breaking and its characters refusing to find out about Google. Cursed Child isn’t even a throwback to the happier days of the first book, considering we get a dark look at a world where Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts. And Cursed Child is filled with so many callbacks that it only works as a story for those indoctrinated at youth. Go Set A Watchman is a far inferior book, but it brought us back to Maycomb with the intent of changing everything we know and rocking the core foundations of that world. Rowling can grip us and surprise us within a story’s confines. Thing is, we knew she could do that seven books ago. The Cursed Child will tell you where your favorite characters ended up nineteen years later, making the story essential to the Harry Potter history. But nothing in here is essential for the Harry Potter experience. The Harry Potter experience, for the seven novels, is the same as the Harry Potter story: about growing up, among other things. We grew up, but the world of Harry Potter didn’t.
If you’ll permit me to be cliché for a minute, I’d like to compare entertainment to food. The Harry Potter books are a delicious seven-course meal, and Cursed Child is the dessert. It’s a sweet reward for sticking though a wonderful experience, one that isn’t as filling or nutritious as what came before. That said, I’d be suspicious of anyone who said they didn’t like dessert. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not the grand continuation we all hoped for, but when it’s taken on its own, it reminds us why we fell in love with Harry Potter in the first place.