Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Review
This review assumes you’ve either read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, or are not that fussed on it. For obvious reasons, then, expect spoilers in this one. HUGE spoilers.
I want to make two things clear at the outset.
The first is that I was a massive fan of Harry Potter. Tremendously massive. The books guided me through late childhood and my teenage years with more verve and influence than both the Old and New Testaments combined. I saw all the movies on opening night, even though most of them were of questionable quality. The only things I bought on a trip to MovieWorld when I was 12 were a wand and a Quidditch baseball cap.
But my fan response to Harry Potter differs substantially from the majority. I’m not a ‘shipper, nor am I a consumer of alternate universe fanfiction where certain characters don’t die/hook up/cross over with other franchises. As much as I adore Harry Potter’s scholastic adventures, my love for the series does not extend to the proliferation of fan debates and considerations on what might’ve happened if Snape had been open about his love for Lily Potter, or if Cedric Diggory hadn’t died, or if Voldemort had had some child with Bellatrix Lestrange.
Do those quibbles at the end of the above paragraph sound a bit too specific? Well if they are, it’s only because Harry Potter and the Cursed Child goes through all of these alternate universe and character relationship choices, and more besides.
Which brings me to the second thing I want to make clear: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a good story. At all.
I acknowledge up front that comparing Cursed Child to its bookish brethren might not be fair, since it’s a script rather than a prose novel. There’s a certain freedom in imagining settings, blocking and visual effects in your head without them being spelled out on the page, so I wasn’t opposed to the idea of a dialogue-heavy story relying on the ol’ thinker box to make the magic happen. That’s why I say it’s not a good story, rather than a good book; in that respect, it can’t wholly be measured against the preceding seven volumes of bildungsroman that J.K. Rowling could’ve comfortably retired on.
No, Cursed Child is just a bad story, beginning to end, top to bottom. It’s the worst fears of an anti-shipping and alternate universe-phobe made manifest, simultaneously a sycophantic slab of fanservice and an anvil-subtle fix-fic whose effects are wholly disposable and blatantly insulting. I’m doubtful that a live-action stage performance of the story could fix the inane, cringeworthy morass of the script, but I guess miracles do happen.
Nineteen years after Voldemort’s defeat at the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry Potter sends his angsty son Albus Severus Potter off to wizard school. Harry and Albus don’t quite see eye-to-eye, largely because Harry’s overprotective and Albus doesn’t like living in the shadow of his famous father and his own older siblings. While Albus deals with the perceived shame of being put in Slytherin House and makes friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, Harry deals with his general unhappiness with life, his relationship with Albus, a recurring pain in his scar, and some strange dreams about Voldemort.
That’s where the story starts, at least. As to where it goes after that… well, my housemate has an XKCD poster of the narrative paths of main characters in several well-known stories, and where they both intersect and stay separate from each other. The poster’s assessment of the film Primer also handily represents what Cursed Child’s character trajectories look like:
In other words, it’s a mess.
Thanks to the advent of time travel and some truly moronic impetus, Albus and Scorpius set about trying to “fix” the present by preventing events in the past from happening. Most of these centre around trying to save Cedric Diggory by altering the outcome of the Triwizard Tournament from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That means the story is effectively saying it wants to “fix” one of the best books in the series by undercutting the second-most affecting dramatic climax of the whole thing, after Sirius’ death in Order of the Phoenix.
Which would be bad enough a premise on its own, if it weren’t for some simultaneously insulting and pandering fanservice moments peppered throughout. Cursed Child goes out of its way to attempt to satisfy both the shipping/alternate universe crowds and the other veteran fans of the series who just want to, you know, experience a wonderful story. In the attempt, it most definitely succeeds at the former while failing miserably at the latter.
Ron and Hermione are meant to be together, no matter what universe they happen to be in; the play has multiple moments where, even in other timelines where they are with other people, the universe conspires to make sure they end up together. Snape is a paragon of virtue who, though misunderstood, was really a true-hearted hero of a man; his mid-act appearance has Scorpius, a character not even present for the events of the series, recap Snape’s career, extol Snape’s virtues and constantly emphasise how awesome Snape is. Wild fan theories from the ‘shipping crowd had previously thrown around the possibility that Voldemort was Harry’s real father; Cursed Child takes that inspiration to instead say that Voldemort did have a child, but with Bellatrix Lestrange.
Ironically, that last one is both the big twist of the story and the single thing which cripples it entirely. Throughout Cursed Child’s first act, there’s a lot of foreshadowing that Mouldy Voldy might not be entirely dead and could be planning a return. Delphi, who initially masquerades as the niece of Cedric Diggory’s father but is later revealed as Voldemort’s bastard child, is then grandly presented in the middle of the third act as the real villain of the story; all that Voldemort renaissance stuff was a barrel full of red herrings. Delphi unveils herself to the characters, hinting that she may have surpassed her father’s power and could be the most deadly threat the wizarding world has ever faced. Then there’s some time travelling to Godric’s Hollow in the 1980s to prevent Voldemort’s death after killing the Potters, Harry and co. show up and battle Delphi, then…
That’s it. She gets defeated, captured, and thrown in Azkaban. Everyone goes home. History goes back to normal. The end.
What was intended as a tremendously huge plot twist instead becomes a fractional bend which snaps back into place almost as quickly as it happens. It also doesn’t help that Delphi’s absent for most of the story’s second and third acts, with little to no indication that there’s anything to her besides being a Diggory. It also doesn’t help that her casual mention of her parentage, during a villainous monologue which would make Megatron groan in annoyance, was such a jarring, left-field reveal that it literally made me stop and close the book for a minute. The resulting partial aneurysm was not fun.
There’s also no lasting consequences from Albus and Scorpius’ Excellent Adventure. Everything they set out to do gets undone, and there’s only the vaguest indication that Albus and Harry’s conflict has been resolved because of the story’s events; most of their disagreements could’ve been settled with a pot of tea and an honest chat, rather than a J.K.’s Wizarding World production of Back to the Future. By adding little that’s meaningful in any way, Cursed Child just emphasises how ultimately disposable and extraneous it is.
Now, I’m not saying we couldn’t have had a Harry Potter story that exists in its own little bubble. Hell, a plot focusing on a non-Voldemort bad guy who gets defeated over the course of a single story sounds like a fantastic idea in theory, and would serve new fans of the franchise well when they come to see it. But Cursed Child doubles down on how monumental its revelations are, how it recontextualises seven books’ worth of stories you thought you knew. It wants you to know the story is a big deal, that its reveals and twists are huge, that it will linger in your mind whenever you go back to reread the other, better Harry Potter stories.
Thing is, it’s not that big. It’s not even medium-sized. Cursed Child is just an annoying, insulting, utterly meaningless addition to a series that had already been gifted with a solid conclusion. We didn’t need this; I know I certainly didn’t. I could’ve been content to just leave Harry where he was, many years later with no more Voldemort to deal with, living a peaceful, if maybe a bit less exciting, life with his wife and kids. This doesn’t add anything to the larger Harry Potter series the way The Force Awakens did for Star Wars (though with the focus on the kids of Harry Potter's previous main characters, you could be forgiven for thinking it was trying to).
At the end of the day, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child aggravates me. It reads like a story made specifically for the ultra hardcore crowd, but even amongst them I would have to question how well it works. Is it ultimately satisfying that you have your insistence on Ron/Hermione shipping overwhelmingly affirmed by Rowling herself? Do you like the notion of an alternate universe which shows Cedric Diggory would've been a Death Eater had he lived? Can you now feel sated that Snape was given enough accolades on his heroism to his face? For myself, I can’t say I feel any of those things. I'd just like to read something else, now.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is available in bookstores now.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.