After much anticipation, the next, and final, Harry Potter story has come to our homes and our hearts. The original screenplay is a magical array of old and new faces, following the children of great legacies and their struggle to escape the shadows of their family’s past. And, of course, in the heart of the story is a mystery in true Rowling style.
Is this new Harry Potter tale worth the read? Was producing a screenplay and leaving it in the hands of novel readers and global directors a wise move? The following review is spoiler-free but assumes readers have some working knowledge of the Potter universe.
It’s been nine years since I closed the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Part of me had always secretly hoped there would be more to come from the wizarding world, but a larger part hoped that this would truly be the end of the saga. Resurrected franchises have almost always disappointed fans with unfulfilled expectations, broken canon, and thinly veiled schemes of dragging more money out of spectators. I didn’t want to see that tragedy befall Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was an enjoyable read but teetered dangerously on realizing these fears. There are some interesting, rather brilliant moves on Rowling’s part in this new form of Potter’s life, but with them come certain limitations.
When I first heard that the newest Harry Potter book would come in the form of a script book, I was excited. I love reading script books, a product (or instigator?) of my eight years working with theater production as a lighting designer combined with my much-beloved playwriting practicums in college. Add to the fact that I am an unashamed member of the Harry Potter generation (Go Ravenclaw!), and you can see where this excitement came from.
If you’re not familiar with reading script books, Rowling’s choice of medium may be difficult to navigate. The story is more of a guided outline for consumers to use rather than an immersive tapestry of prose. Dialogue is essential in a script book, but an actor is needed to truly bring those words to life. Characters are, likewise, going to appear flat in a script book without an actor’s unique performance to round out their lines. No dialogue tags or pretty prose can assist its interpretation. With that being said, the halting, more realistic conversations amongst the characters is distracting in book form. There are, however, two brilliant things Rowling accomplishes by putting her next HP installment in this form.
There’s a lot of pressure for any writer to make your next book as good as your last, if not better. For the creator of Harry Potter, the expectations and astronomical hype from her fan base is unfathomable. Nothing she writes now in the HP universe will ever be as good as the original series. The fans just expect too much. By moving her stories into new mediums—a script book for Cursed Child, a movie for Fantastic Beasts—Rowling has removed almost all credibility of comparison. She hasn’t just leveled the playing field between Cursed Child and The Sorcerer’s Stone, she’s changed fields completely. There’s no prose, no chapter structure, no exposition or manipulation of tone in the narrative—it’s completely different. You can’t compare this book to Harry Potter as equals because they’re different species.
I think it’s brilliant move on her part.
The other incredible feature of bringing Harry Potter to the stage is the implied role of the
director. Much of the magic in any play is a result of the director’s vision. As a playwright, you have to balance structuring the scene’s concept and allowing room for the director’s artistic vision. When reading a script book, the reader becomes the director of their own vision of the wizarding world. JK Rowling has invited us all to participate in her world through this new medium. The stage directions will read “this is chaos, this is magic,” and it’s then your duty to determine what that means in your wizarding vision.The story of Cursed Child becomes a participatory adventure for both reader and audiences alike.
In the play we follow Albus Severus Potter, Harry’s middle child (it’s always middle children) as he struggles to live up to the three great names he carries. Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, and his father The Boy Who Lived himself each leave a vastly different legacy, and it’s a lot to live up to as an unremarkable, unpopular Hogwarts student. The cast is full of familiar surnames and exciting cameos from our old friends. (It’s fun to see Professor Longbottom and hear Ginny threaten Harry with telling her mum—no one wants the wrath of Mrs. Weasley, not even the Chosen One.) Rowling truly plays to the hearts of her fans in how she displays her cast—perhaps even too pandering towards them—but the story itself is written in such a way that someone who hasn’t read the series could understand and enjoy the tale. They won’t get the emotional battery the rest of us receive at certain points, but they won’t come out unscathed, either.
The intended audience for the play is the HP Generation and older. Sure, children can enjoy the story and nothing is darker or more risqué than what you’d find in the original series, but the sense of wonder that drives the original stories for children has been replaced by the aching distance between a struggling parent and his lonely son. The title of the play itself, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, can be interpreted to indicate a number of potential cursed children. Albus carries the weight of his heroic father, just as Scorpius lives in the shadow of the Malfoy name. Harry himself will never escape the curse of being The Boy Who Lived, and there are others still who could be seen as cursed children that play a large role in the story, both on and off set.
Some of the humor is a little cruder than what you’d find in the original series, but again, the story is pointed at an older audience. It feels like Rowling is pandering to her fans in some of the story veins, including some good-natured head nods to Harry’s use of the “my parents are dead” card (he’s forty years old now, come on man) and the questionable match between Ron and Hermione. The story is in full-swing by the end of Part One, but up to that point some of the scenes feel more like an ode to fan fic long past than the continuation of Harry’s story. The issue of time turners and their role in history appear throughout the events in the play, but its use feels more like a copout for writing a 100% original storyline. Without getting into spoilers, let’s just say some story elements and motivations are improbable and directly contradict the original characters.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a wonderful story that, while it probably won’t be included in my rotations of rereads, has definitely sparked my eagerness to see the play if it ever comes to Broadway. Reading the stage directions, I can’t imagine the production needed to pull off this play. I don’t think I small theater could do this justice. Everyone must be on wires at all times, just in case a curse or a broom takes them away into the electrics. The book itself is a quick read because of the quick dialogue and short scenes, but I wonder how all the scene changes affect the play’s pacing in front of a live audience. If done inefficiently, it could kill the story. The only way to avoid Cursed Child feeling choppy is to have tight transitions playing off the scenes’ terse beats.
Some critiques have called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a disappointment of fan-fiction ramblings, but I disagree for the most part. I was a little disappointed that the storyline wasn’t more original, and that Albus Severus seems to just be a reincarnation of his father. The biggest failure of the newest Harry Potter book is advertising it as the eighth installment of the saga instead of publishing it as a stand-alone story. If had been marketed as such, some of the waywardness of plot and characters could be more easily forgiven. But the jacket reads, “The eighth story. Nineteen years later.”
Oh well, here’s to waiting eagerly to buy my Broadway ticket.