Wednesday Reviews: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I had hoped to post this last week to capitalize on the post-release buzz, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to (binge) read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in time to get a post up. So this will have to do.

I’m going to give you a nice, clear warning now: there will be spoilers in this post. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want spoilers, stop reading now. If you really want my opinion, but in a spoiler-free manner, scroll down to the end of this post for a safe summary of my opinion. You’ll know when you get there because I’ll put a big “END OF SPOILERS” sign down there for you.

I try to be a nice person.

Starting after this paragraph, there will be spoilers; if you read something here that you didn’t want to read, you’ve been warned sufficiently. I don’t think there’s any way I could be more obvious with my spoiler tags.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is, as you must already know, not a novel, but a script for the two-part, four act play currently running in the West End. It picks up with the end of the seventh novel, with the opening scene retelling the epilogue. But with the noticeable absence of even a mention of Teddy Lupin, for some reason, despite the fact that the novel states that he was, essentially, Harry’s child. But most of the scene remains the same. After that scene we head into unfamiliar territory. Albus Potter is the main character here — in fact, James, Jr. is barely in the show at all, and Lily’s only appearance is in the opening scene. Rose Granger-Weasley is a minor character, and Hugo isn’t mentioned at all. Scorpius Malfoy, however, is a main character, interestingly enough. And, honestly, he’s kind of great, and felt at times a bit more of a main character than Albus did. Albus is also pretty angsty and such, so he’s less sympathetic, in my opinion. As far as other characters, the main gang is back — Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny, of course, as well as Professors McGonnagal and Snape, and Dumbledore’s painting. Neville is mentioned but not shown. Luna is, sadly, entirely absent. As is George Weasley — apparently Ron now runs the joke shop, though I don’t recall that being the case in the books. I thought he was supposed to become an Auror with Harry.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Harry Potter story without Voldemort showing up at some point.

Yo.

And there are other familiar faces scattered about. Cedric Diggory, Ludo Bagman, Professor Umbridge, Bane the centaur. It’s quite an eclectic cast.

Now, if you’re reading this without having read the book, you’re certainly wondering how that’s possible, when so many of these characters are dead. And that can be summed up in two words.

Time travel.

Which is one of the things that keeps this from fully realizing its potential as a Harry Potter story.

Now, I like time travel stories. I’m a fan of Doctor Who, and Back to the Future, and all that stuff. Time travel is fun. And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban utilized it quite well. But that was over the span of a few hours. Here we get decades of time travel. Which works in science fiction, but not so well in fantasy. While it’s certainly interesting to see the consequences of mucking about with time, some of them don’t make sense in spite of that fact. Now, the first time they go back, the consequences do make a little bit of sense. Not much, but a little — that Hermione not going to the ball with Krum led to her going as friends with Ron whereupon he ultimately ended up with Padma Patil instead of her. I call shenanigans but ok. The second time though, that’s a little stranger. We’re supposed to believe that embarrassing Cedric during the Triwizard Tournament would make him eventually turn into a dark wizard who kills Neville before Neville can kill Nagini, and as such Voldemort wins and the world goes to shit. I… don’t quite see that. I like the idea and presentation of a timeline in which Voldemort wins, but the event that triggers it, not so much. Of note is Snape, Hermione, and Ron working as the last members of the Order of the Phoenix/Dumbledore’s Army, with Snape still playing his role as double agent. Although the vibe I get from these scenes is not unlike the flashbacks to the war in Firefly. It doesn’t feel like something that belongs in Harry Potter.

The third time they go back is much better, though, because they’re aware of how their actions in the past will impact the future. So I don’t much have an issue there, and there is a really powerfully emotional scene that takes place there.

One of the things that I had a little trouble with was the writing quality. It’s important to remember that Rowling did not actually write the plays, but merely provided the story. And it’s noticeable, at times. It’s difficult enough to tell a story entirely in dialog, but trying to do that while keeping the tone the same as an established and beloved series is infinitely harder. The writing here definitely does not feel on par with the rest of the series, which was honestly a bit disappointing. Though I suppose as a writer I might be more attuned to this than other readers might be. Regardless, it’s something to be aware of, for sure, and I would have liked to have some warning in advance.

Oh also Albus is in Slytherin. A Potter in Slytherin, oh no! Feels a bit like forced controversy, to be honest. Everyone in a family doesn’t have to be in the same house, but forcibly bucking the trend for the sake of drama feels like lazy writing.

There are also a few inconsistencies and downright stupid ideas. First off, the Trolley Witch. What in the name of Rowena Ravenclaw (#housepride) was up with that? Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put a damn Terminator in a Harry Potter play?

Pumpkin Pasties? Chocolate Frogs?

Then there’s an issue in the climactic battle, that probably isn’t too big for other readers but has left me baffled. When does Harry get his wand back? When does Albus get a wand? Because Harry was disarmed and was trying not to get smashed until he had an opening to start firing spells… with a wand he never got back. Meanwhile, Albus’ wand was flat out snapped in half, and somehow he used it to unlock the doors everyone was locked behind. Also why couldn’t they unlock the doors themselves? Does Alohomora not work from the inside? Curiouser and curiouser.

And talking about writing issues, let’s talk about Delphi. There’s some lazy writing here, for sure. She starts out as a character with some potential. She’s likable, she fits well as a third member of the team consisting of Albus and Scorpius, and it’s fun to read scenes with her. That said, she’s also a bit more of a plot device than a character, at first. And then she falls into a mess of tropes that weaken her as a character in a number of ways, not least of which being that she has a few of the symptoms associated with being a Mary Sue. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

See, while her reveal as the Big Bad is unexpected, it’s also not particularly well done. Because there was no real set-up for her. It’s written in a way that it feels like there are clues, but when you really look at it, it’s hindsight and not foreshadowing. There is some rather clever wordplay involved, though, so at least she’s got that going for her.

For those interested: her name comes from the Greek city of Delphi, known primarily for its oracle. So she’s associated already with prophecy and omens. Then there’s the augurey, which she has tattooed and which is also her name in the apocalyptic timeline, though we don’t know that until later. The augurey is both a bird and an omen, and the name derives from “augury,” which is an omen foretold by an “augur,” which is a seer. Now, maybe if you were already aware of what an augurey was, you could have pieced her identity together before getting the last piece of information (her tattoo) as confirmation. The first result in a Google search for “augurey” is the Harry Potter Wiki, and I can find no source which mentions it as being anything other than a creature from the series. Its only appearances prior to Cursed Child are in two video games as a trading card and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book. So only the most hardcore fans would have had a chance at making the connection, and only if they also knew their Greek history. As it stands, the reveal was unfounded and a bit forced, though in the heat of the moment you don’t realize that. She’s a weak villain regardless, though, because she has nothing particularly unique about her motivations. She wants to bring back Voldemort and bring about hell on Earth. Woo. So special.

Oh she’s also Voldemort’s daughter, so I guess that’s unique. Also overplayed. How many villains have turned out to be related to a defeated villain and have wanted to carry on their work and/or bring back their predecessor? Looking at you, Kylo Ren.

Now here’s where things get a little hairy.

I don’t want to say Delphi is entirely a Mary Sue. But she has many of the aspects that make her come across as though she is. She’s suddenly the daughter of one of the most important characters in the series. She’s more powerful than any of the other characters and can do things they can’t — such as flying without a broom, which only Voldemort could ever do. She’s not very likely to be a self-insert, but she does tick a couple of the boxes, and that doesn’t sit very well with me. If I’m reading something and a character hits on many overplayed tropes like this, and they’re also not shown to have any flaws, as a real person or realistic character would, well, you can see where my judgement comes from.

Ok, she’s evil, but within the category of evil she doesn’t seem to have any flaws. And while she’s  not a whole lot different from Voldemort in a lot of respects, he was more of a threat, because he tried and failed more than once and still didn’t give up. His flaws were hubris and tenacity. Delphi? She would absolutely have accomplished her goal if Albus and Scorpius hadn’t been able to get the gang there in time. She was a threat, but she was too perfect a threat, and that made her feel like a poorly written character.

I promise, there are good things about the book.

In fact, there are a few things it does really well, such as adding some much needed character development to an older character that didn’t really get much. I’m talking about Draco Malfoy

Yep, this guy.

In the original books, Draco was basically a one-note bully, until the very end, where his only development, really, was that he was uncomfortable with following Voldemort’s orders. He didn’t want to kill Dumbledore, he didn’t want to join the Death Eaters at the Battle of Hogwarts. He was a bad guy, but he wasn’t that bad. But he didn’t really get much else. In Cursed Child, though, we get a lot of growth from him. He still snipes at Harry and the others, to be sure, but he also becomes a pretty sympathetic character, and you can see where his attacks are coming from, and why he is the way he is. It’s actually really interesting, and Draco was one of my favorite characters here, surprisingly enough. I kind of really want to see more stories where he goes on some sort of adventure working together with Harry while Ron takes jabs at him with Hermione trying to rein her husband in. There’s a lot of potential for that to be awesome, and as fun as Scorpius is, and as much as I like the dynamics between him and Albus, I’d much rather see a Harry/Draco team up.

One last thing I’d like to touch on before I wrap this up. I’ve heard complaint that Harry wouldn’t have become the father he did, that he was supposed to have a happy ending and everything was supposed to be ok. And I’ve heard people say that the play shouldn’t have dealt with things like parenting and whatnot. But here’s the thing. I don’t see any evidence that Harry isn’t happy. He has problems to deal with, sure, but don’t we all? It’s certainly possible to be happy while at the same time having problems to solve. Hell, I’m pretty happy right now, despite whatever issues I might have with my health or the direction my life has gone. I may want a better job and to get back to school, but despite all that, I’m doing ok. As far as dealing with the parenting issues and such, it’s not like those themes weren’t present in the novels, but they were more subtle. But the thing about a play is that you have everything being driven by dialog in a relatively short period of time. You don’t have seven novels to build relationships and subtly include major complex themes. You have to be overt and blunt, because you can’t waste the time on hinting and hoping people get the point. Also, in my opinion, I think the target demographic here was not necessarily children, but people who grew up with the series and are now old enough to understand the themes. They weren’t so obvious in the books because those themes aren’t aimed for children. Parents and older readers can pick them up, but the story isn’t damaged if you don’t get them.




END OF SPOILERS

My final verdict here is that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is good, but not great. I can certainly see what it wanted to do, but there are way too many problems that kept if from getting there, and unfortunately, the less-than-stellar quality of the writing isn’t the worst of it. It’s not all bad, of course; it’s great to see some familiar faces after all this time, and even better to see the amount of development some of them get. And remember, for better or worse, that this is now canon, which means that the character development is also canon. It’s worth reading for that alone, in my opinion.

The fact that we’ll probably never see another Harry Potter story beyond this one is rather sad; there’s a lot of potential for going beyond this, and Cursed Child really doesn’t feel like a good way to end the series, especially given how perfect the ending of Deathly Hallows was. So for my part, while I appreciate some of what Cursed Child tried to do, I think I’ll relegate it to “bonus track” status and leave the rest of the series pure.

But you can be damn sure I’ll still try to get tickets if it ever comes to New York.

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