MAJOR SPOILERS FOR HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD AHEAD. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
There’s been a mixed reaction amongst fans in the days after the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The four-act, two-part play centers around Albus Severus Potter, who is proving to be the most controversial member of the Weasley-Potter family. The play explores Albus’ early years at Hogwarts with his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy (gasp). The two find themselves in over their heads when they decide to meddle with time and prevent the tragedy of Cedric Diggory’s death. Why? I’m still not really sure. Mostly they’re a couple of rich kids with famous parents looking for kicks, it seems. The puppetmaster behind this contrived plot is a mysterious young woman named Ebony Darkness Raven — uh, I mean, Delphini “Delphi” Diggory. She claims to be the cousin of the late Cedric and requests help from the young Potter and Malfoy before ultimately revealing herself to be the child of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange, bent on resurrecting her father.
Yes. You just read that.
Mixed into all this are some serious dynamic misfires as Harry struggles to connect with his youngest son; Hermione proves she’s possibly the most irresponsible Minister for Magic ever; and Albus and Scorpius have a lovely Romeo and Juliet story complete with a massive "no homo" at the end, because yes, even Harry Potter is capable of queerbaiting.
So, assuming you don’t just take all that at face value, what’s really wrong with this show? All these issues can be summed up in one easy sentence: Mr. Jack Thorne has a severe misreading of what legacy, family, good, and evil mean in the world of Harry Potter. This is like a bad fanfic written by that guy who joined the fandom at the end of the last season of that show when everyone else was already six seasons deep. Thorne’s narrative has an insatiable desire to take and present everything as literally as possible. And I get it: it’s the stage, we don’t have room for all the nuances and intricacies of a 700-page novel. But... then maybe don’t do it? Maybe taking a book that is so ingrained with meaning and purposeful prose and turning it into a medium that functions on shallow renditions of stories wasn’t exactly the smartest move.
So let’s start big because my nitpicking is going to be ENDLESS. The overall theme of the play seems to be the disconnect between generational divides and the dangers of a legacy. The script takes this very, very literally. So literally, in fact, that the representation of Voldemort’s legacy had to be a biological child. The script assumes that offspring are the most important — and most dangerous — footprint someone could leave during their time in life. Harry struggles to control his own legacy, and therefore his narrative, by forcing his way into Albus’ life and diverting his wildly rebellious tendencies to... make friends. Young Albus finds himself crushed under the weight of his father’s fame and expectations and finds solace in young Scorpius Malfoy, who is likewise feeling the effects of famous parents, though his struggle has more to do with the rumor that it was actually Voldemort who fathered him. ‘kay.
The worst offender in all this is Delphi. Though she was raised by the Rowles and likely instilled with pureblood propaganda and bigotry, her main concern is her biological connection to Voldemort and the circumstances of her birth that premeditate her destiny. There’s also a prophecy in here somewhere about the Dark Lord returning and blah, blah, blah. The point is: the dangerous thing about Voldemort was how much he was able to do on his own and how he was able to convince armies of followers to kill and torture in his name without an ounce of personal connection to them. In fact, he killed his own father and utilized the Gaunts solely for the purpose of retrieving the Peverell ring. After that, he changed his name and very happily kept the world at arm’s length. Voldemort and his followers functioned as the dark side of a “found family,” people he collected and manipulated. His ideology and cult of personality lived on after his supposed death and those who sought to return him to the world did it out of fear and loyalty. A familial connection was never needed and cheapened their actions. They killed for him because they wanted to, not because genetics and accident of birth dictated it.
Speaking of found families. Harry makes a comment early in the script that his deficiencies as a father result from his own lack of father on whom to base his parenting. Excuse me? Sirius? Lupin? Dumbledore? Arthur Weasley? Any of these men ring a bell? They all served as father figures and confidants to Harry over the years. But of course it’s his lack of biological father that makes it impossible to figure out how to connect with his own son. Never mind the fact that Harry’s own interaction with his biological family was nothing but years of abuse and neglect that prompted him to say once while leaving Hogwarts for the Dursleys: “I’m not going home. Not really.” He considered his family and home at Hogwarts, with the Weasleys, Hermione, and the Order of the Phoenix. So why then would he suddenly find fault in his status as an orphan because he never had a biological father? Thorne forgot a massively crucial part to the way in which Harry formed relationships (and, you know, where he spent every single holiday). And it’s not just Harry, found family’s are a running theme with several characters: Sirius and the Potters, Snape and Lily, Lupin and the Order, and so on. In fact, I’d hazard to say there’s a running motif, if not an entire theme, of characters finding solace in non-biological loved ones.
Thorne also takes a literal approach to the concepts of good and evil. To be fair, one of the failings of the series is its sometimes black and white moral painting of characters (the Slytherins being forced to leave during the Battle of Hogwarts, for example). It course-corrects though when you have characters like Snape and Wormtail. But Harry finds himself enraged at his son getting mixed up with the likes of Scorpius Malfoy. Considering how Harry went through several years of psychological torture and fear that he would somehow find himself walking down a similar path as Voldemort, you’d think he’d be more keen to not judge a book by its relation to possible dark wizards. After all, “it is not how you are alike, it is how you are not alike” wasn’t said for nothing.
THE PROBLEM WITH CHARACTERIZATION
Let’s shift gears then into the complete abuse and mishandling of characters. And there’s a big one in particular I’m looking at. Virtually everyone is written out-of-character with Harry’s extremely poor parenting, Ginny’s complete lack of presence, Ron’s relegation as the play’s butt monkey, Malfoy’s barely-there presence, and Snape’s complete fanfic makeover. But, the entire plot of the play hinges on the possibility of something that would never, in eight bagillion years, happen: Voldemort having a child. Tom Riddle is a demented sociopath. By sixteen he’d already murdered his Muggle family and the student who became Moaning Myrtle. He’d also already fashioned himself a name and taken on future Death Eaters, all the while searching for ways to split his soul into seven pieces and live forever. The man was crazy before he was even done going through puberty. And if we take it back further: poor Tom was the unwitting result of a Love Potion, and, as a result, was incapable of feeling love or human connection. Couple that with years growing up in a poor orphanage coupled with strange and sadistic tricks played on his fellow orphans and you have yourself the making of a wizard serial killer.
Voldemort preferred to operate alone because there was no one he ever considered his equal. The closest he had to a friend and peer was Severus Snape, as he saw traits and a history similar to his own, and thus willingly provided favors and honors to him. But, ultimately, he still killed Snape without a second thought and walked away without remorse. Further, he experienced true rage at the death of his “last, best lieutenant” Bellatrix Lestrange but rebuffed any and all of her attempts to act as more than his willing and most devoted servant. Voldemort was not made for physical or emotional intimacies and found them distractions for people beneath him. He scorned and laughed at Harry’s love and friendship. This is a man who intended to live forever and would need no children to carry on his work.
So why would he EVER father a child?
There’s also the logistical question here. When did Bellatrix have time to be pregnant for nine months and deliver a baby before the Battle of Hogwarts? ("She did not" is the answer.)
TIME TRAVEL IS REALLY HARD TO WRITE ABOUT
To get started on the time travel or not? We’ve seen this narrative before: the dangers of time travel and abusing your ability to act on your regret. And that’d be a good narrative since Rowling pretty much sidestepped those landmines when she destroyed all the Time Turners in the fifth book. However, this script doesn’t seek to really scold the time travelers for the meddling. Instead, we use more time travel to fix the first time travel hiccup. Because... that’s how the butterfly effect works.
The last point I want to add in here before I bid adieu to this book and likely never open it again: the most unexpected part of it all was the very obvious queerbaiting. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, queerbaiting refers to the coding of characters as queer without ever acknowledging it or outright revealing it to the audience. Depending on your own opinions and even shipping allegiances, what is and isn’t queerbaiting is very subjective. But the relationship between Albus and Scorpius is certainly a contender in that debate.
These two young fellows find themselves as each other’s only friends in the world. Despite the fame of their parents, popularity hasn’t really seemed to find them and they lack the wider friendship network of Harry and Draco. This bond is only strengthened when Harry warns his son to stay away from Scorpius, even going as far as employing the use of the Marauder’s Map to spy on his activities at Hogwarts. Then, when all seems lost and the world is truly tearing our youngsters apart, Snape (who is alive in an alternative reality) equates Scorpius and Albus’ relationship to that of his with Lily, possibly the most tragically romantic dynamic in any of the seven books. There is even a stage direction in one of Delphi’s early scenes highlighting Scorpius’ dislike at seeing Albus with a girl.
But all this is swept under the rug at the end when Scorpius gets the nerve to ask out Rose Granger-Weasley to very heterosexual pats on the back from his dear friend Albus. To most readers and viewers these will seem like the typical narrative. But to a large majority, the compulsive heterosexuality and heteronormativity of these characters is going to be pretty appalling coming from a childhood hero. Though many have pointed out the reveal that Dumbledore was gay and only skating over the nature of his relationship with Grindelwald was an instance of the same thing, it does suck to find in 2016, in a Harry Potter story, we’re still forced to stomach a censored relationship between two members of the same sex.
I suppose I should be asking: what did I want to get out of The Cursed Child? And, honestly, I’m not sure. Something with Rowling’s stamp on it, I’d hoped, would breed a lot more care for the characters, themes, and plots. The fascinating thing is, while we sat in a circle and read the play aloud, all my friends commented on how much they’d love a Marauders story or something to do with Snape and Dumbledore’s 17-year plotting and espionage. We don’t care to hand this story off to another generation. Lovely as all these children are, the offspring of the Potters and Grangers and Weasleys will never interest me the way Harry and his friends did. Even though Harry and I are both grown at this point, I find myself, in the turmoil of young adulthood, turning back to Hogwarts for more reasons than I can list in one post.
Trying to recapture lightning in a bottle never ends well. And it leaves one wondering: did J.K. Rowling not really know how mangled the story was? Did she simply not care enough to know? It might be too far to say there is a sense of betrayal in all this, but there certainly are a lot of questions. Perhaps it’s just an instance of your childhood hero finally disappointing you and a lesson that nothing is infallible or truly immortal.
But at least we still have Fantastic Beasts to look forward to.