My family and I are big Potter fans. One year, my daughter was Hermione for Halloween, and my wife went as Madam Hooch (she had the hat). We’ve also been to Hogwarts and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios, and incorporated our Wizarding World wands into our D&D sessions. Personally, I feel that J.K. Rowling’s epic is without peer, the only fantasy franchise that consistently holds up in terms of storytelling. So, you can see, I wasn’t about to pass up on the “8th installment of the story.” And yet, I was pretty skeptical going into it.
Rowling hasn’t written a Potter book in many years, and I found her last effort, The Deathly Hallows, a bit of a letdown. Clearly, she meant for Hallows to round out the saga. Offering an 8th book felt like a nostalgia trip, or some vain Gilderoy Lockhart-attempt at getting back at the top of everyone’s reading list. Usually, those sorts of things don’t turn out well. Just look at Episode VII, a film fueled entirely by nostalgia, without a crumb of originality or inspiration. If that’s not enough to give one pause, consider the messy situation on the cover. Who, exactly, are John Tiffany and Jack Thorne? Alright, they’re playwrights, but how much of the overall story did they provide? Or did they simply give Rowling help on where to put the margins? More importantly, why is this even a play? I understand JK wanting to do something different, and being a proud Londoner, who wouldn’t care to experiment with theater? But here’s the rub, as Shakespeare put it, screenplays aren’t meant to be read other than by actors.
There is a reason some mediums don’t translate well into others. The Harry Potter books, for instance, make for better reading than watching, even though I greatly enjoyed the films. Still, the directors did what they could to finesse the dense plotting and thickly textured world in every book into roughly 2 1/2 hours running time. They cut whatever plot threads they could, leaving only the essentials, and they used special effects and model-building to bring the world to life. Now, when it comes to turning a screenplay into a novel, you have the opposite problem. Instead of cutting things out, a novelist needs to expand, give us details, to offer—in words—all the costuming and set dressing and stage effects we probably missed not sitting in a theater. When two wizards are having a duel, for instance, we need more than stage direction, we need to feel the action. This is what defines good writing, but screenplays simply aren’t made to provide this, and it’s a damn shame. If JK wanted to have her theatrical cake and eat it too, she needed to put in the effort to write a proper novel. In particular, the whole project is a shame because, unlike Star Wars, this new installment didn’t feel like an unnecessary cash-grab/add on. In fact, Rowling appears to have genuinely found some new inspiration here.
Starting into the Cursed Child, you immediately feel a sense of familiarity with the world and its characters. Despite a sparsity of description, we instantly recognize Harry and Ron and Hermione in the way they talk. We are again treated to some humorous, bumbling-side-kick Ron-moments, and are reminded of Hermione’s no-nonsense, stuffy yet endearing quirks. The Cursed Child also debuts the Potter children, though we are left to guess at the personality of Rose, daughter of Ron and Hermione, and learn almost nothing at all about James or Lily, Harry and Ginny’s kids. The whole story revolves, rather, around Potter’s youngest, Albus Severus Potter, and his best friend, Scorpius, son of Draco Malfoy. While there are flashes, here and there, that remind you of his famous father, Albus is his own person. Scorpius, despite his namesake, is actually quite tame, and not one bit like his dad, Draco.
What interested me most about The Cursed Child was Albus’ having to deal with his father’s legacy, even though, later in the story, his own journey through Hogwarts and the accidental adventures he embarks upon closely mirror those in the first few books. All the while, Harry is forced to deal with his past, as a 40-something father and employee at the Ministry of Magic. Much of the conflict surrounds this father/son dynamic and the miscommunication between them, and after being sorted into Slytherin House, Albus ends up feeling like a failure and a disappointment. Harry tries to steer him clear of the Malfoys, despite Scorpius being his only friend, and is confused when Albus doesn’t view Hogwarts as the magical refuge it was for Harry.
Now, if this sounds too much like a Lifetime drama, not to worry. The story picks up when the boys come across a Time Turner. Now, I’ve long argued JK switched gears halfway through the series, beginning with The Goblet of Fire, after the books became popular with adult readers. Many of the things in the earlier books, things that would otherwise seem absurd in adult fantasy, like giving a Hermione a device to go back in time just to take two classes at once, had to be explained or retconned away. The How-It-Should-Have-Ended YouTube series makes a great point in one of its videos, when Snape uses a Time Turner to go back decades to murder Voldemort as a child. Rowling seems to have realized her mistake by having all the Time Turners destroyed in book five, but she still failed to explain why they were kept in one place, where they came from, how they were built, or why a Death Eater couldn’t have simply made one of his own. I mean, if a schoolgirl can be given one for her studies, they can’t be all that rare. A lot of YouTube critics are lambasting the writer(s) for revisiting time travel in this latest installment, but if you’re going to take Rowling to task, you can’t give her a free pass for inventing them in the first place. Perhaps the problem was nagging at her (I know it would me) which got her to writing this book, because a good three-quarters of it deals with time travel. Cursed Child goes to great lengths, in fact, showing what havoc a Time Turner would cause, and it’s all great fun.
Now without getting too deeply into spoilers (you can stop reading here), I felt the story climaxed too soon, after Albus and Scorpius screw up the timeline enough to create an alternate reality, one in which things are really, really bad, let’s just say Dolores Umbridge bad. After that, the fourth act falls a bit flat. Story aside, a lot of the dialogue tended to get sappy and melodramatic, a remarkable shift from the subtle pathos contained in her earlier works. Consider the 11-year old boy quietly pining over his dead parents before the Mirror of Erised, to a forty-something father going on like this,
HARRY: I shouldn’t have survived—it was my destiny to die—even Dumbledore thought so—and yet I lived. I beat Voldemort. All these people—all these people—my parents, Fred, the Fallen Fifty—and it’s me that gets to live? How is that? All this damage—and it’s my fault.
Honestly, I wanted to slap this guy in the face. You’re a 40 year old wizard, for Dumbledore’s sake! Act like one! And here is the ultimate disappointment, the same disappointment I have with the series as a whole. The least interesting character, for me, has always been Harry himself, because he never takes the initiative. Things just happen to him and he reacts. This might have been acceptable when he was a child, and still learning, but after heading Dumbledore’s Army and mastering the Patronus Charm, I expected him to become the hero, to earn his name in all these titles, but he never lives up to it. Even as a much older man, Harry is inept, a subpar wizard at best. His constant whiny attitude also left me cold during his exchanges with his son. All the while, I found myself unexpectedly touched by Draco, of all people, who seems to have been transformed in Scrooge-like fashion into a pretty swell guy, who laments, at one point, that all he ever really wanted was a friend. Lastly, I feel Rowling lost much of her inventiveness after her sixth book, as there is nothing new to see here—no equivalent of Quidditch or Durmstrang of Chocolate Covered Frogs—to expand our understanding of her wonderful Wizarding World.
All this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. In fact, I found it quite hard to put down, being well told and engaging, with some clever moments and great characters. However, when placed alongside the others in the series, it falls to the bottom. This is the double-edged sword that is following up a much beloved classic, when, like Star Wars, the bar is set to the sky and expectations go unmet.