the fraught relationship between fandom and canon and how we deal with change
Would Harry Potter and the Cursed Child say “Avada Kedavra” to my childhood memories? That’s the greatest source of tension in the newly published script, but it’s not a question easily answered.
It’s particularly difficult to disentangle the credit and culpability in Cursed Child because of the three contributing authors. Playwright Jack Thorne is responsible for the actual text, but he developed the script with director John Tiffany and J.K. Rowling. With her name getting first billing on the cover, it’s hard to digest that Rowling didn’t write the play herself, and for that, the world may never fully forgive her.
Rowling has her flaws as an author. She struggled with dialogue and action set pieces, and she was never the consummate technician. Still, she was a natural-born storyteller who conjured up memorable characters and a world so textured and dense that generations of children (and adults if we’re being honest) still are waiting on their invitations to Hogwarts. It certainly was the seminal text for my generation and myself, and thus it carries a fraught relationship with such an invested, entrenched fandom.
Few readers were ever going to be totally, purely happy with a script written by Thorne when they could have had a novel by Rowling. People have been playing Legos with the world’s building blocks, imagining and writing their own fan fiction. So they were always going to have complicated feelings about a story when they feel they have more ownership over a text for 9 years than the author herself (Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl captured this dichotomy famously). With Rowling’s frequent updates on website Pottermore, the comparisons to George Lucas’ prequel trilogies and his much-derided updates to the original were inevitable. Consequently, Cursed Child feels like a war against the franchise itself, whether fair or not. The plot to me was never about a boy trying to change the past or to reconcile with his famous father, it was always the writer and fan’s own conflict with the Harry Potter canon.
What’s at stake isn’t lives but the biggest possible retcon job. Would seven of the most beloved books of all time survive a new writer, a new format, and time travel?
Ultimately, I did enjoy myself, but not without several massive helpings of dismay. The ambitions and limitations of a play are entirely different from a novel, and it’s a shame to miss out on Rowling’s buoyant Dahl-esque prose. Instead we jump straight into the action and the plot along with it, a raft of poorly sketched out character motivations. Harry Potter’s son Albus is now a Slytherin, and he’s full of teenage angst about his father and his inability to fit in at Hogwarts. Both are well-trodden but thematically rich paths, but Thorne never gives us a chance to settle in and breathe. He blitzes forward in time with little to no set up. All of a sudden, Albus is best friends with Draco Malfoy’s spawn Scorpio, quickly ditching the needed female presence of Rose Granger-Weasley, daughter of guess who.
The problem is that audience sympathies lie with our trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. The deck is already stacked against him and Thorne burns that deck instead. He gives us a protagonist who rebuffs that trio (even if Rose is a bit of a prat) for the enemy. In a story about time, we never get enough time to meet and appreciate Albus aside from his kindness to Scorpio. Nor are we afforded the opportunity to see the specific tensions that come with being born in your father’s shadow or older brother James’ (who is altogether and mysteriously missing along with younger sister Lily). To borrow an old writer’s axiom, the play needs to “show, don’t tell.” Pretty soon Albus, Scorpio, and the older Delphi are hatching schemes to steal a Time-Turner to correct past tragedies for reasons that are utterly suspect.
So for the first half, we’re saddled with an unlikable Albus and the annoyingly cheerful ditz Scorpio, who in the script’s first half reads like the most Freudian possible departure from his own father issues until the character finally settles into a more balanced groove. Obstacles are breezed by and motivations baffle, so much so that you can see Thorne wrenching the story in place to fit his overstuffed plot rather than letting the reverse happen organically. Because this is a Harry Potter story, there will be plot twists borne of a few of these discrepancies, but the reader should never attribute them to the author’s possibly poor writing.
Thankfully Harry and Hermione show up with ample screen time as warm and comforting presences, but Ron continues to get a retroactive character assassination that began with the movies. If you go back and reread the originals he was a flawed but fierce friend and a clever wizard in his own right, not the bumbling oaf he’s more recently been portrayed as.
As for the plot, you start to appreciate the particular difficulties of a script trying to cram that much story into a 2-hour run time instead of a 600-page tome. Character development naturally falls by the wayside. I’ve also had a long and conflicted relationship with time travel plots (read: bad relationship). Quite simply, the ability to fully flesh out the consequences and the entangled causality of the tiniest of actions has always been massively difficult and rarely achieved; your mileage may vary. Rowling herself admitted she hadn’t thought out the full consequences of introducing Time-Turners in Prisoners of Azkaban, one of the few but characteristic flaws of her incredible worldbuilding. She was always more worried about the texture and details than the ramifications. Thorne isn’t able to overcome my suspension of disbelief either, and this is in a script wherein I accept a magical train and transformative potions without question.
However, Cursed Child does begin to pick up markedly in pace and quality in the second half, boring forward on sheer momentum like the Hogwarts Express. Character development actually occurs and if there are ludicrous plot holes, they’re swiftly rushed past in a feverish, engaging plot. Sometimes the more interesting thematic elements like questions of free will and destiny crop up, but they’re quickly left behind in the narrative dust.
It’s during this portion that we get to see the Harry Potter canon upended, characters vanishing and returning, relationships shattered and reforged. The fan part of me hoped for the status quo while the critical part of me questioned the validity of these changes and cameos. It both reads as an act of fan-service to see old, beloved faces and fan-torture that our memories can be so easily erased. If Star Wars could do it with the Expanded Universe, it could be done here as well. If you were J.K. Rowling, wouldn’t you be tempted to go back and fix some of your mistakes?
I was more than mildly curious then that the story would give two of the biggest retcon jobs that fans have been demanding for years. They’ve been pushing for a romantic relationship (called “shipping”) between Harry and Hermione forever, and Rowling has confessed to believing the two should have ended up together. She did in fact allude to her own complicated past with the person whom the character Ron is based off of and all the ways she personally had to outgrow that. If that’s not amazing fodder for the armchair pop psychologist in you, check your pulse because you may be dead. Ditto for the Albus-Scorpio relationship that reads like the possibly gay (“slash fiction”) do-over for the unconsummated Harry-Draco relationship. Like Frodo and Sam, I kept wondering when they would just get it over with and kiss.
Rowling has both received praise and criticism for revealing way late in the game that Dumbledore is gay, and I wondered if this was her long-awaited response. But if the romances and textual criticism were a bigger focus of mine than the intended themes, I wonder if that says more about Thorne’s writing or my role as a fan and reader.
Does Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ruin my memories of the original? Quite frankly, no, just as Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards comeback doesn’t occlude his six championships with the Bulls. We can bury it in the collective consciousness and never use a Pensieve to dredge it back up. I was simply grateful to spend a little more time in the company of old friends, even if they inevitably hadn’t aged as well as I’d hoped.
As a perceived outsider entering our world with his wand-of-change blazing, Cursed Child is the story of a reader Jack Thorne and whether he loves Harry Potter as much as the audience does. I can’t begin to surmise Thorne’s true feelings, but that’s irrelevant. He was never going to love it as much or as skillfully as we think he should.