Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (2016)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - the play based on an original story by a team which includes J.K. Rowling  - has been met with a lot of criticism since its publication just over one month ago. Curiosity was my main motivation for putting it on hold at the library, and when it came in this past week, I read through it in just two sittings. The plot centers on the relationship between Harry Potter (now in his early 40s) and his son, Albus. Act One opens with a scene adapted from the epilogue in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Albus is about to head to Hogwarts for the first time and worries that he might be placed in Slytherin. The rest of the play takes that question - what if Harry Potter's son was in Slytherin? - and runs with it.

There are spoilers beyond this point. Proceed with caution.

I was not as disappointed by this play as others seem to be. I think it helped that I had almost no expectations. I knew it was a play, not a novel, and that Rowling only collaborated on the story, not on the script, and I didn't have it in my head that it was going to be as good as the original books. (I'm a little surprised to see reviewers around the Internet whose chief complaint is that this isn't a novel. No one said it was.) There were several things I especially liked:
  • The friendship between Albus and Scorpius. These two characters are largely blank slates at the end of Deathly Hallows, so there was real room to develop them. The authors do a good job of this, and their personalities and connection to each other are 100 percent believable.  Despite some strange detours, this play is really their story, and in the moments where it really focuses on them, the plot is at its strongest.
  • The juxtaposition between Harry's Hogwarts experience and his son's. Harry having a son who is privileged enough to feel disdainful toward Hogwarts creates such an interesting dynamic, and it allows us to see a more human side of Harry than many of the original books show. Even The Boy Who Lived doesn't have all the answers.
  • Dumbledore. Even though he's just a painting, I felt so comforted when Dumbledore appeared, just as I did whenever he came on the scene in the original seven books. To have him and Harry look back on past events and talk about them as two adults really appealed to me. 
  • The appearance of other beloved characters. Because there is a major time travel element in this play (Albus and Scorpius go back in time to try to save Cedric Diggory and accidentally alter the future a few times), we get to see Snape as he would have been if he and Voldemort had both lived. And in the present, Professor McGonagall is still at Hogwarts, and Hermione is the Minister of Magic, both of which are very fitting.
Basically, I loved the nostalgic elements. I loved being back in the Harry Potter universe and checking in old friends. But - this play has some serious issues. Here's what doesn't work:
  • Delphi. This girl claims to be a Diggory cousin, but actually turns out to be Voldemort's lovechild with Bellatrix Lestrange. There is nothing about this that is in any way believable based on what we learned about these characters in the books. Absolutely nothing. Delphi feels like a fanfiction character, and every detail surrounding her made me roll my eyes. 
  • Ron. Ron is my favorite character from the original series, and I have always been irritated by fanfiction stories that depict him as constantly hungry, clueless, and/or drunk. It really disappoints me that Rowling herself has allowed this to happen in a work with her name on it. In book 7, when he destroys that Horcrux, Rowling herself proves to readers that there is more to Ron than meets the eye. And in this play, she puts him in charge of a joke shop and turns him into a punchline. I expected better.
  • The prophecy. There is a ridiculous new prophecy in this book that foretells the return of Voldemort "When spares are spared." The wording of the prophecy sounds inauthentic, and because it comes out of nowhere, it is even less believable than Delphi herself.
  • Harry watching the murder of his parents. There is a point toward the end of the play, where Harry is in Godric's Hollow on the night Lily and James died, and he stands there and watches it happen. I am assuming this scene is included because it's such an iconic moment in the series as a whole, but I had a hard time understanding Harry's motivation for watching them die. It felt like a cheap way to manipulate viewers/readers into feeling bad for Harry, and nothing more.
Haley at Carrots for Michaelmas wrote a great post last week entitled Why You Needn't Bother with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. She makes a lot of excellent points, but the one that stuck with me was this: "While I will defend the story of the series to the death, statements Rowling has made lead me to wonder whether she really understands why the books are so good. I hope she does, but it’s possible that she wrote the books without realizing their genius." I think this gets at the heart of why this play is disappointing to so many readers. It feels like we see more in this universe than Rowling does, that we care more about preserving its integrity than she does. I would argue that either she truly does not understand the genius of the original series, or worse, she simply doesn't respect it. Part of me feels like if she did respect the series as the fans do, she would never have bothered to put her name on this frivolous script. 

In the end, I have decided not to think of this story as the definitive answer to "what really happens" after the series ends. The epilogue is open-ended enough that nearly anything could have happened next, and this play represents only one possibility. It's too bad that Rowling feels this option should be the definitive one, but that's her problem. Nothing in the play changes the books for me - it just makes me think less of Rowling as a writer. I don't regret having read it, but I do hope people are going into it with their eyes wide open, realizing that this is very much not the eighth Harry Potter book. 

1 comment:

  1. I love your thoughts on the book. I was another who was disappointed with it because of the lack of consistency and authenticity to the series. I actually shared my thoughts on the book yesterday:

    I'm going to check out Carrots for Michaelmas post right now.