Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, based on an original story by J.K. Rowling
Well, here it is. After months of whispers, hype and hard-to-avoid advertising (as if it required any), the eighth instalment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is in bookshops across the globe.
For those who have missed the whispers, hype and advertising, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not a new novel. It is a script, written by playwright Jack Thorne in collaboration with theatre director John Tiffany, and based on an “original new story” by Rowling. She even dedicates the book to Thorne, “who entered my world and did beautiful things there”.
This raises the central question: is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a beautiful thing, a noble addition to one of literary history’s most beloved series? Or is it, as some fans are already claiming, a bitty, disappointing cash-in – Harry Potter and the Phantom Menace, in other words?
First things first. The story is set 19 years after The Deathly Hallows. Harry is now 37 (imagine!), married to Ginny and father to three young Potters: Albus, James and Lily. (Yes, folks, in case you missed the fine print in the last instalment: Harry Potter is also a wiz in bed.) If this feels strange, then the setting at least does not. We open at King’s Cross station, heading for platform nine and three quarters, where Albus is about to board the Hogwarts Express.
So far, so comforting. This feeling only grows as the old cast (Ron and Hermione, Draco Malfoy) enter, pursued by their own kids: Rose and Scorpius, respectively. Rowling and Thorne may be kicking it old school (and schools don’t get much older than Hogwarts), but the plot will be driven by the next generation: Albus, mainly, but also his unlikely BFF, Scorpius, who are paired in nasty Slytherin House, as opposed to Harry’s own Gryffindor (where Rose ends up).
Albus quickly learns he is no Harry 2.0, unable to perform the apparently straightforward task of getting his broom up, much to the mocking delight of his fellow Hogwartians. A fast-forward swiftly establishes Albus as an increasingly surly, alienated teen whose relationship with his father is in furious free-fall. “Harry Potter and his disappointing son,” Albus mumbles bitterly on platform nine and three quarters the next year, as all eyes turn adoringly to his famous dad.
Harry Potter and the Disappointing Son would make a convincing if less than exciting title for the new work. The fear of failing illustrious ancestors – what the great American critic Harold Bloom called the “anxiety of influence” – is perhaps the central theme of the book. This applies equally to Albus, Scorpius (whose old man is rumoured to be none other than Harry’s nemesis, Voldemort) and, of course, Rowling herself. It is one thing to try your hand at an adult novel (the impressive The Casual Vacancy ) or crime fiction (under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith); it is something else to return to Harry Potter (approximate sales: half a billion).
Smartly, Rowling makes these pressures part of the fun, much as they were in The Force Awakens whose opening line, “This will begin to make things right”, addressed Star Warriors still recovering from Attack of the Clones. The best Potter-baiting references go to Draco Malfoy: “Face it – [Harry’s] celebrity impacts upon you all.” And how better to get everyone whispering the Potter name again than with “my scar is hurting, my scar is hurting”. This doubles as a direct allusion to Harry’s nemesis, Voldemort, and more slyly to the commercial context surrounding the wiz’s return.
Now famous and big business, Harry is no longer either innocent or pure, something the book’s lengthy copyrights page makes clear: Harry™ and his Hogwarts™ alumni are all “trademarks of JK Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc”.
In this light, shifting the focus to Albus isn’t brave so much as necessary for the story to be read with anything more than jaded nostalgia alone. Not that Rowling tries to escape her inheritance entirely. Having reset her parameters, she whisks another reboot rabbit out of her hat: the “alter the past to change the present” plot device. One can almost hear Rowling incanting Terminatora! as a bitter Albus revisits the past to correct what he perceives as Harry’s greatest mistake: the death of Cedric Diggory. Lives are altered along with the course of history itself.
Is this enough to make The Cursed Child a good read (and I think it’s fair to stress the word “read”)? I don’t have a problem with The Cursed Child being a play per se, especially one so difficult to see in the flesh. Rowling has always been deft and funny at dialogue. The exchanges between Albus and Harry are convincingly tense, and reminded me how good she is at drawing angry teenagers: The Casual Vacancy was practically a hymn to adolescent fury. More enjoyable is the Albus-Scorpius double act, in which shared father issues jostle with banter. “Albus: We’re ready to put our lives at risk. Scorpius: Are we?”
One could argue, too, that the central magic spell – Polyjuicing, which enables one character to inhabit another – also justifies theatrical presentation. This is played for laughs when Albus transforms into Ron and, in desperation, proposes to Hermione that they have another baby: “Or if not another baby, a holiday. I want a baby or a holiday and I’m going to insist on it.” Its darker possibilities emerge later when Harry disguises himself as Voldemort.
Where the script is almost inevitably less satisfying is in earning the emotions it claims to evoke. Despite their best efforts, Rowling-Thorne’s stage directions are functional things, describing atmosphere rather than creating it. “There’s a silence. A perfect, profound silence. One that sits low, twists a bit and has damage within it.” This twisting may well happen in performance, but doesn’t shout from the page. The melancholy joy of seeing Harry commune with Dumbledore is not matched by the direction: “A pause. The two men are overcome with emotion.” Having said that, the climactic ending which reverses to Harry’s beginnings is deeply affecting and must be quite something on stage.
The Cursed Child is a qualified success. Neither a fully fledged reinvention nor a hasty offcut, it is also neither enslaved by the past nor entirely free of it. Rowling has done nothing to hurt her reputation – and will doubtless pursue the fresh directions in new adventures – but nor has she enhanced her magical universe spectacularly. Slight but fun, Harry Potter 8 is a roller-coaster ride, which is probably what it will become at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ in Orlando, Florida.