Book Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (2016) by J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne

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Jamie Parker as Harry.

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I read my first Harry Potter book when I was ten years old, and made my brother take me to the store with him to buy the second one the moment I finished it. When I was eleven, I wrote my first work of literary criticism on the series – which basically means that I looked up the meanings of the characters’ names and listed them all like a very dorky IMDB trivia page. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was the first book I read entirely in English because my family was on holiday in the US when it came out and I refused to wait until the translation came out. While I was still in the middle of reading it, I left my copy on the roof of our car, and we drove off without anyone realising that I had forgotten to take it inside. I then yelled frantically at my parents until they stopped on the side of the road and let me look for it – and there it was, battered but still intact and, most importantly, still readable. The last book came out the same summer I moved across the country to study comparative literature. I remember travelling to the next town over that morning so I could be the first in line when the store opened. I giddily read the first lines while waiting for the bus back home, alone on a bench in the morning sun. I wrote my BA thesis on power, morality, and responsibility in the Harry Potter series (and got an 8.5/10 for it, thank you very much). I own a Gryffindor tie (even though I consider myself to be a Ravenclaw), a Time Turner, and a replica of Harry’s wand. Two days ago, I got my first and only tattoo – a small Deathly Hallows symbol on my wrist.

And I really wish J.K. Rowling would just stop already.

(Note: This review is full of gigantic spoilers.)

Before you pick up this book, it’s important to remember two things: first, Rowling may have had input on the plot, but the actual words were written by Jack Thorne. She contributed and approved, but she did not write it. Secondly, this is the script of a play, which inevitably means that you’re missing out on a large part of the experience by just reading the text. From what I’ve heard, the production is a technical marvel, and Jamie Parker could read out the phone book and make it work as far as I’m concerned (“well, obviously the material isn’t great, but by God does he make it sound good”). You can try to fill in the gaps with your imagination, but in the end, reading lines on paper just isn’t the same as watching a cast of talented actors deliver the words and seeing complicated scene transitions take place in front of your very eyes.

That said… I am still stuck at two stars. This is a play that looks like Harry Potter and regularly sounds like Harry Potter, but doesn’t feel like the real thing. It’s kind of like eating an off-brand version of your favourite snack; the makers went through a lot of effort to replicate the original, but there is still something off about the texture, and the aftertaste is just not right.

That’s not to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is without its merits. I love a good story about family dynamics and the burden of a legacy, and I even have a soft spot for “what if?” time travel scenarios (once a Back To The Future fan, always a Back To The Future fan). Moments like McGonagall casually encouraging civil disobedience evoke Rowling’s writing at its best, as does the character of Scorpius. I was also beyond relieved that Ron and Hermione are still happily married and continue to be in love through all the different time streams, since Rowling herself has said that she regrets putting them together. I adore Ron and Hermione together and quite frankly, Rowling can bite me for backpedalling on what was a formative fictional relationship for me growing up. She may claim that the chances of them having a mature relationship are not great, but I have always believed in their ability to grow both as individuals and as a couple – and the play seems to agree.

(Incidentally, this is a recurring theme when it comes to everything Rowling has said on the series since the last book came out; it often seems like readers understand Rowling’s characters and the complexities of the Potter universe better than she does at this point. More on this later.)

I like that Ginny is still the snarkiest of them all, I like that Harry struggles with parenthood, and I definitely like that Ron at one point proudly proclaims that he is not scared of anything – except his wife.

But I hate just about everything else. Occasional pacing issues and clunky writing aside (I actually cringed when Hermione called Harry “my old friend”), there is a lot that makes no sense at all or was not handled very well. In fact, I have made you a list.

Eight Things The Cursed Child Got Wrong:

 1. James and Lily 2.0
The story focuses on Harry’s second son, Albus, but after the first few scenes, it’s like the play completely forgets that he has two siblings. What, were they just taking a nap for most of this? Did no one wonder if the other Potter children could be in danger? Did anyone even check if they were still alive at any point in the story?

2. Slytherin
Slytherin is still considered to be the house of the bad guys, with Albus and Scorpius as exceptions to the rule. I blame Rowling herself for this – even though she says that there are great Slytherins and that being sorted into that house is nothing to be ashamed of, there is not a single Slytherin at the Battle for Hogwarts in the final book (I cannot tell you how disappointed I was by that when I first read it). Not one? Really? Come on, Rowling. I have read lengthy Tumblr posts that allow for more complexity than that. You cannot have your cake and eat it too, that’s not the way this works.

3. Ron and Hermione
In one of the alternate timelines, we learn that if Hermione hadn’t married Ron, she would have become a cruel teacher. Wait, what? The Hermione I know and love would never have told a student to stop talking if they don’t want to lose “what limited popularity [they] already have” in front of the entire class – Ron or no Ron. That is some Snape-level bullshit. Which brings me to…

4. Snape

SCORPIUS: Thank you for being my light in the darkness.
SNAPE looks at him, every inch a hero, he softly smiles.
SNAPE: Tell Albus – tell Albus Severus – I’m proud he carries my name.

This whole part makes me cringe, but what actually made me put down the book in anger is ‘Every inch a hero.’ Every inch a hero? You and I have not been reading the same books, Thorne. Snape is a marvellously complex and interesting figure, but he is not a hero, and portraying him as such is actually a disservice to the character. I won’t go into it since other people have already written on this subject at length (like here, here, and here), but this entire timeline reads a lot like an apologist fanfic gone awry to me. And speaking of fanfiction…

5. Bizarro Hogwarts
The wizarding world celebrates Voldemort Day. “Potter” is a swear word. Hogwarts has a Blood Ball. While people are being tortured. At the request of one of its students.

SCORPIUS: What is that screaming?
POLLY CHAPMAN: Mudbloods of course. In the dungeons. Your idea wasn’t it? What’s going on with you? Oh Potter, I’ve got blood on my shoes again…

That is so ridiculously over the top that it practically loops back around and becomes almost endearing in a “baby’s first fanfic” sort of way.

6. Cedric Diggory
Public humiliation at the Triwizard Tournament turns him into a Death Eather. …Do I even need to comment on this? That should speak for itself.

7. Voldemort’s Child
Bellatrix Lestrange had sex with Voldemort. Not pre-Horcrux Tom Riddle – Voldemort. I want you to take a second and really let that visual sink in for a second. But wait, it gets better! They have a daughter together, who is this beautiful young woman with silver and blue hair and super awesome powers and her name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven – oh no wait. This article makes some fair points as to why that comparison may not be entirely fair of me, but still, you have to admit that just saying these things out loud makes it sound ridiculous. There is a reason this very popular Tumblr post exists:

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8. Polyjuice Potion
Polyjuice potion plays a very important part in The Cursed Child, but its rules are bent and broken whenever it’s convenient for the narrative. Turns out you can just use transfiguration to make yourself look like someone else. Handy, right? No need to go through the trouble of getting your hands on someone’s hair or nails – a spell works just as well. Plothole solved! Sort of!

BONUS: Incest
Because at this point, why not.

Does this mean that I regret getting a Harry Potter tattoo now? Not at all – just like the Star Wars prequels don’t spoil The Empire Strikes Back and you can still enjoy the original Ghostbusters if you hated this year’s reboot. I know what the original books have meant to me growing up, how much I have learned from them, and how incredible it has been to interact with other fans on a deep and meaningful level; this play will never be able to take that away from me, nor am I angry that many people out there do like it. Did I hope that this would be better than it turned out to be? Absolutely – and I certainly wish that Rowling would just leave things be and stop digging an increasingly larger hole for herself (the entire continent of North America has one wizarding school? How does that even work?). However, to my own surprise, I find that I cannot bring myself to care all that much. The books were always flawed but phenomenal where it counted, and nothing Rowling can do or say now will change that for me. I’m the Roland Barthes approach on this one.

For that one Goodreads reviewer who wrote that “J.K. Rowling could punch [them] in the face, and [they'd] still like it.“: no. You would still be getting punched in the face – and similarly, this play is still a bit of a mess. The Harry Potter logo does not guarantee quality in any way, and I, for one, think it’s important to acknowledge those shortcomings and not sweep them under the rug in our excitement. When Fantastic Beasts Where To Find Them comes out, I want you to ask yourself: is this actually any good or am I so happy to be in this universe again that I’ll take any bone the studio will throw at me? Because we deserve better than that – there is too much potential there.

The good news is that other people do see this potential and have explored it in loving detail over the years, which might just be why anyone trying to add to this universe in an official capacity now is doomed to fail. Harry Potter has had a devoted and seriously talented fanbase for many years; there is no scenario you can possibly think of that someone, somewhere, has not already done better in a work of fanfiction. So maybe we should just leave those creative minds to it; not every question needs to be answered by its creator (or Jack Thorne). Successes like The Force Awakens tend to be the exception.* So with all due respect, I would ask Rowling to just… Stop. Let it go. It’s okay. It’s done now. All is well.

 

*The Force Awakens is also flawed but brilliant and I will fight you on this. A discussion for another time, perhaps.


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4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (2016) by J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne

  • August 4, 2016 at 7:20 pm
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    Hi,

    thank you for your review. Like you I grew up with Harry Potter and means a lot to me.
    Personally I was very disappointed when I heard there would be a play and also new movies (Fantastic Beasts Where To Find Them). I wasn’t happy about it.
    Everyone can love what they love. But when I read the plot of the play (I don’t think that I will ever read the script), I thought it was the most stupid thing I’ve ever read. I laughed and were sad at the same time.
    Especially Voldemort’s Child. Don’t they know his character? It’s so OOC…
    For me it doesn’t feel like it is canon and it never will.
    I don’t want to hurt anyone, it’s just the way I feel about it.
    Just one question: You mentioned Incest. What do you mean? What happened?

    Greetings (and sorry for my bad english).

    Reply
    • August 26, 2016 at 12:18 pm
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      I’m so horribly late in replying to this comment, my apologies…

      As for the incest: technically Hermione and Albus aren’t genetically related, but she is still his aunt by marriage and they kiss “firmly” when Albus is pretending to be Ron and needs to distract her. Harry’s son plants one on Hermione. Who is married to his mother’s brother. …Okay, so maybe it’s not technically speaking incest come to think of it, but I was angry and this is still crossing a line, surely.

      Reply
  • August 5, 2016 at 12:24 am
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    Since I can.hardly leave it on Facebook. Ye gads this play was a cheesy plot holy mess. Entertaining yes, but definitely off kilter. My hope remains for Fantastic beasts to be above agressively mediocre, but given the pottermore and co output these past few years, I doubt it. It’s sad, because I’ve seen so many fanfic writers do amazing and truly astoundingly creative things in the pre-established universe of HP. Somehow a lot of the post Deathly hallows has seemed really lacklustre and in bad need of a “you sure this is canon?” Check. Also they should’ve run this play by tvtropes, and the fanfic section there , because ho boy, voldie having a kid is hilariously idiotic. (Also that means bellattix wouldve been either extremely pregnant during the malfoy manor stuff, or she d have just given birth. It would explain her torturing Hermione, childbirth’d have me a bit miffed too) Also, why is rose naught but a love interest. *we could have had it all plays in the distance whilst I violently sob*

    Reply
    • August 26, 2016 at 12:13 pm
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      Really, all I wanted from Rowling after Deathly Hallows was some fun factoids in the form of Hogwarts: A History – and then that should’ve been the end of that.

      Reply

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