The Story: [from GoodReads:]
It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children. While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
My Take: [Just a quick note before I launch into my review: while I won’t reveal spoilers related to Cursed Child, I may inadvertently drop spoilers from the other Potter books. I assume most folks have read the Harry Potter series in full. But in case you haven’t, please be forewarned – there may be spoilers!]
Early on, I all but swore off reading this story (which is actually a play, not a novel). I assumed it was just a way to cash grab on the Harry Potter series rather than serve as any kind of new addition to the original canon. Reviewers seemed split: some loved it for the nostalgia, others hated it because it didn’t feel like a true Potter tale. I was torn between those two opinions myself and, for a while, I decided to sit it out. However, eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to check it out.
And to be honest, it wasn’t the Hogwarts Express train wreck I was expecting. Granted, it’s no where near being as good as the original Harry Potter novels nor does it function as a follow up or an addition to the original canon. Instead, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is elevated fan fiction. Nothing more, nothing less.
Is it terrible? No.
Is it great? No.
However, it’s worth noting three key differences that set Cursed Child apart from the rest of the Potter canon.
First, knowing this was only based on a story by J.K. Rowling and seeing that it had different authors lessens the blow so to speak and readjusts reader expectations. If you approach this as if it is some long-lost Potter manuscript penned by Rowling herself, you’re going to be disappointed because it contains none of her hallmarks. But if you view Cursed Child as a work of Rowling-blessed elevated fan fiction, then you’re approaching it with the right mindset.
Also, Cursed Child isn’t a novel but a script for a stage play of the same name. Thus, not only is it written by different authors, it also lacks the flow and description of the novels, and this is simply because it’s a script. I have some experience reading scripts, so I know they essentially are dialogue-driven and lack detailed descriptions or backstories. In short, scripts are skeletons that require a visual element; however, they aren’t unreadable on their own. The format is worth pointing out because it might not be to everyone’s tastes. Myself, I don’t seek out scripts to read because they are sparse, but I didn’t mind perusing this and it is easy to read. So if you prefer stories that are fully fleshed out when it comes to setting, tone, and characters, be aware that Cursed Child significantly lacks these things by default.
Lastly, the play’s events occur chiefly after the epilogue in Deathly Hallows; therefore, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and a few other original characters are adults in Cursed Child. Some reviewers have claimed the characters here lack the same chemistry they had in the original novels, and while that’s certainly true, it’s not entirely problematic. While I’ll discuss more about what I enjoyed and what I took issue with later on, I do want to note that Harry and his old school chums are in their late 30s-early 40s, so they aren’t going to act or talk like teens anymore. Likewise, their relationship with each other has mellowed out and matured not only due to age but also distance. In the original novels, Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent a lot of time together at school and essentially lived together. But in Cursed Child, they have families and homes of their own, so this separation is going to cause their chemistry to cool a bit but not entirely. In short, the characters we see in Cursed Child are older and wiser, so their interactions and conversations naturally reflect this.
With those notes out of the way, I want to spend the rest of my review discussing the play itself minus any major spoilers. While there were things I didn’t care for, much to my surprise there were some things I actually liked and even enjoyed.
First and foremost, I really liked seeing Harry do his best to navigate the waters of fatherhood. Though Ginny, his wife, is supportive, and he seemingly has no issue with eldest son James and young daughter Lily, it’s his middle child, Albus, who provides him with the biggest struggle. One plotline that Cursed Child would be expected to traverse is how Harry’s children live up to his legacy. While James and Lily seem excused from this fate, it falls, instead, to young Albus. Thus, one major thread this play unravels and explores with all sincerity is whether or not Albus will be a carbon copy of his famous father or chart a new course for his life. As expected, Albus’ path is decidedly different and I enjoyed this.
To turn Albus into a Harry Potter 2.0 would have been a mistake namely because we already have a Harry Potter, so to create a clone would have been hackneyed. Instead, Albus is not like his father, neither in temperament nor magic. For starters, Albus breaks Potter tradition when he arrives at Hogwarts, from his Sorting to his magical skills or lack thereof. In brief, Albus is an average young wizard and doesn’t seemed destined for greatness at all. However, the temptation to compare him to his father and his namesake is too great for some characters, and Albus begins to feel the pressure. In time, he lashes out at those closest to him, particularly his father.
I’ll admit that seeing Albus speak to and treat his father so coldly, despite Harry’s best efforts to love and support his son, are hard to read. Harry really does give it his best try to encourage Albus and be a kind, loving dad, but Albus won’t have any of it. He despises being Harry’s son, not because, deep down, he hates Harry, but because he dislikes having to live out a legacy that he’s clearly not equipped to carry on. This doesn’t excuse Albus and his angst but it at least puts it into some perspective.
The same applies to Harry, who now has to juggle being a family man and a Ministry of Magic employee. We do see him donning both proverbial hats though I enjoyed reading the acts where Harry interacts with his children more so than the workplace scenes. Some reviewers have claimed that this version of Harry isn’t the Harry we knew and loved from the novels and they would be partially correct. The Harry Potter in Cursed Child is nearing his 40s, has been married to Ginny for years, and is the father of three children, one of whom tries his patience at nearly every turn. It can’t be expected that this older, wiser, and, in some cases, more harried Harry is going to have much semblance to his younger counterpart in the original novels, which end when he is 17 and only gives a brief glimpse of him nearly 20 years later. Seeing Harry in Cursed Child behave and talk like a teenager would not only be unrealistic but also insulting as it would mean he never grew up. However, I can see some reviewers’ point, especially as Harry fires back at Albus for his behavior, even at times wishing Albus wasn’t his son.
Yes, that’s harsh and hard to read, but I believe it, much like Albus’ behavior, is somewhat justified in context as Albus kind of brings it on himself. Harry tries to connect with Albus and guide him just as a good father should, but Albus rebels. A parent will only take so much pushing and shoving from a rebellious child until the parent begins to push and shove back. It’s not right and it’s not pretty but it does make sense and shows Harry as a relatable individual rather than a larger-than-life figure. Hence, when Albus pushes Harry, admitting he hates being his son, Harry pushes back and admits he wishes he wasn’t Albus’ father. I really liked this intense family conflict because it allows both characters to make their own choices and deal with the consequences, wising up to what is more important in life, the past or the present.
We see a similar dilemma arise between Draco Malfoy and his son, Scorpius. Draco, while no longer a Death Eater, is still painted in that light by others who dredge up his past. Just as Albus is viewed under the mantle of his father’s past deeds, so Scorpius is covered by his father’s past shadow. While Draco and Scorpius don’t have the same falling out that Harry and Albus have, the two father-son pairings contain a similar thread – should one live in the past or live in the present but remember the past and plan for the future. It’s a theme that runs the entire length of the play and I enjoyed the depth at which it’s explored. And just in case some readers are concerned over whether the Potter vs. Potter feud ever comes to a head, Albus and Harry do eventually make amends and it’s a touching, appropriate scene that caps the entire story.
Speaking of Albus and Scorpius, I really enjoyed their pairing. Just as Albus is unlike his father, so Scorpius not a carbon copy of Draco. He brings a breath of fresh air through his nerdy, comedic, adventure-loving ways but he isn’t a comic foil. Scorpius dislikes being cast under his father’s shadow but he doesn’t seem to let that bother him as he knows he has his own life to live. In time, I think some of this ideology rubs off on Albus, who begins to see himself and his father differently. Together, the boys are a delight and hearken back to the fun times and adventures of a young Harry and Ron. It does bear noting that while some readers assert there is a “romance” between them, I never picked up on anything like that. I think this is a case of if you want to read homosexual themes into this, then you’ll find them only because you’re intentionally looking for them – not because they’re actually present – so everything you read will be interpreted through that lens. I don’t look for those sorts of themes (nor do I care about them), so nothing ever struck me as such. In truth, Albus and Scorpius’ relationship is a pleasant friendship between two heterosexual boys and nothing more. Scorpius slightly edges Albus out as my favorite character thanks to his colorful personality, which is in contrast to Albus’ wallowing in angst and self-doubt.
Lastly, it was nice to see nods to other characters from the canon novels, such as Madam Hooch (who only had a single appearance in Sorcerer’s Stone); the Hogwarts Express trolley witch (and her “secret” here is kind of fun); and even Severus Snape, whose inclusion was well-done (though I’m a big Snape fan so of course I’ll be biased about that!).
However, there were elements in Cursed Child that kept me from fully enjoying myself. One issue is some obvious contradictions and missteps from the original canon. For starters, Ron is reduced to a comic foil as he is seemingly sidelined and portrayed as a bit of a dunderhead. Hermione here has moments when she seems a little too harsh and snappish. And I will include some of Harry’s verbal lashings at Albus as, though they make sense within the context of given scenes, they do seem out of place coming from a person who never knew his own father and who remarked in Deathly Hallows that parents and children should stay together. Lastly, we learn what Harry’s biggest regret was, which involves the death of an innocent person. However, I would venture to guess that while Harry probably regretted many of the deaths that occurred during the war with Lord Voldemort, I would have assumed he would have felt more regret over someone closer to him, such as his godfather Sirius Black or Remus Lupin, as opposed to the character we learn about in Cursed Child.
Speaking of contradictions, one massive issue for me was the main villain. Not only is this character easy to spot from the beginning, lacking the are-they-or-aren’t-they misdirection that Rowling was so expert at executing, this person isn’t exactly compelling. In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll just refer to this person as Character Z. Character Z is introduced early in the play and eventually makes contact with two of the main characters. From the very beginning, we learn there is a rumor circulating in the Wizarding community about a child of Voldemort, an heir of the Dark Lord himself. At first, this is a workable idea; however, the way it’s executed leaves a lot to be desired, not to mention it raises a lot of questions. As in a LOT of questions!
Initially, I thought this person, who ends up being Character Z, was going to be a villain akin to Star Wars‘ Kylo Ren, someone who is inspired to continue the deeds of a villainous relative (but not a parent) who laid the groundwork before them. Or perhaps Character Z was going to be a figurehead baddie, someone who wasn’t related to Voldemort at all but who wanted to continue his legacy of evil and finish what he started. Either way could have worked. Instead, Character Z is an illegitimate child, a physical heir of Voldemort himself. And not during his original incarnation as the handsome Tom Riddle, by the way. No, the play makes it very plain that Character Z was physically conceived after Riddle had transformed into Voldemort.
Character Z, thus, embodies the play’s biggest contradiction. The question is not so much when Voldemort would have made time to produce an heir but why. In the novels, we’re told time and again that Voldemort knows nothing about love, doesn’t care about love, sees love as a mark of weakness, holds no affections for anyone, and doesn’t have any true friends. And even those whom he considered his closest followers he holds at arm’s length. So in order to even have a child, that means Voldemort would have had to let down this guard, to put it politely. But the truth is, would he have been capable of even thinking he wanted to get close enough to someone to have a child? If he was that anti-love and anti-relationships, why would the thought even cross his mind? Therefore, it’s easy to assume that the idea of any form of intimacy – physical or otherwise – would be as far removed from Voldemort’s mind as Snape would be from a shampoo factory. Not to mention Voldemort clearly planned to be the one and only Dark Lord, hence why he created the horcruxes in the first place to secure his mortality. But if he desired to have an heir from his own family line, that would also mean he would have to be open to the idea of passing his legacy on, giving up his reigns of control. Again, is that something Voldemort conceivably could have done? Again, I seriously doubt it.
This put the biggest damper on Cursed Child for me because it makes no sense in light of who we know Voldemort is and how he operates, thus the play essentially tries to tack something onto the canon that doesn’t mesh with Voldemort’s inner character as it were. I can see making Harry, Ron, and Hermione act and talk like adults because that makes sense. I can see having Albus struggle with a legacy that isn’t his own – that, too, makes sense. I can see Scorpius contending with the deeds his father did in the past. But making the chief villain to be Lord Voldemort’s own physical offspring?
Aside from this massive hiccup, another aspect in Cursed Child that didn’t sit well with me was some of its magical elements and the way they’re incorporated. Too much of it feels too convenient and borders on being a deus ex machina at times. It’s like saying to yourself while standing in front of a vending machine, “I’m hungry. I wish I had a dollar so I could buy something.” And then, lo and behold, you look down and spy a dollar stuck on the bottom of your shoe. Yes, the magic here is sometimes that convenient and that obvious.
While I won’t divulge spoilers, I will say that time turners have a heavy presence in this story and I’m not exactly their biggest fan. I wasn’t a fan of them in Prisoner of Azkaban and I’m still not a fan here. My reasoning is simply because they’re just too convenient. And the way they’re introduced in the play, while not quite with the same out-of-thin-air (“Look, I have a time turner!”) approach that Prisoner of Azkaban took, it’s still set up with so much foreshadowing that it’s like being clubbed over the head. Granted, what the time turners are used for here is interesting and adds to the adventure some of the characters have later on. But it still seemed too easy and the conclusions some characters come to regarding how the time turners get used are just as convenient.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is, first and foremost, an attempt to adapt Harry Potter for the stage rather than the silver screen. It’s an ambitious effort that, to its credit, injects some genuine heart into its story. But knowing this is essentially glorified fan fiction means it lacks the warmth, whimsy, and depth that Rowling’s original novels contained. Therefore, I sense it won’t entirely win the hearts of or appeal to long-time fans. But it’s one of these stories that each reader has to digest for himself and reach his own conclusions.
Language – There are minimal, PG-level profanities though they’re sporadically used.
Violence – Violence falls chiefly into the fantasy violence category where magic is used as opposed to weapons. But because this is written as a play, it leaves a lot of such moments up to the imagination due to sparse descriptions. Elsewhere, one character magically transforms into a frightening creature but, again, most of the details are left up to the imagination.
Sexual Content – None. One character is revealed to be the product of an off-stage illegitimate affair but no further details are given.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a passable read. I’ll confess that I probably would have liked this more if it was in novel form, but even that wouldn’t have erased the elements that detracted from my enjoyment of it. As stated, this is fan fiction but it at least elevates itself through its attempt to present a worthy theme and recreate Rowling’s world and characters. Though it’s a far cry from Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, it by no means falls on its proverbial face as it offers up a touching tale of a father and son at odds. As a whole, Cursed Child, for me, was an interesting experiment in not only adaptation but also in using new writers for an established series. And while it doesn’t exactly flounder, it doesn’t exactly capture the magic of the original novels.