“The eighth story,” says the tagline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and yet, whether this counts as the eighth story is up for debate from the get-go. What, exactly, was Rowling’s role in this? Was she the true author of the tale, or is this, as many have claimed, basically glorified fan-fiction? And even if Rowling really is the auteur behind it, do we want to count a script for a play as the eighth true entry in the Harry Potter books? And as if all that’s not enough, even if we accept all of those things, how are we really supposed to judge this as anything but an incomplete vision, a partial rendition of something that can only truly be experienced on the stage?
They’re all valid questions, I think, and I’m not sure I have answers to any of them. I love the Potter series a lot, but I’m not a die-hard; this isn’t something I grew up with, but something I came to in college and afterward. And so, while I’m curious about Rowling’s role, as a movie geek who’s pretty much a strong advocate of auteur theory, I’m okay with accepting Rowling’s authorial stamp, as nebulous as it is (and even though I’m quite curious myself as to how much she contributed, even if I have my own theories). And the question of how it fits into the canon, or if it’s a “true” eighth volume…honestly, it doesn’t matter as much to me as I know it does to some who grew up reading this world. I just want to know if it’s a good story.
And the fact that it’s a script? Does that hold back that story? Well, if you mean, “did I spend half of my reading time wondering how on earth you could possibly stage something like this,” the answer is an unequivocal yes. The play we have the chance to see the script for is a dazzling, incredibly ambitious work, one that strikes me as a jaw-dropping work if it was properly accomplished. Because make no mistake: this is a play, but it’s one that embraces the world of Harry Potter. If what you expect is some tight, one-room drama, think again; there are wands glowing, spells flying, people transforming, flights taken, objects coming to life, and even a montage of time somehow evoked. This is a play done with ambition to spare, and while I can’t imagine how it’s accomplished, I can’t deny that reading the script made me so, so jealous of those who have a chance to see it.
But can we judge the story that we’re given? I think we can – and more than that, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people do. I’ll try to steer clear of spoilers here beyond, say, the first few scenes; suffice to say, Cursed Child revolves around Harry’s son, Albus, whom we first met in the epilogue to the 7th book (a scene which opens this play). As Albus goes to Hogwarts, he’s forced to deal with life growing up with a very famous name, and the realization that whoever he may be, he’s certainly not his father. And that tension – on both the part of a frustrated Albus and a baffled adult Harry – provides much of the emotional richness of the play. Indeed, like the best Potter books (and if it means anything, I’ve always gravitated to Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince as my favorites), Cursed Child uses its plot as much as a way of exploring emotional territory, here engaging with reputations, parental expectations (as well as the difficulties of parenting), reminders of the past, guilt, and so much more. And it does so while delivering a far, far more ambitous tale than I expected, one that could easily have been an 8th novel in the series.
But would it have been? There’s no denying that there are definitely scenes and ideas that feel off about Cursed Child, and it’s not just about the fact that a central mechanic and idea of one of the books feels like it’s been majorly retconned to make this story work. Nor is it the sometimes gratuitous fan-service in the form of characters and callbacks (indeed, even as I admit that some are a bit much, there are more than a few that made me smile to read, and I can’t deny that reaction). No, as much as anything, it’s the occasionally iffy character work, because whatever else you can say about Rowling, you can’t deny that her characters lived and breathed in glorious ways. And while there are some great turns here – Albus is good, but his best friend (another child of a Potter alumnus) is even better, and adult Harry is a compellingly flawed character (a fact that’s caused much consternation, but ultimately ranks as one of my favorite touches of the play) – there’s also more than a few who are served poorly, and the fact that many of them are women is even more disappointing. (To waste Ginny in the play is one thing – she wasn’t much of a character in the books – but to squander Hermione’s presence and character so much is far more disappointing.)
And yet, for all of those flaws, I can’t deny that I really, really enjoyed Cursed Child. Would I rather have had this as a novel by Rowling? Undeniably. It might have been the same; it might have been better; but whatever else, it would have her voice, and that doesn’t always happen here. But even for that, as I read Cursed Child, I remembered just how rich and incredible Jo Rowling’s world of magic really is, and even as part of me wanted to cynically grumble about callbacks and cameos and retcons, I can’t deny that there’s so many moments that worked for me. And while the plot is serviceable at best, there are glimpses here of the imagination and scope that made the series so memorable, whether it’s a brief window into the worst possible outcome of things, a plunge back into a rich mythos, some perfect character beats, or even just the sense of imagination at picturing some of these things on stage. No, Cursed Child isn’t maybe the “best” 8th book we could have gotten, and I know some will say it’s not even a book. But in a lot of ways, I think it keeps Rowling’s spirit, world, and characters alive, and even if it gets a little fan-servicey, it’s done with love and respect, and with an imagination and scope that does the world right.