THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER-FREE
I remember reading somewhere once about Mozart’s son (or one of them, anyway). Evidently, the man was musically gifted, like his father, and yet he devoted his life to doing anything besides being a musician or a composer, and in fact openly rejected the notion. From what we can tell, he just felt that he would have been doomed before he even started, forever measured by his father’s legacy. I tend to think he was probably right.
In that same vein, we have been presented with the sons of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, Albus and Scorpius (respectively), in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the newest installation of what has become a legacy in its own right. A decade after the conclusion of the original canon (and two decades later, as the story goes), J.K. Rowling has joined forces with director John Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne to create a new chapter in the series, written specifically for the stage. Simultaneously with the play’s debut in July, the complete script was released as a hardback book for all us Potter fans who can’t quite make it to the Palace Theatre in London. While not written as a novel, the project is heralded and endorsed by Rowling as the official “eighth story,” which makes it canon, if you ask me. And as such, it is therefore rightly subject to the full barrage of geek shelling.
Being a Harry Potter fan myself, I was of course excited about the prospect of this release, even to the point of advance ordering my copy. This was despite my being a geek pessimist and knowing that it couldn’t possibly live up to the legacy, as (of course) nothing ever does. I was not disappointed. By which I mean, the story did pretty much what I expected: nothing horrible, nothing great. Perhaps it would be a much better experience to actually see it performed properly, and that’s something I’d love to do someday. Nevertheless, there really can only be one Mozart. Here’s some specifics:
What’s Distracting for Me…
- Feels a little exploitive. This was obviously to be expected, and perhaps it’s a bit of an unfair criticism. Honestly, if the story had not incorporated enough of the setting and established universe, then we’d complain “it’s not a Harry Potter story,” and it’d end up on the rubbish heap of our attitudes, right alongside the upcoming Fantastic Beasts. And yet, there’s a way to build on an established universe in a meaningful way—even still using some of the same characters or their close relatives—but without relying on the same tired tropes. Think Silmarillion. Think Star Trek (although the dignity seems to have ended there…) Think anything in the Dune universe (as long as it’s Frank’s and not Brian’s.) The kicker in this case is that Rowling has already produced some enjoyable supplements/expansions to the Potterverse, including Tales of Beedle the Bard. Unfortunately for Cursed Child, and unlike Beetle the Bard, this new project feels not so much devotional as it does derivative.
- Cliché plot points. One frustration of this, and many other stories with children or youth as protagonists, is the characters’ tendency to exacerbate the conflict through chronically stupid choices. It’s one thing to err and bring about a conflict, but stupid characters repeatedly worsen matters, even after seeing and experiencing the horrible consequences of their previous bad choices. I know there are people like this in real life, but they don’t make for pitiable or interesting characters. Compounding this is just a light sprinkling of deus ex machina. More than once do our heroes get in a tight spot or have an unsolvable problem, when, through inspiration, they surmise that some magical spell or retroactive continuity can provide a convenient solution. Finally, the antagonist’s motive (and even their identity) is revealed to the audience very late in the game and quite without establishment of any kind, so that it comes across more like the unmasking of a Scooby-Doo villain. However: childish antics, magical ret-con, and “big reveals” are all regular characteristics of the original Harry Potter stories as well, so annoying as these flaws might be, they are at least consistent with the canon.
- Troubles with time-travel. I’m going to put aside the fact that every variant of the “Let’s Kill Hitler” and/or “Let’s Save Kennedy” motifs are pretty tired in time-travel storytelling. I’ll also only briefly mention my personal distaste for time-travel being an element in magical fantasy. (It’s a pet-peeve, but it just feels like cross-contamination to me. I didn’t really like that part of Prisoner of Azkaban, either. And I don’t like chocolate-covered pretzels.) Let’s put that aside, though. I largely want to stick to the real problems in this one. Of course there are no scientific “rules” for the actual consequences of time-travel. But this is by definition a geek site and shall thusly engage in a line of classic geek philosophy. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to messing with linear time, overlapping with one’s own or an alternate timeline, and risking reality-collapsing paradoxes, there is no greater authority than the Back to the Future trilogy. These films may or may not have defined the accepted “rules” for time-travel plot and conflict, but they certainly embody them, and the great majority of time-travel fiction abides by them as well. Not so for Cursed Child. Not wanting to spoil anything too specific, the most glaring example is this: our main characters repeatedly travel back and tamper with the past, creating alternate futures branching from those junctures. But when they move forward into one of those alternate futures, they just sort of “Quantum Leap” into the body of their alternate-reality selves, still retaining the mind and personality of their own relative history. According to the “rules,” this makes no sense. According to the “rules,” their bodies are outside the continuum, and therefore when they arrive in the alternate future, there should be two of them: the one who emerged as a consequence of that reality, and the one who skipped over the intervening spacetime and simply appeared there. (It’s all right there in Back to the Future Part II.) The point is, with Cursed Child, not only did the story team take the easy-cheesy way out and give us yet another “time-travel episode,” but they didn’t even obey the accepted norms of the archetype. The readers/audience are left spending more energy questioning the plot than enjoying it.
What’s Engrossing for Me…
- Dystopian sandbox. One thing that was definitely a guilty pleasure was an alternate-reality sequence depicting a bleak universe in which Voldemort survived and carried out all his hitlerian motives. In the original series, we only got a taste of the tyranny he meant to bring about, seen in glimpses like the anti-muggle propaganda tracts and the apocalyptic appearances of dementors and Death-Eaters in common English cities. Cursed Child gives the writers and the reader some permission to play in that sandbox a little more and see a more detailed picture of what that world was going to look like. Perhaps this isn’t “worth the price of admission,” as they say, but I personally relished it. Keep in mind I’m the same person who thought The Lion King would have been a whole lot more interesting if we’d gotten to actually see Scar’s reign instead of some goofy musical montage.
- Strong characters and emotional conflict. Cursed Child‘s most redeeming quality is the characters—notably their inner conflicts and their conflicts with their peers and parents. This is why, despite the chronic stupidity in their choices, I would still like to see some talented actors do justice to these roles on stage or on screen. There is some real emotion here that you can feel, even in the very dry and skeletal presentation that a script is, which is really what brings me to my final remarks…
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is already getting the anticipated bombardment of both positive and negative reviews. I fall somewhere in the middle on this one, and partly because I don’t feel that I’ve gotten the complete experience yet. It’s the same problem with reading a Shakespearean play: it’s easy to nit-pick, and it’s hard to appreciate, until you see it performed. Now I’m not saying Rowling and Company are necessarily on a par with Shakespeare… I’m just saying I’m not ready to simply write the whole project off as another rusty bucket beneath the cash cow’s teat. Perhaps mass-publishing the script was a cash-grab (since a script is really incapable of delivering the emotion of a performance or a proper narrative). To publish the script and dress it up in the costume of the novels could only have disappointed. It doesn’t automatically follow, however, that the entire production is a disappointment. I can think of many episodes of Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer which started out absurd or had outlandish or hackneyed premises, and which by the end had me cutting onions anyway on account of the strong performances and deep emotional veins. The same can be true in reverse: rich and varied plots can be made altogether boring by a lack of interesting characters. Characters truly do make or break a story. Meanwhile, actors make or break the characters, at least on stage and screen, and Cursed Child definitely needs its actors. Without them, the script alone is kind of like a stupefy spell: exciting because it’s magic, but ultimately just renders the target unconscious.
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