What persuaded J.K. Rowling to re-open the Harry Potter universe? The skeptic in me would say the money.
Everything was tied off neatly with Deathly Hallows and the whole saga adapted into a super successful 8-film franchise. And then lo: this year mini-book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gets it’s big screen release, the first of a new trilogy, along with a two-part play opening in London’s West End. With sold-out tickets for Cursed Child selling on eBay for hundreds of pounds, it certainly looks like Rowling is keen on making The Boy Who Lived, live again.
However, it’s possible that Rowling genuinely wanted to further explore the Wizarding World; that there really were new stories still to tell. And with expanded universes being both financially lucrative and offering multi-platform opportunities to tell their tales (Marvel! Star Wars! Er…DC…) I think it’s legitimate to position Cursed Child within this current trend.
The real question, of course, is whether the new play is any good? And the answer to that is: not really.
So, full disclosure: I’ve not seen the performance (and with tickets are currently changing hands for exuberantly huge sums, I probably won’t for many a year), so this review is based purely on the released script. Yes, I know plays are meant to be seen and not read, and yes I’ve heard the performances are visually spectacular. But Rowling has released the script to be read separately, so I’ve done that and here are my two cents.
The plot centres on Albus Severus Potter, Harry and Ginny’s middle child seen at the end of Deathly Hallows on his way to his first year at Hogwarts. Albus is struggling under the shadow of Harry’s legacy, and makes friends with Scorpius Malfoy (Draco’s son), who similarly is feeling alienated and alone, with rumours circulating that his real father is Voldermort. Things come to a head when the Potters are visited by Amos Diggory (father to the late Cedric, who was murdered in Goblet of Fire). Amos wants Harry to use a newly discovered Time-Turner to bring Cedric back. And so when Harry refuses, Albus and Scorpius decide it’s up to them.
In a way everything you need to know about Cursed Child is in that synopsis, being as it is both a continuation of the previous plots and a retrospective. Focusing on Albus’ experiences as the begrudging bearer of Harry’s reputation is interesting, particularly when he is sorted into Slytherin House and has a very negative experience of life inside Hogwarts as a bullied outsider (mirroring the history of his namesake, Severus Snape). Similarly the genuine chemistry between Albus and Scorpius really crackles, and continues the series’ long-standing theme about the virtue of friendship as an absolute good.
However things quickly come awry with the re-introduction of Time-Turners as a narrative device. Now, I am a massive fan of time-travel as a trope, and as any fan will tell you it is Causality 101 that if you mess with the past you mess with the future (an idea well expanded on in films like The Butterfly Effect and the Back to the Future trilogy). So it’s really not surprising – in fact, rather irksome – that much of the Cursed Child centres on this well-trodden idea, with characters flitting back and forth and creating alternative versions of the Potter-verse before, surprise surprise, putting it all back together the way it was originally having learnt some valuable life lessons along the way. Yawn.
To make matters worse, Rowling et al seem to take this device as permission to rerun the greatest hits from the original series. Tri-Wizard Tournament? You betcha! Want to see Snape back from the dead? You got it! Rather than treading new ground the Cursed Child seems intent on looking back on past glories, something the original Potter stories never did.
In fact, if you want to get really into it, there is only one correct way to use a Time-Turner, as pointed out by the excellent fan-imation made by How It Should Have Ended:
On the plus side I felt the character voices were pretty consistent (with the films at least), though I know I’m in a minority of this one. And the whole things zips along with page turning pep. But once you’ve binged the whole thing in a few hours, you feel as if you’ve just gobbled up a huge tub of popcorn: unsatisfied, and like you’ve just consumed something very insubstantial.
If Rowling really wants to expand the Potter-verse (and idea I am actually in favour of), then this is not the way to do it. Let’s have sideways narratives about smaller characters like the Beauxbatons in France; about Charlie Weasley as a dragon wrangler in Romania; about the founding of Hogwarts by Godric Gryffindor; or hey – someone entirely new! The world she created was so rich, we don’t want a greatest hits re-run overlaid with Harry’s daddy issues: we want to go deeper.
It’s time to let Harry off the hook and fade into the background of the Wizarding World’s mythology, and for us to go on adventures new. Which, in a way, is exactly what Fantastic Beasts promises to be. Here’s hoping Newt Scamander will be the man to do it.