By Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling & John Tiffany
Nine years ago, author J.K. Rowling brought her fantasy series Harry Potter to what appeared to be a rather definitive ending. The major villains were all defeated and accounted for. No nagging plotlines were left dangling. Rowling even went so far as to write an epilogue to The Deathly Hollows which seemed to scream from every sentence “and nothing interesting EVER happened to him again.” Honestly, despite all the great writing which flows through the seven volumes of the series, the epilogue has always felt a bit clunky, as if Rowling tried too hard to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. Also the legacy naming of kids trope got a little overplayed (what no one wanted to name their child after Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody? Poor Moody).
Still a handful of unsuccessful pages cannot undue the thousands of engrossing ones which came before them. Harry Potter remained a stunning achievement. Afterwards Rowling wrote a “great book” which was greeted with not so great reviews. She produced some mystery stories which were more positively received (not surprisingly, given how important mysteries and detective work had always been for Harry Potter). She skirted around no more Harry Potter with a pseudo-Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and then agreed to write the screenplay for its film adaptation arriving in theaters this November. However, still no more Harry Potter. That is until this summer.
In London on June 7th, preview performances began for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Due to length the drama is split into two plays). Set nineteen years after the events of The Deathly Hollows, it returns once again to the story of Harry Potter. It appears that something quite interesting did indeed happen to him again after all, along with his friends and most especially his son, Albus. What is also noteworthy is that it is the first Harry Potter tale not scripted by Rowling herself. She shares a story credit with John Tiffany (who directed the London production) and Jack Thorne who wrote the actual play. As expected tickets for The Cursed Child instantly became rather difficult to acquire. However, the day after the play’s official opening, July 30th, the rehearsal script was published as the official eighth book in the series. In short, it is a worthy addition to the canon.
The narrative of The Cursed Child is centered on Albus who in the opening scene is preparing to depart for his first year at Hogwarts. Thorne does a good job hitting some nostalgic notes without making the reader feel as though they are reading a carbon copy of The Philosopher’s Stone. Part of this is accomplished through having the characters be hyper-aware of the tales of Harry Potter. For example, Rose, Ron and Hermione’s daughter is very specific when she tells Albus to be careful who to befriend on their trip to Hogwarts, as that is how their parents all met. Legacy, including but not limited to that of family, was always a core motif of Harry Potter, where more than once choices individuals made as teenagers reverberated not only through their futures but those of their children as well. This is especially true for the Potters, as Albus has a rather difficult time at Hogwarts. He is a fumbling student, which is made worse by the fame of his father. His popularity is not assisted by the fact that the student he decides to befriend on the train is one Scorpius Malfoy.
The friendship between Albus and Scorpius is the most compelling aspect of the story. Thorne does an excellent job developing their characters both as individuals and as a unit. Their conversation feels quite natural, never forced. There is, of course, much symbolism in a Potter and Malfoy forming such a deep bond and it is to Throne’s credit that their relationship never feels manipulated. While the details of their family situations may differ, they each feel as though they are a disappointment to their fathers. This plotline also serves to go a long way to humanizing Draco, who never quite got the definitive character redefining moment in The Deathly Hollows some readers were expecting. Draco would like nothing more than put his family’s history of villainy behind him, yet vicious rumors keep circulating. Having suffered personal grief, his biggest desire is simply to care for his only child to the best of his abilities. Meanwhile a more severe form of father/child separation threatens the security of everyone.
Touches such as this suggest where Rowling left her fingerprints on the story’s evolution. Another aspect which reveals her influence is how the central conflict of the drama revolves around time travel. Rowling has a gift for linking incidents together, demonstrating how one small action in the first chapter turns out to be pivotal later in the story. In The Cursed Child, this is reversed as seemingly innocent tampering with the plot of one adventure have grave consequences.
This theme also leads to another Rowling motif: grief. For all their magical charms, the Harry Potter books were full of death even before Lord Voldemort’s to the physical world. Harry’s legend is founded on the sacrifice of his parents, dying before he could ever know them. Rowling was never hesitant to kill off a character when the stakes were appropriately high, yet, at the same time she did not shy away from the complicated grief that follows such loss. Time travel naturally offers temptations to “fix” these losses as well as lessons on why that is not a smart choice. Death must be accepted, it cannot be reversed. One of the most poignant expressions of this idea comes from a character who would no longer exist in the “correct” timeline.
(As a side note, some have criticized Rowling for undercutting her meditations on grief by having magical portraits of the deceased gabbing away with the living. Thorne addresses this issue when Dumbledore’s portrait reminds Harry that he is only “paint and memory” and speaking with him should not be taken as speaking with the actual person).
While Thorne focuses on the new generation, he spends plenty of time with the previous as well. Harry naturally is a prominent presence in the drama. As with Draco, he is now mostly defined through his role as a father. He does some stuff offstage for the Ministry of Magic, however, he seems most happy in family life. Indeed what is most remarkable about the portrayal of Harry, Hermione and Ron is how content they are in their routines. Unlike so many other stories of its type, there is no middle-age angst about the bygone days of adventure, or daydreaming of one more chance to leap into thrills and excitement. They have jobs that suit them, spouses who love them and children they care for deeply. True when danger arrives they face it bravely and together, as they always have, but they do not go seeking it. It is a striking departure from convention and leaves the characters richer for it.
Many old favorites pop-up throughout the narrative, especially as time travel allows some of the deceased to be briefly glimpsed. (One is particularly poignant, not simply for the character but the actor who played the role on screen). That said there are some odd choices about who does not appear. One fan-favorite is at least mentioned in numerous asides. The entire extended Weasley family is absent, which is odd given how much of a tightly knit family unit they were. While it is understandable that siblings disperse over time, fans would have reasonably expected Ron to toss off a few more references what the other Weasleys were doing. In fact, Ron himself has a rather low-key presence in the play which suggests that Thorne might not have been as inclined to him as some of the other characters.
The only other notable misstep in the book is Harry’s marriage to Ginny Weasley. For this reviewer, the Harry/Ginny romance was one of Rowling’s least successful plot twists. Luna Lovegood always made more sense as Harry’s partner, as well as being a more fascinating character. Same could be argued for Cho Chang. Ginny came of as a bit bland at times, an exception to Rowling’s habit of finely drawn personalities. This carries over to The Cursed Child, where the reader is repeatedly told how much Harry and Ginny mean to each other without ever feeling it. In production this problem could easily be solved through the quality of the acting, but it does exist in the script.
The script contains many a fantastic set piece which suggests an effects heavy stage production. Some of what Thorne calls for could be daunting to mount, however, given director Tiffany’s imaginative, dynamic past staging of subjects as diverse as the Iraq War (Black Watch) and the recent Broadway revival The Glass Menagerie, it is reasonable to expect that Tiffany conjures the magic on stage. However, that is a review for, hopefully, another day.
Publisher Scholastic is being a bit dodgy in labeling The Cursed Child as a “rehearsal script” instead of the final performance version. Will later editions contain revisions that at present only those lucky few in London are seeing? Perhaps. What can said, though, is that as it stands The Cursed Child is an enjoyable read which should please Rowling’s legions of fans. As for whether this is now the “final” chapter in Harry’s chronicle, well, time will tell. Who knows what another decade might bring for The Boy Who Lived.