Everything Is Awful #3: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Spoilers for all books (1–7 and Cursed Child).
As a general misanthrope, I find, more often than not, that books are better than most grown ups. Books helped shape me as a kid, as an adolescent, and still do so now. Books are my refuge and my safe haven. There is perhaps no book more important to me than Harry Potter — all seven. Growing up with that book did several things for me: it made me love reading; it made me want to become a writer; it taught lessons that I carry with me daily.
I write this review for the eighth installment of the series — Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — as someone who loves Harry Potter, who rebukes constantly the cynics who say it was a fad that won’t be remembered by time and will never be a part of any canon. I write this review as someone who has the Deathly Hallows inked into his skin.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is awful.
Reason 1: Harry is awful.
What I think the playwrights may not have understood about Harry Potter’s success is that, at the end of the day, no one really cares about people shouting Expelliarmus at one another in magical castles. Other books can give us those fleshed out fantasy worlds. None, however, other than Harry Potter, can give us the particular experience of Harry himself and the dynamic cast of characters that surround him. The Harry of Cursed Child is older, perhaps wiser (though some characters don’t seem to think so), but just off in particular ways that make the continuity from Deathly Hallows to Cursed Child seem broken.
On a certain level, Harry Potter in Cursed Child is not the same as the Harry Potter in the rest of the books. Putting a wand in his hand and having him cast spells doesn’t make for a compelling story — that’s about as compelling as buying a Harry Potter lunchbox.
Let’s take this one mischaracterization at a time. So, at the start of the book, we see a very poorly-paced and ham-fisted wedge being driven between Harry and his son Albus, who is sorted into Slytherin and who is contemptuous of being constantly in his father’s shadow. Harry gets enraged at one point and tells Albus that “sometimes I wish you weren’t my son” (42). Barring the fact that it is unrealistic any parent would say this no matter how angry they got, especially one who had seven books’ worth of being built up as loving and loyal to a fault and desperate for a family, Harry later goes on to apologize to Albus in the final scene of the book.
HARRY: But the thing that scares me the most, Albus Severus Potter, is being a dad to you. Because I’m operating without wires here. Most people at least have a dad to base themselves on — and either try to be or try not to be. I’ve got nothing — or very little. So I’m learning, okay? And I’m going to try with everything I’ve got — to be a good dad for you.
This is an interesting statement to make, considering Harry spent the better part of eleven years under the near-slavery of the Dursley family. Vernon seems like “a dad to base [himself] on — and…try not to be.” This also disregards the father figures Harry has had his entire life — Hagrid, Lupin, Sirius, and Dumbledore. This is incongruous because in the very same act of Cursed Child, Harry has a scene with Dumbledore where they tell each other “I love you” (258).
Well, what’s one throwaway line? Not everything Harry did in the first seven books was always internally consistent, either. The issue is that this throwaway line — like others in this text — are contrivances meant to set up important plot points, like Albus’s separation from his father. Previously, Albus’s dislike of Harry being his father seems spoiled and petulant. This line is supposed to help give sympathy to Albus and pivot him into the role of protagonist. It fails. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth toward both Harry and his son.
Side note: Hogwarts portraits are now the actual people? Alright.
One more before moving on. In one of the final scenes of the book, Harry faces off against the child of Voldemort, who asks Harry: “You think you’re stronger than me?” Harry replies “no. I’m not” (291).
I’m leaving out the child’s name for dramatic effect later on in this review (but if you’re reading this, you should already know), but in what world is Harry Potter, the most famous wizard to ever live, the one-time master of the Deathly Hallows, the current-Head of Magical Law Enforcement for the Ministry of Magic, and the killer of Voldemort NOT stronger than a self-taught teenager with no formal training? Harry’s “secret,” though, is that he has “never fought alone” and that he “never will” (291). Which is an interesting position to take considering Harry spent a considerable portion of Deathly Hallows dealing with the fact that people regularly die on his behalf and doubly considering the target of the child’s last spell — Avada Kedavra — was his son. As in, seconds before saying this. But, whatever — Harry says it, the Avengers show up, and Loki is defeated.
Whoops. Wrong money-grab.
Reason 2: Ron is awful.
Because he doesn’t do anything. He’s bad comic relief. He’s a depressing shadow of Ron Weasley. And don’t tell me this is a prescient meditation on adult life. The authors simply couldn’t manage a cast this large and deep. It’s bad writing, not social commentary.
Reason 3: Cedric Diggory is awful.
The plot of this book is predicated on one thing: Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy must travel back in time with a Time Turner stolen from the Ministry of Magic to save Cedric Diggory because he didn’t deserve to die according to Albus who, remember, hates his father Harry.
Their master plan is to first travel back as Durmstrang students and get Cedric to botch the first trial at the Triwizard tournament. This doesn’t work as it only strengthens his resolve in the second trial, but it does have the adverse effect of Hermione not marrying Ron. Whatever. It doesn’t matter because the two kids go back in time to try it again, this time messing up his second trial. The entire goal of this is to get Cedric to not touch the portkey-cup that transports him to the graveyard where he dies in Goblet of Fire.
Albus and Scorpius succeed and are immediately brought back to the present day…where they find a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Dementors roam the lands. Lord Voldemort is in charge of everything. Dolores Umbridge is the Headmaster of Hogwarts and they have literal torture chambers for Mudbloods. Harry Potter died at the Battle of Hogwarts. Why?
Well, dear reader, please take a seat.
Voldemort killed Harry in this alternate timeline because Voldemort’s penultimate horcrux — Nagini — was never killed by Neville Longbottom. Because Neville Longbottom was killed by Cedric Diggory.
Because Cedric Diggory got so embarrassed at his Triwizard Tournament loss that he resented the world and became a Death Eater.
This is canon.
And how did I forget — in this new alternate future, they celebrate “Voldemort Day.”
Reason 4: Delphi is awful.
Delphi, or “Delphini Diggory,” is who we believe to be Amos’s niece until we hear Amos say that he doesn’t have a niece. After stealing the Time Turner and some laughable dialogue about “what muggles call a tattoo,” Delphi reveals herself to be THE DAUGHTER OF VOLDEMORT.
As Scorpius (I haven’t said it yet — but one of the few redeeming parts of this book) is figuring out that Delphi’s story makes no sense, the wonderful narration of this book tells us that “a slow smile grows on DELPHI’s face” because apparently this is a children’s cartoon (220). She would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids. After casting some spell on Albus and Scorpius, Delphi gives what’s supposed to be, I guess, a menacing speech?
DELPHI: Albus. I am the new past.
She pulls ALBUS’s wand from him and snaps it.
I am the new future.
She pulls SCORPIUS’s wand from him and snaps it.
I am the answer this world has been looking for.
Oh shut up. Delphi reads like an anime supervillain. And her master plan involves some new contrived prophecy about Voldemort returning (again) or whatever the hell. Who cares. Go home, Delphi. No one cares.
Also she can fly.
Reason 5: The pacing is awful.
Pacing is often hard to pinpoint and define. It’s basically the rate at which things progress. There is natural pacing, rushed pacing, too-slow pacing, mismatched pacing. Basically, there are lots of ways pacing can go wrong. In Cursed Child, it goes really wrong.
Right away, Albus hates his dad. Okay. Then he’s best friends with Scorpius Malfoy who is rumored to be the son of Voldemort and both of them are pretty bad at magic and get bullied. Okay. Are we going to enjoy any of this relationship-building, this adversity-fighting, this slow mystery build that Harry Potter is known for?
Absolutely not. Scene after scene seems just like we’re reading the Sparknotes version of what happens. If the kids are ever in trouble, it’s either a convenient trouble to set up the next plot point or they have an epiphany and immediately solve it. Like, immediately. In one scene, they’re stuck in the past in Godric’s Hollow on the night Lily and James Potter were killed. But they need help from the future.
The conversation that follows goes something like this: Albus remembers that his father tried to give him an old blanket that Lily Potter used to wrap him in. Albus threw it the night Harry tried to give it to him. It knocked over one of Ron’s love potions. It spilled onto the blanket. For some reason, Ginny (also next to irrelevant in this book) has quarantined the room and doesn’t let Harry touch anything. Albus knows that there’s a chemical in the love potion that, when it reacts to another chemical, will become visible. That other hidden chemical is also invisible! So all they need to do is write with the hidden chemical on the blanket that Harry is currently wrapped in as a young baby and future Harry will get the message because he likes to touch the blanket every year at this exact time!
Whew. Glad that plan is worked out. All Albus and Scorpius need to do is break into Bathilda Bagshot’s house (which is easy, because “rumor has it Bathilda Bagshot never saw the point in witches and wizards locking their doors”) and start brewing a potion (267)!
There is, too, the issue of the Polyjuice potion. Earlier on, they brew a Polyjuice potion with incredible ease, then manage to break into Hermione’s office at the Ministry of Magic, solve several cryptic riddles involving a bookcase, steal the Time Turner, and leave. This all goes unnoticed and Hermione, the most clever witch of her time, puts no magical wards, shields, or protections in place as the head of the Ministry of Magic. All of this occurs in the span of a few pages and it’s all done by two young wizards who we are told are pretty bad at magic. Things that took hundreds of pages to figure out in Chamber of Secrets by prodigal wizards are solved by middling wizards in a page. Not to mention the fact that, according to chapter 10 of Chamber of Secrets, Polyjuice potion takes a month to make!
It’s horrible pacing. Just awful. Through and through. There’s no build up. No stakes. Every problem is solved as easily as it’s created and there is no loss, no tragic sacrifice, nothing. Everyone is fine at the end. But there’s no satisfaction like there was at the end of Deathly Hallows. “All was well” meant something in Deathly Hallows because so many people suffered, fought, and died to get to those three words. There is no catharsis here because there is no emotional buildup because the reader knows there is nothing at stake. Every problem is so easily solved it’s nearly laughable.
Reason 6: It’s a play.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a biased statement coming from me. I don’t really like plays as a personal preference and find that anything a play can say, a novel could say better. I say this as someone who has not only taught the dramatic form, but who has acted on stage. In my view, a play is not an enjoyable way to have a story told.
Anyway, bias aside, it really doesn’t suit a Harry Potter tale. We get these outbursts from Harry where he tells his child that he wishes he wasn’t his son precisely because there is no other way for the play to deliver this information. From Sorcerer’s Stone through Deathly Hallows, we grew to know Harry and others on a deep level through an exploration of thoughts, doubts, hidden actions, intimate wordless moments with others. Here, it’s either lazily spelled out or so overdramatic that it fails. Albus talking about his feelings has the same emotional impact as Anakin shouting “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil!” in Revenge of the Sith.
The exceptions to this are the scenes with Ron and Hermione, where often there is a tense silence that we know is hidden love or desire. But even then, the authors have to tell us, apparently afraid that the reading public is too dumb to figure it out. One bit of narration tells us that “Neither [Ron nor Hermione] move the smallest inch. Everything feels too important for movement. Then RON coughs.” The old adage of “show, don’t tell” is some advice these authors should have really thought about.
Here’s another, admittedly small, but still awful example of this unnecessary tell-y narration:
Suddenly HERMIONE bursts in. All action and resolve.
Do you know why I don’t need to be told that Hermione is “all action and resolve?” Because I know who Hermione is as a character.
And this is to say nothing of the absurd fourth-wall breaking interjections the authors make.
Suddenly everything is a riot of noise as a crowd consumes ALBUS and SCORPIUS. And suddenly the “greatest showman on earth” (his words, not ours) is onstage, using Sonorus to amplify his voice, and…well…he’s having a ball.
Dear authors: I’m sure you’re very excited you get to write a Harry Potter story, but this isn’t your story. Stay out of it. And what’s with all the “suddenly”s? Stephen King would be disappointed.
A last example of why the play format doesn’t work here: I have no idea what the spells do. I know what Expecto Patronum, Expelliarmus, Stupefy, and Avada Kedavra do, as well as Lumos and Nox, because these were extremely prominent in the first seven books. But when Draco and Harry get into a fight (weird, too, because they seem to be getting along and Draco has just had a little speech about the power of friendship — not kidding) and start shouting “Incarcerous!” “Tarantallegra!” “Densaugeo!” “Rictusempra!” “Flipendo!” “Brachiabindo!” “Emancipare!” “Levicorpus!” “Mobilicorpus!” “Obscuro!” at each other, I don’t know what the stakes are. Are they trying to kill each other? Harm each other? Tickle each other? The play can’t tell me because, well, it’s a play. Or maybe it thinks it doesn’t matter. I guess it doesn’t, because nothing comes of it other than an annoyed Ginny and a dumb interaction where they call each other old but in which Draco says “I wear it better.” All of this on pages 130–131.
And why even was it a play? There is nothing play-exclusive about it. No asides, no monologues, nothing of the sort.
Reason 7: “Thank Dumbledore.”
Stop trying to make “Thank Dumbledore” happen. It’s not going to happen.
Reason 8: So many plotholes.
Now, just in the interest of fairness, there were several strong parts. McGonagall was extremely well-written and true to form. The Dumbledore and Snape scenes were quite amazing for their content, not necessarily their writing. The Dumbledore wisdom we do get is on par with any of the books. Scorpius, as I said, is a great character, and Draco Malfoy is actually a very well written character too. For a long while, we knew that Draco was an unwilling participant in all of the Death Eater shenanigans, and this was our first time seeing him out of the control of Voldemort or Lucius.
But, overall, and very unfortunately, bad writing, poor characterization, and awful pacing prevail. Cursed Child is a failure. In what span of time could Bellatrix have conceived and birthed a child with Voldemort? How could any of the characters have seen Lily and James Potter when they were under the protection of the Fidelius charm, that critical plot point surrounding Wormtail’s betrayal as the secret keeper? How can people now teleport into Hogwarts when it was made clear this is impossible? Why does “Voldemort Day” and the slogan “For Voldemort and Valor” exist when book-Voldemort was pretty much dead set against anyone using his name? Why does Hermione act so foolishly? Why is Harry such a bad father? Why are the Weasleys so irrelevant?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child feels more like a broomstick ride through Harry Potter’s greatest hits where the greatest hits are cardboard cutouts and the connections are eye-roll-inducing plot contrivances unworthy of the name Harry Potter.
Why can’t J.K. Rowling just let the story be done, perfect as it was?