It has been two weeks since Harry Potter and the Cursed Child hit the shelves, and to say it has received mixed reactions would be an understatement. Without going into too much detail, it is safe to say that a majority of fans aren’t too pleased with what is termed as the ‘eighth installment’ of the iconic seven-book series.
As someone who bought and read the book on the first day, I concur with the majority, but only partly. Yes, it is true that several things that are wrong with the book — the slightly implausible plot, the plot holes in that being the most obvious. But it is also true that it not actually a book, but a script for a play, a rehearsal edition one at that, and it is not written by JK Rowling, but based on a story by her. There will be several things missing, because it is not the format or author we know.
But first, credit where credit is due. Cursed Child is the story fans have been waiting for almost a decade. How many times have we seen fans wonder what happens to the Potter-Weasley families after the Deathly Hallows prologue and devoured whatever new material came out?
The Cursed Child gave us great insight into the adult life of the trio — it is wonderful to know that Hermione is now the Minister for Magic; a Muggleborn who leads the magical community is great subtext. Former Auror Harry heading the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, (not very proficiently, the book suggests) but still being a capable dueller who is haunted by his pretty troublesome growing up is also a believable development. The character arc for Draco Malfoy, who grows up to be decent human, a good father and stands by the Gryffindor trio is another positive. And it’s simply fantastic to see Rose called ‘Granger-Weasley’, a scholar and a Quidditch prodigy.
However, while the characters are well placed, they are not very well-written. In fact, the Cursed Child is written in a markedly simplistic manner, which may well be due to its format as a play script. But it is not just the story, but also other elements that are written in a manner unlike Rowling’s previous works. Simply put, the characters in the Harry Potter series and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are incongruent.
The best example here would be the titular ‘Boy Who Lived’. The title may have “Harry Potter” at the start, but the protagonist is one of the most underwritten characters in the story. Here is a character we have followed for over a decade and thousand pages, and there are certain set expectations from him — how he reacts or would react to a situation, how he interacts with the people around him and most importantly, his value system. Cursed Child brings it all down. Why would Harry Potter says things like this to his second son, “The thing that scares me the most is being a dad to you. Because I am operating without wires. Most people have a dad to base themselves on and either try to be or try not to be. I’ve got nothing, or very little.” Er, wasn’t almost every male character throughout the series a father figure to you? Right from Hagrid who ushered him into the wizard world to Sirius Black, his godfather. And are you suggesting that Arthur Weasley was anything less than a father to you, considering you married his daughter? Sorry, doesn’t cut it.
Then there is the infuriating scene where he bullies Hogwarts Headmistress Minerva McGonagall into keeping his son away from Malfoy’s son, threaten her using his Ministry connections and says she doesn’t know what it means to be a parent as she isn’t one. Aside from the fact that Harry would never address her as ‘Minerva’, it is very hard to imagine Harry talk in this manner with his former Professor.
Speaking of, Hermione also address her as Minerva, who in turn calls her Minister and there is even more conflict between the two, than the using of names. Two witches with such respect for each other at loggerheads like this is extremely odd. How much changed in 20-odd years?
In fact, this brings me to one of my biggest grouses with Cursed Child — the treatment of female characters. In the series where women have some of the strongest character arcs,their portrayal in the play is atrocious. They are treated as plot devices rather than actual characters in the printed script, and I really hope that the staged play is different. Move over ‘Black’ Hermione, the real outrage should be over how the brightest witch of her age is shown as a hassled government leader and a confused wife. She says she doesn’t want to be Cornelius Fudge, and then proceeds to take every decision based on what Harry feels and blunders on in briefings. And she is not able to recognise her nephew from her husband, when a group of teens break into the most protected office at the ministry, where a truly dangerous object is safe behind a bunch of childish riddles. And then there is Ginny, the feisty hexing, Quidditch-playing journalist who is reduced to being the sounding board for Harry, when he wakes from a nightmare or look at him accusingly, every time their son messes up. She isn’t the nagging wife, she is the editor of the biggest newspaper, some respect please. Rose, who turns up at rare occasions, is conveniently forgotten till she used as a measurement of comparative success or as the love interest for Scorpius Malfoy, as if she is only present to show one of the protagonists is a heterosexual male. McGonagall is shown nothing like the Deputy Headmistress we know, rather just a government employee who is cowed down and wants to defy her former students. In fact the only character consistent with the books is that of Moaning Myrtle, and the most intriguing woman is the robot-replicant Trolley Witch, and that is saying something.
True, the titular Cursed Child and the main antagonist is a woman. A female villain is again a rarity in pop culture, so the presence of Delphi, who pretends to be a chirpy girl but is actually a psychotic murderer, works. But she is also layered as a potential crush for Albus, another red flag. And though she is not shown outright evil like her father Voldemort or insane like her mother Bellatrix, there is so much more potential to explore with her, which is just reduced to her basic act of evil for the good to triumph over. There is so much time spent on establishing the tough childhood of Albus, a little of that on Delphi would have been a bonus.
Then there are the more glaring plotholes, the ones you can't ignore. Apart from the fact that this 'alternative reality when time is changed' trope has been seen in enough television shows and the fact that this is not how time travel in Potterverse works, is a big red flag. A Time Turner with a time limit? Weren’t Harry and Hermione able to travel for hours in the Prisoner of Azkaban? And does Transfiguration work in a way that can change a person to another? Then why did the trio not use it as disguise when on the run, all the time? So many unanswered questions!
But all this aside, Cursed Child has some massive winning moments – portions that make it truly stand out as a Harry Potter book. One of my favourite portions was the interaction between Dumbledore’s portrait and Harry. The former Headmaster’s transgressions have been well documented by the fandom; leaving a child to a family that mistreated him, hiding crucial information, having mysterious and dodgy reasons for all the tragedies. But to see him have this conversation with Harry and apologise for the times he went wrong, years after his death, is cathartic. As is his simple admission that all he did, even the things that failed, was motivated by love for Harry. Their mutual declaration of their love, something that has been unspoken thus far, was wonderfully sentimental. And the highlight was yet another poetic and beautifully worded piece of advice for Harry — There is never a perfect answer in this messy, emotional world. Perfection is beyond the reach of humankind, beyond the reach of magic. In every shining moment of happiness is that drop of poison: the knowledge that pain will come again. Be honest to those you love, show your pain. To suffer is as human to breathe.
Vintage Dumbledore. Vintage Rowling.
Then there was the brief cameo from Snape, in the darkest timeline. Another ‘resurrection’ of sorts, to see his side of things, after his true allegiance was declared, was poignant. His Patronus, the doe, his words to Scorpius, his pride and sacrifice, were all callbacks to the person Snape was supposed to actually be, and was a perfect character arc for such a contentious character.
It’s fitting to see Dumbledore and Snape show their true selves, flaws and all, in a book about Albus Severus Potter, after all.
And then there is the final confrontation in Godric's Hollow, that sequence right there is what salvages the story. When it is all about Harry facing the bad guy/girl, with a little help from his friends, the story reaches its peak. And the emotional scene that follows, where Harry and family relive the murder of Lily and James is heartbreaking and exactly what the book needed to conclude on a good note. When Albus tells Harry about his grandparents is another poignant moment.
It is these moments that make you realise that the book had so much more potential. Expectations were high, and the disappoint on the internet is palpable. Rowling has now said that her expansion of the Potter universe is complete. Well, if there was more of this to come, it is a good sign that we end with this.