I binge read The Cursed Child on a flight this weekend and it pains me to say that I am disappointed.
Firstly, let me paint you a picture of what Harry Potter was/is to me. An eleven year old child is sitting in class somewhat vexed as all of her friends are utterly preoccupied. Their noses are rooted firmly in this behemoth of a book called Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. This particular child has never heard of Harry Potter before, and is a bit annoyed that none of her friends want to go outside and actually enjoy the precious lunch hour. This eleven year old is the child of immigrants, and in the four years that she’s lived in the UK has managed to master the spoken form of English with the amazing aptitude that young minds have for language. However, the written form continues to be onerous. Reading is much bigger challenge for her than anyone is aware of. She performs ok in classes, with spelling seeming to be her only weakness. She figures she just doesn’t have that skill. No one knows this but she’s never read a book.
Sure, the bookcase in her room is well stocked. But if you looked a little closer you’d see that only the first few pages of those books are stained darker with the grubbiness of a child’s fingerprints. She’s tried multiple times, but every time her brain gets caught on the words and stumbles and falls and she has to re-read the sentence over and over without taking in the meaning and it all gets too frustrating, so she shoves it away – reading isn’t for her. She can write stories, which her teacher praises after correcting all the spellings, her descriptions are good for her age, but reading is an entire book is impasse. So to this eleven year old the book that her friends have abandoned her for, the book that has turned them all into zombies, the book they will not shut up about is something she secretly knows she can never be part of. Still, her friends insist that she must read them.
On a casual stroll through the supermarket she spots Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and asks her responsible adult to buy it. She is expecting it go end up in her private book grave yard just like the rest. However, when she opens that book on the car journey home, a miracle occurs. She finds that she can get through whole sentences at a time, the words flow through her mind, admittedly slowly but at least in order and with total comprehension. By the end of the journey home she’s further into a story than she ever has been before, and what a story so far! There’s an eleven year old boy who lives under the stairs and can speak to snakes. It’s such a joy to read that it doesn’t even register when there are occasional difficult words which she’s actually motivated to work through. Skip forward a couple of days and she has finished the story of the Philosopher’s Stone. She has finished a book. Her first of many. She is utterly spellbound. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t actually know how to pronounce Hermione, or that it took her a lot longer than it seems to take her peers. All that matters is that she needs more! Thus begins the rest of her life.
The Harry Potter series was my gateway to a literature addiction that is still going strong. Along with travelling in the real world, travelling through novels has steadfastly remained one of my favourite things to do, against the odds of my otherwise fickle temperament. I know I’m not the only one who learned what reading is through these books. The reason I felt the need to explain this is because I don’t want people to think I don’t respect J.K. Rowling’s seven part magnum opus. That being said, I’m not one of those ultra crazy all things HP fans. As such, this isn’t a case of managing expectations. I was 17 when The deathly Hallows came out and went to the midnight launch with my bezzie, I also went to the midnight launch for the script as I happened to be working late, I guess that’s as extreme as I get. For me, all these new offerings from the Harry Potter universe aren’t things I hype up and wait expectantly for. I went into it, with very neutral expectations, as I will with the Fantastic Beasts movie, just a kind of casual curiosity, with no priors on whether I’d love it or hate it. With that out of the way, let’s commence with my review of The Cursed Child.
**** SPOILER ALERT: FROM HERE ON THERE WILL BE NUMEROUS MASSIVE SPOILERS SO CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN PERIL, BUT DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU ****
Now, the obvious fact is that reading the script for a play isn’t the same as seeing a play or reading a novel. Without the magic production and incredible sets bring, the script isn’t going to be as effective as the final product. I would still go see the play if I got the funds handed to me. I certainly didn’t crack open the book expecting it to be a novel, and I found I adapted to reading a script fairly quickly and didn’t really struggle with knowing who was saying what, which some people seem to be complaining about. My issues are solely with the story and not the medium, with the exception of perhaps my point on dialogue.
The Time Travel Paradox
The consistency paradox or grandfather paradox occurs when a future event prevents the occurrence of a past event that was partly or entirely the cause of the future event, thereby preventing the future event from occurring, thus creating a contradiction. Consistency paradoxes occur whenever changing the past is possible.
I loved the Prisoner of Azkaban, it is probably in my top three HP novels. It was a bit darker, with more serious undertones. Sirius was awesome once the truth was revealed and a foreboding antagonist before. The plot twist with Wormtail was great (yes I’m aware of plot holes people since noticed – but I can over look why Harry never questioned that Ron was with sleeping with someone called Peter Pettigrew most nights – perhaps he didn’t spend much time examining the Gryffindor quarters on the map). Most of all I loved the time travel. On first reading I wasn’t yet a sci-fi nerd. I hadn’t yet heard of special relativity and time dilation and my fascination with all these concepts hadn’t begun. I just thoroughly enjoyed the mastery of this story.
Cue my renewed appreciation for just how good a job Rowling did of this tale after I had eventually discovered the above mentioned concepts and happened to reread the Prisoner of Azkaban. As far as I’m concerned time travel was handled well in this story. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ve missed something, but I distinctly remember thinking that she totally avoided the grandfather paradox. As far as anyone in the story is concerned the actions which future Harry and Hermione take to save Sirius and Buckbeak are still necessary at the point in time when past Harry, Hermione and Dumbledore decide to go back and take these actions. Sure, there’s still the issue of causal loops particularly with Harry’s patronus but these are the lesser of two evils where time travel is concerned and are pretty much unavoidable.
Contrastingly the re-introduction of time-turners in The Cursed Child is poorly handled and is plagued by the grandfather paradox. When Albus and Scorpius change result of the first Triwizard task, that should have been how the events played out. That should have been the version of events we read when we read the Goblet of Fire. Sure they fix this later because Scorpius managed to go back and prevent them from making that first change – so in the end it seems to add up and the version of events we are familiar with is the version that proceeds. However, If Scorpius went back in time and prevented Albus and Scorpius from performing their first alteration of the past, then he would have always done so – meaning the alternate future which the first Albus and Scorpius witness – in which Rose Weasley-Granger no longer exists – would never exist! Meaning they would never feel particularly guilty about this new world which should be identical as their attempt to change time failed and they would genuinely have changed nothing. This future should have been identical to the one they had always lived in.
Perhaps they’d still be perusing their ludicrous goal of rescuing Cedric and continue with the plan to sabotage him in the Second task. Clearly, it’s a similar tale to task one. The changes which they make then get unmade and thus were never made and thus never needed to be unmade and thus, at best Scorpius never learned any of valuable lessons he learned about never messing with the past… If you’re still following me then this is the root of my first criticism of this new story. Even without Scorpius fixing the initial changes it doesn’t work. They changed the time-line so events proceed differently to the version in which they decided to go back and change the time line, so they never actually go back and change the time line…refer to image below.
There’s a chance I’m wrong and there isn’t a grandfather paradox? Please tell me I missed some clever way around this? Or maybe I was wrong about Azkaban and it was plagued with this issue too? Again please tell me if so? Perhaps I’m just being pedantic and no-one else on the planet gives a hoot about violating the grandfather paradox, in which case, good for them because I’m sure it’s a fun plot otherwise.
My second issue was the direction they took with character development. Let me start with the fate of poor Ron Weasley. He spent seven books being overshadowed by his two best friends. However, he was not unimportant. He was never unlikeable, an occasional douche bag in the way all teenagers are prone to be, but never a two-dimensional token character. He was a fully formed human being with heart, courage, loyalty, and humour, who was integral to the defeat of Voldemort. In The Cursed Child he is a shell. He is nothing but a deliverer or flat, at times inappropriate, one-liners who serves absolutely zero purpose in this story and is genuinely difficult to imagine as a real person. The fact that he helps run a shop whilst Hermione and Harry occupy two of the highest positions in the ministry, I can overlook. This is plausible, not because Ron was too useless to get a ministry job but because it’s utterly plausible that he would have chosen personal happiness and a lower stress environment than his duty-bound, hero-complex friends. But seriously, what role does he play in the plot of this play? Sure, Ron probably does make awful dad jokes but there must be more to him than that? His biggest part is to deliver statements of support like a barking pet dog defending his owners – support that is superfluous for the greatly respected Minister of Magic and Head of Magical Law Enforcement. In the final act I thought for one glorious moment that they would give him the chance to redeem himself, when he volunteers for the role of Voldemort – but no, it has to be Harry in the end. Of course it had to be Harry, but still. I’d rather they had killed him off than bother with this grossly unjust portrayal just for nostalgia’s sake. If you don’t have a place for him in your story – leave him out. It just ruined things – it was so hard to buy that Hermione gave a rats arse about this moron that annoyingly lingers in the background. I guess they tried including him in a minor subplot about his and Hermione’s love transcending through alternate realities and remaining immutable despite all odds. This didn’t really touch me though as their relationship is utterly implausible with this characterisation of Ron.
Ron wasn’t the only casualty in my opinion. The whole concept that Cedric Diggory can’t handle being temporarily humiliated and teased about his attempts at the Triwizard tasks going wrong is preposterous. By all accounts he was a humble, good natured and rather mature boy. Surely when such a boy later discovers that is was all a trap for Harry Potter, being the stereotypical Ravenclaw brain box that he is, he would have jumped to the conclusion that he was sabotaged and is not actually a failure and would be kind of thankful that he wasn’t teleported to a grave yard to face Voldemort. Sure, no one believes Harry at first so maybe these revelations would take some time. But even then, Harry would steal the limelight with his tall tales of the return of The Dark Lord, no one would tease Cedric for particularly long. Does anyone really believe that someone that was setup as so gallant and reasonable in the original books would really be driven into the life of a Death Eater from such minor provocation?
I’m sure there were more examples: alternate reality spinster Hermione, the homoerotic undertones to Albus and Scorpius’ friendship that turn out to have just been placed in randomly, McGonagoll being a weak willed headmaster that panders to helicopter parents, Delphi, to name but a few. In the interest of my word count and your time I shall go no further on this topic.
My penultimate qualm with this tale was the dialogue. Admittedly, this one might not actually be a problem when you’re watching the play. I get it, just like in a movie, you need to spell out what characters are feeling through their dialogue because you can’t read their thoughts. Unless you’re a fan of soliloquies. But seriously, so much of the dialogue felt forced and contrived and unnatural. Too many times I thought ‘really, does anyone actually speak like this?’ Maybe this all improves when actors are, you know, acting the lines and interject improvisation etc. I’m not in the business, so for all I know all rehearsal scripts use this type of awful forced dialogue as a means of direction which later gets adjusted to something more natural but with the same underlying message? Or maybe it’s that all scripts keep these cringe worthy interactions but once they are embellished with the rest of the production and special effects you don’t notice?
Inconsistency with the Source Material
My final point ties in with the characterisation problem. Namely, inconsistency with the source material. I get it, Rowling didn’t write this alone. Perhaps Jack Thorne came up with it all, but I’m still flabbergasted that she okayed this time-turner plot. I can believe that someone attempted to remake them after the Ministry’s stock were destroyed. They were forged by magic in the first place so why not again? However somewhere in the script they state that the original time-turners could only go back a hour at most. To my knowledge this was never stated in the original series. Dumbledore merely advises Hermione that ‘three turns should do’ and I don’t recall any mention of an hour limit in any book. Presumably, this was mentioned in the play to address the question of ‘if the Ministry had literal time machines why didn’t they just go back and kill Voldemort before he rose to power?’ However, I think a much more satisfying answer than ‘they only reverse an hour’ would have been that the Ministry officials/Law makers were wise enough to understand that such a colossal change would have unfathomable consequences and did not provide a viable solution. Such attempts to retroactively mould the source material to fit your new story (oh the irony) don’t sit well with me.
Here ends my diatribe on this much maligned tale from a much loved fictional universe. The above weren’t my only issues, I can’t even start on the protagonist and her mere existence, it would just take me too long. I didn’t completely loathe it for the record. I think it will make a fun play, the production will bring it to life and distract from the multitude of issues. It will inherently be more immersive than reading the script. My conclusion is, that it’s a nice story, but it lacks the quality and thought that it’s predecessors ooze.
You may ask, is it ever fair to compare a play script with a novel? To which you may have a point – but in that case I still think my first and second points stand, as the plot and the characters are integral to both. In The Cursed Child the plot resembles swiss cheese and the characters are caricatures. So much of the script felt like they were pandering to our need for nostalgia and if their only goal in creating this play was to cash in on this, then yeah, the time-travel plot achieves this. In my opinion it would have been better if they stopped trying to take us down memory lane, rehashing old characters and villains into new forms that truly belong in the uncanny valley. Instead maybe they could have used their skills as writers to make something new and interesting with a coherent plot that keeps a few relevant, well developed characters, whilst introducing new ones. As a stand-alone story and a play, it’s probably very entertaining – but it’s such a shame they chose backwards instead of forwards.