I’m sorry to review Harry Potter and The Cursed Child as one of the biggest reading disappointments I’ve had since I started reading for pleasure again after my kids were born–so in the last four years.
I loved the original Harry Potter books and the movies: the magic, the adventure, the fun, the characters. I grew up with it, and I wanted to love Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Yet, from page one, I was disappointed:
- little new plot material
- simplistic characters
- sloppy emotional outpourings
SPOILER ALERT – consider yourself warned, though I have avoided things that could ruin the one real surprise.
There is only a little I could spoil because the new plot mostly revolves around the plots of the original seven books. What’s new is that that Harry’s son, Albus, and Draco’s son, Scorpius go, back in time with a time-turner in attempt to right certain wrongs from the past. They revisit Triwizard Tournament a few times, remind us of the Chamber of Secrets and go back to that fateful day when Voldemort gave Harry his scar.
The only present day conflict is that Albus and Harry don’t get along well. The Cursed Child is about the next generation wrestling with the scars of the past, which is of course a real struggle, but I was hoping for new present-day problems and adventures.
Yet the back-in-time plot, while a bit trite and logically-suspect, also tries to do too much.
At one point, Scorpius encounters an alternate universe where Voldemort is king, where all is dark, and Dumbledore’s Army is completely underground and he must find them, and convince them to help him and get time aright again. During this one-scene gargantuan plot piece, three (THREE!) characters throw themselves at Dementors to help save Scorpius. The full undermining of the alternate world is accomplished merely as a step in rest of the story–which is about the importance of letting things stand as they were. That one scene has to do a bit too much emotional and story-telling work for the amount of time it gets. And it seems a little too easy for Scorpius to sweep in and right this all-goes-wrong world in a few sentences.
Harry, Albus and Scorpius are really the only characters who matter. All the old gang makes an appearance of course: Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Draco, Prof. McGonagall, even Profs. Dumbledore and Snape, but only as nods to their previous roles–none of them do anything of much interest. Everyone’s main motivation is to cheer on Harry! Not much more to say here.
Sloppy Emotional Outpourings
The Cursed Child is saturated with daddy-issues that bend the plot around themselves. Consider this gem of an outburst from Harry to the painting of Albus Dumbledore in the Ministry of Magic:
“Go. Leave. I don’t want you here, I don’t need you. You were absent every time it really counted. I fought him three times without you. I’ll face him again, if needs be–alone.”
And then, Harry reiterates,
“‘Love blinds us’? Do you even know what that means? Do you even know how bad that advice was? My son is–my son is fighting battles for us just as I had to for you. And I have proved as bad a father to him as you were to me. Leaving him in places he felt unloved–growing in him resentments he’ll take years to understand.” (IV, iv).
The emotions are real, but they aren’t interesting. They aren’t done well or subtly and they provoke more eye-rolling than heartstring-tugs.
Having “emotional issues,” isn’t enough. Author K.M. Wieland has discussed storytelling technique in the Marvel Universe and pointed out, rightly, that characters do need “ghosts:”
“This is the wound in his backstory. It’s something that haunts him. (Because ghosts haunt people, get it?) It’s something so big and painful that it shaped him into the person he is today.”
But good dialogue turns the ghost into motivation or offers it later as explanation. Just blurting it out all time merely feels awkward for everyone involved.
Going further, dialogue that grabs the reader has subtext–it has an under-meaning that makes it interesting:
“Subtext is all about what isn’t said. When writing dialogue, our first impulse is often to spell out exactly what’s on the characters’ minds. “I’m so mad at you right now!” or “I love you!” or “My backstory Ghost is making me so miserable and messed up. Whaaa!” (Don’t laugh. It’s done all the time.)”
And that is exactly what The Cursed Child does: “Wah, I don’t like my dad or he wasn’t there, but hey, we have friends!” The whole thing feels forced and left me not really caring whether Harry and Albus worked it out.
Wieland gives this example from Captain America: The First Avenger as writing done well:
Like This: Steve’s first big (unauthorized) mission has him rescuing captured Allied soldiers from a Hydra base. His outfit and methods immediately mark him as unorthodox. One of the soldiers—Dum-Dum Dugan—asks incredulously, “You know what you’re doing?” There are two obvious answers to this. Steve could either have offered the expected and comforting lie, “Yes.” Or he could have told the truth about being a “dancing monkey” with zero combat experience.
Instead, he tells a different truth with a totally different subtextual meaning. He pauses, then says nonchalantly, “Yeah. I knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.” It’s a delightful bit of irony that speaks to his inexperience without admitting to it, while also slyly referencing his true ability, since the only reason he was knocking out Hitler in the stage show was because he’s a one-of-a-kind super soldier. That’s four layers of meaning in one simple line.
Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was blunt and simplistic in theme and character while absurdly overdone in plot pieces–like how three characters sacrifice themselves to dementors.
I read it because I am a Harry Potter fan. To me, The Cursed Child fits into the category of fan fiction–fun to read and write, but not memorable or canon. After all, it wasn’t written all by J.K. Rowling and her role in its authorship isn’t very clear.
Questions: What makes a character compelling? What makes dialogue fun? Did you like The Cursed Child? I would actually love to hear about what you enjoyed