Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a review

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So, first things first. Just to be clear, this is a review of the Cursed Child script. I didn’t see the play. By the time I realized I might want to go to London to see it, all the at least moderately reasonably priced tickets were sold out. Knowing what I know now, I’m really glad I didn’t spend that kind of money on it. All the reviews indicate that the acting and production of the play are great, and I believe them. The writing, unfortunately, not so much.

Warning: This is not a Spoiler-Free review

The bad news is: the spoilers were true.

The good news is: some of it is better than it seemed from that.

Unfortunately, there’s also another bit of bad news: some of it is worse.

Those of you who have read them already know the plot isn’t worth much. Riddled with clichés and tropes so blatant it makes you snort when you read them. Impossibly contrived and unmotivated at some points. And there are so many plotholes it’s basically see-through. The beginning is a rushed overview of Albus Potter’s early years at Hogwarts. It felt, at least in writing, very much like a checklist of ‘right, so this happened too.’ The scenes did not have enough space to have proper emotional impact or depth. Given that they are meant to establish the main characters, it’s an issue, but more on that later.

As for the dialogues themselves, they are mostly well written, with a few truly brilliant exchanges. However, there are also some very cringe-worthy, unnatural sounding lines. The ones that people made fun of from the spoilers sound no better in context.

The writing has most trouble when it needs to do a lot of exposition quickly. I understand it is difficult to establish as much as they need to, but it doesn’t make the exposition machines that sometimes appear in the scene only to do the info dump and disappear again any easier to bear. There are also a few scenes that sound extremely silly in writing, but which I believe probably look great on stage and are not completely illogical, so I am willing to give them a break and understand that book is not the intended medium of this. I will admit, too, that the final confrontation and resolution was decently written, both character and plot wise, with dialogues that made sense and weren’t actually ridiculous.

The play tries to touch on a number of themes, but for me at least, it fell flat because nothing was properly established or consistent. I am aware I might be applying book standards here, but the thing is, so much stuff happens in the Cursed Child, and a lot of it does not get enough space. It would have been better, to my mind, had the play been less action-packed and used the smaller number of themes and events to explore them properly.

But then, it all comes down to what I feel the writing struggled with the most: characterization. And without proper characterization, everything else falls flat. Perhaps the authors of the Cursed Child (one of whom is J.K. Rowling herself) have now realized that writing fanfiction isn’t as easy as it seems, because trying to stick to canon characterization of a character is hard. In many cases, they fail. Then again, given that they often fail to keep consistent characterizations of what are effectively original characters, too, I am not really surprised.

Harry Potter and His Personality Flip

I was pleasantly surprised by Harry at first. The spoilers seemed to indicate he was a terrible father, but then he appeared in the script and he seemed fine, he seemed to be trying. It’s Albus who begins to be terrible towards his dad. Harry might not always react perfectly to that, but he does what he can.

But then, suddenly, something changes out of the blue and Harry starts to acts completely dreadful to his child.

The “sometimes I wish you were not my son” that became legendary from the spoilers is not even the worst part, as much as they make a big deal out of it, because Harry says it in anger after Albus tells him he wishes he wasn’t his dad, and immediately apologizes and takes it back and says he didn’t mean it. But before that, the children are departing for Hogwarts and receiving farewell gifts, and James gets his dad’s invisibility cloak, Lily gets fairy wings and Albus gets…Harry’s old blanket.


Harry has too much experience with terrible presents from the Dursleys not to realize why this was not the way to go. Giving Albus the blanket for sentimental value, okay, why not. But not instead of an actual decent present like the other kids got. Honestly, this is the kind of blunder no halfway attentive parent would do, and least of all someone with Harry’s experience.

But then, Harry apparently had an absolute personality flip and turned into an asshole version of himself because his son is acting like a jerk. Maybe it’s infectious? Now he cannot even be honest with Ginny, his wife of twenty-five years, and tell her his scar is hurting. He also says – and this time not in anger – he wishes Albus was more like James and Lily. That would perhaps be understandable if Albus did something actually bad or mean, but he says it in the context of ‘I have trouble communicating with him and so I wish he were different’, which, really? This asshole!Harry also refuses to do a relatively simple favour for Draco in spite of the latter being recently widowed and this being the only thing he asks for when the Potters offer help.

Asshole!Harry is great with the centaurs, too. He comes onto their land without permission and acts basically like the embodiment of colonialism, because I suppose he couldn’t have asked. We later learn that Bane probably maliciously lied to him, too, or at least twisted the facts, because of course those damn, treacherous natives always lie – they are angry and bitter, after all. I wonder if this scene was included just because Rowling has a quota on offensive implications towards creatures coded like indigenous peoples.

Asshole!Harry then proceeds to order Albus to stop talking to Scoprius, his best and only friend, and even be in the same room with him, because of Bane vaguely mentioning dark aura around Albus. Harry even starts treating Ginny and McGonnagal like shit, and asks Draco if he’s sure his son (who looks like a miniature copy of himself) is actually his. At this point, I’m really surprised somebody doesn’t get him tested for Polyjuice Potion.

The implication seems to be that this all happens because Harry is freaked out by Albus’ recent disappearance, but unfortunately, we’ve seen Harry under stress and worried about people and feeling like he failed before, and it didn’t look like this. The Harry we know lashed out and broke things. Asshole!Harry turned into a cold creature with a heart of stone and started to bully everyone around him, even abusing his Ministry power. I realize people can change over time, but that is the thing: if you are working with a previously established character, you cannot simply assume he did without showing it. Otherwise, you’re turning him into an OC.

The Curious Case of Ron Weasley

Speaking of character assassinations…what the hell was Ron?

He was there as a comic relief, and some of his lines were genuinely funny, but…no. He is pushed very much into the background. He gave Albus a love potion as a gift. A love potion, aka the date rape drug. He was drunk at his wedding with Hermione. This is not one of the heroes who helped win the wizarding war. This is a caricature of Ron from the fanfictions that prefer Hermione with someone else.

And that relationship, too! I don’t ship Ron and Hermione and I think their marriage would have trouble working, but if the authors believe they can have a good marriage, fine, only then they have to go with it. Instead, when Albus and Scorpius create an alternate universe by their meddling with time, we learn that they didn’t get married there because Ron took her to the Yule Ball and so didn’t get jealous of Krum, and apparently, their marriage all hinged on that jealously.

Yeah, you read that right: the way to happy marriage is acting like a complete jealous jerk in the first stages of the relationship! Cheers!

Marriage Trouble

There’s a lot of icky things related to these two, in fact. In the same alternate universe, Ron married Padma instead, and the implication is that he isn’t very happy in his marriage, his relationship to his son is not exactly loving, and his wife turned him into a dead bore. And he desires Hermione. At least Hermione being explicitly black in the Cursed Child robs this of the uncomfortable racial implications it would otherwise have, but still. Perpetuating the notion that there is exactly one (1) true love out there for you and if you fail to find it, you will be miserable for ever…Like I said, icky.

Not marrying Ron, by the way, turned Hermione basically into a bitter female Snape, whereas while married to him she ended up Minister of Magic. Of course. This difference didn’t see to affect Ron’s career adversely in any way, though he clearly does not run a joke shop, so he changed paths at least.

Ginny is one of the (two) characters who are truly great in the play, but the problem is, she is also very much pushed in the background. Like, I get it. Albus has troubled relationship with his father. But…why does his relationship with his mother seem to matter not at all? Why do we get no scenes of Ginny discussing with Albus that Harry means well, mediating between them? In fact, the two get basically zero interaction with each other, we only see Ginny talking to Harry about his issues with Albus, trying to tone down the asshole aspects. Plus there are little gems, like one of the scenic notes saying: “Ginny doesn’t know what to be.” Seriously?

Whitewashing the Grey Characters

Then there is Draco. I’ve seen people complain that he was whitewashed into a goody two-shoes, but I didn’t have an issue with that, really. I mean, I do think the war would have changed him very significantly and we saw the beginnings of that in the books already, so it doesn’t feel as unearned as Harry’s development. What I do mind is his inconsistent characterization.

He seems to be sort of distantly friendly with Harry, yet when Harry comes out to say Voldemort might be coming back, he straight out accuses him of only trying to seek attention and basically manages to undo the whole emergency meeting Hermione – as the freakin’ Minister of Magic – called. He’s meant to be grieving the death of his wife, but we’re never shown the actual grief, only this irrational reaction, so it doesn’t really work. Plus a few minutes later, Draco is suddenly the rational one again and spews words of wisdom and insight into Harry’s character.

We also hear that all Lucius ever wanted was for Draco to be a Ministry man, which makes me seriously doubtful. Why would the richest basically aristocrat of the wizarding world so desperately wish to have his only son and heir get an administrative job?

In the same universe, Severus Snape is alive, and I have seen complaints about him being turned into too much of a good guy too. Here, I’m more inclined to agree. Yes, I can see him working with the resistance, even with Ron and Hermione, I can see him lying down his life for it – but I certainly can’t see him being so kind and gracious about it all. That’s too much off-screen character development.

Also, this is not a characterization issue, but I’d really like to know one thing: how is Snape alive, when the divergence from canon was supposed to occur by the death of Neville, so Snape was dead by then…and if he is alive, why is he not the Headmaster of Hogwarts, why is it Umbridge instead? He, the loyal Death Eater who killed Dumbledore, wouldn’t get to keep his job? Really?

And speaking of headmasters, there is Dumbledore too. There are two brilliant moments that end up ruined. One is Dumbledore’s portrait saying that “we cannot protect the young from harm.” I’ve never seen anything more in character, anything summing up his approach as headmaster better than this. We can’t protect them, so why even try? Dumbledore also gives Harry some terrible advice about love blinding him. Later, Harry takes him to task for it and begins to drag him beautifully.

Then suddenly the scene is flipped on its head, Dumbledore is crying and saying how he loved Harry and he’s this great hero once more and all is forgiven and we go back to listening to his wise advice. For real. This was clearly included to address the objections against Dumbledore, to show he was fallible too, but instead of it being explored and Harry accepting that Dumbledore is not one to be listened to indiscriminately – something he should have known by now, to be honest – he just returns to the pedestal after a little emotional scene, no problem.

People now also say Dumbledore instead of Merlin – as in, “thank Dumbledore” – which makes me extremely uncomfortable, given it being a stand-in for God in the wizarding expressions.

There are other character assassinations, of course, like Cedric turning evil because his pride is hurt, or McGonnagal the Headmistress of Hogwarts letting Harry bully her into personally overseeing his son, because she clearly has so much free time and gets scared so easily. But I assume this is enough for you to get the picture.

The Protagonist…

Albus Potter…oh God, Albus Potter. Albus is a whiny privileged brat who endangers the whole world because he has daddy issues. He’s the epitome of an emo kid who creates drama for the sake of Drama. He thinks his own problems are the most important thing in the world. He treats his father like crap before said father turns into asshole!Harry.

Yet not even that is consistent. I mean, having a jerk protagonist is not necessarily bad, and he learns his lessons at the end. This is the one part of plot and themes that works for me, in fact. So fine, but give me consistent characterization. But no, instead Albus, who has always been ignoring his father, suddenly listens to him when said father forbids him to speak to his only friend. And that after they had a really bad argument with Harry, too. Sure.

And there is his Sorting, too. Maybe the authors forgot that the houses are not ascribed randomly? I mean, we don’t get to hear Sorting Hat’s reasoning for the Sortings here, so we would need to be shown. And in Albus’ case, we really, really aren’t. He’s worried about being in Slytherin at the beginning, so he wouldn’t have chosen it, presumably. He might have done so for Scorpius, who was already his friend by then, but the script explicitly says that he is astonished by the Sorting. So, no choice, it seems – and isn’t that strange? It seems to imply Albus was such a clear case there was nothing to discuss (even though the Hat is said to take longer with him), so his Slytherin traits should be particularly strong…instead, they are nonexistent.

I mean, Albus isn’t athletic and doesn’t like flying, but that wasn’t a Gryffindor requirement last time I checked. And apart from that… Children make fun of him. He’s unnecessarily mean and confrontational towards his father. Then he jumps out of a moving train on a completely hairbrained scheme to mess with time which almost destroys the world as they know it. How is this Slytherin, exactly? There were no traces of ambition or cunning. Not even of the deep, simmering kind of emotion Slytherin is supposed to have, as opposed to the more over, impulsive Gryffindor ones. Albus is very open in his anger and resentment. His Sorting was a plot point that was not thought through.

…and his ‘bro’

Fortunately, there’s Scorpius, the other really great character in the play beside Ginny. This one even gets enough space, and he’s awesome. He is a true Slytherin, has wonderful sarcastic remarks, is a geek (which we are perhaps told a little too often – you know, that show not tell rule, writing 101?), an incredibly loyal friend to Albus…it’s great.

An important moment in Scoprius’s arc was probably meant to be the temptation he faced to stay in the Dark AU. He had a chance to be the popular boy instead of the outcast he is in his original timeline. However, for one, there was never any hint of temptation on the text. He only spoke about it afterwards. While this might be displayed by acting, having no lines indicating makes it less apparent. And for another, if this was meant to be a thing, they should not have gone so overboard with the darkness of the AU. The Muggle-Born are tortured in Hogwarts dungeons in that world. If Scorpius had any hesitations about letting that world exist, he would have been a sociopath. Talking about him having “passed the test” because he didn’t makes no sense.

The other resolution to his arc Scorpius gets is learning to be more brave and…wait for it…getting to like flying and Quidditch and hoping to make the team one day! That’s right! Those silly nerds need to be fixed, you guys! Just send your geeky kid to a fascist alternate future and they will come back with a passion for sports! Success guaranteed! Seriously. And even the bit with bravery…I’d get it if Scorpius was like Neville in his early years, seen to be clearly excessively afraid and cowed, and the story showed him learning to stand up for himself. Instead, we see Scorpius raising entirely reasonable objections to Albus’ hairbrained schemes. Fortunately, he learned bravery later, though, so he won’t do that anymore!

Well. At least they’re still friends. That’s awesome.

The friendship is so great, in fact, that is descends straight into queerbaiting.

And I mean, some serious queerbaiting.

SCORPIUS: So we hide in a hole?

ALBUS: As pleasurable as it will be to hide in a hole with you for the next forty years . . .

SCORPIUS appears at the back of the stage. He looks at his friend talking to a girl – and part of him likes it and part of him doesn’t.

Find him Scorpius. You two – you belong together.

Know what I mean?

Beside Harry’s relationship to Albus, Scorpius’ and Albus’ ‘friendship’ is the main character focus of the story. And yet, not only we don’t get a gay romance out of it at the end, we get rather aggressively asserted heterosexuality for both boys. Especially for Scorpius, it is so stupid it would, I think, be legitimate to read as Scorpius’ attempt to divert any ‘suspicion’ from himself because he’s afraid of Albus’ reaction if he told him. Unfortunately, that was clearly not the authorial intention.

Oh, Those Troublesome Girls

To fully explain the stupidity of Scorpius’ het love interest, I have to talk about the last important Next Generation character (well, last but one). Rose Granger-Weasley.

Rose Granger-Weasley is an asshole. I mean, this is the girl who was best and lifelong friends with Albus until the point they boarded the Hogwarts Express. There, she acts like an entitled snobbish brat talking about how the world is at their feet. She gives off vibes that are very Draco Malfoy at 11, in fact. When she meets Scorpius, she channels young Draco again by showing all of her prejudice. She refuses to talk to him. When her lifelong friend decides to stay in Scorpius’ compartment, she just abandons him there and moves on.

Then Albus is Sorted into Slytherin, and she stops talking to him.

To the point that when her house-mates laugh at him, she doesn’t defend him.

Women, amirite? They just don’t know how to be true, loyal friends.

So they don’t speak at all. Rose only tries to reach out to Albus once, three years later, because her parents tell her to. Albus, quite correctly for once, tells her to go to hell.

Yet in spite of all this, Scorpius has a crush on her and constantly talks about asking her out. The girl who treats both of him and his best friend like crap. At the end, there is also a very uncomfortable moment when he does ask her, she tells him no, and he insists he’ll wear her down one day. Dude…don’t. You’re a cinnamon roll, don’t ruin it.

SCORPIUS: Rose Granger-Weasley. I asked out Rose Granger-Weasley.
ALBUS: And she said no.
SCORPIUS: But I asked her. I planted the acorn. The acorn that will grow into our eventual marriage.
ALBUS: Rose hates you.
SCORPIUS: Correction, she used to hate me, but did you see the look in her eyes when I asked? That wasn’t hate, that was pity.
ALBUS: And pity’s good?
SCORPIUS: Pity is a start my friend, a foundation on which to build a palace – a palace of love.

See what I mean?

The Unbeatable Mary Sue

And speaking of icky relationship related things… There is the last character in the Next Generation crew, the infamous Delphi Diggory.


Let me tell you, she is not any less stupid in the full script than she was in the spoilers. More so, in fact, or rather, even more of a Mary Sue. Not only does she have silver-blue hair, an Augurey tattoo, and is Voldemort’s daughter, she is also an extremely powerful witch, so much so that she would have defeated Harry – who has two decades of being an Auror under his belt – had he not had help from Albus. In the dark AU, she seems to be more celebrated than Voldemort. Her symbol, the Augurey, is everywhere and people speak of her with respect and fear. Voldemort, on the other hand, seems to be mostly living in memory. She is perfect, in a word.

She is also twenty-two years old, and clearly manipulates the fourteen year old Albus. She flirts with him and uses his attraction to her to get him to do what she wants. That would be great, really. An exploration of the problematic dynamic, awesome! And with the woman being in the role of the elder in the relationship, thus combating the idea that only men can be abusers! If, you know, it was actually explored, instead of turned into a joke. I mean, the only explicit mention of the age difference we get is Scorpius joking that Albus likes older women. That’s it. No compassion about the sort of manipulation he was subjected to, no anything. This upsets me.

Remind you of anything?

To complete the icky triad, the still-fourteen year old Albus is transformed into Ron at one point and needs to distract Hermione (you know, his aunt), so he kisses her a few times. Just…why did anyone thing it was a good idea to write this there? I get it’s a funny scene, but really?

Women Get the Short End of the Stick

Speaking of problematic, I am very troubled by the fridging of Astoria Greengrass-Malfoy that happens early in the play. True, it’s not textbook fridging. She isn’t murdered; she dies of natural causes. But we never see her on scene, she is only important to Scorpius by her death, and she dies to further her son’s and husband’s story arc. Her reason of death is not related to Voldemort’s supposed return. It’s not even personal. Someone down the family line was cursed and it randomly manifested in her. Sure.

Petunia is dead for some reason, too, even though she would have been like 65 at this point. This is probably not gender-based, though, just lazy worldbuilding. Amos Diggory is in a home for the elderly at what is probably about seventy years of age. That’s the age McGonnagal became headmistress.

By the way, the description of that home left me feeling really uncomfortable. Just take a look:

These are people relieved of the burden of having to do magic for a reason – instead, these witches and wizards do magic for fun. And what fun they have.

I don’t even know what exactly is that meant to imply. It rings very false to me that a home for the elderly is painted in sugar-sweet colours as everyone being perfectly happy. Elderly people are still people, with their good and their bad moments. It shouldn’t be any more sugary than the rest of the world if we don’t want to dehumanize them. And what is up with being free from doing magic because they have to?

But even disregarding Petunia’s death, women do not fare well in the Cursed Child. There is the minor issue of Fleur always getting the smallest applause in the Triwizard Tournament. It’s meant to be a nationality, not gender stereotype. “The French are so repressed, right?” However, it has unfortunate implications. Much more importantly, though, Astoria’s death together with Rose’s characterization and Ginny being put so much into the background bothers me a lot. Hermione fared best, I guess. I love that her children are actually called Granger-Weasleys, officially, Rose is sorted under than name. But there is that bitter AU where she didn’t marry Ron, so…

Even More Problematic Matters

There are more disturbing messages to be had. For one, the whole storyline with Voldemort’s child…apart from being stupid (the Voldemort we know and hate would not have a child), it’s also intensely troubling. Have these people not seen Star Wars? Children of villains don’t have to be villains. In fact, it makes for a pretty great story when they aren’t. I guess it would make at least some sense if Voldemort actually raised the kid, but she was raised by a Rowle who ‘didn’t like her much and only did it for the money.’ Yet everyone reacts to hearing Voldemort had a child by panicking completely, because of course that child would be inherently and utterly evil.

Harry asks Draco if Scorpius “isn’t Voldemort’s” because he suspects he is the dark cloud over Albus. Clearly, how Draco raised him and that he’s been a friend to Albus for years doesn’t matter. As long as he has Voldie’s genes, he’s evil, period. Albus himself crowns this by telling Scorpius that he doesn’t believe he is Voldemort’s son because he is kind.

I don’t think Voldemort is capable of having a kind son.

Just…okay, I’m out of politeness: Fuck this deterministic bullshit right to hell.

And there is the elephant in the room, too, the basic premise of the Cursed Child. We hear McGonnagal berating Albus and Scorpius for “disappearing” a few people by meddling with time.  She means they created a reality in which these people are never born or are killed. And sure, that is an issue. But it’s a little embarrassing to point out the “harm” done to a few characters and never bring up the others. The conception of time used here is one timestream that is changeable. It is the most problematic conception that exists, to be honest, and a different one than what was used in the Prisoner of Azkaban. According to it, they ended lives of everyone in a given reality as soon as they meddled with time.

Yes, they “disappeared” Rose and Hugo when they messed with time for the first time, like McGonnagal says. But when they tried to repair that error, they “disappeared” Panju, the son Ron had with Padma. And they “disappeared” Ron and Hermione as well, the versions of Ron and Hermione who existed in that AU, since they are not the same people. No one is the same, so they ended all of their lives. If change in time was possible in this manner, this would be the primary reason why time travel would be banned. It would always imply mass murder, or mass “disappearing.” Using this conception of time without reflection bothers me every time, but the fact that they particularly call attention to it in this play with Rose and Hugo, while ignoring the other cases, is upsetting. I guess Panju doesn’t matter, because Ron seemed to find him irritating?

In closing

To end on a more positive note, Albus and Scorpius’ friendship truly is lovely to follow. Scorpius is a great character, Albus’ personal growth is good and believable, and the showdown is impressive. There are good and truly enjoyable moments. If you managed to get engulfed by the story, you can even ignore some of the tackiness. I’m sure that becomes easier when seen in a theatre.

There are good things about unintended implications of this story, too. For example, there are a few canon scenes in the play, all slightly different from the ones we see in the books. That implies a world where canon becomes a loose term where one and the same scene can be regarded differently and still be seen as canon in a way.

That’s great news for fanfiction. The implied survival of Nagini’s attack is cheering for all those who like to write Snape alive after the war, too. And all the time-travel alternate universes were legitimized. In some ways, this is great news for fandom. Just…not in all.

Images courtesy of Pottermore and HBO

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