'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child': Book Review

Summer Books -Harry Potter and the Cursed Child- H 2016
Arthur A. Levine Books

This week saw the release of a new Harry Potter book with midnight parties, fans dressed in costume and pre-orders that already have made it the bestselling book of the year. It all feels so 2007.

But it's 2016 and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not your ordinary Potter book. For starters, this isn’t a book, but the script of the two-part play that opened in London on July 30 (hours before the book went on sale). Second, this one takes place 19 years later (opening with an extended version of the epilogue from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on platform 9 3/4). And third, and most important, this one isn’t written by J.K. Rowling herself, making it the first one not written by the original creator. She helped come up with the basic story along with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, but credit for the play script goes to Thorne alone (Tiffany directs).

That the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child evokes so much nostalgia is perfect for a story that depends so heavily on nostalgia, the past and familiarity with the original seven books. A better title might have been Harry Potter and the Back to the Future (or, for those that get the reference, Harry Potter and the Felicity Season 4B) for a story that uses time travel to explore what-ifs and alternate futures.

The best parts of The Cursed Child are the beginning and the epilogue. The story focuses on Albus Severus Potter’s arrival at Hogwarts, the Sorting Hat (as Albus feared, he’s a Slytherin) and seeing friendships and alliances reconfigure in a new generation. Particularly interesting is the friendship that develops between Albus and Scorpius Malfoy, each so unlike their fathers, and the character of Rose Granger-Weasley, also so unlike her parents. (For starters, she’s an epically good quidditch player.) It is the most Rowling-esque part of the story and frankly the most fun.

Seeing how the children of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Draco are both like their parents and also distinct characters is fascinating, and the relationship between Albus and Scorpius feels genuine (though Rowling had a better ear for kid’s dialogue than Thorne). Part of me wished this was book one of Harry Potter: The Next Generation and the story really luxuriated in everyday life at Hogwarts in the same way as the original book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Instead, The Cursed Child becomes a convoluted time-travel adventure that honestly is a bit of a slog. Without giving away too many plot details, Albus and Scorpius travel back in time to save a life and in doing so they set off a domino wave of changes that radically alter the present. As in Back to the Future, further attempts to fix the timeline result in more changes and still more attempts to make it right, even as their parents are rushing to rescue them. Some of the alternate future versions of familiar characters are fun and others don’t quite work. But understanding any of it assumes a pretty deep familiarity with the Potterverse. This isn’t a story accessible to newcomers (in the way the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie appears to be), but one designed to service the existing fan base.

J.K. Rowling should be applauded for pushing the boundaries of form. The easiest thing for her to do would have been to just write a new book — or even skip the new book and get right to the movie. Doing a play is a daring creative choice, especially for a multibillion-dollar franchise like Harry Potter. (Imagine if Star Wars: The Force Awakens had started as a play.) This story would definitely be more fun to see performed on stage. Rowling also deserves credit for giving the characters over to someone else to write. The story doesn’t always read like she wrote it, and that gives it an appealing freshness.

But the big problem with The Cursed Child is that it's less an original story than a remix of the existing Potter mythology. The been there, done that feeling to the whole thing is its greatest weakness. How the sins of the father (and the mother) weigh on their children is an interesting theme, but it would have been better served exploring that idea in a truly original story and not one that rehashed the mythology of the previous seven books.  

Let's hope that if there's a ninth story, it leaves the time travel behind.