After a long absence, Harry Potter is back. The script for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out in bookstores earlier this week, and it’s a welcome return to familiar magical stomping grounds. What’s most rewarding about this story however, is that it’s grown up with its characters and readers.
The first thing to get out of the way with this book is that it’s not a novel, which is one of the things that has been confusing to a lot of people: it’s the rehearsal script for the play that just opened in the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. A regular script will be released later this year, now that the play has opened.
The book is just a small part of the experience Rowling and her co-writers are aiming for
The fact that it’s being published in hardcover form (it sits nicely on the shelf along with the rest of the books) is a bit misleading, because it’s just a small part of the larger experience that Rowling and her co-writers were aiming for. While there’s stage direction in line with the dialogue, it’s clear that you’re missing out on what’s apparently a spectacularly staged production.
Some spoilers ahead for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
The Cursed Child is billed as the "eighth Harry Potter story," but it’s one that doesn’t feel as though it’s really connected with the epic story that Rowling played out over those seven novels. What it does do, however, is provide an interesting insight into what the impact of the adventures of Harry and his friends had on the world down the road.
Rowling has said that The Cursed Child is the last Harry Potter story, but did so in a way that appears to leave the door open for further stories with the new characters it introduced. The Cursed Child seems to do that. It’s 20 years after the events of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the magical world has moved on with their lives, rebuilding after the devastation that Voldemort brought during his return. Harry is in charge of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Ron joins his brother at Weasley's Wizard Wheezes joke shop, and Hermione becomes the Minister of Magic. Harry and Ginny Potter have three children in Hogwarts, while Hermione and Ron Granger-Weasley and Draco Malfoy have their own children. While the series is a nice glimpse into how everyone moved on, it’s deeply rooted in the past. With the world at peace, Rowling uses the book to show how tenuous their world is, and how it could have been extremely different.
The story largely follows Harry’s son Albus, who is accepted to Hogwarts and gets sorted into Slytherin along with Draco Malfoy's Scorpius. The young Potter and his father have a strained relationship, a result of the mythos that has followed Harry since his showdown with Voldemort at Hogwarts. Harry has his own problems. His office has recently confiscated a time turner, and in a fit of teenage angst, Albus and Scorpius decide to try and make one dark episode in Harry Potter’s past right: saving Cedric Diggory’s life during the Triwizard Tournament during the Goblet of Fire.
The results, as one might expect with a time travel story, are drastic. As they make one adjustment, everything leans precipitously in one direction, while a readjustment makes everything go the other way. There’s a world where Voldemort won the Battle of Hogwarts, showing off a dystopian world where evil triumphs. There’s other, more subtle worlds where Albus wasn’t sorted into his original school Slytherin: he ended up in Gryffindor, but his problems with his father continue.
Harry, for his part, has trouble bonding with his son, who’s trying to cope with his father’s enormous legacy. Rowling uses the book as a sort of snapshot of a deeply emotional tale between father and son. It works for the most part, although it’s a little inexplicable that Harry hadn’t confronted some of these issues with his first two children.
With those issues, the story demonstrates that it has a deeper level of maturity than the earlier series: Rowling tackles some nuanced angles that never quite came through in Harry’s story, but what took me by complete surprise was how Harry and Draco Malfoy not only come to the point where they tolerate one another, but their children become best friends, against all odds.
There’s an amazing moment in the beginning when Albus and Scorpius meet for the first time:
Rose [Granger-Weasley]: Yes, well, we should probably sit somewhere else. Come on, Albus.
ALBUS is thinking deeply.
Albus: No. (Off ROSE’s look.) I’m okay. You go on.
Rose: Albus, I won’t wait.
Albus: I wouldn’t expect you to. But I’m staying here.
This corrects a long-standing problem that I’ve had with the Harry Potter series, where those in House Slytherin were made villains by mere association. The moment is so different from what might have happened in the earlier books, where Rowling hammered home themes of loyalty to friends and one's sorted house. By turning his back on relatives and family friends, Albus essentially punctures the mythos that surrounds his family. He's willing to step away from the everything his father represents, and works to remake himself as his own person. This makes Albus a truly interesting character to follow in the play. It's this introspective look at the world where The Cursed Child succeeds the most.
It’s sort of a forgone conclusion that Harry Potter will be as influential as worlds like Star Wars and Star Trek in the entertainment world. How do you follow up a beloved story and characters without diminishing the original entries? If Albus is coming to terms with the legacy of his father, The Cursed Child as a work of fiction feels as though it’s sussing that out as well.
The Cursed Child is a peek into the future of a character and a world that never quite stopped
So, where does this leave us? Harry Potter and the Cursed Child doesn’t feel like it’s an "eighth Harry Potter story." Rather, it feels like a peek into the future of a character and a world that never quite stopped: it’s been running unseen in the mind of J.K. Rowling, with little bits and pieces coming out through Pottermore and productions such as this.
Cynically, this is a story that could easily be floated as a test to see if the Harry Potter franchise still has some juice in it. Harry’s story might be over, but Rowling shows that you don’t necessarily need Harry to keep telling stories. This isn’t the only example of that. The upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie will likely test the strength of the franchise after its main attraction’s story has ended; a sequel already has a release date. However the story decides to continue, The Cursed Child is certainly an interesting episode to behold, and one that adds real value to the larger wizarding world.