J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter fantasy series supposedly ended in 2007 with the publication of the seventh and final book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But nearly a decade after Rowling’s original story ended–and five years after the movie versions wound down–she’s expanding her Wizarding World empire in increasingly diverse ways. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks have opened in Orlando, Hollywood, and Osaka, Japan. Rowling has moved into screenwriting, adapting her charity textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into an upcoming film trilogy starring Eddie Redmayne. She’s writing about the history of magic in America on her company hub Pottermore. And after years cultivating other parts of the franchise, she’s dipped back into the lives of her main characters.
The script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part stage play that opened in London in June, has now been published as a standalone book. It’s another Harry Potter story insofar as Harry is a major character, but it’s completely unlike the novels. Rowling devised the story along with director John Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne, with the actual script written by Thorne. The play centers mostly on Harry and Ginny Weasley’s son Albus Severus Potter, and his friendship with Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius as they navigate tumultuous early years at Hogwarts–19 years after the events of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of Pottermania at WIRED, so a couple of us devoured the book and thought we’d talk about it.
Warning: The post contains plot spoilers for the entirety of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Do not proceed unless you’ve finished reading the play.
K.M. McFarland: So, Chris, this is the first new Harry Potter-centric story in Rowling’s Wizarding World in nine years. It’s the fastest-selling script book ever, and the fastest-selling book of the decade in the UK, and sold over two million copies in the United States in its first 48 hours. I had so many things running through my mind when I finished the script, a lot of things about a certain magical device from Harry Potter’s world that I’m sure we’ll get into since it plays such a major role in the story. But here’s a burning general question I’d like to start with: Do you think Cursed Child does enough over the course of 300 pages? Does it provide enough additional story to justify its existence as anything other than an additional cash cow for the franchise?
Chris Kohler: Well, let’s first be clear: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play, not a novel, and we are reading its script. It’s important to bear in mind that we are not experiencing this work in the way it was meant to be experienced. We’re being given the opportunity to purchase a facsimile of an actor’s toolkit, and thereby get a glimpse through a keyhole of what it might be like to attend this play. So to engage with it as a standalone book is, I think, to set yourself up for no small measure of disappointment.
I feel like Rowling & co’s hands were forced here: As the play is sure to eventually expand out from London to Broadway and to worldwide tours, many will get the chance to see it in the coming years. But right now, only a whisper of a fraction of a percent of its fans will be able to see the London production. Had this script been kept under lock and key, ravenous fans would have been hacking together all kinds of bootleg scripts from half-remembered lines, surreptitiously trying to record the show, or who knows what else. This script had to be published, and it had to be published now.
With such inevitability taken into account, was it all worth it? I think so. The play’s focus on many different frayed parent-child relationships gives it a fairly solid thematic throughline–the big question of “Who is the Cursed Child?” seems to have any number of answers as you read through–giving us an adult Harry, Ginny, Ron, and Hermione that are far more fleshed out than those one-dimensional Ron-has-a-beer-gut renditions we saw in the controversial epilogue at the end of Deathly Hallows. Hell, the whole thing almost feels like an apology for that epilogue; I love that it starts right there and wastes very little time ripping the whole thing’s pat happily-ever-after la-di-daness to shreds; Albus Severus does end up in Slytherin, Harry doesn’t know how to dad, and relations with the Malfoy family are a chilly alliance at best. That feels right.
Could it have stopped there, I wonder. Could this simply have been a play about fathers and sons, rather than a play about fathers and sons and Voldemort and time travel? Is it Harry Potter without high adventure? Perhaps not. I wasn’t bugged by Voldemort’s daughter. But I’ll tell you what I was bugged about, and I bet you know since we talked about this with regard to 12 Monkeys: In the books, time travel was of the closed-loop variety. When Hermione went back in time, she couldn’t change the past, because she’d already been there. But in Cursed Child (which is canon!), Albus and Scorpio can cause a butterfly effect and create an alternate timeline, andthere’s no explanation for why time travel (using the same kind of device) works differently. Narratively, it lets us explore other aspects of our favorite characters, but it’s also a gaping plot hole. Am I right to be bothered by this, or should I just (in the words of another upcoming Broadway hit) let it go?
K.M. McFarland: That cuts right to the heart of my biggest complaint about the play: it introduces a kind of magic previously never hinted at by Rowling. In Prisoner of Azkaban, when Hermione and Harry use the Time-Turner in an attempt to free Sirius Black, the story depicts time travel exactly the way you describe. We see events over again, but things that seemed strange or off to Harry the first time around are suddenly explained because he realizes the time travel has already happened, and he performs what needs to be done (like a full Patronus Charm) because he’s already seen it occur. And once Harry and Hermione return to the Hospital Wing, they haven’t irrevocably altered the timeline, they’ve just re-experienced it from a different vantage point.
That’s not how Cursed Child uses time travel at all, though. During the deviations into different timelines, as Albus and Scorpius make multiple attempts to save Cedric Diggory from being killed by Peter Pettigrew during the Triwizard Tournament, the makeup of the world shifts dramatically. At first it alters the foregone conclusion of Ron and Hermione’s marriage, erasing their daughter Rose from existence. Later, the course of magical history shifts even further in a Man In The High Castle direction, with Scorpius the Big Man On Campus at Hogwarts if the war had ended with a Voldemort victory. While it’s intriguing to see the Wizarding World turned on its head for several pages, this is where criticisms that Cursed Child feels like some canonized fan fiction has merit. It gives the play something of an It’s A Wonderful Life quality that I don’t think I ever needed to see, and it feels almost irrelevant because I never once felt that anyone was truly in danger when the timeline shifted. There’s no Wash at the end of Serenity moment here. Everything would get restored, families would heal, and love would conquer all.
That’s not to say that there’s not a ton of rewarding material in this script. I’m even more excited to get a chance to see the actual live production whenever it tours–likely a Broadway production before an eventual national tour. I loved the way an early scene rushed through Albus Severus’ first years at Hogwarts. How he immediately feels the weight of expectation on his shoulders, doesn’t encounter the same luck Harry didn’t finding friends, and suffers in uncomfortable silence. Harry and Ginny’s eldest son James and youngest daughter Lily end up in Gryffindor, but Albus is marooned in Slytherin, just okay in his classes, and nothing like his father at Quidditch. Fans of the novels have sorted themselves into the four houses of Hogwarts for years, but Rowling’s books eventually stacked the other three against Slytherin. But Cursed Child does more to inspire sympathy for that house than I ever thought possible, through Albus, and especially through Scorpius, who even manages to humanize Draco as a grieving, overprotective father who has a lot in common with a middle-aged Harry.
Also of note, there’s a scene in Hermione’s office–she’s Minister for Magic, obviously–where Albus, Scorpius, and Delphi (later revealed as the main villain) uncover the prototype Time Turner. It’s protected by a series of riddles and magical barriers that made my imagination run wild the same way it did when I first thought about the winged key room in Sorcerer’s Stone or the Department of Mysteries in Order of the Phoenix. There’s still some magic left to wring out of this story.
And I was surprised by which familiar characters crossed paths with the main trio and their respective children along the way. Amos Diggory means more here than I ever thought he would after the fourth book. Minerva McGonagall might have the best speech in the play, admonishing the new generation for failing to understand what she and their parents endured and fought through in order to ensure peace. But for every moment that made me tear up (and there were quite a few) out of nostalgia or the joy of getting more information, there was another that made me want to chuck the script across the room. (Is Myrtle Elizabeth Warren an honorific simply because her name is in the Harry Potter canon, or is it a backhanded compliment because it’s the full name of Moaning Myrtle?) How did you parse through all the callbacks and updates to familiar characters, and did you find little things like the timeline of Bellatrix Lestrange’s pregnancy as unbelievable as I did?
Chris Kohler: Hey, Delphi was a wartime baby, just like Teddy Lupin. What with Voldemort’s quest for immortality, you figure he’d have as many backup plans as possible. And he would have gotten away with this one, too, if not for those meddling kids!
I do think they could have written a compelling show without the time travel, because there’s so much to explore. Look, Slytherin is not Evil House. Hogwarts wouldn’t have an Evil House. And I love the idea of this story exploring that–what is Slytherin–but it doesn’t go very deep. Why was Albus sorted there, anyway? I guess by the end of the book, the middle-child syndrome is fairly obvious, and it does put a new twist on that exchange in the epilogue: Albus wasn’t just irrationally worried about getting sorted into Slytherin, he was worried it would happen because somewhere deep down he wanted to go there, to get out of the shadow of his famous dad and cool older brother (who we barely see, but who we are told has no social problems, like his namesake). “The Sorting Hat takes your choices into account,” Harry told him (I paraphrase), and Harry probably thought that was a cool-dad move and yet that probably freaked Albus out even more. (And really, I think we can all agree that what would have been most embarrassing would have been getting sorted into Hufflepuff.)
Putting a new twist on an already-told part of the tale is a strength. If Cursed Child has a weakness it is, as you say, the moments where it strays a little too close to fanfic. Again, much of this may be the fault of the fact that we’re reading the script versus seeing it take place on stage (like you, I’m not going to fly to London, but I will make the trip to Broadway). But still. Where it crossed the line for me was the return, via the Darkest Timeline, of Severus Snape.
This didn’t need to happen. That story was wrapped up with a bow on it. Harry named his kid after him (middle kid, middle name, but still). We didn’t need to go back there. But it’s not just the fact that Snape returns that’s so unsettling. It’s that Scorpio launches into a plot recap, telling Snape how rad he is, how he knows he loved Harry’s mom, how he knows he is a Good Person underneath all that grease, and how he is just the bravest and most kindest cuddly teddy bear in all of the books. At this point, we have left the realm of pure fanfic and dipped a toe into something far worse: Mary Sue fanfic.
I liked the interaction between Harry and Dumbledore(‘s portrait) more, especially when Harry blurts this out: “I have proved as bad a father to him as you were to me.” Ouch. I don’t know what cuts deeper: Harry telling Dumbledore that he was a shitty dad, or Harry Freudian-slipping to Dumbledore that he was basically his dad. If Return of Snape was my throw-the-script-across-the-room moment, this was my drop-it-in-shock moment. (Especially since, as the play makes sure to remind us, Harry’s not really talking to Dumbledore, who is really dead, he’s just telling an AI that he loves him.)
There’s good stuff in here. I think it’s going to work on the stage. I think maybe it’s a little bit more of a revisiting than it needed to be, but maybe that’s what theatergoers, over the long term, are going to want–a theatrical experience that reminds them of what they liked about the Harry Potter books. They’re clearly trying to walk a delicate line, looking backwards while looking forwards, and after thinking about it I feel like it succeeds more than it fails.
K.M. McFarland: That Dumbledore scene crushed me too, almost more than the not-beyond-the-grave scene at King’s Cross from the end of Deathly Hallows. McGonagall’s explanation of what remains in a portrait was also insightful and poignant, in the same way as Nearly Headless Nick’s explanation to Harry about remaining on the earth as a ghost at the end of Order of the Phoenix. And I totally get what you’re saying about Snape, but that’s the point in the play where I started reading his lines in the voice of the late Alan Rickman, which made me forgive it just a bit.
When I was a teenager reading the books, I couldn’t help but make lists upon lists of unanswered questions about places, characters, and past decisions left unexplained. But while there’s even more left unresolved here–whether it’s Draco’s wife, Albus’ sorting, or what happened to the other Weasleys–I was content with the slice of the Wizarding World that could fit into a stage play for an overstuffed two-night performance. Sure, I wanted way more of the focus on Hermione running a magical government or for the show to feel as thought it tracked along the timeline of a school year calendar while managing to suggest global implications for the danger at hand as the books did. But I did appreciate the way the play did, as you said, look backwards while looking forward
Literally every single book is obsessed with the past while driving Harry’s story ahead. He discovers information about his family in the first book; learns about Tom Riddle in the second; his father’s time at school in the third; more Voldemort family history in the fourth; the Order of the Phoenix in the fifth, more Tom Riddle in the sixth, and then Dumbledore and Grindelwald in the seventh. So it makes total sense that this play would not only revisit Harry’s Hogwarts years, specifically the Triwizard Tournament, while also flashing all the way back to the night Harry’s parents were killed in Godric’s Hollow. But showing those events to Albus and Scorpius, allowing them to have an active hand in preserving the timeline, and then accepting life’s sometimes cruel imperfections
Like any other Potter novel, there are a million little things to nitpick (telegraphing the villain very early on) and plenty more we didn’t name that deserve praise. I could wax poetic about the use of a blanket that feels ripped straight out of Rian Johnson’s Looper that made me gasp. But once again, I’m left impressed by how much Rowling and her contributors made me care about these characters all over again. It will inspire more people to read, and then probably go out to see live theater. At the very least, it was a more successful addition to the Wizarding World canon than “History of Magic in North America.” And though Rowling has said this is officially the end of Harry’s story, you never know what will happen a decade from now. At that point we’ll have to see what Scorpius Hyperion Malfoy and Rose Granger-Weasley’s daughter Hermione Astoria Malfoy-Weasley-Granger thinks when she takes an illegal Time Turner back to see her father misuse an illegal Time Turner.