I was the right age for Harry Potter. I read the first three books in a flurry of excitement when I was ten, then spent about eighteen months waiting with intense anticipation for the fourth. When that came out, I loved it. When the fifth came out, I was super excited, when the sixth came out, lots of excitement too, and when the final book in the series was released, it came at the end of my final year of school and seemed like a perfectly timed companion ending to my own school days. That last one I went and bought from a 24-hour Tesco and stayed up all night reading. After that, though, I considered my relationship with Harry Potter over.
I’ve seen some of the films, and haven’t enjoyed any of them. I reread The Philosopher’s Stone as part of a children’s literature module towards the end of my undergraduate degree, and was disappointed by J. K. Rowling’s underwhelming writing. However, her plots, her imagination, her vividly created, hugely complex, magical world cannot be faulted. Rowling is a phenomenal and hugely gifted storyteller, and her debut novel may have been the most exciting text I read on that course, but when compared alongside writers who were producing sublime literature aimed at children, she fell disappointingly flat. Rowling wasn’t writing literature, she was writing stories. And that is – I suppose – fair enough. She was writing great, gripping stories that charmed me from the end of primary school through to the end of my A Levels. Her plots were thought through and intricate – one thinks of the way everything is neatly tied together during the first two books, and – especially relevant here – the way she uses time travel with such phenomenal aplomb in The Prisoner of Azkaban. At the end of that novel, two of the main characters travel back to earlier in the same evening to help themselves when in danger, and in doing so, all sorts of strange occurrences from the past few chapters are twisted into sense. Time travel, in the Harry Potter world, is interesting because it cannot change anything. What has happened has already happened, and her neat narratives bely this idea of time travel repeatedly.
In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, time travel has changed. The time travel devices that exist now work in different ways to those from the novels. On stage, it is possible to make horrific, world-altering changes to the present by meddling with the past. The Cursed Child ends up being a Back to the Future/Harry Potter crossover, where we have characters never being born or not having died yet, good people becoming evil, people’s personality changing, but still held as it was in the previous present in their own head… We get a version of time travel that isn’t the version of time travel previously presented in Rowling’s fantasy world. This sounds like a lame thing to pick out, but I want to emphasise, before I admit how much I enjoyed this, that The Cursed Child is crap. The dialogue is stilted, there are typos all over the place, characterisation is very limited, people drop out and reappear in a very unsatisfying way (characters gain and lose siblings due to textual inconsistencies AS WELL AS the effects of reckless time travel), and the whole thing seems rushed and not in keeping with the rules of the magical world we’ve previously met. This isn’t a satisfying, new, Harry Potter book. This feels like a cynical (though successful) cash-in attempt, and the accolades listed in Jack Thorne’s bio imply that he definitely has the skill to do better than he has done here. He’s an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, writing a play based on a story idea invented by him, Rowling and the guy who directed it. This is Thorne’s writing, and it feels done by rote, done for the paycheck, done for the dime. This is not an explorative and mature piece of drama, this is a crass, simplistic, nostalgia-chasing money-spinner that he couldn’t even be bothered to work hard enough at to make it read well on the page.
And I fucking loved every moment of it.
IT’S A NEW HARRY POTTER BOOK.
Let’s look at that sentence with the importance it deserves, let’s weigh that in our minds and let’s remember how much we loved Harry Potter when we were twelve years old. A lot of the time travel goes back to the Triwizard Tournament, the central plot device of The Goblet of Fire, book four. That was the book I was most excited about on publication, that was the book that meant the most to me when it was new. And here it is, back in my life, back in my mind.
IT’S A NEW HARRY POTTER BOOK.
And that is the point of the play. To remind people who enjoyed Harry Potter books 15 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, less, of the excitement they felt when they entered into this intricately plotted and beautifully imagined world. Everything is present that mattered. All the characters who weren’t minor are mentioned, all the villains and heroes are present, in an alternate present we see loads of dead characters as people older than they ever got to get… Significant places are visited and significant moments from earlier books are visited by the characters either in dreams or during time travel shenanigans from the sidelines. Hagrid is back, Snape is back, we see the Potters as a happy family before Voldemort killed the parents and scarred Harry. We see Ron, Harry and Hermione (obviously), but also a mature Draco Malfoy, a contrite talking portrait of Dumbledore, Dolores Umbridge, Amos Diggory, Polyjuice Potion, all our favourite spells; we visit Godric’s Hollow and the Whomping Willow and the Forbidden Forest, the Ministry of Magic and the hut on the rock where the Dursleys hide from the Hogwarts letters… All this, and a whole lot more mentioned in passing, and it’s great and exciting and The Cursed Child reminded me, page after page, of characters and events that had excited me SO MUCH a long time ago.
It is nostalgic, it is fun. There are twists and cliff-hangers and descriptions of staging that sound like they would be wonderful to see, and I laughed and I almost cried, but not because of Thorne’s words here, but because of Rowling’s remembered narratives on my less-developed literary brain elsewhere. I didn’t enjoy it because Thorne wrote great dialogue (he didn’t) or because he, Rowling and the director wrote a (to be fair) exciting plot; I enjoyed it because it reminded me of something I enjoyed for itself a long time ago. This is a bad script, full of problems, but it is a script that joyously reminds me of a thousand things that once made me happy. It’s fun to be reminded of fictional people I once cared deeply about, and it’s a real treat to think about how shocking it was when Cedric Diggory was murdered, how scandalous it was when Snape fucking killed Dumbledore, how exciting it was when we met the witches and wizards allied against the return of Voldemort… The plots of the Harry Potter books kept me wild with excitement for several years when I probably should have been doing better things, and reading The Cursed Child puts me in the complex position of wanting to engage with those books again, but knowing that the experience now may fail to excite me and thus tarnish the memory.
The Cursed Child isn’t very good, but it reminds me of things that were (or at least I thought were), and I had a great time reading it. It’s exciting and silly and fun and ridiculous. I’d recommend reading it to anyone who enjoyed Harry Potter when younger, but this is, ultimately, probably about as good as a thousand pieces of fan fiction written by compulsive masturbators you can find on the internet.
I loved it, but it was bad. Also, it didn’t connect with previously established rules about time travel in the extant Harry Potter series.
If you’re even remotely tempted to read it, read it. You’ll have a blast. If I was a man of the world, I’d compare the experience to returning to an old serious lover for a night of hot love. But I’m not a man of the world, and the relationship I had with Harry Potter was what I had instead of human relationships in my teenage years. So, yeah, it was exactly that, and the Boy Who Lived still knows how to make my heart beat fast. Spending a few hours with him made me feel young again, but I didn’t want my friends knowing that was what I was reading. I may indulge myself soon and reread one of the last two HP books. Either that or The Casual Vacancy.
I had fun, yeah, but I’m old enough now to know fun isn’t enough.
For the former fans: a guilty goldmine.
For anyone else: tawdry shit.
I had a blast. Just please don’t tell my literary friends…