When, on the 31st July 2016, bookshops across the country threw midnight celebrations at the release of the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, dubbed “the eighth Harry Potter story” by JK Rowling herself, it felt like I had been transported back to the relatively carefree days of my childhood. Twelve horrified hours later, I sincerely wished I hadn’t bothered. Not only had I grudgingly come to acknowledge the unfortunate truth that the story just wasn’t very good, but I felt like my nostalgia for the original series had been exploited. Somehow, Harry Potter would always be tainted by this failed attempt to resurrect it.
From the moment the project was announced, I’d been sceptical. The plays synopsis, promising to bring us Harry as “an overworked Ministry employee, a husband, and a father of three school-age children” immediately struck me as deeply problematic. The heroes and heroines of children’s literature aren’t really supposed to ever leave their youth behind: there’s a reason why the image of Peter Pan’s Wendy all grown-up is such a horrific one. Children’s literature has always, perhaps quite naturally, asserted that there is some special power which the young possess that they must inevitably lose, like the ability to enter Narnia in CS Lewis’ classic children’s novels, as they are gradually socialised to accept the adult world, with all its contradictions and hypocrisy. It was for this reason that I also objected to the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: there was something inherently depressing, even if indeed “All was well”, in seeing Harry, Ron and Hermione settle down to such mundane, suburban lives. Rowling would have done much better to have left them as battle-hardened but still youthfully idealistic 17-year-olds, with their futures wide open and offering infinite possibilities. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s foray into greying hair, marital strife and troubles finding work-life balance, this sense of anti-climax only worsens.
Yet, almost paradoxically, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child also suffers from a lack of growth and development. Nowhere was this more evident than in the play’s convoluted time-travel plot, which breaks with the more sophisticated and restrained “closing the loop” format favoured in the original series, for a more hack-handed “alternative realities” scenario. Due to this plot, we spent a large amount of the story revisiting old scenes and storylines, saying final fond goodbyes to favourite characters and rehashing old problems. It felt that all of the major moral lessons of the books had been inexplicitly forgotten and needed to be learnt again (which house you are sorted into doesn’t define you, our mistakes make us human, love and friendship are more important than the pursuit of personal glory). The characters, too, felt as if they’d stayed exactly the same as or, in fact, regressed from (Ron Weasley, I’m talking to you) their adolescent selves. The relationships between the characters were equally awkward, with Harry and Ginny appearing to have not made much headway in 19 years and three children on their communication skills, nor Hermione and Ron on their constant bickering. Given this, there’s a strange irony in the fact that the crisis in the story was provoked by characters being unable to move on from the past. Although readers were promised shocking twists and turns that would throw new light on our beloved characters, none were to materialise. Any unexpected developments (Albus is sorted into Slytherin, Harry and Draco’s sons become best friends, Voldemort has a child with Bellatrix) had already been so thoroughly explored in fan fiction that it really felt as if, even when most of the cast were acting extremely out of character, there was absolutely nothing new to see here.
Even more damningly, the originally complicated and nuanced morality of the books was thrown aside in favour of a mawkish and naïve few of the world as divided into carefully delineated blacks and whites. Severus Snape was no longer an unpleasant and bitter man redeemed by a troubled past and some important moments of self-sacrifice, but an all-round amiable fellow, delighted to hear Harry had named a son after him. JK Rowling’s post-Harry Potter adult fiction has also fallen afoul of this limited view of the world, such as in the overdone villains and simpering saints of The Casual Vacancy, but somehow it just seems so much worse when tacked onto this series which taught so many of our generation about life and death, sin and redemption, love and hate, and the many varied shades between. Furthermore, the almost deterministic element to the play’s plot, where Harry is shown to be emotionally crippled by the loss of his parents as a baby, and later states to Delphi that her inauspicious beginnings in life are something that she will “always carry” with her, is particularly irritating, given the original series’ message that it our choices, not the circumstances of our birth, which determine who we really are and what we will become.
True, I haven’t seen the play, so I can’t comment on the acting or the special effects which, judging from the rave reviews it has been receiving, are the play’s redeeming features. Yet I can’t quite help wondering how much of this fanfare is purely because of the power of the Harry Potter brand, and fear of the backlash which may come from daring to engage in public criticism of Rowling. Therefore, in a way, Rowling has almost proved one of her own morals right in this train wreck of a sequel: we mustn’t put authority figures on a pedestal, for they are often far from perfect, or wise. Yet, I can’t help but wish that I had never heard of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and hope fervently that Rowling will keep to her word this time, when she claims that Harry’s story is finally done. But then, maybe it really is just time to grow up, and move on.