Nine years and 10 days after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows appeared on bookstore shelves, thus conclusively ending J.K. Rowling’s seven-book magical series, the Boy Who Lived returned.
As everyone on magic-loving Earth knows by now, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, published in hard copy form on July 31, 2016, is a stage play written by Jack Thorne that tells an original story (created with Rowling herself and director John Tiffany). The show itself actually opened this July in London’s West End. The play follows a grownup Harry and the gang, their Hogwarts-attending kids, and their crazy shenanigans.
By now, most of us Muggles have had ample time to read up on Cursed Child, so now’s your warning: This piece has as many spoilers as the Weasley’s garden has gnomes.
Here’s a rundown:
Harry and Ginny’s second son, Albus Severus, heads off to Hogwarts and immediately befriends Scorpius Malfoy, Draco’s son. He’s also sorted into Slytherin, despite his deep anxiety about this outcome, and his father and the rest of the family struggle to relate to him. In a foolhardy attempt to bring back Cedric Diggory, whose father, Amos, still harbors bitterness toward Harry for his son’s death, Albus and Scorpius steal a juiced-up Time-Turner from the Ministry of Magic which allows them to go back in time to the Triwizard Tournament. Each time they interfere in the events of the distant past, however, they create unforeseen ripple effects that dramatically change their world ― Ron and Hermione never get married and Albus’s cousin Rose is never born, Voldemort wins the war ― and they desperately struggle to go back and rectify more and more problems. All the while, a mysterious, silver-haired woman, Delphi, who claims to be Amos’ niece, is providing crucial help and motivation, but she turns out to be none other than Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange’s secret daughter, seeking to change the past in order to bring about the Dark Lord’s rise. (Yeah, it’s a lot.)
Despite a warm critical reception to the play, in the fandom world, all was not well. Potterheads complained that the script featured amateurish plot holes and relied on tropes common in the most bottom-barrel Harry Potter fan fiction: a Mary Sue, a Potter sorted into Slytherin, a Voldemort love child, the convenient appearance of complicated Polyjuice Potion or rare Durmstrang robes at the drop of a hat. Yet Cursed Child is no mere fanfic: Technically, according to Rowling herself, it’s the “eighth Harry Potter story,” a part of the series canon.
(For reference: Canon, particularly used in fan fiction settings, refers generally to narrative, background or character material that can be found in the original source rather than in fan fiction or fan theories. AU, on the other hand, refers to a fanfic that explicitly disregards chunks of canon, stipulating up front that the story will exist within an “alternate universe” in which, say, Rowling never wrote Sirius Black’s death into Order of the Phoenix.)
Critics began to postulate ― was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in fact cursed with the traits of mediocre fan fiction? Was it the overly coincidental use of fanfic clichés that doomed it? Was it the wearying-to-read script format, bane of unwilling Shakespeare students everywhere? Was it because playwright Thorne, rather than Rowling, steered most (if not all) of the cowritten play’s creative choices? Was it the devil-may-care use of frivolous plot devices like time travel, appropriate for fan art but not for canon? Was it the embarrassing plot holes that resulted?
One reader skewered the lazy plotting of the script in a hysterical meme that would see the final half of the book obliterated:
Probably all of those factors bear some of the blame. The script format is particularly infuriating; to publish new canon material in a form that can’t be properly experienced, in a staged theatrical setting, by the vast majority of Harry Potter’s immense fanbase, grates.
More simply, though, Cursed Child pretty much is fan fiction. Endorsed and to some degree co-written by Rowling? Yes. But it’s primarily a fan-inspired add-on to the original Harry Potter series. Cursed Child allows London theatergoers to take a fun side adventure into the wizarding world, one by no means necessary to completing or comprehending the core seven-book arc of the franchise.
Rowling’s own dedication to the book reads:
To Jack Thorne
who entered my world
and did beautiful things there.
You know who else does that? Fanfic writers!
No judgment here. I read metric tons of Harry Potter fan fiction during my teen years and still sometimes indulge. The form can be unwittingly or wittingly ridiculous (if you never have, now’s the time to check out the masterpiece of bad Potter fic, “My Immortal”), silly and fun, as deeply fleshed out and carefully characterized as the original books, or a medium to experiment with crazy alternate worlds in which Hermione is a Muggle barrister, Harry’s parents secretly survived Voldemort, or Draco and Harry are having a baby together. If an author is particularly talented, it can be all of those things at once.
As Michal Schick pointed out in Hypable, however, calling such a creative flight a new installment of canon places a huge burden on it to maintain the original universe uncorrupted by careless changes to the world Rowling built, irreconcilable plot holes, or versions of our favorite characters who sound like bizarro-world Replicants of themselves.
It’s a burden Cursed Child repeatedly stumbles in carrying, from the vaguely described, overly complicated time travel plot to the slightly off characters. Here’s a nearly 40-year-old Ron Weasley, in Cursed Child, during a conversation about a possible renewed war against dark magic: “I consider it [ed: talking a lot of rubbish] to be my speciality. That and my range of Skiving Snackboxes. And my love for all of you. Even Skinny Ginny.”
Looks like someone actually regressed in maturity in the 20 years since we last saw him!
Have some respect!
Basically, insisting that fan fiction become canon takes all of the footloose joy out of fan fiction, and all of the gravitas out of canon.
Harry Potter, in particular, provides an ideal canvas for fan fiction and a rocky one for continuing additions to the canon ― particularly by new authors. The carefully built fantasy world and cast of characters is a vivid, seductive setting for fan writers and amateurs to play in, and (in contradistinction to installment-based, unending series like “Nancy Drew” or “The Baby-Sitters Club,” many of which were written by ghostwriters) Harry Potter boasts a cumulative edifice of subtle character quirks, meticulously specific settings and universe laws, and prolonged narrative arcs that can easily be weakened by a ghostwriter’s oversight or carelessness with dialogue.
Maybe most importantly, though ― why add to the canon? This may be an unpopular opinion based on how well Cursed Child has been selling, but the Harry Potter series fit neatly into seven books, which together established a world and a mythology. The story of Harry, his star-crossed infancy, his prophesied rise to battle the powers of darkness, and his ultimate triumph was fully begun, explored and concluded within those original seven books.
Back in the day, I was first in line at a new Potter midnight book release, sometimes in full costume. I’d never miss opening day of a new film adaptation. I talked ships (mine was Ron/Hermione) and theories on my fan forum of choice, HPANA. So why did I feel no particular desire to rush out and snag a copy of Cursed Child?
Plenty of readers did, of course ― the hardcover immediately topped bestseller lists. Still, The New York Times pointed out, it dramatically underperformed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in first-day sales. And the usual next step, feverish picking apart of new canon, birthing new theories, has been muted, mostly devoted to critiquing the book’s perceived failings. The organic excitement at seeing another piece of the Potter puzzle snap into place had disappeared. We already have that puzzle finished, mounted and framed above our mantlepieces.
Simply put, Cursed Child was doomed to feel like fan fiction rather than canon because the series was resolved. Anything more seems trivial, extraneous ― a fun hobby for fans, but not a vital new dimension to the Harry Potter we know.
No hate on the Cursed Child play in itself; it’s far from perfect, but its task was impossible to begin with. Harry’s tale needs no prologue or epilogue. It comes full circle, and all is well.