Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Below. Read at your own risk.
After writing my reviews, I like to go on Goodreads and around the blogosphere to see what others have to say about the latest book I read. Not surprisingly, readers are writing a lot about the latest installment of the Harry Potter series, with results seeming to divide in two extremes–the “I heart Harry Potter!” camp and the “This is fan fiction” camp. My own opinion falls somewhere in the middle, leaving me wondering why so many readers are repeating the fan fiction line. Few reviews provide evidence for this claim; they simply repeat it as if I must know what they mean. Not until someone directed me to Michal Schick’s article on Hypable did I really start to get a sense of what readers wished to say.
Schick makes a lot claims in the article, suggesting that the play is too self-referential, too far-fetched, and too reliant on the idea of “What if?” She also suggests, like many others, that the script format does not work for this story. None of these arguments, however, convince me that the story reads like fan fiction or that it is an inferior work to the original series. Below I respond to various arguments I have seen against the play.
The story does not work as a script.
I read a lot of Renaissance drama so I am accustomed to staging scripts in my head, mapping out where the action is, imagining what the set might look like, and discerning implied stage directions present in the dialogue. Learning this took me some time, however, and I can imagine that readers not accustomed to it would find the format, as Schick says, “flat.” However, I think this is an obstacle to be overcome by the reader and not a failing of the format. The story might actually work very well as a play if you consider that it can easily stage the passing of three years in a way a book could not.
I also think it’s unfair to complain this story is a boring script when, really, it’s not a script. It is a performance, which the creators have graciously allowed us access to through the script. They did not have to publish it; the play might have been seen by only a privileged few. I for one am not about to complain that Rowling allowed us easier access to her work.
The Story is Fan Fiction
As I have stated, I see this vague claim all over the Internet. Not everyone explains what this means, but it seems like an insult. Which is insulting to writers of fan fiction. Schick insists that that she is not dismissing fan fiction when she compares Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to it, but then goes on to say that the story “left me with the feeling that I should be reading this physical, expensive, J.K. Rowling-approved script for free on Archive of Our Own.” Stating that the story was not worth your money does indeed make it sound like comparing it to fan fiction is saying that it–and thus fan fiction– is sub-par work. Not the kind you like to support with your hard-earned cash.
The Story is Far-Fetched
Schick suggests that Albus having a Time Tuner and Polyjuice Potion conveniently on hand are “What if” questions that belong in the realm of fan fiction because they are not serious enough. In the original series, a twelve-year-old and her friends raided a professor’s store room, bluffed their way into getting parts of people, and then brewed their own highly sophisticated potion. In the original series, a thirteen-year-old was handed a Time Turner by the government, who assumed a teenager would naturally do nothing wrong with such a dangerous magical object. In retrospect, having an organized group of Dark wizard adults making illegal objects and brewing complicated potions for a plot they are hatching makes a lot more sense than the plots of the first seven books do.
The Story Asks “What If?”
Schick’s main argument seems to be that it is the role of fan fiction and not canon to ask “what if. ” She writes: “Within the bounds of an established, canonical tale, storytellers must be judicious in their application of ‘what if,’ because ‘what if’ is not governed by theme, history, or character. ‘What if” can lead anywhere, and stories that bear the weight of canon cannot afford to go anywhere.” Later she elaborates that “none of the audacious ideas in The Cursed Child are inherently bad outside the context of canon. What they are, however, is fundamentally light, unmoored from canonical responsibility.”
I’m going to be honest here and admit I have no idea what any of this means. What is “canonical responsibility?” Why are “what if” questions “not governed by theme, history, or character?” Certainly fan fiction might ask these questions and ignore canon, but that does not mean canon cannot ask the same and still adhere to character, theme, history. Schick never explains where she sees the divergences. Is she arguing that Harry is not Harry here? That somehow the theme of the books are not the same? That the story ignores the rules of its own world or overwrites its history?
I do not think any of this is true. Harry and the others have the same defining traits as they did in the book–and I think this would be even more apparent if we were to see the actors’ choices in performing. The themes seem the same. The play is very much concerned with issues of love, responsibility, sacrifice, and politics. And I do not think the history of the books is ignored. Schick herself says the story is too self-referential, an indication that past writings are far from forgotten.
Furthermore, time travel is a staple of science fiction and plenty of stories have used it to ask “what if” questions. To say that a canonical story cannot use this plot device makes little sense to me, especially as Rowling as already established time travel in her world and is not inserting it out of the blue.
The Story is Too Self-Referential
I think this is because it’s drama. Audiences like allusions in drama. It’s like of like seeing Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and seeing nods to previous films. Audiences eat it up when it’s in a performance format. Also, because it’s drama, the characters have to give all the information in dialogue form–the narrator cannot subtly allude to it. It might sound stilted or forced, but if you want audiences to know something in a play, you pretty much have to have someone say it. That’s why so many of Shakespeare’s plays begin with people discussing the events of court. “Oh yes, this guy is banished and this one is married and this one is angry.” It’s also helpful to have the characters keep alluding to something in case the audience forgot pertinent information or got distracted during the performance. I assure you that in performance, all the references probably seem more fun and more natural.
Time Travel is Ridiculous/A Silly Reason to Cram in Old Characters
Actually, Rowling really did not have to cram in old characters. She is at an advantage here because she can set her story at Hogwarts where a bunch of old characters would naturally be found anyway. I think the time travel element is actually supposed to be an extended look at Albus’s and Harry’s relationship. The real plot is about that, not about trying to save Cedric Diggory. If you look at what happens in light of that relationship, things make more sense. Here you have a child burdened by history and his father’s legacy. What better plot to give him than a chance to change that history?
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is by no means a perfect story; I have criticisms of it myself. However, I think the high expectations for an eighth Potter book have burdened it with a weight no work could bear. I also think that the format–the script form–is disappointing readers who are not accustomed to reading drama and who were longing to return to the Wizarding World in a way that a script cannot bring them. Here you have to imagine the halls of Hogwarts, the floating candles, the talking portraits. They are seldom referred to, even though they are present.
If you accept the work for what it is–a written guide to a performance–a lot of what is happening in the work makes more sense. You don’t need to think that this story is as good as the others or that it’s the best book published this year. However, you do need to evaluate it on its own terms