I first started reading the Harry Potter series during a stifling summer when it was impossible to have a conversation with any other member of the human race if one were not following the exploits of three hormonal teenagers on broomsticks. Sitting in the student bar, words like “muggle” and “quidditch” would permeate the air; non-Christian friends would ask me my opinion on the Harry Potter controversy and I had to hang in my head in shame and admit I hadn’t a clue if Harry Potter was a work of genius or the work of the Devil (or possibly both). So I read the books and came to the conclusion that they were engaging stories with characters compelling enough to keep the reader turning the pages, but hardly the great modern classics I had been led to believe they might be.
Speaking from entirely literary perspective, the books are flawed in places; the dialogue is often stilted and overblown with clumsy attempts at copying the characters’ accents and the irritating tendency in one of the books to resort to capital letters every time a character raises his voice: “YES, I AM NOW A TEENAGER AND I AM THEREFORE PERPETUALLY ANNOYED AND ANGSTY ABOUT EVERYTHING!!!” At times, the pacing is all over the place, either breathlessly hurried or grindingly slow, as with the opening chapters of The Order of the Phoenix, when it seriously looks as though the characters are going to die of old age or boredom before they get anywhere near Hogwarts. Spoiler alert: I have a nasty feeling I was the only reader in England who failed to weep at the predictable death of Dumbledore in a flash of sinister green light.
That said, I was curious to read The Cursed Child to see how a scriptwriter dealt with the recurrent themes of the earlier books and whether a new writing team (J.K. Rowling did not write The Cursed Child) might take the journey in a fresh direction. This new installment sees our heroes, Harry, Ron and Hermoine, waving off their children at King’s Cross as a new generation begin their adventures at Hogwarts. Harry’s youngest, Albus, is a typical disappointing son struggling to leave his famous father’s shadow, a characterization that is both psychologically plausible and a little too predictable.
In some ways this is one of the problems. It is difficult to accept that the teenage heroes of the series are men and women approaching middle age, struggling with such middle-class problems as juggling family life and career, dealing with childhood demons, and relating to an angry and increasingly distant son. The transition to the next generation was never going to be a smooth one and the negative reaction to the brief appearance of the much older trio at the end of the Deathly Hallows movie (the entire cinema audience roared with laughter at the screening I attended) should perhaps have been a warning that fans were going to struggle with this.
The story certainly deals with an interesting idea—what would happen if it were possible to go back in time and prevent a person dying an unjust death? What difference would the presence of that one person make on the world he was meant to leave? As Albus and his friend attempt to return to the night of the Triwizard Tournament to prevent the death of Cedric Diggory, a series of events are set in motion that are genuinely frightening. There were moments reading the script when I felt an overwhelming sense of horror at the disastrous unfolding of events and found myself rushing ahead, desperate for the ever-deepening catastrophe to resolve itself.
Without wishing to give anything away, the plot, once it gets going, is taut and very cleverly thought out, with plenty of nostalgic throw-backs to the original books, but the overall effect remains intensely unsatisfying. The fact is that many science fiction and fantasy works have dealt with the complexities of time travel and the dangers of seeking to alter the past in far more creative and thought-provoking ways than The Cursed Child manages. It does not help the reader that this book—unlike all the others—is a script, attractively packaged for fans in what a cynic might regard as a bit of a cash grab. A play replete with visual effects is never going to be particularly engaging reading when it was never intended to be read by anyone other than a group of actors and the stage crew in the first place. I came away with a strong sense that the story, though at times compelling, did not justify prolonging a series that was already losing momentum by book number five. The temptation to milk a lucrative franchise for all it was worth really should have been resisted.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts 1 and 2
By John Tiffany and Jack Thorne
Pottermore, July 2016
Hardcover, 320 pages
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