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Literature Commentary: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

31 Jul

It’s been nine years since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” hit stores – and author J.K. Rowling, alongside playwright Jack Thorne, has finally returned to her blockbuster universe with an eighth installment. And while “Cursed Child” isn’t a novel – it’s a playbook – the story is perfectly easy to follow: picking up right at the epilogue of “Deathly Hallows,” “Cursed Child” centers on Harry’s son, Albus, and longtime antagonist Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius.

At first blush, there’s quite a lot to like. Most importantly, “Cursed Child” adopts a more thoughtful and reflective approach to its character relationships than anything previously seen in the series. Indeed, the play dabbles in the stuff of classical Greek tragedies – fathers and sons, legacies and obligations, free will and determinism, sorcery and revenge. Draco – already one of the series’ more interesting characters – manifests as an even more complex figure, and Harry’s struggle to be a good father to Albus is depicted with anguished sincerity. It’s a page-turning read, and has much of the material longtime “Potter” fans crave – words of Dumbledorean wisdom, magical politics, memorable characters, and plenty other similar elements.

But ”Cursed Child” goes in an unfortunate storytelling direction that does the play a great disservice.

Among fervent Harry Potter fans, few elements have proven more problematic than Book 3’s notorious Time-Turner, an inordinately handy tool that allows the user to travel backwards in time for short periods. Naturally, the ability to move fluidly through time strips decisions of their heft: if consequences can be erased by simply reversing time, where are the emotional stakes?

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that “Cursed Child” relies very, very heavily on Time-Turners and their implications to generate its central conflict. And it’s possible to view “Cursed Child”’ as a sharp riposte to Rowling’s critics – in that it doubles down on Time-Turners’ dangerousness by envisioning their dramatic effects. But even conceding that, the story’s narrative structure – which bounces from year to year quite rapidly – feels insufficiently weighty to contain storytelling devices of such consequence…we’re talking about plot points that call into question everything established across seven long books’ worth of content.

In short, as a one-off story, “Cursed Child” simply doesn’t have the climactic ambiance required to justify its insanely high stakes. Introducing more Time-Turners feels like a transparent attempt to extend the storyline beyond its natural lifespan.

This tendency is exacerbated by the story’s fixation on climactic moments from the novel series. Rather than introducing bold new elements into the Potterverse, “Cursed Child” is largely a retread of locations and events from the original books. That’s not to say it isn’t pretty engaging, in a “what if things had gone differently?” sort of way, but it also lends an unfortunate “fan fiction” air to the proceedings. (There are a couple of great offbeat moments – who’d have expected the Hogwarts Express’s candy saleswoman to have a secret identity? – but these are sadly too infrequent).

In reading “Cursed Child,” I found myself reminded a little of “Love Never Dies,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s little-known sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera.” While as a matter of pure artistic achievement it certainly holds up well, “Love Never Dies” disrupts the post-“Phantom” status quo so much that it tarnishes the whole larger project. “Cursed Child” is the same way: in stressing the fragility of the entire Harry Potter narrative, it leaves the reader with a nagging sense that all those thousands and thousands of pages didn’t really count for much after all.

I really wanted to like “Cursed Child” more than I do – and perhaps this is just because I haven’t seen it properly performed onstage. A lot of the pieces here would have worked quite well independently of the time-drifting storyline, and it’s a crying shame they’re chained to a narrative that leaves “Deathly Hallows” feeling hollow in hindsight.

“Cursed Child” certainly isn’t bad – there’s a refreshing emotional maturity here that the “Potter” novels didn’t always possess – but on net, it represents a distinct failure to improve upon its stellar predecessors. The play’s glib approach to high-stakes scenarios has, ironically, the effect of lowering the stakes of the earlier volumes: if everything in the past can be upended with super-magic, did the struggles of the past matter much at all? And that is an unfortunate thematic undercurrent that overshadows the many ways in which “Cursed Child” succeeds.

J.K. Rowling is certainly no George Lucas – a quick perusal of her Ilvermorny-themed material online, which deals with the origins of an American magical school, reveals that her storytelling genius is alive and well – but “Cursed Child” isn’t the sequel the “Potter” novels deserve. Here’s hoping for an official eighth novel that takes things in a slightly different direction.

VERDICT: 6.5/10
An emotionally evocative return to the Potterverse that’s let down by its own central MacGuffin.

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Posted by on July 31, 2016 in Fantasy

 

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