The latest Harry Potter book is not exactly by J. K. Rowling (she's one of three credited with the "original story" and Jack Thorne is credited as the playwright) and it's not a novel, but with nine years elapsed since the seventh and final Harry Potter novel, and fandom in no way abated, it's hardly surprising that the publication of a script for the two-part play going up in London of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" has turned into its own publishing event, complete with midnight release. Unfortunately, this work does not live up to the books on whose fame it draws. The spoiler free version is as follows:
The problems with Cursed Child begin with its structure. Written as two plays (parts I and II) each in two acts, it's really effectively one long play in four acts. Each act is 18-20 scenes long. One of these scenes is half a page long and consists of nothing but stage directions. The short, choppy style, heavy on spectacle (reviews of the theatrical products all rave about its special effects and sets) would serve well for a movie, but they seem a poor fit for a play. Yes, I'm sure it looks good on stage, as they spent a lot of money on setting and actors to achieve that, but well written plays actually read well on the page too. I've read and enjoyed some playscripts that I've never seen on stage. But this is not good enough to stand up well without its visuals.
One problem is the dialog. Rowling isn't a brilliant prose stylist, but her dialog is fun and snappy and fits the characters. This is mostly generic, and where's it ties to be funny or emotional it often comes off over-broad. The unfortunate Ron Weasley suffers the most from this. He is turned into an utter doofus in this play, many of whose lines are so cringe-worthy (and whose actions are so ephemeral to the plot) that the play would be better if he were just cut. There are a few lines that have a bit of a Rowling sizzle, but in general the dialog craft is very, very pedestrian.
Perhaps worst of all, however, is the characterization. The play picks up with the same "Nineteen Year Later" scene which forms the afterward of the final Harry Potter novel, and in it we have a cast of characters made up of both our now middle-aged heroes from the original books, and several of their tween-aged children. However, the adults don't act much like adults. Indeed, there are a couple of deeply painful scenes in which they act distinctly like kids, most notably a ministry of magic meeting in which everyone acts eleven and one person asks if she should smack another in the mouth now. Perhaps in a children's book where the adults are alien creatures never fully rounded because they're perceived through the lens of childhood perception, this would be barely tolerable. But here the lumbering caricatures are characters we spent seven novels getting to know. And even beyond the non-adult-adult-behavior problem, some of the characters are made to do things which simply seem out of character with their established childhood personalities. Most especially, the plot -- a father-son estrangement/redemption arc drawn out of the generic kid's book plotting hat -- hinges upon Harry Potting slipping up and, in a moment of anger, saying something to his son which I find it hard to imagine many fathers, and particularly one of Harry's particular personality and history, ever saying to a son.
Its weakest moments are in the first half, which is heavy on exposition (though there are cringe-worthy character and dialog moments all the way through) while in the second half the plot gets moving at full speed and it more or less carries the reader's interest. For its conclusion it relies on some of the more emotional elements of the Potter canon, which also helps give the ending some weight. But really, nothing rescues this lumbering creature. I think that Rowling diluted her brand and betrayed her fans a bit by authorizing this piece.
Spoilers to follow below the break:
The story is a sort of Back To The Future adventure in which Harry's younger son Albus and his best buddy, Draco Malfoy's endearingly geeky and mild-mannered son Scorpius, steal an illegal time turner, go back in time to save the life of Cedric Diggory (the collateral damage character killed at the end of The Goblet of Fire) and end up repeatedly changing the world for the worse until they learn their lesson and call in the help of the adults to put everything back the way it was before.
Our original cast of characters (Harry, Ron, Hermione) are all still here, but somehow they all seem like flatter, less likable characters than before. Harry is the tired and harassed father who, in a moment of arguing with his teenaged son blurts out, "[T]here are times I wish you weren't my son."
There's not much that's more frustrating as a parent than a teen or pre-teen intent on a self indulgent pity party, complete with wild accusations against parents. But having had that conversation once or twice, I can't remotely imagine telling one of my daughters I wished she wasn't mine, and given the history and personality we've seen of Harry over seven books it's hard for me to picture him doing it either.
Then, at a later date, to drive the estrangement further, Harry tries to put his foot down by telling his son never to see Scorpius again and putting them under 24hr magical surveillance. That this has the opposite of the desired effect is hardly surprising. One of Harry's strengths in the books was both his ability to bottle his emotions when necessary and his understanding of how others felt. This Harry has neither.
Hermione is has become Minister of Magic by the age of forty. Not only does this give a sort of "there are only a dozen people in the wizarding world" feel to it all, but the authors have taken the opportunity to turn Hermione into a somewhat repellent icon for misplaced priorities. The Hermione of the books was a smart and hard working student, but also loyal to her friends and deeply caring about others. You learn pretty much all you need to know about this character from this exchange in Act One, after Hermione has been telling Harry to catch up on his paperwork:
Harry: It seems I'm as good at fatherhood as I am at paperwork. How's Rose? How's Hugo?Of course, Hermione's stand-offish relationship to her family is perhaps somewhat explained by the fact her daughter Rose is apparently a repellent snob:
Hermione (with a grin): You know, Ron says he thinks I see more of my secretary, Ethel, than him. Do you think there's a point where we made a choice -- parent of the year or Ministry official of the year?
"I'm a Granger-Weasley, you're a Potter -- everyone will want to be friends with us, we've got the pick of anyone we want."And Ron is an utter doofus whose cluelessness is one of the play's running jokes. I know there are those who don't like Ron and are frustrated that he and Hermione ended up together in the books, but this character makes even the goofier movie version Ron look like an intellectual and it's honestly unclear why anyone is connected with someone so useless. (And don't even get me started on the weird stereotyping of the timeline where we get Ron-as-henpecked-husband-of-Indian-tiger-mom-and-father-of-a-kid-he-doesn't-even-like.)
Finally we come to the children themselves, Albus and Scorpius, who are the new main characters in this story.
Albus is an angry and sullen kid for reasons that are vaguely gestured at. That could be kind of interesting except that his stock character parent is someone we have seen as a non-stock-character before.
Scorpius is one of the more likable characters, in part because he's not a total recycle of one of the character types from the original books. But here too there's a story loose end. The authors are deeply conscious of whether there might be something between Albus and Scorpius. The characters awkwardly make much of the fact that they hug on several occasions. "Oh, do we hug?" "What's this? I thought we'd decided we don't hug." But then each boy has a tacked on crush on a girl -- in each case causing the other to feel betrayed.
I'm with Yoda on this one: Do or don't do. There is no try.
If they want to make a big deal of this and have it be a budding relationship, write that. If they want not to, don't. But this wink, wink, nudge, nudge with only half believable plausible deniability built is a rather craven attempt to have it both ways.
In the end: Yes, the plot is a silly mess with a couple of large holes (even for a time travel story), but my big reason for disappointment is the structure, the dialog, and most of all the characterization.