A Child Called “Disappointment”
If you’re anything like me, you feel that the Harry Potter series ended too soon.
Just imagine what might have been.
I mean, the world that was introduced over the course of the series was definitely larger than could be fit into only seven books, no matter how thick those were.
An early draft of Goblet of Fire.
So your interest may have been piqued when you heard the news about a new Harry Potter story, taking place after the ending of the seventh book.
It’s name? Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Now, I don’t do a lot of book reviews here on the blog, but then, this isn’t exactly a book we’re talking about. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play, meant to be performed on stage. The script of the play was published worldwide in conjunction with the premiere of the work to live audiences. Nevertheless, it was marketed as the eighth installment of Harry Potter and even was given the blessing of J.K. Rowling, though it was not directly written by her.
What It could have Meant
This could have been huge. An eighth look into the wizarding world could have given fans a mountain of new information to digest. These include
- An expanding of the world, introducing us to new wizarding nations or new wizarding institutions.
- An expanding of the magic, introducing us to new spells, potions, magical creatures, or other fun goodies.
- An expanding of the answers, giving fans the answers to mysteries that were not fully addressed in the original books.
- An expanding of the cast, giving us new heroes to root for, new rivals to despise, and new villains to fear.
And these are all important, because, as I have long asserted, the Harry Potter series is a setting-driven story. Where most stories are either plot-driven or character-driven, Harry Potter traveled down the less trodden road of making the readers fall in love with the world, even more than they fell in love with the heroes of that world.
Granted, a few people still have a crush on this character or that, but their numbers are few and far between compared to the people shouting “Where’s my Hogwarts acceptance letter?” all over the internet. Because people are still in love with Hogwarts, even after they lost their obsession with Ron or Ginny or Malfoy.
But It was Not To Be
I recently got my hands on a copy of the play’s script, eager to find out what was inside. What I found was…a sad facsimile of the previous Harry Potter stories. Oh, it wasn’t a disgrace to the earlier books or to the world. It didn’t ruin them by changing the landscape or the magic or even the characters. In fact, it really didn’t introduce any new elements at all, which, now that I think about it, may have been the point. This was J.K. Rowling’s first time entrusting anyone else to write a canonical Potter story, and it would not surprise me if she kept them on an extremely short leash.
What We Got, Instead
How can I describe this? Do you remember the 1980s much?
Yeah, wasn’t that a fantastic decade?
More importantly, were you ever a child during the 1980s?
If you were, then you grew up with the idea that everything was a cartoon. Because in the 1980s, everything was a cartoon.
Whether it was Back to the Future:
Or Conan the Barbarian:
Based on an R-rated movie, no less.
Or M.C. Hammer:
Or a million other things, from Robocop to Teddy Ruxpin to New Kids on the Block. They were everywhere, and could be based off of anything. The sky was the limit.
But these cartoons were, for the most part, poorly written and poorly produced. The lack of original storylines was a hallmark of each of these shows. They didn’t have talented writers, so instead they constantly reproduced the same stories told in cartoons before them. I will hereafter refer to these infinitely repeated stories as “the obligatory episodes”.
So, for example, every cartoon that came out of the 80s (and early 90s, if we’re being honest with ourselves), would, over the course of its run, produce the following stories:
- An obligatory body-swap episode, where two characters switch voice actors for fifteen minutes.
- An obligatory age-progression episode, where a child character within the show wishes to grow up and then does, magically.
- An obligatory “very special episode” where the characters learn not to do drugs.
- An obligatory wish-fulfillment episode, where the characters find a genie or other wish-granting device that teaches them to be careful what they wish for.
- An obligatory “very special episode” about saving the rainforest, because the world was going to end if we did not save the rainforest, so everyone stop praying to whichever deities you currently worship because the only commandment that mattered in the 80s and early 90s was “SAVE THE F***ING RAINFOREST, YOU HEARTLESS MONSTERS!”
And, of course, among all the other obligatory episodes, there was going to be one about time travel (unless you were the Back to the Future cartoon, which was nothing but time-travel episodes).
Would be nice if we could all be the first non-Brazilian to travel through time.
And the layout for the obligatory time-travel episode was unfailingly formulaic: the main heroes go back to some famous historical event, such as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and something they do causes history to change, which results in a disastrous dystopian world upon their reentry into the present. This forces them to go back in time again and undo the damage they have done. It was all very trite.
Which Brings Us to the Play
And that’s all that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is—it’s a lost episode of the Harry Potter cartoon series that was never made. Specifically, it is the obligatory time-travel episode of that nonexistent series.
You already know the story: Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy (the two sons of characters from the original books) get their hands on a magical device that allows for time travel. This would be what the wizarding world calls a “Time Turner”, which, if you’re familiar with the series, is the worst plot device to ever grace its pages.
But, where Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban made it clear that a time turner could not be used to change history (all the events that Harry and friends “prevented” had never actually happened), this new Potter story has decided to ignore all previous canon to make it possible for the main characters to rewrite past events.
And from there, it follows the 80s cartoon formula: the heroes accidentally undo the happy ending of the original series (which raises a huge middle finger to fans of the books) and are forced to fix the mess they made by going back in time again and again.
And to put this in greater perspective, I should point out the play is actually two plays. It’s divided into a Part 1 and a Part 2 that are meant to be performed on separate days. That’s two days of commitment for each audience member, to see what is essentially the rejected filler episodes of Harry Potter: the Animated Series.
The Other Problems
Unfortunately, the play’s problems don’t end there. They are too numerous and of too great a magnitude to mention in detail, so I will list a few of them here:
- An almost total lack of mirth. Anyone familiar with the books will remember that the series had a gently inappropriate sense of humor. The characters often exchanged barbs and jabs that were quite clever, and the idea of using magic to prank people was used copiously. All those things are absent from this play.
- The tension feels forced and artificial. The original stories often had the protagonists at odds with each other, but here they are just outright jerks for the sake of being outright jerks.
- Banking on nostalgia at the expense of telling a new story. Much like Star Wars: The Force Awakens you walk away from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child realizing that the universe is no bigger than it was before. The time travel aspect compounds this, giving the writers license to recycle old characters and villains instead of giving our heroes new challenges to face.
What did It do Well?
After reading the entire script, I found only one point on which the play was poised to excel, and that would be special effects.
The script calls for some amazing and dramatic effects work—more daring than any other play I have ever seen or heard of. And with each passing page I became more convinced that this alone was the point of the play: to demonstrate that practical effects could be used, in a live stage production, to replicate the magic that is seen in the books and movies. Though I did not witness any of the special effects being executed, I could tell, simply from how they were written, that they were going to be spectacular.
But even that is a disappointment to me, because I, like many of you, know that an effects-heavy production is one way to subvert and contravene good storytelling. And I fear that such is what happened here and am sorry that it turned out this way, because it could have been so much better, with a little more planning and oversight.
If I had actually bought tickets to watch this play, I would likely have demanded a refund. I don’t know what franchise they were trying to be a part of, but it wasn’t Harry Potter. Yes, the series had lots of magical effects, but that wasn’t the reason it was there. That they failed to introduce any new elements to the universe (outside of a single new villain, who is just a watered-down version of the old villains) was a bad thing, but that they failed to capture the same HEART that we found in the original books was simply unforgivable.
It makes me wonder if there ever will be a worthy expansion of this universe.
Well, we all can hope.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…begging for more.”]
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4 thoughts on “A Child Called “Disappointment””
You actually sound surprised that it was bad. I could have told you that before you bought it.
And as for Magical Beasties, I’ll bet you any quantity of money that it will fail hard. I’ve already read the backstory on Ilvermorny and it made me feel like a dementor had sucked my soul through a slurpee straw.
I mean, LORD F’ing VOLDEMORT! It’s Harry Potter for Americans!!!! I can just see the producers, sitting at the boardroom table saying: “Let’s take the world’s most marketable story franchise and tailor it for the worlds biggest fiction market.”
They don’t see story potential. They only see long lines at the movie theaters. This film will leave Potter fans with a bad taste in their mouths, like an earwax all-flavors bean. I guarantee it.
I understand that some bad attempts have been made lately.
But don’t forget, this is Harry Potter we’re talking about. It has been good in the past, and that was no accident. I cannot automatically assume that it will never be so good again. I don’t know if Fantastic Beasts will live up to the legacy, but I won’t condemn the thing before I give it my full attention.
Have you seen the trailer? I’ll bet you have. Did you notice that the American wizards don’t call muggles muggles? They call them no-mag’s (with a soft g). Can you believe that? Sure, some differences in wizarding lexicon might be expected… but is that the best they could come up with?
It doesn’t score very high on my creativity scale, or inspire a lot of confidence in the rest of the film.
If I’m wrong, then I’m in for a wonderful surprise. But you, brother, are setting yourself up for a bitter disappointment. Brace yourself for the earwax taste.
Wow, I am in such awe of you right now, John.
How brave of you to shut your heart to new experiences, that you might keep yourself from getting hurt. How wise of you to make proclamations about a movie you have not even seen. How strong you must be, to be so afraid of taking a chance.
How I envy you. Why do we even need fiction, when we have such a paragon of heroism in our midst? Oh, you must forgive my insolence, requesting that you reserve judgment. What a fool I was! Oh, can you ever forgive me for choosing to remain indifferent until certainty could be established?