So you’re going to get about one thousand and one think pieces about Harry Potter and The Cursed Child over the coming weeks and months. But you know what? Harry Potter is kind of very important to a lot of people, especially those that are now 20-somethings with blogs on the Internet. And The Cursed Child, well, it wasn’t really everything we hoped it would be, and it’s definitely worth asking how and why this play failed the Harry Potter fandom in a lot of ways.
WARNING! THERE ARE SPOILERS BEYOND…READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
First off, I didn’t hate The Cursed Child as much as many of my friends did. There were aspects of it that I hated, but it gave me a certain amount of nostalgic feels and the joy of experiencing that world again – beyond just reading, experiencing it with other fans – almost made it worth the read. I also accept that only having read the play without seeing the live production is probably doing this story a disservice, so I’m willing to cut the playbook a little slack. That said, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that The Cursed Child was deeply unsatisfying in a lot of ways.
A lot of people have been comparing The Cursed Child to fanfiction ever since those spoilers were released, and I think this comparison is actually causing a bit of confusion. The funny thing is that one of the reasons The Cursed Child doesn’t meet expectations is because it’s not fanfiction. The Cursed Child doesn’t fail because it’s fanfiction, it fails because it’s not.
Fanfiction is a not really a fixed text, it’s a conversation. It’s talking to the original text, asking questions it never answered, filling gaps that felt unfinished. But it’s also talking to the fandom; it’s talking to other fanfic writers, sharing meta discussion, fanart, and memes or jokes. So fanfiction is informed by more than just the original text, but The Cursed Child is not a part of any of these conversations; it missed and ignored them, and as a result it feels out-of-touch and unoriginal.
This isn’t some kind of manifesto about the superiority of fanfic. I am fully willing to admit that fanfic is not perfect. It’s not better or worse than original fiction but it’s the differences that allowed it to evolve in a way The Cursed Child hasn’t. Because fanfic is beholden not just to the original text but all the fan discourse that has come before. A Harry Potter fanfic that was written in 2015 is part of the conversation that the writers of The Cursed Child totally missed out on and that’s why the play falls into so many annoyingly familiar traps.
The Cursed Child feels like it’s made of tired cliches because it is. I mean basically every single thing that happens in the play is a well-worn fanfic trope. Albus and Scorpius being friends, Albus being Slytherin, Hermione being Minister for Magic, time-turners, Voldemort having a child, Harry struggling to parent because he didn’t have a good role model, Voldemort’s return, an alternative universe where Voldemort won. It’s been done to death. We know these stories because we’ve read them before and we’ve read them better.
That’s where the conversation comes in. I said fanfic is a conversation and that conversation is what makes it better. Like Voldemort having a child, there were a number of fanfics that used this trope. Because it was used so much, fandom talked about why people used it and came to the conclusion that it was an easy way to create a villain. You could have someone try to bring Voldemort back without much motivation. Basically it was lazy.
Time-turners have also been a popular topic of conversation in the Harry Potter fandom since they first appeared. There wasn’t a lot of information about them, so we had to kind of come up with our own rules to figure out how they worked and also why someone couldn’t just use a time-turner to go back in time and like, give Tom Riddle a hug when he was a kid or something. There’s intricate lore about time-turners to the extent that if you want to use them in fanfic, you REALLY have to justify it.
The Cursed Child does not justify its use of time-turners. It’s a play, so obviously there’s not a lot of time for exposition dumps, which would be fine if the writers had at least thought about WHY they chose to use time-turners. I want to believe that J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne have a clear idea of their time-turner law, but I don’t think they do. I think they just thought it would be cool to go back in time, which is a reason that would be roasted by fandom if it appeared in a fanfic.
Then there’s the conversation that fanfic has been having in regards to representation. You might have heard some people complaining about fan entitlement when they really mean recognizing and acknowledging the problems within something you love and working to change them in future texts. The Cursed Child doesn’t recognize or acknowledge any of the problems in the Harry Potter series and it certainly doesn’t make any attempts to fix them.
It’s heartbreaking, really – this play was a golden opportunity and they wasted it. They could have written a story about ANYONE. They could have had a female lead, or an LGBTQ+ lead, or a POC. Literally anything; the world was at their feet and they chose to write a story about Harry Potter 2.0. Albus Potter is all of Harry’s worst traits without many of his redeeming qualities, but worst of all, he’s boring. WHY DID THEY WRITE THE SAME STORY AGAIN?
Honestly, would you read a fanfic that’s basically a retelling of the Harry Potter series except this time it’s about Harry Potter’s son? He’s the same, except he doesn’t play Quidditch and he’s in Slytherin. Also the Hermione character gets sidelined, and her only purpose is to make sure everyone knows there is no homo happening here. Just two bros, loving each other in a totally platonic way. Look at how he stalks and harasses this girl that doesn’t like him. So heterosexual.
I don’t know about you but I would back the hell out of that fic before I finished the first paragraph.
When it was announced that a black woman had been cast as Hermione we celebrated! Then we saw the promo pics of Rose with Albus and Scorpius and the excitement increased. Because this was the new Golden Trio. Except we were wrong because Rose is tossed aside by scene four and she’s barely seen again. Hermione gets a little more time on the stage but she’s still in the background because this story is about two fathers, Harry and Draco.
Seriously, I am probably never going to be over this because they could have written about anyone and they chose to write about four (supposedly straight) white men. I say this as a Draco/Harry shipper who literally had heart palpitations every time Harry and Draco spoke to each other. WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?
But then I think about it and I realize that the people who wrote this story missed this conversation. They missed the part where we all had to acknowledge that while Harry Potter is something we love, it also has a lot of problems, the biggest one of those being the lack of diversity. I’m one of those people who defended J.K. Rowling constantly because I thought she had grown with us, and given the chance, she would try to rectify some of the mistakes she made. I was wrong.
Everything that’s wrong with The Cursed Child can probably be summed up by the Love Potion. Yup, that’s right, it is the year 2016 and there is a love potion in this story. Worse than that, it’s a joke. Seriously. A LOVE POTION. At this point I thought we were all conscious of the fact that love potions are date rape drugs, but apparently not, because Ron gives one to Albus in The Cursed Child. Ron’s getting a lot of slack for that, understandably, but no one stops him from giving a child a date rape drug; they all think that’s perfectly acceptable. Like…ew.
I don’t mean to get all angry feminist on you, except I do, because I expect better! The treatment of women in this story is appalling. As if sidelining Rose wasn’t bad enough, in one of the alternative timelines, Hermione turns into an angry spinster because she didn’t marry Ron. Like…what? Also the reason she and Ron didn’t get together was because she didn’t go the Yule Ball with Ron and made him jealous. Whoever wrote this does not understand or like women at all and that’s terrifying.
All these problems are so obvious to anyone in the Harry Potter fandom. They’re obvious because we’ve been through them, we’ve talked them through and fixed them in a thousand imaginative ways. So when you’re reading the play it’s hard not to wonder how they didn’t realize that being someone’s biological child is not a very compelling reason for someone to become a villain. Or that maybe people might be bit annoyed that the most significant female character is a two-dimensional cliche.
Anyway, this has devolved into rant territory and I haven’t even mentioned the awful ‘no homo’ yet. Because this play literally compares Scorpius’s feelings for Albus to Snape’s feelings for Lily then pretends that he was actually into Rose all along. I don’t know if that was caused by some kind of intervention – like Warner Bros must have some say in this mess – or if they’re just super oblivious, but it’s seriously uncool.
Ultimately The Cursed Child is very Harry Potter in that it fits with the canon but unfortunately that is its downfall. It follows on from where The Deathly Hallows left off, but the rest of us have grown since then; we’ve learned from our mistakes and moved forward. The Cursed Child is stuck in a time loop that the fans have moved beyond and so it fills a certain level of nostalgia but doesn’t offer anything new. It’s a trip down memory lane that reminds us of everything that’s wrong with the past.
Look, there are bits and pieces in this play that are delightful, and I gather the staging is where it really shines, but there’s no denying it: The Cursed Child had the chance to do something magical and it failed. It’s overstuffed, and the dialogue is about as comfortable as an accidental Tinder date between exes. It’s just not very good, and everyone needs to stop comparing this to fanfic because fanfic readers would rip this mess to pieces. If it had been fanfic, it would have been better than this.
Author: Undie Girl
Undie Girl (aka Von) has a BA (Hons) Major in Cultural Studies. The title of her honours thesis was “It’s just gay and porn”: Power, Identity and the Fangirl’s Gaze. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Media Practice at University of Sydney. Von’s a former contributor The Backlot’s column The Shipping News and a current co-host of The Geekiary’s monthly webcast FEELINGS… with The Geekiary.
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