Not What You Think It Is: Five Thoughts on ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’

Cover 1I was contacted yesterday by a reporter at the New York Times and asked “whether or not fans will embrace a play that she co-authored but did not write entirely on her own.” She called this morning and we spoke for about half an hour.

I’ll be talking about this and other subjects this Sunday at Oklahoma City’s largest bookstore’s Midnight Madness Potter Party. I share here the gist of what I said to the Times reporter and a shade of what I’ll talk about at the Party. It is the first of several Posts this week by your friends here at HogwartsProfessor about what to expect in the draft script. Stay tuned!

To the reporter’s question, there isn’t any doubt about fan response to the script marketed as the “Eighth Harry Potter” story. Harry Potter fandom and readers have already embraced ‘Cursed Child.’ It has approached records for pre-publication orders, records that were set, of course, nine years ago when the series finale was released. That the story is not hers and that the script was drafted in much the form it is now in, i.e., that she acted as an editor or at best a contributor but not as author per se, means very little to her millions of fans.

Harry Albus and GinnyIt’s better, though, to think of them as Harry’s fans, not J. K. Rowling’s, however much they hang on her twitter blasts and PotterMore posts. Sales of Rowling’s non-Hogwarts books, Casual Vacancy and the three Cormoran Strike mysteries, would be considered very impressive from other writers, especially within the genres she’s chosen, but have never begun to approach Harry Potter sales figures.

There’s something about Harry Potter which causes the excitement about the ‘Eighth Book.’ I’ll go out on a limb, though, and suggest there is going to be significant disappointment among even the most ardent Potter fans about this Midnight Madness experience around ‘Cursed Child.’ Let’s be clear about five things ‘Cursed Child’ is not:

Cover 2 1. It’s not a story by J. K. Rowling.

When Rowling first announced the project in 2013, she told us flat out that it was a prequel about Harry’s time at the Dursleys before the action in Philosopher’s Stone. The play we have, though, is set 19 years after Deathly Hallows and was written by Jack Thorne. Not a prequel. John Tiffany and Rowling are credited as authors, as well, on the script cover but Rowling in a promotional interview video, after saying they agreed on the story first, made a point of saying to Thorne, “You wrote a script,” to clarify where the story-as-told came from when he said “we wrote a script.” Given Rowling’s remarkably involved planning of her stories, this is a significant departure, almost a step into blessing fan fiction. No doubt there will be recognizable Rowling signatures in the drama, think ‘comic moments’ and ‘plot turns,’ but this is not a Rowling work, but, at best, a collaborative effort.

Note, too, that in Rowling’s 2013 faceBook announcement of the prequel we’ll never see that we were told:

J.K. Rowling will also be a co-producer on the project, but whilst she will collaborate with a writer on the new play, she will not write the script herself.

J.K. Rowling said:

“Over the years I have received countless approaches about turning Harry Potter into a theatrical production, but Sonia and Colin’s vision was the only one that really made sense to me, and which had the sensitivity, intensity and intimacy I thought appropriate for bringing Harry’s story to the stage. After a year in gestation it is exciting to see this project moving on to the next phase. I’d like to thank Warner Bros. for their continuing support in this project.”

I don’t think it is a great stretch to see that the copyright holder has been pressing her for years for an “eighth story” that can be turned into a film, she has refused to write another novel, and, here’s a reach, that she has consented to a script she didn’t have to write (but could veto, as she did the prequel) and a screenplay she did write to keep Warner Brothers from going ahead without her. Read The Silkworm for an idea of what this high stakes world of story-publication and money making is like (and how much Rowling despises it).

One wag asked me, having read my discussions of the Christian shading in every Harry Potter book title, if the ‘Cursed Child’ was the babe born in Bethlehem. Forgive me for laughing out loud. I will look for but be very surprised if Rowling’s Harry Potter story scaffolding, alchemical symbolism, traditional Christian elements (beyond a ‘saving people thing’ and a possible victory over death or just Death eaters), or narrative release play any part in Thorne’s play.

Ron Hermione and Rose2. It’s not the Eighth Harry Potter adventure.

The seven Harry Potter novels are an intricately involved integer. Not only is each book a ring, the series as a whole is, too. Anyone supposing that ‘Cursed Child’ will fit somehow into that ring or reveal a dimension of it not yet known is in for a real disappointment. It may be like a new porch on the Taj Mahal or a gift shop annex on Hagia Sophia, but it won’t be a follow-up on the close of Deathly Hallows.

The Harry Potter stories, remember, are seven parts of the Hogwarts Saga, the one narrative piece of Harry’s conflict with the Dark Lord. Except for the ex machina plot device of Time Turners, there could be no returning to that Saga. Sadly, Thorne, like too many fan fiction writers, has ‘gone there.’ This play is as canonical as those efforts by writers, accomplished and hacks alike, to reinvent the story via an unfortunate magical device the author destroyed intentionally in Order of the Phoenix to cut off such efforts.  Rowling’s involvement in the editing of the work does little to change this status.

Stage Scene3. It’s not a novel but the draft of a script.

This first edition of ‘Cursed Child’ is the rehearsal script for the play’s two parts. We’re promised the definitive script sometime next year. Have there been murmurings about this exploitation of fans? Yes, there has. Will it keep those who love Harry Potter from buying both books? I doubt it, unless disappointment with the first script is as great as it might be.

Harry Potter readers are not stupid. Far from it. The majority of fandom today, though, are not the serious readers that read and re-read the books in anticipation of the latest entry in the first years of this millenium. They’re much more movie-goers or film-universe focused than they once were. and that change may mean ‘Cursed child,’ as script, will not be well received.

In brief, reading a play as opposed to seeing it live is a remarkable strain on the imagination, an exercise that those who remember and love Harry’s seven adventures told as novels with all the necessary and humorous exposition may not welcome. Not to mention that those whose experience of the story is primarily from the films have largely only entered the story through their senses, not their imaginations. This will be a huge jump for that crowd, however enthusiastic they may be about a ‘Potter revival.’

And then there’s the story itself, which may prove problematic….

Harry Bad Dad4. It’s not a mystery (We know the story and the ending, pre-publication).

Much of the excitement about previous Midnight Madness Potter Parties has been the anticipation of the ‘big reveal’ and speculation of what the story will involve. Anyone who doesn’t know yet what ‘Cursed Child’ is about has chosen deliberately not to know; within hours of the first performance, the plot in all its details were available online.

It certainly is a remarkable story. I’m sure that it’s a heart wrenching, mind-bending experience on stage but its dependence on repeated convolutions of time travel and tired points of fan fiction (Bride and Daughter of Voldemort!) may be a turn off for those who appreciate Rowling’s restricted use of these devices and ideas in her novels. Time Turners and Polyjuice Potion, after all, can be used to change anything and everything…

NemoMy primary doubt about the story is its dependence on a ubiquitous cliche in postmodern story telling, the wish-fulfillment trope of our times, the Bad Dad narrative. It seems every author, screen writer, and playwright has had a father who failed them and writes a story in which, as they always dreamed he would, he repents and confesses to them all his failings. Y’know, the Finding Nemo meme.

I’m sorry, readers. Having Harry Potter say to Albus Severus early on in the play, in the necessary set-up to his later insight and admission of Bad Dad status, that he wished Albus had never been born is just not credible with the Boy Who Lived as we came to know him in the Hogwarts Saga. I look forward to reading the script and learning how wrong I am, but this seems a sad and even awful misstep, however necessary in the Nemo meme.

Nest detail5. It is franchise exploitation — and who cares?

Which makes me sound like the worst of wet blankets. That’s a shame! I have been looking forward to Sunday for a long time, believe me, and to reading the script we’ve heard so much about. This latter day version of Potter Mania promises to be fun, especially for the 20 ad 30-somethings that were children during the release of the seven novels. And us surviving Potter Pundits from the age of dinosaurs (pre I-phone, that is, and Pokemon Go).

I hope you’ll join us here and at MuggleNet Academia as the HogwartsProfessor staff write and talk about ‘Cursed Child.’ The conversation promises to be rich and challenging.

One last thing I discussed with the Times reporter: the real mystery of ‘Cursed Child.’

Theatre and fansWhy is it #1 at Amazon, a status it has held for months, and Rowling’s current work-in-progress sparks very little excitement. Y’know, the books, the stories she has invested years of planning in, the best work available from her?

The question that strikes me about the fans who have ordered pre-publication copies of ‘Cursed Child’ and who intend to attend Potter Parties Sunday is why they have not embraced the Cormoran Strike detective novels. Sure, they are not the (relatively) innocent tales of derring-do they experienced at Hogwarts, but they do represent a step up in the quality of Rowling’s writing and she was never a hack. They also, believe it or not, feature embedded commentaries on the corresponding Harry Potter novels (both are seven novel series featuring satisfying single stories and an over-arching mystery-drama to which we get clues and back story in each installment) and have the great virtue of not being stories we know or can easily predict what will happen.

So far, though, the Doom Bar Detective, the Peg-Legged Private Eye, has not inspired anything like the reaction and pre-orders that the rehearsal script of a story Rowling didn’t write has.

COEMy preliminary thought about this mystery?

There is magic in the Hogwarts Saga evidently that still has the Muggle world under its spell, the author’s inimitable literary alchemy (about which I’ve written several books). The play as performed has received enthusiastic reviews; here’s hoping that ‘Cursed Child,’ the script, does not break the charm.

Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts below and for joining us all this week and the weeks following for discussion of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.’


  1. My question for everyone is: If JKR is not the author, then where does this fall on the lines of canon/not canon? (Recognizing that there’s kind of a continuum there – and that disagreement exists even currently over canon – as in whether JKR’s comments are considered canon or only what happens in the 7 novels.)

  2. The creative team insists that Jo was in on all the story planning and then Thorne wrote the script (see the BBC interview link embedded above). I think you can assume, consequently, that the Presence and the Potter franchise will say this play is canon.

    I would say “definitely not canon,” though less because it is or isn’t by Rowling than because of it’s not being part of the original, integral work. De gustibus.

  3. True.

    I’m pretty willing to stick to pretty strict standards of that too, yet at the same time my Madam Pince work did rely a fair bit on some bits and pieces of knowledge gained from Quidditch Through the Ages and Tales of Beedle the Bard (without Quidditch Through the Ages as a library book we know next to nothing about library procedures, though we still know a very little, and without Beedle the Bard we’d have really no record about attempts at censorship in the wizarding world, aside from Dumbledore’s removal of materials related to horcruxes).

    Which makes me start to be willing to fudge on the matter. At least anywhere that remotely tells us anything new about the Hogwarts libraries or libraries in the wizarding world, etc. (So probably not the play, though one could be surprised. Since Hermione is in it, the library may very well come up!)

    But ultimately it is just opinion and it really doesn’t matter – I just find it interesting to discuss none the less and hear people’s reasons for their opinions on such things!

  4. Emily Strand says

    Great thoughts, John. Look forward to seeing the NYT piece.

  5. Alison,

    I think this has to fall on the non-canon side of the coin as far as I’m concerned, and for much the same reason Mr. Granger outlined above in the blog.

    However let me elaborate on the implied stance for a bit.

    For my part, I have to fault this whole play in terms of its depiction of character consistency. Specifically, as Mr. Granger says, the portrayal of Harry doesn’t click with the character as written by Rowling in the seven books.

    What under-girds that statement is the question of character resolution in the novels. By that what I mean is that what is being taken into account here is the idea that characters often undergo a change over the course of their stories, for either better or worse.

    In the case of the seven “Potter” books, things work out for the better. Therefore the overall arc of the characters is complete. Therefore there is no need for them to progress any further. The story has reached a point at which the only logical imaginative conclusion is to write “The End”, and leave it at that. Fictional characters aren’t real, after all. There’s a definite cut-off point between make-believe and real life.

    The idea that a character is completed by a definitive end to a story is really just of the basic facts of how fiction has always been written. Yet it seems like there are a lot of trends afoot, cultural, social, maybe even political, which seem to be trying to raise a haphazard challenge to the traditional ideas of storytelling.

    If that were the case, then what I want to know is what “value” do modern audiences place on stories? Do they regard them as something of value, or not? If not, then why?

    For instance, you yourself believe it is “just opinion” and doesn’t matter. I’d kind of like to hear more of your thoughts on this.

  6. Sorry my comments have been a bit confusing – I’ve purposefully paid very little attention to the bits here (and elsewhere) about the actual plot of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, because I want to be able to read the whole thing as it exists, so I just need to throw that out there as a qualifier I should have made clear in the beginning (realized that on my own fb page after the fact too!)

    By “just opinion” and “really doesn’t matter” – I wasn’t meaning there was no meaning to it – just that in the end, if no one had any further thoughts about whether it was canon or not, I wasn’t going to be disappointed – this was just a bit of a throw away “hey what are people thinking?” type question, it wasn’t something of ultimate importance. And “just opinion” was my way of trying to mean all of our opinions DO matter when it comes to Harry Potter, but I’m not going to try and prioritize anyone’s over anyone elses. (Except for JKR’s… and even then…lol!) Anyway – reading my comment again, I see how unclear it was – clearly my sentiment I was trying to get across “hey, this isn’t a big deal and I’m not trying to start an argument here about canon I just wanted to hear folks thoughts” didn’t come across very well.

  7. Alison,

    Gotcha. Sorry for misunderstanding.

  8. Michele Nanjo says


    I just had to respond to ChrisC’s question about the value we place on stories. There are a number of answers to this. Stories provide everything from a few hours of pleasant escapism to profound insight into the human condition, just as they always have. And I don’t believe we are treating characters any differently today than we ever have, either. Yes, every story must have an end that gives us some sort of change or resolution in the main character. But that in no way precludes a new story that will present us with new challenges, changes and resolutions. That’s what series are all about, after all, and they have been around forever. Even Shakespeare wrote them!

    That doesn’t mean that every sequel is good. I have yet to read Cursed Child, so I can’t comment on the consistency of the characters. But, any flaws in that department are down to the talent and care of the writer(s), not the fact that this is a new HP story. While the HP series itself was complete, JKR clearly left the door open to future stories with her “19-years-later” post-script. That sort of thing naturally whet’s the imagination because it shows us that there *is* more to the story. These characters’ lives go on. And given the way HP has captured the world’s imagination, that’s not a bad thing.

  9. Michele,

    If it’s a question of what’s new, or the value of “novelty”, then I have to admit I haven’t ever really seen much in the last few years that counts “original”. In terms of new challenges to confront in life, I have to admit that pouring over history books tells me that while the outward garb may change from one epoch to another, the basic human conflicts tend to remain the same. Incredibly enough, so do most of the solutions to those problems (i.e. war, familial conflicts, etc.).

    In terms of newness in fiction, well, I tend mostly to a Jungian-Coleridgian outlook on fiction, which means I’m willing to believe it’s quite likely I’ve read the same basic story element in more than one novel or short-story. I don’t think that amounts any great endorsement for “sequels as the new norm”, however, as the kind of elements I’m talking about (kids on adventures, wicked parents, etc) have all found various varieties of creative expression, so that it isn’t entirely fair to say that each story is exactly the same story as the one before it.

  10. Well, there’s nothing new under the sun, as the old saying goes. And yes, the same basic stories have been told in countless different ways for thousands of years. While circumstances change, human nature doesn’t; and it’s human nature that is at the heart of every story. The novelty or freshness of a story depends entirely on circumstances – the unique plot a writer devises and the new characters he/she introduces us to.

    This is where sequels become something to either love or hate, because they have advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, we already know the main characters, so we can skip the “origin story” part of the novel where the characters and universe are introduced and go straight to the meat of the story. On the negative side, any given character, realistically, only has so many stories to tell. That’s why many series start to feel repetitive. Hero X may be saving the world from a new threat each time, but he/she isn’t changing, isn’t experiencing any credible new internal conflicts or epiphanies. Once that happens, the stories become boring.

    HPCC has the advantage of being set two decades after DH and it’s main protagonists are new characters, so it shouldn’t feel stale. Whether or not it has anything meaningful to add about the human condition in the HP universe… that remains to be seen.

  11. Michele,

    Some of the ideas you bring up do chime with a bit of my thinking on the subject of sequels in general.

    I tend to believe stories can be divided into three types: the stand alone, the limited run, and the serial.

    Stand alone stories are what their name implies, and this includes works like “Hamlet”, “Great Expectations”, or “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Each one tells a compelte and self contained story.

    Limited run stories are those where one or more books can feature the same continuing character, however the standard here is that their stories come to final close. The seven “Potter” books are the obvious example here, along with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn series, Lewis Carroll’s two “Alice” books, and Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales.

    Serial stories are the ones that feature character with a kind of endless capacity for sequels built into them. The two best that I’m aware of are James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. In know superheros are supposed to fall into this category. However, if I’m being honest, I’ve never managed to get into that whole genre in all my life. It all just lay flat on the page, and didn’t stir me in any way.

    I also have to admit that sometimes stand alone books can have uncecessary sequals tacked onto them for various ill conceived reasons (most likely involving money, ego, or both). The best examples of this happening are “Watership Down”, “The Shining”, and again, “To Kill a Mockingbird” (although it’s marketing confuses what’s an ill-written rough draft with either a sequel or a follow up, the worst part is the marketers never seemed able to make up their mind).

  12. Oh, the unnecessary sequels are the worst. And they’re always obvious because they invariably have nothing to say and nothing to add to what was a fully self-contained prior story.

    I agree with your three types of stories and it’s interesting that you point out James Bond and Sherlock Holmes as examples of series. I think detective-type story lines are the easiest to carry on as series. The point of such stories is solving the mystery, not the development of the protagonist. Neither James Bond, nor Holmes changes or grows much over the course of their many stories. Each is simply a hero with exceptional talents tasked with saving the day as only they can. They are very like superheroes, in fact, which is why these all fall into the same category. The success of all these series is due to the inventiveness of the plots the authors devise rather than character development.

    Personally, I find limited run, or closed series to be some of the best – and worst – stories. Handled well, they present a rich, complex story, far larger than could ever be presented in a single book. Unlike open-ended series where each new entry is self-contained and neither depends upon or advances previous plots, the closed series has a single, over-arching plot. While each entry in the series is a complete story, it also builds upon the previous plots until the final denouement is reached in the last story, pulling all the threads together. HP is a perfect example of this.

    But, closed series are also the most problematic. Any decent author can keep his/her plot straight for a single book, or keep unchanging characters in character over the endless entries of an open-ended series. But, managing a multi-book story where the characters continually grow and each book must have it’s own self-contained story while meshing seamlessly with and setting the stage for future books… that is much harder. Not least because it takes years to complete such a work. It is not uncommon for authors to lose their way and fail to deliver on the potential of such a series. It could be said that HP is also an example of this.

  13. I agree with you, John. I haven’t read the Cursed Child and won’t. I’ve always thought Rowling would have done better to, if expanding further upon the HP story, wrote a prequel about the time when the Marauders, Lily, and Snape were at Hogwarts and their time in the Order during the first war. Sirius was such a well written character…I always would’ve liked to have heard more about him.

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