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Talking Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, from Scorpius Malfoy to failed Bechdel tests

'Harry Potter And The Cursed Child' - Book Release At Foyles Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

On July 31, Scholastic released the script book for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, currently onstage in London. Presented as the eighth story in the Harry Potter universe, the play was written by Jack Thorne, who also developed the plot in collaboration with director John Tiffany and the queen of all things Potter, J.K. Rowling. It begins 19 years after the events of the seventh book in Rowling’s original series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, with a now middle-aged Harry Potter taking his young son Albus to Hogwarts.

While the play is a smash hit in London, early readers of the script book were not universally impressed. So Vox.com staffers Caroline Framke, Aja Romano, Constance Grady, and Libby Nelson got together to discuss the play, its troubled relationship with the original Harry Potter books, the controversial villain, and the future of the Harry Potter universe.

Is Cursed Child a satisfying addition to the original seven Harry Potter books?

Libby Nelson: Satisfying as an hour or so of reading on the beach? Yes, with some fairly large caveats. Satisfying as a standalone addition to the universe? No.

Caroline Framke: I feel the same way about Cursed Child as I feel about the Harry Potter movies: It was fun to be in that world, to remember why I loved these characters, to imagine being at the Battle of Hogwarts, or just in Hogsmeade having a drink, or what have you. But wholly satisfying in and of itself? Nah.

Aja Romano: I think your level of satisfaction depends on what kind of Harry Potter fan you are, to start with. If you loved the epilogue of book seven — which paired off all the main characters in neatly heteronormative marriages with children 19 years after the events of the main storyline — you might well be satisfied with this return to the world and specifically much of the plot J.K. Rowling created. But if you were hoping Cursed Child would expand on the world and introduce new characters and developments in the wizarding world, it won't do much for you.

Constance Grady: I think I felt similarly to Libby. I enjoyed reading it, but it feels smaller and slighter than the main seven books to me. Aja, I actually liked Cursed Child in part because it muddies up the epilogue a little, and creates more space to question the idea that "all was well." But it also locks you into the "everyone marries their high school sweetheart" of the epilogue a little more, so I can see why that would be aversive.

Caroline: I don’t know if it’s the fact that Cursed Child is a play written like it’s a movie — seriously, how the hell did they stage this? — but I agree with Constance that it felt slight. Mostly, I was grateful for Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, my neurotic teen dream wiz kid.

Aja: Constance, one of the things that frustrated me was that it didn't seem to question the idea that "all was well" at all, to me. There's that moment when Hermione tells us that the entire wizarding world has had nothing but "only the slightest conflict" for the past 22 years. Really? after a genocidal war that pitted half the community against one another?

Constance: For me, Harry and Ginny’s son Albus was an effective avatar of the trauma of the genocidal war and its aftermath, and the fact of his existence made the ending of Deathly Hallows a little more psychologically plausible — all ​isn't well, because we keep inflicting these wounds and traumas on our children.

Aja: I could have found Albus an effective avatar had his trauma not inexplicably boiled down to every single kid around him being obsessed with his dad to a degree that I found extremely implausible. I would have loved to see more exploration of the impact of the war on intra-house conflicts at Hogwarts and the way students thought about themselves as generational inheritors of the war, but his conflict mainly seemed to boil down to, "My dad is really famous, and I didn't get sorted into Gryffindor!"

Libby: My great fear going into Cursed Child was that it would be so bad it would retroactively ruin parts of the earlier books for me. That didn’t happen, and I genuinely liked some parts of it (which I think we’ll get to in a bit!). But I hate that I had to have such low expectations to start with.

The greatest things about Rowling’s work — her descriptions, her use of Harry’s point of view — don’t really lend themselves to playwriting, and I found myself barely even recognizing the main characters as adults. Hermione, Ginny, and Harry all felt generic; Ron was the only one who really rang true. I didn’t hate reading Cursed Child, but it didn’t even really feel like a return to the Harry Potter universe so much as a derivative detour.

Aja: I think for me the most disappointing aspect was the degree to which the authors seemed content to barely raise more complex ideas ... and then immediately do nothing with them. The story focuses so closely on its convoluted time travel plot that it fails to really explore what the wizarding world would be like after all this time. I found it extremely disappointing to constantly revisit plot points we'd already seen in Rowling’s own writing.

Caroline: Yes, but I wasn’t shocked at all by how much Cursed Child connected with the original books, which is maybe why I came away from it more pleasantly surprised than I expected. At this point, Harry Potter has far outstripped the original premise of "one story, seven books"; it’s a franchise, a commodity. It’s not one but ​two​ theme parks. It would’ve been far more surprising if the story weren’t so closely tied to the original books, because that’s what so many fans know and love.

But at the same time, I agree with Libby that the adults were pretty basic. Despite loving them so much as a kid, I found myself so completely uninterested in their post-Hogwarts lives that I ended up skimming their asides to get back to Albus and Scorpius — who, in my opinion, are the closest Cursed Child comes to something truly original unto itself. I loved both of them a lot!

Constance: I had a similar experience to Caroline. I can't imagine a commercially successful Harry Potter property right now that doesn't revisit the most beloved characters and events of the first seven books, so I expected Cursed Child to do something like the time travel plot.

What I liked about the execution is that Rowling and her collaborators found a way to make it thematically coherent and interesting, which is frankly so much more than I was expecting. And personally, I liked the grace notes they added to the mythology, like the secret background of the Trolley Witch. But especially Scorpius.

Scorpius Malfoy is (almost) everyone’s favorite

Libby: I have a probably irrational hatred for the Trolley Witch twist, which felt like it had apparated into the storyline from some other author’s writing. But, yes, Scorpius is by far Cursed Child’s best creation. I’m not interested in hearing anything else about Albus, but I’d read a book on Scorpius in a heartbeat. He felt three-dimensional and alive, and I appreciate the ways his initial friendship with Albus winked knowingly back at the familiar storylines of the past. I’m curious what the rest of you thought, and why his character worked so well in a work that otherwise felt thin.

Aja: The Trolley Witch twist primarily annoyed me because it was a minor but obnoxious example of how badly written the women in the play were — she could remember Sirius Black and the Weasleys but not her own name? Please.

And I wanted to love Scorpius, but I was so distracted by the discordance of the narrative concerning him (WTF, Voldemort love child rumor?!), the weird vagueness of his role within Slytherin (seriously, WHY wasn't he immediately sorted into Hufflepuff?! He seems to have nothing of the qualities that make up a Slytherin except being pureblood), and the bizarrely persistent NO HOMO-ing of his relationship with Albus that I was mostly too busy boggling to appreciate him as a character.

Caroline: Everything you’re saying makes logical sense, but dammit, Scorpius hit me right in the guts. I love everything about him, from his unwavering loyalty (yeah, he’s a Hufflepuff), to his dry asides, to his fully nerding out over Bathilda Bagshot. More importantly, he actually felt like the child of Draco Malfoy, with all the confusion, disappointment, and anger that entails.

Some of the other kids — cough Rose cough — felt more like Harry Potter 1.0 remixes than real characters. I don’t buy that Ron and Hermione’s kid would be that much of a jerk; the writers just needed a Hermione counterpart, and it was easier that way. But Scorpius didn't felt like someone who could anchor a spinoff tale, and I was really just so happy to have him around.

Constance: Yes, Scorpius is, hands down, the most likable character in the play, and I actually think that's because he is, like everyone else in the story, a remix.

But his job is not to muddy the legacy of characters we know and love — like Albus does for Harry and Ginny, and like Rose does for Ron and Hermione — but to develop and humanize Draco, who is fairly underdeveloped in the original seven books. I know Draco is a popular figure in fandom, but I'd argue that you have to read hard against the text to find a lot of shading for him. Scorpius is the chance to really dive into the Malfoy legacy from a protagonist's perspective instead of an antagonist's.

(And tangentially, I loved that the Trolley Witch took an inconspicuous motherly figure and turned her into a dangerous force.)

Women are consistently sidelined in this play

Constance: Aja brought up the point that women in this story are really sidelined, and it's true that Cursed Child is a bro-y play that prioritizes male characters and male relationships well above women. That's such a common perspective that I'm pretty inured to it in most genres, but it's definitely a valid thing to be angry about. Was it a deal breaker for anyone?

Libby: It’s hard for me to overstate how incredibly important the character of Hermione was to me as a preteen and young teenager who wasn’t conventionally attractive or popular and whose main skills were reading books and taking tests. So, yes, I’m disappointed that she and Ginny Weasley — funny, athletic, brave Ginny Weasley — were reduced to cardboard cutouts, and that her daughter flounced off in the opening pages and essentially didn’t return.

I’m not sure this play even passes the Bechdel test. Granted, it has a small cast, and its treatment of Hermione, Ginny, and Rose wasn’t the only instance where it made a questionable choice on which characters to emphasize. There was so much Ludo Bagman, so little Neville Longbottom — who, as is reiterated for us, ​literally saved the world. But as the original seven books went on, the roles that women played started to expand, and it’s sad to see how little of that appears in Cursed Child.

Aja: I couldn't agree more with Libby. There were moments when the lack of agency given to female characters really overshadowed the action for me. Astoria Greengrass wasn't actually in the play, but she was dredged up again and again to provide her husband and son with man pain. Hermione was flat and underwritten and seemed to make decisions that were not only wholly out of character for her but also only served as expository plot devices.

We should have had an entire act devoted to whip-smart Rose Granger-Weasley, but instead she only ever showed up to deliver clunky exposition to Albus and Scorpius or to stand in the way of their budding homoerotic friendship by being a crush object. What a waste.

And leaving aside the hilarity of the fact that Cursed Child’s creation of the Delphi character means the Harry Potter canon now shares a major plot point with My Immortal, the insult to injury of putting Bellatrix in a sexual relationship with Voldemort is really unbearable for me. I really enjoyed that in the original seven books, Bellatrix was just evil and badass and awful on her own, without wanting a (half-formed, mostly incorporeal) man!

What’s more, that plot twist just underscored the relentless heteronormativity that drove me crazy about the Harry Potter series as a whole — it's the last part of the world I hoped would be expanded and reinforced.

Caroline: Yeah, as much as I really liked Scorpius and Albus’s friendship — not to mention Draco and Harry coming to a long-awaited truce — I was really disappointed that the women weren’t more than merely functional.

It maybe annoyed me even more than usual, not just because Ginny was about as important to me as it sounds like Hermione was to Libby but because I’ve been watching a ton of TV pilots lately, and this particular problem of flat female characters is practically a staple. Worse: It's a default. Women become wives who exist to ask their husband questions. It’s depressing, and, more crucially, it’s boring.

And, yes: Delphi as Voldemort and Bellatrix’s daughter is some real infuriating bullshit.

Constance: Yes, the world of Cursed Child is definitely a lot flatter than the world of the books, in part because it can't conceive of any way to think about the female characters, and that's a real loss.

The "daughter of Voldemort" twist is universally reviled

Constance: That's a terrible reveal, right? First of all, if Rowling had been writing it, she would at least have given us a real red herring, which Thorne did not bother to do. Second of all, there's no way Voldy has ever had sex. He's the most asexual villain character I've ever seen.

Caroline: I assumed it was some sort of demonic IVF situation, but that’s one of the grosser fantasy/sci-fi tropes ever, so hardly better.

Aja: I kind of thought the "Scorpius's mother had non-consensual sex with Voldemort!" rumor that serves to bizarrely make Scorpius a sympathetic, befriendable character to Albus in the first act of the play was meant to be the red herring of the plot, which was all kinds of clunky and embarrassing.

Constance: You are right, and that is a TERRIBLE red herring.

Aja: But Delphi herself was shoehorned into the plot in ridiculous ways — she spends most of her time manipulating Albus by appealing to his sexual fantasies. Her motivations and even the question of her backstory and weird sci-fi origins don't matter. And that's my other big gripe with Cursed Child: Character motivations, and logic in general, both seem subservient to the plot.

Do Cursed Child’s characters mesh with the versions we know and love from the books?

Aja: There's that scene in Hermione's library, which I'm told is amazing and electrifying on stage, where the boys are trying to grab the books to get the riddle to get the Time-Turner. But as read, not only is that scene flat and inexplicable, it makes no sense as a logical thing for Hermione Granger, of all people, to leave a prohibited tool in her office protected only by riddles that a 14-year-old dumber than she was at 14 could solve. Throughout the play I kept meeting moments like that and not having any way to reconcile them with the characters I knew! Perhaps most of all Harry himself.

Caroline: I was far more fascinated by Harry grappling with fatherhood than I thought I’d be. Of course Harry would have a different relationship with parenting than Ginny, or Ron, or Hermione, because he never truly had loving parents or parental figures outside of Dumbledore.

Actually, thinking about it now, one of the best callbacks to — and even progressions of — the original series comes when Harry confronts a portrait of Dumbledore like it’s actually his former mentor in the flesh. Dumbledore and Harry’s relationship was important and empathetic but also deeply manipulative on Dumbledore’s part. I seem to remember some criticism of that dynamic after the series ended, and this felt like a much more direct confrontation of that than I was expecting.

Constance: Yeah, I think Cursed Child is much more willing to explicitly discuss how manipulative and unbalanced Harry and Dumbledore's relationship was than the books are, in general. You get a real sense of how fundamentally broken Harry was by what Dumbledore did to him, and why it's so difficult for him to work out how to have a healthy relationship with his own children after being puppet-mastered by his father figure for so long.

At the same time, you don't lose the real mutual love and affection Harry and Dumbledore had for each other, and I was really impressed that the play managed to walk that line.

At the end of the day, Cursed Child is only the first step in opening up the Harry Potter franchise for more stories

Aja: I think the best thing about Cursed Child is that now kids all over the world will have the chance to physically see themselves in these roles on stage, and that means a lot. And I kind of hope Cursed Child will open up the Harry Potter universe even more for franchise expansions of the world, even if they aren't all satisfying individually, because there's such continued interest in the universe and people still want to know so much more.

Libby: Cursed Child, to me, is at its best when it’s in a conversation with the original series — whether via Harry’s conversations with Dumbledore’s portrait (which I agree are stellar) or the explorations of Ron and Hermione’s alternate futures. Reading those scenes felt like Rowling was reinterpreting or even interrogating her own work in ways that really did satisfy.

With that said, putting Rowling’s name on the cover made the stakes, arguably, too high. Like Aja, I’d welcome more franchised expansions of the Harry Potter universe. But if Rowling herself wants to continue playing in it, I wish she’d write another book, which showcases her talents far more than a thin script.

Caroline: Cursed Child showed me once again what 14-year-old me, along with so many other teens and Rowling herself, knew well: There was ​so much more​ to explore in this world she created that even seven books couldn’t crack the surface. It’s beautiful, really, that this wizarding world lives and breathes on in such a vital way, allowing us to explore existing pockets and new avenues. I’m still so excited for the upcoming movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for exactly these reasons.

Cursed Child also showed me what 27-year-old me, along with so many other late 20-somethings, and maybe even Rowling herself, knows well: that the rest of the wizarding world that doesn’t directly involve Harry Potter deserves exploring, and maybe returning to this particular part of it wasn’t the most creatively fulfilling exercise.

I would have preferred a play about Astoria Greengrass, Ginny Weasley's sports pages, or, hell, even the Trolley Witch over Cursed Child’s retreading of familiar ground. But for many fans, Harry Potter and his friends (or whatever Draco now qualifies as) are the be-all and end-all of their love for this world. Cursed Child was for them, and that’s okay. There are so many other places left to go.

Constance: Cursed Child is a flawed and myopic but ultimately likable look at one particular corner of the enormous world Rowling has created. It opens up the brick-wall "all was well" ending of the original books’ epilogue to gesture at the horror and trauma they created for their characters, and it brings in a few compelling new characters.

It didn't make the most creatively interesting choices it could have, but that's a given: This is a giant commercial franchise now, and no one who isn't J.K. Rowling is going to get to take chances with it so early on.

But now that the franchise has been opened up, I'm excited to see where it can go from here. Cursed Child has proven that the world will accept some minor tinkering with the wizarding world, so let's go wild with it! Bring me the story of the Hogwarts founders! Bring me some kid who was traumatized by the Battle of Hogwarts and has to relearn how to function in the magical world! Bring me the adventures of Fleur Delacour!

There's a whole wide world to explore, and Cursed Child began to open it up.

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