JK Rowling’s magical seven-volume Harry Potter series is the ultimate bildungsroman, tracing that young wizard’s coming of age, as he not only battles evil but also struggles to come to terms with the responsibilities, losses and burdens of adulthood. In the course of those books, we see a plucky schoolboy, torn by adolescent doubts and confusions, grow into an epic hero, kin to King Arthur, Luke Skywalker and Spider-Man.
Now, in a play set 19 years later, we get to see how this legendary hero has settled into middle age as a civil servant in London, working at the Ministry of Magic. More important, we get to see Harry as a father – and his teenage son Albus’ efforts to cope with the suffocating expectations that come with having a famous father. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is about the journey Albus takes while growing up, and the roles he and his best friend, Scorpius (Draco Malfoy’s son), play when dark forces, perhaps in league with Voldemort, once again threaten the fate of the planet.
This book version of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is the script of the hit play that just opened in London, and even though it lacks the play’s much-talked-about special effects, it turns out to be a compelling, stay-up-all-night read.
Written by playwright Jack Thorne (and based on an original story by Rowling, Thorne and director John Tiffany), the play picks up where the last novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (2007), left off, and it flashes forward to Albus’ later years at Hogwarts. The script is missing the fully imagined, immersive amplitude of Rowling’s novels, but she did such a remarkable job in those volumes conjuring a fictional universe that this play nimbly sustains itself simply by situating its canny story line in that world and remaining true to its characters and rules.
As in the books, the suspense here is electric and nonstop, and it has been cleverly constructed around developments recalling events in the original Potter novels – scenes from the Triwizard Tournament in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the penetration of the Ministry of Magic by Harry, Ron and Hermione in “Deathly Hallows”; and a visit to Godric’s Hollow in that same volume. As a bonus, fans are also given a scattering of interesting new insights into Harry, Dumbledore and Voldemort.
Dumbledore, like Sirius Black, is one of several father figures to Harry, and the Oedipal father-son dynamic is central to “Cursed Child,” much the way the Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader relationship is central to the “Star Wars” films. There are growing tensions not only between Harry and Albus but also between Draco and the insecure Scorpius, who, we learn early on, is actually rumored to be Voldemort’s secret son. Much to Harry’s dismay, Albus quickly bonds with Scorpius over their respective father issues and the fact that both of them are outcasts at Hogwarts.
Albus resents being the son of “the Chosen One,” and he’s increasingly filled with anger at the expectations placed on him. And though Albus has a lot in common with young Harry – feelings of being an outsider and a desire to prove himself – he is increasingly at odds with his father, whose worried, overprotective parenting fuels antagonism between them.
Although readers will miss Rowling’s endlessly inventive imagination, which was continually elaborating the universe she had created in the books, Thorne has a visceral understanding of the dynamics and themes at work in those novels: the complicated equation between destiny and free will, the pull between duty and love, and the role that loneliness and anger can play in fueling hate. As in those books, the forces of light (kindness, empathy, inclusion) are arrayed against the forces of darkness (fear, rage and an authoritarian will to power) that are threatening to rise again after years of peace – a dynamic, many readers can appreciate, with particular resonance today.
The power of time is central to Rowling’s books – even as her narratives hurtle forward with an irresistible momentum, Harry’s understanding of Voldemort and himself involved excursions into the past. And the same is true of “Cursed Child.” In the Potter books, journeys in time or space were aided by wondrous devices like the Pensieve and the Portkey. In “Cursed Child,” the key instrument is a Time-Turner, similar to the one Hermione used in “The Prisoner of Azkaban” to squeeze extra classes into her schedule and to save Hagrid’s imperiled hippogriff Buckbeak.
Here, a Time-Turner is used with consequences that will remind some readers of the movie “Back to the Future,” and others of the classic Ray Bradbury story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a careless time-traveler journeys to the days of the dinosaurs and accidentally steps on a butterfly, thereby altering the rest of time.
In this case, it is not giving away too much of the plot of this absorbing and ingenious play to simply recall Dumbledore’s words in “The Prisoner of Azkaban”: “The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed.” And time travel, like the art of fiction writing, affords the possibility of imagining ominous alternate futures and amazing and harrowing alternate worlds.
“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”
By Jack Thorne, based on an original story by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Thorne
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 327 pages