In the wizarding world of Harry Potter, a patronus can save you from evil, but what spell do you cast to undo a time-paradox? Even though the charming wizards and witches of J.K. Rowling’s texts have incantations for just about everything from healing fatal wounds to sewing a button, they lack the ability to turn back the clock or stitch up rips in time unless they’ve got one specific magical gizmo: the time-turner. For detractors of the latest bestselling book/play script – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 – the existence of the time-turner and the bevy of Back to the Future-style shenanigans that ensue are reason enough to give this strange entry into the Potter-canon a dismissive “meh.”
To be sure, Cursed Child is all kinds of crazy, but the existence of the time-turner – and time travel – as a major plot point isn’t why Cursed Child stumbles. In fact, the time-travel and alternate dimension components are actually where the story mostly shines. If only we could have stayed in those bizarro worlds longer.
Major Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 ahead
In Caseen Gaines’s book We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, famous film director Robert Zemeckis complains about the tricky nature of sequels: “Audiences have a love-hate relationship with sequels…what do you really want? You want the same movie, but different. ‘But wait a minute, not too different, or that will piss me off!’…you can’t win…”
As both a series of books and a series of films, the world of Harry Potter probably didn’t suffer from the same reader/audience biases in sequels, but this latest installment might. When Jack Thorne sat down to write this stage-play which would serve as a canonical sequel to the seventh Harry Potter adventure, The Deathly Hallows, he must have felt similar to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale when they approached making a sequel to Back to the Future. How do I make this like other Harry Potter stories? How do I make it different? Just how much fan service would he need?
Like J.J. Abrams bringing in Leonard Nimoy as “old Spock” in the 2009 Star Trek movie, this new Harry Potter uses time-travel to briefly revisit the events of what is arguably the most popular Harry Potter book: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Did you miss the Triwizard Tournament? Worried about a story in which Harry, Ron and Hermione are all in their 40s? Don’t worry: in addition to time-travel, there are also plenty of flashbacks. Mischievous fan-service: managed.
Briefly, the vast majority of Cursed Child’s story focuses on Harry Potter’s son (Albus Potter) and Draco Malfoy’s son (Scorpius Malfoy) heading back in time to SAVE Cedric Diggory (recall: Robert Pattison played him in the movie) from being randomly murdered by the evil Voldemort. You see, Albus and Scorpius are decidedly uncool at school and have a serious problem with underdogs being screwed over in general, which, we’re lead to believe, particularly extends to injustices performed in a past they never experienced.
Right here, Cursed Child encounters its first major problem: why the hell do Albus and Scorpius want to save Cedric? Through the course of the play, we’re lead to believe they’re just manipulated into having fake sympathy for dead-Cedric by the snake-talking charms of a character named Delphi, who is really, Voldemort’s secret daughter. Though, because theres so much time spent on Ron making fart-jokes, and Ginny giving Harry the stink-eye, it’s sort of hard to get to know Albus and Scorpius, and thus believe that they’re so emo that they want to wreak havoc on the fabric of time and space itself!
Still, traveling back in time to the fourth Potter book does create the desired effect: nostalgia for the the Hogwarts we know and love is keenly felt, and cool time-travel hijinks ensue. Much like in Back to the Future II we’re getting to see a familiar plot, but through a different perspective. And, much like many good time-travel stories, returning to the present has created a cascade effect in which all was not as it once was. In Ray Bradbury’s famous short story “A Sound of Thunder,” time-travelers on safari to the Cretaceous are warned “Crushing certain plants could add up infinitesimally. A little error here would multiply in 60 million years, all out of proportion.”
In Cursed Child the changes Albus and Scorpius make to the past multiply in fewer than 20 years. Through meddling with the Triwizard Tournament of their parent’s generation, not one but two alternate dimensions are created, one in which everyone is just kind of a bigger asshole, and a second reality in which Voldemort is alive, Harry is dead, and wizards are torturing muggles for fun. If you’re a fan of time-travel and a fan of the various push-and-pulls of the Potterverse, most of this is really exciting and raises the stakes of this story fairly satisfactorily.
And yet. Each of the alternate dimensions is only glimpsed for an instant, and the trips into the past are equally short. Meaning, the impact of the history being magically rewritten is only felt for short moments, making the emotional takeaway pretty minimal. In fact, by the end of the play, Delphi travels back to 1981 to prevent Harry Potter from ever “defeating” Voldemort when he was a tiny baby. You might say the thinness of the plot is being destroyed by the existence of the time-turner, but really, the problem here is connected not to time-travel, but with a lack of newness. In short: Harry and his adult friends have too much stage time, meaning all the new stuff (like Albus and Scorpius) come across as sketches, rather than regular characters. These Potter stories have always had more characters than is reasonable. But The Cursed Child confused the balance. Is this Albus’s story or Harry’s? Scorpius’s or Malfoy’s?
The charm of the old Harry Potter books (even the bad ones) was the idea of creating new stakes, and revealing or deepening existing mysteries. But after The Deathly Hallows all those mysteries were kind of wrapped up, so now a “new” prophecy is shoehorned in here toward next-to-last act of the second part of the story. This prophecy suddenly explains the existence of Voldemort’s daughter, even though, at this point, we barely care. Because this weird new prophecy becomes the undoing of The Cursed Child, with the time-travel as merely an accomplice to a shoddy set of character motivations. Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy certainly have their delightful moments (and perhaps seeing actors play them live would help) but for the most part we believe in their friendship because we are told over and over very directly that they are besties. The heavy-handedness of the writing alternates from evil people having blood on their shoes to Ron randomly having his wand backwards, because hey, he’s funny, remember?
To blame the problems of The Cursed Child then on time-travel would be lazy, because the stakes briefly raised by Albus and Scorpius’s meddling are the most interesting things about the story. A middle-aged Harry Potter arguing with his disappointing son could have been interesting, but in the text, it reads forced. And because each of magical time-travel consequences of the actions of the supposed main characters(Albus and Scorpius) are undone so quickly, it’s hard to believe the emotional consequences will hit, either.
If Thorne and Rowling had decided to trap Albus Potter and his best-bud Scorpius in one of the two alternate dimension for an act or two longer, things could have become really interesting. In “our” world Scorpius is picked-on and mocked, but in the super-evil dimension, he’s “The Scorpion King.”
If Scorpius is one of our two main characters, wouldn’t have it been nice to tempt him with that dark power for a bit longer? Here, the dramatic potential of time-travel and the alternate worlds it creates was laying dormant. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child wasn’t destroyed by the time-turner. Instead, because the stage-time was so divided between Harry and the “adult” generation, any realistic dramatic layers for Albus and Scorpius were lost.
Ironically, the primary theme of Cursed Child is Albus and Scorpius struggling to live in their fathers’ shadows. And the only thing in the play that gives them agency is the thing tying them to the legacy of the other stories: the time-turner. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is an exciting return to this beloved fictional world. It’s just too bad the time-turner didn’t take Albus and Scorpius somewhere even more interesting: the future.