Ugh. If I’d wanted bad fanfiction, I would have gone to tumblr.
Every word you write makes a promise to your readers. Some are implicit, others explicit. Implicit promises are promises like characterization- with your depictions, you are promising your readers that this is how your characters would act. Explicit promises are promises like, oh, I don’t know, “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years.”
(No spoilers until Character Promises)
I didn’t have super high expectations going into reading The Cursed Child (which is not, in fact, written by J. K. Rowling), but I thought it would be decent. After all, if someone’s going to write a sequel to Harry Potter, they would know to make it good, right? …uh, right?
The play format excited me. I like reading plays because they go fast while still telling a full story and I like theater. Plus, I hoped that the different format would distance this book from the rest of the series- that it would expand the world rather than the story.
I had hoped in vain.
Observant readers quickly gather an impression of a story’s quality. If one starts out bad, at least they know what to expect. If it begins good, they expect it to stay good for the duration. Pretty obvious, right? And when a story stretches over multiple books, it’s important to maintain a consistent or growing level of quality, or readers feel betrayed. And betrayed readers will defend their opinions more vigorously than readers who never got into a story in the first place.
The majority of the Harry Potter series was great! Minor parts of books four and up bugged me (and other readers), and Deathly Hallows was a bit of a mess, but overall the series ranged from enjoyable to amazing.
Then The Cursed Child took a one-eighty off a cliff.
There’s lines like, “Thank you for being the light in my darkness” and “Cedric Diggory is turning into a balloon, and this balloon wants to fly. Fly, ladies and gentlemen, fly.”
Then there’s the cringe-worthy plot. Not only did it go back on the ending of Deathly Hallows, but it was poorly made on its own. There were tons of filler scenes that contributed nothing to the overall story and messages, and the subplots, like Harry and Albus’s rocky relationship, didn’t matter to the main plot. There were several story arcs that happened to happen at the same time; they didn’t feed off each other at all. Then, the main villain was ridiculous. They shouldn’t have existed.
When you write a character, their personality develops throughout your story. A reader comes to know a character, often as well as (or better than) a friend. Characterization is another type of promise, and if characters act a different way than expected (without a really good reason), readers will feel betrayed.
One of Harry Potter‘s biggest draws was its characters. After spending seven books and several years with them, readers know these people. They’re promised that these characters will act a certain way in certain situations. But then Cursed Child happened. (Spoilers begin)
Harry Potter, orphan, friendless for the first eleven years of his life, would never break up his son’s only friendship. I don’t care that it was in an alternate universe, because he was presented as unchanged (as compared to Ron and Hermione). This was the boy who had the same two best friends from age eleven on and didn’t listen to anyone who told him they would be bad for him (Malfoy about Ron on the Hogwarts Express). If he didn’t like Scorpius, he would have said something sooner than year four, and he never would he have acted on a vague prophecy after his conversations with Dumbledore in Half-Blood Prince.
Another wrongly portrayed character was in the first parallel universe, when Hermione was a bitter, angry professor because… she didn’t marry Ron? What? This is not Hermione, the Hermione who, when Ron left in Deathly Hallows (after their relationship had actually had time to grow romantically) continued fighting Voldemort and getting stuff done. She wasn’t bitter over Ron’s going. Furious? Yes. Heartbroken? Yes. But not bitter. Plus, the whole scenario implies that the only reason Ron loved and married Hermione was because he was jealous of Viktor Krum. Not cool.
Then there’s Voldemort. He would never have a child. Never. It goes against his whole person. He wouldn’t want a child; he wanted to live forever and to be unopposed. He’d kill his own Death Eaters, even his closest, if they got in his way. Why would he trust his own kid? He thinks too highly of himself to not believe some power would be passed down to her. Voldemort can’t feel love, not even for Bellatrix, so that’s no option. And he wanted to leave behind all of his humanity, so that doesn’t work either. A child would be out of the question.
I’m not saying there’s something wrong with having a character make a surprising choice, or changing in an unexpected way. That’s great! Look at how Snape and Dumbledore overturned expectations. That can make for great characters. However, the surprises have to be believable and not contradict anything that’s gone before. Otherwise, it’s just bad writing.
Readers don’t like it when what happens goes against what’s happened. If what they read can be negated twenty pages later, what’s the point of caring? What’s the point of celebrating a Dark Lord’s demise if he can be brought back next book?
Needless to say, I was not happy with how Cursed Child treated Harry Potter‘s plot promises.
First off, Delphi was absurd. Voldemort and Bellatrix had a baby? How did this get published? Bellatrix was definitely not pregnant during the fifth or seventh book and since the Death Eaters were so active during the sixth (and Bellatrix wouldn’t have sat out on the action), I’m sure someone would have noticed. I suppose there’s always summers, but still, there’s the Voldemort side of it already discussed.
Then in the Triwizard Tournament, it’s ridiculous to suppose there were no barriers to prevent magical cheating. Everyone was furious about Harry’s supposed false entry, yet did nothing to ensure against tampering after that? The spells Albus and Scorpius used weren’t complicated. They were ones any of the students could have used to ensure their representative would win. Plus, spells are visible. Everyone would have seen they were fired and where they were fired from. I know the adults in Harry Potter aren’t particularly competent, but one of the kids (besides Hermione) would have figured something was going on.
And finally, Harry’s scar. The instant it hurt in Cursed Child, Rowling’s promise that “All was well” shattered. We were told Voldemort was dead, gone. But that promise was destroyed with Cursed Child. I don’t care that his scar was only hurting because Harry “had to be mentally rid of [Voldemort],” not just “physically rid of him.” The ending of Deathly Hallows showed that he was mentally rid of Voldemort- he had started a family, was involved in the next generation, and “All was well.” Toying with the idea of Voldemort coming back was wrong.
When readers feel like a story can break its own rules, there’s no point in caring. Have you ever read or seen a character death that should make you sad, but you just can’t bother since you know they’ll be revived anyway? Now imagine that for every aspect of a story. That’s why you can’t break even one promise to your readers.
And Cursed Child broke way more than one promise.