To get this out of the way: yes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not only like a piece of fanfiction, but aims to be one. This narrative is not so much another volume but rather a meta-narrative reflecting on the novels—with the switch to script allowing for an interplay of irony and expectation. The result is self-indulgent, amusing and emotionally satisfying.
J.K. Rowling has always had a curious relationship with the idea of canons. She happily encouraged the proliferation of fanfic around the novels, but has a protective hold on her understanding of the text. This isn’t unusual for authors, her incessant addition of details to a universe is now so much bigger than hers, is however unorthodox. Considering the concurrent release of the final Potter novels and the films, the pop understanding of Potter is as shaped by the likes of Steve Kloves and David Yates as by Rowling. If she has maintained an uneasy tension between the two for years, then The Cursed Child is symbolic of her choosing to accept this—not least because the script is a collaboration. Jack Thorne, best known for writing dark and gritty television drama, is an inspired choice for the what could be called the Potter universe’s first canonical fanfic.
The plot itself is driven by the unhappy character of Albus Potter: elaborating upon the unconvincing epilogue of the Deathly Hallows, Thorne presents a strained father-son relationship between an adult Harry and his son, one which reaches breaking point when Albus, sorted into Slytherin, ends up depressed at Hogwarts. When he hears about the recovery of a Time-Turner, however, he conspires with his only friend, Scorpius Malfoy, to right a wrong from his famous father’s past. This is a plot which liberally borrows from Back to the Future Part II, Doctor Who, and the Potter series itself, complete with another Ministry break-in and a surprising whodunit. Yet although The Cursed Child operates as a crowdpleasing nostalgia trip, what makes Thorne’s script compelling is that it is nostalgia which critiques. While the characters are coping up with the consequences of the novels—Scorpius being ostracised, Albus growing up in his father’s shadow, Harry struggling to be a good dad—the writer is also thoughtfully commenting upon the novels in a way which plays with some of their unexplored implications. Particularly his portrayal of Ginny Weasley has a subtelty and nuance which never really shone through in the original novels. Thus, the return of fan favourites like Dumbledore and Snape is not simply for the fun of it, but in order to have a conversation between Dumbledore and Harry which focuses more on the manipulative behaviour of the former than Rowling tended to. Thorne manages the tricky feat of simultaneously prioritising the original text, fans’ desires, and a degree of critical self reflexity.
Yet as interesting as all this commentary by Thorne is, none of it would work if not for a key component of the script. Despite mixed reception, it seems everyone agrees that the star is Scorpius Malfoy—and rightly so. Self-deprecating, earnest, erudite and endearingly sweet, Scorpius brings the whole thing together as the script’s comic and emotional core; perhaps the real stroke of genius on Thorne’s part however is to make Scorpius an enthusiastic, obsessive nerd. Or, really, to make him a Harry Potter fan. This isn’t even subtext: “All I ever wanted to do was go to Hogwarts and have a mate to get up to mayhem with. Just like Harry Potter…” he remarks. At more than one crucial moment in the narrative, it’s Scorpius’ knowledge of Harry Potter plot details that helps the heroes. And it’s through Scorpius’ literal reconstructing of the narrative to his liking that the story is resolved. But Thorne guarantees there’s space for new stories: one highlight near the end is a moment where Draco flirts with Hermione, and as with so much else, there’s a sense he’s tipping his hat to an alternative interpretation. The message of The Cursed Child is simple: all fanfics are valid. Your version of the story and what it means to you is the real canon.