A Cursed Crack at Canonicity, or Good Enough?
Any consumer of fiction appreciates the convention of canonicity. The “official” works of a storyline. A “fictional universe.” The “real stuff” as opposed to “fan fiction.” While it is difficult to determine an objective standard for canonicity, the most basic element is usually assumed to be a consistent author (or producer/director for a movie). Consider the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the most popularly depicted character of all time. There is a common world established by Arthur Conan Doyle in his dozens of short stories and novels featuring the iconic investigator; yet, not everything from the writer’s mouth or pen becomes sanctified. There is a significance to Holmes’s pieces that were published greater than his spoken word or even written communication. And the thousands of books, movies, and short stories published by fans over the years are undisputedly elements of a different universe. As good as they may be, they are a different canon.
Less obviously, consistent authorship and official publication (whether for books or movies) do not ensure canonicity. This enters the realm of influential fan bases in fiction. The Star Wars prequels were so disfavored by the population of fans to the point that debates rage on today as to their placement in the same cinematic universe as the originals. While fans in this instance generally give up the fight, the idea of limiting the author in this way does have its merits. The author may not blatantly contradict previous works in the universe. On a subtler level, the rules of the universe must remain the same. A character’s personality may not drastically change for no reason. And the quality of the story must remain of a similar caliber (this last point is controversial, but widely considered a factor in these evaluations).
Once the fiction is established, it maintains a life force of its own independent of its creator. While the author or filmmaker may extend the universe with further works, he/she is just as much a fan as anyone else when it comes to theories and interpretations of the stories. J.K. Rowling’s proclamation in 2007 that “Dumbledore is gay” is accurate only insofar as it is based on a good reading of the text.
Which brings us to the ostensibly eighth Harry Potter installment released this summer. At first glance, the new Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (made for the stage but printed as a special rehearsal edition script), plain and simple, is a canonical eighth story. This is a logical inference, considering the suggestive internet headlines, familiar midnight releases around the country, and, of course, Rowling authorship. Some fans suspected impure authorship due to enigmatic lines such as “based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Throne” and “a new play by Jack Thorne.” Yet Rowling assured that “the story of #CursedChild should be considered canon… John Tiffany (the director) and I developed it together,” so it is not obvious that it is profane or apocryphal. Indeed, there was widespread hype throughout America this past summer leading up to its release, almost on par with the excitement for Deathly Hallows in 2007 (nine years ago!). Fans were going to give this story a chance.
Cursed Child jumps right into action where Deathly Hallows left off, at King’s Cross 19 years after the defeat of Voldemort. The play’s action advances forward from this point in time (sort of), developing next-generation protagonists Albus Severus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. Grownups like Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco are around as well. The first of four acts portray Albus’s unexpected sorting into Slytherin, which quickly leads to a strained relationship with his father Harry, social remoteness in Hogwarts, and an attempt to steal a time-turner from Minister for Magic Hermione Granger-Weasley with the help of Polyjuice Potion so as to go back in time and stop Cedric Diggory from being killed. That’s right, Polyjuice Potion and time-turners to save Cedric Diggory. Why? Reasons, presumably. Something about Albus fixing the mistakes of his father whom he doesn’t love.
Makes sense? Well, kind of. The dialogue of Cursed Child feels very choppy at times, and the plot is as preposterous as a Trolley Witch firing pastry grenades at children to stop them from escaping a train (for example). There simply isn’t good writing. The drama escalates quickly and erratically, forcing the reader to regularly question how the characters’ dispositions in one scene came about from that which preceded narratively. The original books have depth, emotion, tough dilemmas, and complex relationships, all while being accessible to children. By comparison, the new plot is unexciting and predictable.
None of this inherently disqualifies the play from canonical consideration. But what about a Ron who is now a doofus comic-relief version of Fred and George? Or a Harry who tells his son that he wishes he hadn’t been born and who blackmails Headmistress McGonagall to spy on her students for his benefit? This is where the reader begins to sense that tingle of unfamiliarity. Ron didn’t used to be a bumbling moron, and Harry wasn’t previously a conniving jerk.
Still insisting that this is an established eighth story? Beginning in Act Two and developing for the rest of the play, Albus and Scorpius mess with their time-turner to travel back to the events of Book Four, before Cedric was killed, and to alter the events of the Triwizard Tournament. Make Cedric lose the tournament, Cedric never portkeys to Voldemort, Voldemort never kills Cedric. Simple enough. Unfortunately for these whippersnappers, changing the past creates alternate timelines with often dire outcomes. Only with the help of the witty and brave old gang can Albus and Scorpius hope to save the Harry Potter universe, as they (and we) have come to know it, by the end of Act Four (along the way, expect many not-so-subtle references to the old books).
Some may notice that this style of time-travel is weird. Philosophers like David Lewis have described how it is impossible. While the Azkaban-ian portrayal of time-travel works in that time-turners create causative loops of self-fulfillment and a type of destiny, it makes no sense to “change” the past like Cursed Child attempts. The past already happened, so it is incoherent to somehow make it have happened in any other way.
Is fiction allowed to suspend logic (readers may notice the irony in the phrase “logic dictates,” which is used actually quite a few times in Cursed Child)? Perhaps, considering that it isn’t inherently obvious upon consumption of this type of time-travel narrative that it is illogical. Consider Back to the Future, a movie with philosophical problems that still results in a comprehensible story about people and a compelling funny drama.
Can one say the same about Cursed Child? It’s a dicey course of action. Accept this form of time-travel as permissible, and you accept the play. Accept the play, and there are still time-turners existent even after all of them are destroyed in the Battle of the Department of Mysteries. Accept the play, and Harry is still able to speak Parseltongue and experience Voldemort-related pain in his scar after losing the Horcrux part of him. Accept the play, and a child of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley winds up in Slytherin and becomes a mopey loner, despite no portent of such in the epilogue of Deathly Hallows.
If these contradictions aren’t blatant enough; if the recurring characters in fact stay true to form enough; if the authorship of the play is in fact Rowling enough; if it is good enough; then perhaps Cursed Child can happily exist in the revered Harry Potter universe. Die-hard enthusiasts and even those who simply grew up on the books will read the play regardless because, well, how could one not read the purported eighth story? If there’s any saving grace, it’s what seem to be cool stage effects that probably are pretty neat in a live performance. Hey, even terrible fan fiction can have some admirable features.
Will Cursed Child grow mainstream with age, or will it wither and be forgotten like some gratuitous footnote on what was a proper epilogue (Scrubs season 9, anybody?)? I have my own hunch, but ultimately only time and fans can tell.