Is The Cursed Child giving you That Fanfiction Feeling? Here’s why — and why that’s not the story’s central problem.
This article contains plot spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. We’ve probably all thought it. Whether through viewing the stage play or reading the printed script, response to Harry Potter and The Cursed Child has echoed with that dreaded descriptor: Fanfiction.
Now, I don’t believe the term “fanfiction” should be, or in fact is, an automatic pejorative. I read fanfiction. I’ve written fanfiction. I’ve lain awake nights mulling the haunting stories cast out into the world by mysterious and talented screen names, I’ve marveled at the wit and insight found among transformative writers. I believe that that fanfiction can be wonderful, and sometimes can even improve upon the original work. I believe that fanfiction can be challenging, audacious, and important.
And yet, in the hours since I sat huddled over my copy of The Cursed Child, the words, “This feels like fanfiction” have skated through my mind more times than I can count. Every miraculously-produced Durmstrang robe, every unexpected Time-Turner, and especially every shockingly inventive revelation of paternity has left me with the feeling that I should be reading this physical, expensive, J.K. Rowling-approved script for free on Archive of Our Own.
Some of this weird literary vertigo I must, in all fairness, attribute to the unusual optics of The Cursed Child. Harry Potter, so vividly driven by JKR’s voice as a storyteller, just makes strange reading as a flat script. The oddness is only heightened by the salad of painfully familiar icons chopped in with brand-new characters, tropes, and concepts.
Thanks to its format, even the least controversial elements of The Cursed Child can be difficult to synthesize as classic Potter. As such, we as readers turn unconsciously to the next closest thing; for many of us, that is fanfiction. That is neither good or bad, it’s just fundamentally different.
Also contributing to That Fanfiction Feeling is another delight of fanfiction as a medium which plays very poorly in canon — the self-reference. The Cursed Child is almost giddy with its own Potter-ness. The play directly quotes dialogue from the books and films (“Best take it at a bit of a run if you’re nervous!”) and grants its next-generation protagonists unnervingly specific knowledge of Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s adventures. Ironically, the play often feels overly-informed by canon, as though Albus, Rose, and Scorpius had grown up reading the adventures of Harry Potter — like millions of Muggle children around the world.
This kind of self-awareness is, to varying degrees, inherent in fanfiction. Transformative works are necessarily built on the platform of canon, expanding above it in countless ways. Fanfiction has to be aware of its source, but for a source to be aware of itself requires a very specific (and usually comical) type of art. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, it goes without saying, is not that kind of art.
But of course, it is neither format nor self-reference that fundamentally fill The Cursed Child with That Fanfiction Feeling. Most prominently responsible are the controversial story decisions in The Cursed Child, all of which come about because the play propels itself on the energy of the wrong type of question. Over and over again, with wide-eyed enthusiasm, the play asks “What if?”
What if Harry’s son had polyjuice potion miraculously to hand? What if Voldemort had a child? What if Time-Turner?
“What if” questions are not bad questions, but they are almost always the domain of fanfiction, and for good reason. Within the bounds of an established, canonical tale, storytellers must be judicious in their application of “what if,” because “what if” is not governed by theme, history, or character. “What if” can lead anywhere, and stories that bear the weight of canon cannot afford to go anywhere.
Fanfiction, however, can (and does) go anywhere, and that is one of its many delights. The inherent freedom of the form is both caused by and a result of fanfiction’s lack of responsibility to the structures of standard stories. What if Aragorn and Legolas fell in love? What if District 13 was in space? What if Jack Sparrow was secretly a lady?
None of these ideas are inherently bad, and none of the audacious ideas in The Cursed Child are inherently bad outside the context of canon. What they are, however, is fundamentally light, unmoored from canonical responsibility. That’s a beautiful, inspiring thing, but it can also be less than satisfying.
Readers like rules. Modern stock in the concept of “canon” may be riding unnecessarily high, but it appeals to us for a reason. We want our stories to have weight and boundaries; we don’t actually want them to fly off in any direction when we feel safe within the walls of canon. Fanfiction scratches a different itch than official stories do, and when those lines cross, we often feel damned uncomfortable.
That’s certainly how I felt, reading of Voldemort’s unexpected progeny in The Cursed Child. It’s how I felt every time someone yanked out that ridiculous Time-Turner. It’s how I feel now, imagining new characters tramping over a world that had been so definitively bounded by the words “All was well” back in 2007.
I think this is more than the growing pains of change, the mild discomfort we all felt while digesting the latest Harry Potter novel. I believe That Fanfiction Feeling represents a fundamental difference between Rowling’s approach in her novels, and the tact taken by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. Rowling’s series was constantly inventive and powerfully imaginative, but also deeply consistent. It was not self-aware; it was loyal to the pulse of themes and characters pounding through a remarkable body of work.
The Cursed Child, however, beats to the drum of “What if?” questions, spinning off into a kaleidoscope of surprising (and to be honest, bizarre) answers. To that end, the story feels like fanfiction; this is not a measure of quality, but a measure of intent. Author-approved or not, The Cursed Child shares the fundamental sensibilities of fanfiction — not of canon.
It is a lesson of The Cursed Child that both good and bad can come from unexpected places. This is just as true of literature. Canon can awe or disappoint, while fan-works can make us groan or move us to tears. As a story hatched from the worlds of canon and fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child also does both — and it’s up to each of us to decide if that’s our cup of Polyjuice or not.