“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.
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 cannnical 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.”