Saturday, June 15, 2024

A Look Inside J.K. Rowling’s ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

Your eleventh birthday isn’t supposed to be special. It isn’t a milestone of any kind. You reached double-digits the previous year and you still can’t drink or drive. You don’t even yet know drinking and driving is such a condemnable act. No large importance weighs upon the event except that you are a child and day-in, day-out monotony hasn’t yet ruined your sense of fresh wonder. So turning 11 is special in that sense: You still treat a birthday as a cause to be celebrated instead of mourned, drowned in drinks, wondering how you lost another year.

Yet many 10-year-olds across the world believe their upcoming birthday will be a magical one. That is because they suspect they will receive an invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If not Hogwarts, then Durmstrang Institute or Beauxbatons Academy of Magic. Not ideal, but those or any other wizardry school would suffice.

As an adult reading this, you (probably) recognize this will not happen. Perhaps you too waited up late your 11th birthday, long past your bedtime, knowing, just knowing your invitation should arrive any minute now. This did not transpire. The day passed. You’re not a witch or a wizard, you realized, clutching a Harry Potter book. Then you wept.

Being a sorcerer wasn’t what you really wanted, if we’re being honest here. No, your wishes were more specific. Through just Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling unraveled a tapestry with textures so rich and detailed, you could lose weeks daydreaming what it’d be like to walk among them. There you were enjoying a butterbeer pint at Hogsmeade, mixing potions in class, perusing the shops of Diagon Alley with friends. Watching or playing football, in its American or European versions, felt prosaic when a sport like Quidditch existed. And what house would the Sorting Hat place you in? Obviously Gryffindor.

Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures/Youtube
Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures/Youtube

That’s the place you wished to escape: Harry’s wondrous world. Casting spells was the bonus. As Rowling unspooled the yarn further with successive HP novels, you sunk deeper into the fantasy. You imagined this was your story, too, which explains why you re-read those novels several or 10 or 30 times. No one re-reads the Harry Potter series to re-live the narrative. Defeating Voldemort was just an excuse to materialize that flourishing world. Its characters, too, though as time passed, as you were on your 12th run-through of reading, their glittering pheromones wafted away. Your primary reasoning for returning was simple: To step inside that world and feel enchanted once again.

The trick of successive HP novels is how it expands a previously clouded area or feature of the story, expounding your vision for just how big this universe can be. The Chamber of Secrets digs beneath the school. The Goblet of Fire invites other schools (you mean there’s other schools, too!) into the fray. The Deathly Hallows reveals the world beyond the microcosm of Hogwarts and so on.

It creates this illusion that Harry’s world—screw that, it’s your world too—spread infinitely in all directions. There was always more to uncover. J.K. Rowling doesn’t stoke those embers; she douses you with lighter fluid so you’re literally consumed within those fires. Unleashing eight films, the digital portal Pottermore, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in two dang Orlando  theme parks, publishing supplementary books like Quidditch Through The Ages and The Tales of Beedle The Bard (albeit for charity), a stage play-as-“eighth book”, and her George Lucas-esque but-really corrections of the story over the years feels like a (forbidden) forest fire.

Which brings us to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The Eddie Redmayne-starring vehicle re-imagines your wondrous world for the big screen once again. Inspired by the book of the same name, we follow Newt Scamander, an eccentric outcast chasing loose magical beasts around 1920s New York City, his odd, endearing mishaps leading him into a story bigger than his own. The background narrative will be familiar to you: Gellert Grindelwald, a powerful dark wizard, is attempting to instigate a war between wizards and Muggle worlds.

Watching it you can’t help getting sucked in. Exploring Newt’s suitcase containing gorgeous, mythical creatures and hearing American wizards calling Muggle “No-Majs” and seeing spells and visiting a speakeasy ran by goblin gangsters. The feeling reminds you of visiting home for the holidays and drifting to sleep with your old Teddy Bear, an artifact inspiring both memories and imagination.

That is J.K. Rowling’s gift as a storyteller—she taps into that childish suspicion a vibrant, marvelous world hides beneath our pre-conceived reality. Does she exploit your cravings to reside within those glamourous crevices? Of course, but so does every storyteller to some degree. Every interesting narrative romanticizes the drab colors of our existence, enriching our dumb lives into something meaningful.

Though Rowling and the movie isn’t without fault. The Fantastic Beast screenplay is a five-installment series written by her, another extension to the Harry Potter universe. While it carries a tight three acts, the plot’s pretty thin. Rowling repeats herself in that third-act character switcheroo (Scabbers is really Peter Pettigrew; Mad-Eye Moody is really Barty Crouch Jr., etc.). It’s so obvious you finish her punchline before she tells the joke.

Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures/Youtube
Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures/Youtube

Katherine Waterson tries about four squawky New Yawk accents as Tina and none of them work. Colin Farrell unleashed a subtle and devastating performance in The Lobster—one of the year’s best films—but appears in scenes as if he’s just woken from a nap. Redmayne contorts his body oddly and talks out the side of his mouth. An oversell for the part, but Redmayne’s an Oscar Actor; not expecting his weird acting choices is kind of your fault.

Do these misfires matter in the long run? Not really. Harry Potter was never about these standard measuring qualities. It’s about the world, the world, the magical world. Rowling, it appears, will spin that fantastical tapestry until her fingers are pulverized; she’ll probably settle for her toes even then. While some fans cherish this world too preciously, absurdly refusing to leave its safety net for any reason, there’s nothing wrong wanting to revisit every so often.

This may depress some serious-minded people. But forget them. Their eleventh birthdays were likely a blandly joyous event. They probably didn’t even cry.


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