Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

(SCREENPLAY)

By J.K. Rowling

Arthur A. Levine Books, US

ISBN: 978-1338109061

304pp.

ANY time J.K. Rowling reveals she is writing another Potterverse book, there are dual feelings of excitement and fear: anticipation that another gem will soon be in our hands and hearts, but slight fear that it won’t live up to her legacy. When Rowling announced her new publication would be a prequel of sorts, an immediate thought was that it would be the long-awaited story of the early days of the life of beloved Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s headmaster Albus Dumbledore, or perhaps the triangular tale of Harry Potter’s parents and Professor Snape. The author took a completely different turn, however, and instead chose to deep-dive into the life of a relatively minor character referenced in the Potter series: Newton “Newt” Artemis Fido Scamander, the magizoologist who wrote one of the standard textbooks that Harry and his friends studied in their first year: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The result: pure magic.

First, a bit of background. Rowling was so enchanted by her own concept of Fantastic Beasts the textbook, that in 2001 she sat down and wrote the actual textbook. Accredited to Scamander, the textbook included a foreword from Dumbledore, describing the ‘author’ as one of his favourite students at Hogwarts. This comprehensive study of magizoology and encyclopaedia of magical creatures was purportedly written in 1927 and was in its 52nd edition when Harry read it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the screenplay, however, is a completely different animal. It is the origins tale of the textbook, recounting those adventures of 30-something public servant Scamander which allowed him to subsequently write his work.

The story is set in 1926, decades before Harry and his friends came to Hogwarts, and begins with Englishman Scamander arriving in New York City en route to Arizona. He has with him a magical Mary Poppins-style suitcase filled with mysterious creatures that are itching to escape and, as expected, our protagonist runs into trouble as soon as he lands. First, he displeases the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) agent Tina, and then when a Niffler escapes from his bag, in the ensuing panic his suitcase is accidentally switched with that of a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski. When Jacob opens the suitcase, several magical creatures escape and begin running wild across Manhattan. Meanwhile, an evil force pervading New York City kills a senator during a political rally. MACUSA, led by Percival Graves, blames Scamander for this murder, who then has to clear his name.

One of the most charming elements of Fantastic Beasts is the comparisons between the British and American magical worlds and languages. MACUSA is modelled on the Wizards’ Council of Great Britain, which predates the Ministry of Magic in the Potter series. In other words, it is the American version of the Ministry of Magic and similarly, No-Maj is the American word for Muggle (non-magical person).

Underlying the adventures is an abundance of political commentary and inferences, such as the references to segregation and slavery in the United States: magical and non-magical people are not allowed to marry — a rule Scamander does not approve of — and house elves are seen in service roles only.

Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s screenwriting debut, the first of a planned five-film franchise. Although it is not meant to be a reboot of the Potter series, it has been devised in the same light-versus-dark manner. While Scamander is our hero, the dark force is led by the wizard Grindelwald, who is this series’ villain. In other words, he is Fantastic Beasts’ version of He Who Shall Not Be Named. For those of you who remember your Potter books well, Grindelwald was mentioned as an evil wizard who believed in wizarding superiority over non-magical humans — that is, the Rowling version of eugenics. Ironically, he was friends with Dumbledore before he turned to the dark side; a memorable fact about his character from the Potter novels is that the headmaster defeated him in an iconic duel in 1945, an episode certain to appear in an upcoming screenplay.

One weakness of Fantastic Beasts is that the character of Scamander could have been developed more. It would have been ideal if Rowling could have fleshed his backstory out with more anecdotes about his family, or details about his preferences, as he mainly comes across as just a stereotypical nice guy. We know some basic facts about him from the ‘About the author’ section of the textbook this fictional character ‘wrote’. He was born in 1897 and became a magizoologist because of his interest in extraordinary beasts as well as the encouragement of his mother, a Hippogriff breeder. He joined the Ministry of Magic’s Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, and won the Order of Merlin, Second Class, in 1947 for his contributions to magizoology. He eventually retired to Dorset, where he lived happily ever after with his wife Tina (meaning that the hint of romance which starts in Fantastic Beasts is long-lived). Their grandson Rolf eventually marries Luna Lovegood.

Since as this is a screenplay and not a novel, it is really meant to be read as a companion book to the film, although the format does not limit readability and it can be read standalone as well. It is for a niche audience and will mostly appeal to Potter fans, but is still a strong enough story in its own right to appeal to new readers as well.

The reviewer is a social entrepreneurship specialist.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 29th, 2017

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