In ‘Beasts,’ Rowling cloaks politics in a tale of magic

The new film doesn't return to Hogwarts but instead takes place in 1926 New York City.
College students attend the opening night of 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' at Palace Theatre in London, June 7, 2016. A late July release of a script of the play, which is unlike the previous seven books in the series, is expected to draw thousan...
College students attend the opening night of 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child' at Palace Theatre in London, June 7, 2016. A late July release of a script of the play, which is unlike the previous seven books in the series, is expected to draw thousan...

When “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens on Nov. 18, it will be the first time fans of J.K. Rowling’s wizards and witches will get to see her cast a cinematic spell that isn’t based on one of her novels.

Extending a beloved film franchise is a risk that can either thrill a loyal audience (“The Force Awakens”) or infuriate it (“The Phantom Menace”). With “Fantastic Beasts,” Rowling took on that challenge herself, writing an original screenplay that will commence a new five-film franchise in a new time, place and more mature tenor, reflecting both the multibillion-dollar franchise’s vast audience and the author’s political conscience.

David Yates, the film’s director — who also directed the last four Harry Potter movies — said that when he initially received the script, “I was a bit nervous opening the first page. Is it going to feel like Harry Potter again? Can I go back to Hogwarts?”

The new film does not go back to Hogwarts or even take place in Britain. Instead, the thoroughly British series here moves across the Atlantic and back in time to 1926 New York, when the city was riven by many of the same social fault lines of the current political moment, like extreme income inequality and xenophobia. Instead of a child hero, the film follows the adult Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), the author of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” Rowling’s 2001 fantasy textbook, purportedly studied by Harry Potter and his fellow Hogwarts students.

In the film, the British “magizoologist” Newt arrives in New York and smuggles a magical briefcase full of strange beasts through customs. He discovers powerful American magic, terrifying threats and some friends: Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a working stiff who toils in a factory but yearns to be a baker; Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an astute officer of the Magical Congress of the United States of America; and Porpentina’s flirty, often underestimated sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). “Fantastic Beasts” is indeed fantastical, but many themes and references, like the Magical Congress’ color-coded threat index, are pointedly contemporary.

“Things are happening now that are extreme and extraordinary in some way, and to not reflect that or to explore those things seems to be a missed opportunity, especially as our film is going to reach so many people,” Yates said.

Working without a novel was a mixed blessing, said the producer David Heyman, who optioned Rowling’s first Harry Potter book and helped shepherd the franchise to $7.8 billion at the worldwide box office. For the first time, he said, “people don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The challenge, said Greg Silverman, the Warner Bros. president of creative development and worldwide production, “is that you have to deliver what the fans are expecting, but you also have to deliver more.”

The first draft of “Fantastic Beasts,” Yates said, was “predominantly dark and intense and fundamentally more serious.” A subsequent version, he said, was “very broad and playful, and that felt quite young,” as if they were “just remaking the earlier films.” Then Rowling found her groove.

Since the 1997 debut of the novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in Britain (retitled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for American readers), the audience for the wizarding world has grown and, in many cases, grown up. The once-broke Rowling has become one of the world’s richest authors, a pseudonymous crime novelist and influential philanthropist. She has embraced her global platform, particularly online, where she has passionately critiqued Britain’s “Brexit” movement and Donald Trump.

In an essay posted online in June, “On Monsters, Villains, and the EU Referendum,” Rowling proudly declared herself a “mongrel product of this European continent” and worried that “nationalism is on the march across the Western world, feeding upon the terrors it seeks to inflame.” She added, “Look towards the Republican Party in America and shudder. ‘Make America Great Again!’ cries a man who is fascist in all but name.”

Through Warner Bros., Rowling declined to comment for this article, but according to her collaborators, her aversion to nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiments influenced the “Fantastic Beasts” script, an artistic choice the studio supported. “As a writer, she’s seeing the world take a different shape in front of her eyes,” Yates said, “which inevitably imbues itself on the subconscious and pours out into the writing.”

She set the new film on the eve of the Great Depression, when, as both Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have argued, income inequality last reached levels as extreme as today’s. In New York, the magical have been forced underground, where they live in fear of the “No-Majs,” the American term for Muggles. Inspired by the Salem witch trials, nonmagical “Second Salemers” hunt witches and teach children songs about flogging, burning and murdering them. There is “strict segregation between the No-Maj and wizarding communities,” Rowling wrote in a supplementary guide to North American magic. Intermarriage between the two is outlawed. Meanwhile, the wizarding community is torn between those who wish to hide and extremists who might prefer to subjugate the No-Majs.

In a promotional video for the film, Rowling said: “My heroes are always people who feel themselves to be set apart, stigmatized or othered. That’s at the heart of most of what I write, and it’s certainly at the heart of this movie.”

Heyman said that the film’s “incredibly humanist message” reflected the times but was not new. “The Malfoys and Voldemort were echoes of Nazis,” he said. “These are themes of Jo’s that have interested her forever. Now maybe it feels more acute or more relevant, but I don’t think we set out to make a political film with a capital P. This is an entertainment with themes that resonate across time. Alas, some of the issues we face in this film are timeless.”

On Twitter, Rowling has posted that “Voldemort was nowhere near as bad” as Trump. In the new series, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is a more pernicious and modern threat, who manipulates impressionable followers, the media and prominent politicians.

“Unlike Voldemort, who was an angry brute, the next iteration is much more lethal,” Yates said. “He wants to win the hearts and minds in a way that’s quite beguiling and sophisticated, but his values are dangerous.” Such new nemeses are “able through sheer charisma and ability to inspire and hypnotize and carry the crowd, and take the world to a darker place. That’s where the next story is going.”

Already, Rowling and her team are editing the script for the second film, scheduled to begin shooting next year, and intolerance will continue to be a subject. “The movie we are about to embark on certainly continues that theme and strengthens it,” said the production designer Stuart Craig.

Yates was careful to emphasize that the new films were meant to be entertaining and delightful, but foremost are “fundamentally about how communities learn to live with each other or end up destroying each other,” he said. “The stories going forward have that ambition, in a way that’s not too earnest, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are enough negative values put out into the world, it would seem like a shame not to push out some good ones.”

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