J.K. Rowling is the author of the most successful book series in history – if we don’t count the trilogy attributed to God, Jesus and Allah – but her attempt to embark on a new career as a screenwriter hasn’t been as smooth as she may have thought it would be.
“Basically, I learned how to write a screenplay as I went along… which is, to say the least, atypical,” she told fans two years ago in London ahead of the release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” whose plot unfolds decades before Harry Potter. The sequel, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” shows that even the most successful author in the world is in need of checks and balances when making the transition to cinema.
Twenty-one years after her breakthrough, and following the sale of half a billion copies of the Harry Potter series, Rowling is working industriously to extend and enrich the mythology she created around the child wizard. In contrast to the eight Harry Potter movies, which were based on the seven books and most of which were written by veteran screenwriter Steve Kloves (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”), the “Fantastic Beasts” series is scripted solely by Rowling. This time she skipped the bookstores and went straight to the movie theater. No longer an author, now a screenwriter.
The “Fantastic Beasts” series, which is scheduled to run to five movies, takes its title from one of Harry Potter’s textbooks. The leap backward in time, a new set of adult heroes and a globe-spanning background show that Rowling is in tune with her fans and the zeitgeist. Harry Potter and his friends started out as a salient product of 1990s naivety, but since then the loyal veteran audience has experienced the jolts of the 21st century and grown mature and disillusioned. In some cases, they’ve also brought a new generation of fans into the world, who were born pessimistic. The “Fantastic Beasts” series feel less like children’s fare; they deal with adults and appalling events that occurred in Europe at the end of the 1920s.
It’s 1927, and the criminal Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped from prison to Europe. The 1920s are still roaring, but not swinging so much. The protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a zoologist of fantastic beasts, prefers to distance himself from politics; he is trying to maintain his improvised nature reserve in London. But the young Prof. Dumbledore, played by Jude Law, reminds him that neutrality is not an option in hard times. Dumbledore urges him to cross the channel to Paris and stop Grindelwald, who is trying to foment a war to ensure the purity of the wizard race.
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That’s a rough outline of the plot, but it constitutes only part of the movie. There’s another big parade of characters who enter and depart enveloped in mystery. I won’t list them all, but I will mention the boy Credence (Ezra Miller), who continues to have a central role in the struggle between the hero and the villain, even as his background remains a mystery. Similarly, Newt’s brother and partner, the snake-woman Nagini, and other new and old characters hint at an obscure past and future. All told, with the exception of one major revelation, the film lays strong foundations of mystery, but forgets to build any sort of structure above them. It’s like a construction site where the budget ran out too fast.
With movie screens filled to the brim with superheroes and fantasy films, and every studio trying to float a fictional universe, Rowling is today’s most creative builder of cinema worlds. In contrast to her friends in the exclusive club of successful cinematic universes – Marvel and Star Wars – the author is not a Disney-owned limited company. She is a one-woman enterprise with a turnover of billions, but there’s still a difference between her and a mega-corporation like Disney. Diving into the world she created, she’s filling it with a sharp eye for the small details. Every character and beast is there because Rowling said so, not because the marketing division thought it would promote sales of merchandise. Rowling clearly has a true passion to create a mythology, and just as clearly she hasn’t yet finished creating it.
Hogwarts can’t compete
The “Fantastic Beasts” series offers a world even fuller than that of Harry Potter, crammed with details and colorful beasts and adorned with spectacular landscapes. Once more she collaborates with David Yates, who directed the four last Harry Potter movies and now the two “Fantastic Beasts” pictures. The spread of the wizards’ universe from Hogwarts and England to New York, London and Paris brings with it a collection of gorgeous images. Rowling’s world, which places a magical, hidden layer over familiar reality, is even more impressive when transposed to urban spaces. The cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and the delightful wizards conceived by screenwriter Rowling provide the loveliest – and also the most threatening and impressive – moments. Paris enveloped in wizardry is a sight that rural Hogwarts can’t compete with.
Still, the world she’s created would be even more wondrous if Rowling had only filled it out with a crystallized or at least coherent plot. The forest is so well planned that you can’t see the trees. With a narrative that treads water at best and swirls about aimlessly at worst, “Fantastic Beasts 2” sacrifices narrative to the foundation work of the universe. Rowling tries to tailor the films to Harry Potter, but forgets that the second episode deserves to be treated as an autonomous entity. In the Harry Potter series she mostly succeeded in making the films into independent works. But in the absence of screenwriters to mediate between her imagination and the screen, the two “Fantastic Beasts” episodes are more like a chess game in which the creator moves characters from A to B as part of a broader strategy – which remains unclear.
Even if the narrative is fragmented, “Fantastic Beasts 2” provides two and a quarter hours packed with details, and not a dull moment. Rowling populates her world with characters large and small, odd beasts and of course a host of bows to her veteran fans. The expansion of the world was not intended only to deepen the mythology but also to connect it clearly to the Potter annals. Now that the founding son has become nostalgia, the level of references to the world of the boy has risen accordingly, chiefly guest appearances of young versions of the Hogwarts old folks. They also help Rowling to forge systematically the time axis she has built ahead of the big confrontation that’s mentioned in the books.
The disparity between the rich world and the meager story is disadvantageous for interesting characters with potential. The bewildered, insular and sensitive Newt is a proper hero for the world of wizardry, and Redmayne is well cast by virtue of his proven ability – perhaps excessively so – to play eccentric characters. In fact, since his excellent portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” (for which he won an Oscar), Redmayne has been stuck in a niche he has carved for himself, with a slight tendency to recycle gestures, to the point where it’s by now hard to imagine him standing erect.
His great adversary, Grindelwald, is even more of a missed opportunity, precisely because he’s a more interesting character than Voldemort. Not another murderous dictator with a disgusting nose, but a murderous populist with an appalling haircut who fires up his supporters with demagogic speeches. The connection between Trumpism and European fascism is crude, and would be less irksome were it not for Depp’s performance: his character is supposed to arouse fear and trembling, but instead unwittingly generates compassion. But the greatest miss is the relationship between Newt and the American agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), which falls victim to a flood of characters and unresolved, unsatisfying plot lines.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a film made for existing fans and doesn’t bother to appeal to a new audience. Not by chance does it offers a more mature world for fans who have grown up at least as much as Daniel Radcliffe, who played the boy Harry Potter. For them, the movie delivers the goods, but like many relationships of 21 years, little of the magic remains. There’s nothing of the adventure, tension and drama of Harry Potter. The second movie in the second series only connects, elucidates and clarifies the characters we’ve met, with a view to characters we’ll meet in the future for an obscure purpose. If Rowling continues to put out films without a beginning and an end, her world will implode, leaving only the middle. It may be entertainment with captivating characters and effects, but it’s not a movie.