In a recent SignumU panel on the films Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (see below), I admitted I was disappointed with the original Fantastic Beasts book. I love J.K. Rowling’s fantastic writing, and find myself hungry for more of the Harry Potter world. When it comes to this little book, though, I think it is a lost opportunity.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a slim volume published in 2001 after the Harry Potter series had blown up but before the hepatology was complete. Written by Newton Artemis Fido “Newt” Scamander in the early 20th century, it was a required introductory textbook at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Newt Scamander was a legendary magiczoologist–why not cryptozoologist? perhaps a sub-specialty?–and the book went through numerous editions.
The copy that was released to the public is Harry Potter’s old textbook, which Ron Weasley shared because Ron’s hand-me-down copy fell apart. Throughout the book are funny marginal comments and doodles by Ron and Harry (and once by Hermione). It is a good ruse, and the marginalia supplements a brief description of 85 different magical beasts that Scamander had collected over his years of research. Each of the entries has a Ministry of Magic danger rating, and one of the running gags in the book is that Hagrid finds the most deadly ones the most cuddly.
Well, this is a very thin volume. I like that there are new creatures that are not in the series, but I found myself wanting more. Much more. In fact, as the official bestiary of the Harry Potter universe, I had been hoping for a big, thick leather-bound volume with careful sketches, anatomical features, legendary studies, and mythological links. I mean, Rowling is great at utilizing mythic beasts and inventing new creatures. However, I have a little black and white text when it could have been a big, beautiful, game-changing bestiary.
I’m not sure why the fantasy book world hasn’t caught on to this opportunity. Marvel and DC make these huge colourful compendium volumes, and kids are lapping up the “nonfiction” element of their favourite fictional worlds. Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi was a good start. It is not a meaty volume, but it is filled with beautiful sketches and well-written descriptions. Turning to Fantastic Beasts from Spiderwick–which may not have had an audience without Harry Potter–and I feel that an opportunity slipped through Rowling’s fingers.
It is still a good little book. With Quidditch Through the Ages it raised about $25m for children’s aid, which is a nice move by Rowling and her publishing team. The Tales of Beedle the Bard is the third part of the Hogwart’s Library collection, and supplements a handful of magic world fairy tales with one story from the series–the story-within-a-story that is gorgeously drawn for the Deathly Hallows film. It is a delightful book, but imagine what a fuller volume and beautiful animation would do!
Opinion on the new Fantastic Beasts film is split. Honestly, my first emotion when I saw the film was relief. So many prequels and extensions of a canonical universe go very badly. I thought it was a beautiful, fun film that gave me a touch of the Harry Potter magic while moving in a whole new direction. I thought the central four characters were gorgeous, though a little thin in terms of character development–except for Dan Fogler as the empathetic muggle Jacob Kowalski. The central cast have musical and stage experience, which adds an element of connectedness that digital films are often missing. There are many flaws in this film, including a split-person arch-enemy that fails to connect finally to the audience. Overall, this was a great family film with massive special effects that makes a nice re-launch of the Potter world.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has received a couple of Oscar nods for set and costume, and it works well as a 1920s New York City period piece. Really, the Harry Potter world is a kind of alternative history, told from the perspective of a hidden narrative in the human record. The Harry Potter series locks that world in the 1990s, and I think an early 20th-century move is a good one. I would be afraid that Hollywood would butcher an Elizabethan period piece, but the possibilities are endless. What does the magical world look like in Ethiopia or Bangkok or Moscow? This film is the first of a five-part series where our imagination is the only limitation.
Honestly, I think they could have received a mention for art design. To me, the greatest feature of this film is Newt Scamander’s suitcase. Tapping into the magical possibilities where the inside is bigger than the outside–what I have argued is a key Christian principle–the living bestiary in Scamander’s troublesome case fills out the Fantastic Beasts book in a rewarding way. Finally, after years of waiting, we get to see the living environment of these magical beasts. Bringing these imaginary creatures to life, the filmmakers give us a magical ecosystem that is two feet wide and a hundred miles deep.
This was J.K. Rowling’s first time writing a screenplay, adding a degree of risk in the quality of the product. In the end, the writing is good and Rowling continues her remarkable control over this world.
The only thing that made me uncomfortable about the film was its comment on American political culture. It has a lot of tiresome tropes in it, including narrow American legalism, intolerant fundamentalists (in this case, stripped of religion), prohibition-era toadyism, and a reactionary element somehow at play with progressive values. The movie even begins at a bank, and the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) is in New York at the seat of industry and commercialism, rather than in Washington. There is no doubt the world wants to comment on the United States–and their new “leader of the free world.” As a non-American, though, this felt less like an American film and more like an American film written by a non-American. Questions of core value are embedded in Rowling’s fantastic work without having to press the point home.
In the end, a great place to put fantastic beasts is in a film like this. I am still hoping for the leather-bound, medievalish bestiary, or Newt Scamander’s field guide. I would even take a watercolourization (is that a word?) of screenshots in the film in a re-release of the book. Perhaps there is already something better out there and I missed it, and I know that there is something coming out this spring. But what the popularity of the Harry Potter books–and the films, which are of mixed quality in the good to excellent spectrum–show us is the insatiable hunger for imaginative nourishment. While Rowling & Co. have not put commercialization at the front of the Harry Potter experience, I think there is space for creative products that are authentic to her speculative universe.
Honestly, I would like to read the kinds of books that I would find in the restricted section of Hogwarts library. I would even risk the scars.
Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.