Fantastic Beasts and Where to Put Them

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-book-coverIn 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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-marginIt sounds pretty good, right? So why am I disappointed?

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 Hwoodelf from spiderwick field guideolly 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-movie-charactersFantastic 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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-suitcaseHonestly, 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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-poster-1This 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.

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-57In 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.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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22 Responses to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Put Them

  1. wanderwolf says:

    Great review. I’ve been wondering if I should make the effort to see it. It sounds like a bit of a drag (I hate it when commentary on politics or society are stuffed down my throat… I appreciate critical commentary done in a subtle way that forces me to rethink something, though!)
    I agree, the possibilities with that topic as a book were endless, and any artist could have had a field day. But maybe it will still come. And maybe we will see more of the Potter world in other countries. That would be really cool.

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  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A nice thoughtful overview – both books, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages – struck me as more like abridged selections or something (say, like the first edition of Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters turned out to be, when we got to see more, later) – I’d certainly like to see ‘fuller versions’ in each case!

    It’s inviting (an invitation I haven’t really taken up) to try to think about them in terms of Rowling’s ‘wizarding world’ authorship, different aspects of how she works – I seem to remember she had once talked as if she was contemplating a sort of encyclopedic work… The (controversial!) pieces of American wizarding world history on her Pottermore site seem similar examples – short, sketchy – maybe even thinking out loud, or almost – except that once it’s out there, it’s out there (though subject to revision) – with lots of quirky (and fairly dark) humor…

    I’ve been enjoying John Granger’s Hogwarts Professor site treatment of the film and especially (as far as possible) about the interrelations between stages and versions of the screenplay and film.

    I ended up with a spoiler-rich experience, having seen the published version of the screenplay in a bookshop and wondering whether I’d rather read that before seeing the film – and then running into his articles online… and then, after all, seeing the film before reading the screenplay (which I still lack access to…).

    I’ve met at least one bewildered and rather put-off ‘unspoiled’ experience of the film, by someone very familiar with the Potter books and nearly as familiar with the films (and something a fan of the Men In Black films, which someone else has pointed out as likely ‘intertextual subjects’ or whatever, here: the wizarding world à la MIB) – with everything zipping along with little enough explanation en route (in contrast to MIB, or Ghostbusters – a ‘parallel’ which struck me).

    Like cummings’ Olaf, “there is some sh*t I will not eat”, but, as potential viewer, I would not put off by disquiet at the possible tiresomeness of tropes.

    Blathering on, I’ll add that your attention to “the living environment of these magical beasts” makes me realize what an interesting interplay there is between this and the Central Park Zoo in the film!

    And, that your observation that “the Harry Potter world is a kind of alternative history, told from the perspective of a hidden narrative in the human record” made me wonder if Rowling knows Orson Scott Card’s alternate American history? – sadly, something I only know by hearsay, so far, despite it’s being well recommended!

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    • Cool point about the Central Park Zoo–a side of the park we don’t see, and not at night or in winter. There is still lots more magic from NYC that hasn’t been captured on film, I suppose.
      I don’t know Card’s alternative history, actually. But I have been peeking at the Howart’s professor’s site. I like Emily Strand’s essay on Rogue One especially, but I read Grangers Gospel in HP book a while back.
      I also don’t know the Pottermore stuff. Honestly, I did one search on the history of MACUSA and that’s it. This little piece of fan fiction may stick out like a sore thumb, who knows. My instincts are sometimes better than my ethics.

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Mixing real and alternate history, it is interesting to think H.P. Lovecraft had been living in New York until earlier in the same year Newt comes to visit.

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  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Also interesting to think that Isolt Sayre’s encounters with New World fantastic creatures and the development of Ilvermorny were more of less coinciding with Sir Thomas Browne writing Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Again, as I re-enjoy Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (June 1926), I note (as Wikipedia puts it) “At the time of writing, Transatlantic flight was just four years old […:] in the fictional universe of the Wimsey stories this makes Wimsey the first passenger to ever fly on a transatlantic flight. The first such passenger recorded in actual history was Charles Albert Levine in 1927”, with those events bracketing Newt’s visit to New York!

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  6. L. Palmer says:

    I watched it a second time last week and was struck by the warmth of the story, despite the dark elements. Yes, the portrayal of “Americanness” is a bit off – the politics are rather black and white. However, my sister made a great point that the movie is really about kindness – that’s what Newt really embodies. It’s a great addition to the Harry Potter universe and was fun to watch.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    L. Palmer saying, “the politics are rather black and white” made me suddenly realize I was not paying close attention to some strictly political details – those concerning the distinctly unkind Senator Henry Shaw! I assumed he was a U.S. Senator – but was he, or was he a NY State Senator? Interestingly, some quick homework reveals that NY had one Republican and one Democratic U.S. Senator in 1926, James Wolcott Wadsworth and Royal Samuel Copeland respectively, and Wadsworth ran unsuccessfully for re-election in 1926, but – avoiding spoilers – that’s where the similarities end: both were older men (49 and 58) who still went on to have long careers in government. Now, Wikipedia makes it easy to look up all 1926 NY State Senators, but I’m not rushing to check the biographies of all 51 of ’em (none named Shaw)… But (avoiding spoilers) this seems the one place where alternative and real history very publicly part company, in the movie…

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    • Well, there you go. A line I never would have thought of! But the “politicians are hypocritical” moment is a tad sharp. Consistent, though, considering Cornelius Fudge.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It’s a sort of thing Williams’s novels got me looking out for – when I remember to think of it! The world is almost always near to being destroyed – or spectacularly messed up at the least – in most of Williams’s novels, but sometimes this is widely public, and sometimes probably only a couple people really know what’s been going on, or even that much of anything has been going on, beyond a murder or a really bad snowstorm.

        Sharp, indeed – Senator Shaw is not circumspect when it comes to radically alienating a future voter: I can’t (at the risk of lowering the tone around here even more drastically than I have by quoting cummings) imagine the Governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas doing something like that, for another (fairly spectacular) example of “politicians are hypocritical” that springs to mind.

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        • I haven’t seen that movie–big romping spoof musical?–but know the trope.
          I haven’t thought about the conspiratorial thread in Williams’ novels. Hmmm.

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Yep! The Governor has a song about loving to ‘do a little sidestep’, sounding good and avoiding being inconveniently or embarrassingly pinned down.

            Which get me reflecting on the ironies of Fantastic Beasts, where Senator Shaw perhaps not only thinks he can comfortably indulge in being nasty to someone from the New Salem Philanthropic Society, but may think it would be better decisively to distance himself from them as they seem such unconvincing fanatics – when (whatever else one may justly conclude about them) they happen to be right in thinking there are dangerous and malevolent magical forces and folk at work.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Joe Christopher has an interesting essay in one of the Williams Soc Quarterly issues (not, alas, online – yet? – the last time I checked) about Williams’s possible plans in his first three novels (an earlier version of Shadows of Ecstasy being the first) in comparison with Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series – international conspiracies aplenty (perhaps). You suggest an interesting accent on the elements of ‘counter-conspiracies’ among those good guys in the know, who do not publicize what was not spectacularly public…

            Somebody at Hogwarts Professor – John Granger himself, or more than one author/commenter? – make(s) interesting suggestion about the layers of what Newt’s up to in the U.S. – what he tells Porpentina, what he tells and shows Kowalski, and what is in a cut scene with a letter from his brother, Theseus, which may suggest Newt as an in many ways genuinely unassuming sort of magical secret agent (!).

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            • I have read nothing from that Society journal. Putting those old texts online is a labour of love, but I do like the counter-conspiracy connections. The idea of Newt as awkward magical MI6 is pretty cool!

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  8. Pingback: An Embarrassing Confession: I Liked The Shack | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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