When the news first hit that JKR was writing a screenplay based on Newt Scamander’s travels in search of magical creatures, I was like, “Okay. Not exactly the project I would have picked, but I’ll check it out.”
I did scrunch up my face just a bit, though, when Rowling later started pushing Fantastic Beasts as the dawning of the “Age of Hufflepuff.” Not that I have anything against Hufflepuff. My sister is one. So is Newt Scamander. But as a Slytherin with a vested interest in the Slytherin/Gryffindor dichotomy, I did kind of think: “Boring!”
Meanwhile, Rowling did do one of the projects I would have picked – the adventures of Albus Severus Potter. I know a lot of people were put off by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It got labeled “glorified fanfiction,” and even “non-canonical” (though I’m not sure how you can support the “non-canonical” notion when no less an authority than Pottermore called it the official 8th Harry Potter story, and the play’s own website terms it “the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage.” That seems pretty definitively canonical to me).
Potter fans were concerned with the play’s alt-timeline depictions of our favorite HP characters. (My response: These were ALT-timelines! Not a problem that the characters are different!). And fans were of course concerned about the play drawing on some classic fanfic tropes. But most of those tropes were in the Alt-Timelines, which is actually kind of clever when you think about it… kind of like in that Sherlock episode that brings in the fanfic as a plot device.
I suspect, though, that there is an unstated issue behind a lot of the concerns – i.e., that the play demonstrated conclusively that Slytherin isn’t all dark wizards and power hungry freaks. Instead, the play gave us an Albus Potter sorted into Slytherin, making besties with (a completely freakin’ awesome) Scorpius Malfoy, and even allowing a malevolent Slytherin prat like Draco to grow up into a fairly decent adult. That’s bound to cause some consternation.
So I’ve got a theory about these projects, and it goes like this: They were part of an elaborate Fake-Out. A Distraction. A Misdirection. A Real-World Red Herring. JKR was playing us, just like she played us with Snape.
No, I’m not saying that JKR was not committed to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child independent of Fantastic Beasts. I’m sure she was. And I’m not saying that Newt Scamander and friends are nothing but misdirection. I strongly suspect that our main cast from Fantastic Beasts will play a crucial role in the wars to come.
At the same time, though, the timing of the play and the film’s focus on Newt both work really well as a blind for what JKR was really up to the whole time – developing a story that fans have craved since the release of Deathly Hallows… the oldest core-character tragedy in the HP universe, hidden in the background of the first 6 HP books and brought into the light only in the 7th.
J.K. Rowling was bringing us Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald. And she hid that project in plain sight all the way through the first hour of Fantastic Beasts.
Well, can you imagine audience expectations going in to Fantastic Beasts if we’d known for the past two or so years that the movie was really setting us up for 1945 and the greatest Wizard Battle of all time? We would have had entire websites devoted to the shooting of the first film, possibly with drones videotaping any elements that fans could get near. We would have seen every bit of the same madness we see each year between seasons of Game of Thrones.
Instead, by hiding Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald behind the Fantastic Beasts front and distracting us with The Cursed Child, JKR could lower the temperature, allow the film to develop in peace, and then surprise and delight fans with this fantastic gift.
And Fantastic Beasts is a fantastic gift.
Here are a few of my first impressions. (I’ll go into more depth when I’ve had a chance to see the film a second time):
I had my eye on the Colin Farrell character from the first time I saw the trailers. He just had that “bad guy” vibe.
From the moment I saw the Grindelwald headlines at the beginning of the film, I kept a very close eye on the Colin Farrell character. I assumed from the start that the headlines were meant to put the audience on alert that Grindelwald could actually play a role in the film. (I hadn’t paid much attention to the Grindelwald/Dumbledore rumors, so I did not actually walk in to the theater with that expectation).
I found the opening hour of the film entertaining enough, and I certainly enjoyed being back in the Wizarding World, but I was finding the plot a bit thin. The sheer creepiness of the New Salem Philanthropic Society added an interesting flavor to the story, but it took the unveiling of the actual threat to get me fully engaged…
The Obscurial. As soon as Newt Scamander started talking about the Obscurus and the Obscurial, the alarms went off. I know the insight I had in that moment was not unique because – from what I can tell – nearly every fan who has seriously read and discussed the books had pretty much the same insight. It went something like this: “Graves is Grindelwald. Graves is looking for an Obscurial so he can use the Obscurus to gain power. An Obscurial is a magic-suppressing child preyed upon by an Obscurus. Grindelwald has seen such a child before. OMG!!! This is all about Arianna!”
And that brings us back to that intriguing moment from the trailer, when Graves (Grindelwald) wondered why (his former friend) Albus Dumbledore was “so fond of” Newt Scamander.
I think I might know. If, by chance, Newt’s interest in helping Obscurial children dated all the way back to Hogwarts, that would certainly endear him to Dumbledore – whether Arianna was technically an Obscurial or not (and I think this movie hints that she was). Whatever the case, though, we can infer that Dumbledore revealed nothing of his own family tragedy, given that Newt believes that the oldest Obscurial lived to age 10. Arianna was 14 (and Credence older still).
I’ll wrap this up with one thought: The aftermath of the first Grindelwald/Dumbledore duel in Godric’s Hollow – the duel that resulted in Arianna’s death – provides a stark contrast between the two former friends.
Gellert Grindelwald saw the kind of power Arianna wielded and only wanted to harness it for his own benefit.
Albus Dumbledore never forgave himself for Arianna’s death, relinquished his desire for political power, and trained up wizards to fight against the darkness manifest in wizards like his friend.
This is the story behind Fantastic Beasts. And we are going to get to see it unfold!