Fantastic Beasts Should Escape JK Rowling Backlash

The Harry Potter brand has taken a beating lately. In late 2019, JK Rowling came under attack from activists after she tweeted her support for Maya Forstater, a woman who was fired after saying trans women were men. This row has rumbled, with Rowling writing essays to clarify her position, stating that “if sex isn’t real, then women’s lived reality is erased”, and explaining why she finds terms such as “people who have their degrading rules.

Her enemies in this regard called her a “trans-exclusive radical feminist”, and some of the actors made rich and famous by her stories joined in the criticism.

Then Johnny Deep went to court.

He had starred in the prequel series fantastic beastsplaying the evil wizard and the outcast Gellert Grindelwald: The Last Movie, Dumbledore’s secretshad already started filming when Depp was asked to leave the production by Warner Bros following accusations of domestic abuse, which he denied.

In Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secretswhich comes out next Friday, he’s replaced by better actor Mads Mikkelsen, but we’ll see how audiences react to this latest Rowling creation.

And yet, despite all the hoo-ha, Rowling remains a massive figure in the entertainment business and something of a one-woman movie studio. Its effect on the publishing world has often been the subject of articles, but the creation of a series of films that have made more than $9 billion to date is almost as impressive.

The eight Harry Potter films have grossed nearly $8 billion, and the first two Fantastic Beasts films around $1.5 billion. And they’re not just flippant money spinners: what’s striking about the films inspired by Rowling’s work is their high quality. The Potter films were groundbreaking in their imaginative use of special effects and their casting of classic actors. Part of that was due to Rowling’s own stipulations, and as the “wizarding world” franchise moved
forward, she became more and more involved, writing screenplays, even producing.

But while Harry Potter‘s cinematic potential was evident from the start, it could very easily have been fumbling.

Just two years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s StoneWarner Bros paid Rowling £1million for the rights to the first four Potter novels, and Steven Spielberg was approached to direct the film version of Philosophical Stone. He saw it as animation, then he lost interest in it: making a Potter movie, he said, would be like “shooting ducks in a barrel – there’s no challenge”.

Chris Columbus begged to be different: He wanted to bring a sense of darkness to the film and was inspired by David Lean’s early Dickens adaptations. But he and his screenwriter Steve Kloves quickly realized that Rowling would have a big role to play in the creation of the film.

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Inspired choice

Her contract with Warners stipulated that all lead roles would be played by British or Irish actors, and she took an active role in the casting. Rowling, with impeccable judgment, cast Alan Rickman to play the pivotal role of Severus Snape and gave him details of his character’s backstory and motivation that had not yet been revealed in his novels.

It was also his idea to have Maggie Smith play the starchy Hogwarts teacher Minerva McGonagall, another inspired choice. Richard Harris apparently only agreed to play the role of Albus Dumbledore because his granddaughter threatened that he would never speak to her again if he didn’t. Sadly, he passed away shortly before the release of the second Potter movie, Chamber of Secretsand was later replaced by Michael Gambon, who eased the transition by channeling his parents’ Dublin accents.

Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were chosen from thousands of kids auditioning to play the roles of Harry’s friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, but of course the most crucial casting choice would be Harry himself.

More than 5,000 boys auditioned, but Columbus had in the meantime spotted 10-year-old Daniel Radcliffe in a BBC production of David Copperfield, and became convinced that he was the perfect Harry. Radcliffe’s parents, concerned about the effect a film franchise might have on his childhood and upbringing, were initially unenthusiastic about the idea, which could involve lengthy shoots in Los Angeles. But when assurances were given that the films would be shot in England, they relented.


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Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in the latest Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part II

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe in the latest Harry Potter film, Deathly Hallows Part II

Radcliffe would play the role for 10 years in eight films, and came to embody everyone’s idea of ​​Harry, that “solemn intelligence” and “joy of discovery”, as one reviewer put it. American.

Released in November 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was an instant and phenomenal success: made for $125 million, it would eventually gross over $1 billion. As the series picked up speed, the films got better and better, seamlessly blending flying cars, ogres, and dragons into the ongoing story of Harry’s slow coming of age. The films captured the tone of the books perfectly, while avoiding their sometimes twisting plot, and there were some wonderfully hammy cameos to enjoy, too.

Gary Oldman was excellent as the wronged and reviled Sirius Black, Helena Bonham Carter oozed sultry menace as Bellatrix Lestrange, Emma Thompson was mad herself as the half-blood witch Sybill Trelawney, and Kenneth Branagh revealed a rarely used comic flair playing Gilderoy Lockhart, a famous wizard and supposed monster-slayer who turns out to be an inexperienced impostor. Scariest of all was Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort, a wraith-like villain and Harry’s nemesis, who moved like a dancer and hovered in the shadows, waiting to pounce.

The technical and dramatic standards set by these films should not be taken for granted and can be properly appreciated if you compare them to the Narnia franchise, which should have faced similar challenges.

In the early 2000s, the CS Lewis estate entered into a deal with the Mark Gordon Company which led to the release of three Chronicles of Narnia films, between 2005 and 2010: the first, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was successful, but after that it was a case of diminishing returns. There are seven Narnia books, but only three were filmed before the series was scrapped: the films were stiff, stilted, and humorless in the extreme.

By contrast, the Potter films sing, sometimes achieving a near-perfect rendition of Rowling’s original vision. Rarely has an author been so well served by film adaptations.

There have been criticisms, however, of the decision to split Rowling’s latest Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in two films, delaying Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort. But they were beautifully made and grossed over $2 billion between them. And that, a thought, that was it. Not enough.


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JK Rowling at the UK premiere of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in 2018

JK Rowling at the UK premiere of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in 2018

In 2001, Rowling had written a cod guide by a certain Newt Scamander, which identified and characterized all the magical creatures present in the Potter universe. And in 2013, she decided to adapt the idea to the cinema. Producer David Heyman, director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves, all veterans of the Potter franchise, were involved in the creation of fantastic beasts and where to find them (2016).

As good as they were, the Potter films were sometimes limited in their cinematic ambitions by having to serve the plots of the books. But with fantastic beasts, Rowling and Yates had a blank canvas. Eddie Redmayne was well chosen to play Newt Scamander, the eccentric wizard dedicated to the protection of magical animals, one of which escaped to New York in the 1920s.

Colin Farrell was the pantomime villain Percival Graves, who at the end of the film transforms into Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the main adversary of the upcoming series.

The sequel to 2018 Crimes of Grindelwald wasn’t as good, partly because of its convoluted plot, and partly because of Depp’s mannerisms and over-acting. For Dumbledore’s secrets, Depp is gone. But the films are entering theaters in a changed, post-Covid, less Rowling-friendly landscape.

Yet it is difficult not to be impressed by the implacable fertility of JK Rowling’s imagination. In 1990, on a train stuck between London and Manchester, she imagines the entire Potter universe, which leads to an editorial revolution, the creation of an 11-film franchise and much more. Not to mention his adult novels and the detective novels of Cormoran Strike.

It was fashionable when Rowling rose to fame to poke fun at her sometimes functional prose style. Sour grapes, if you ask me: his accomplishments are extraordinary.

‘Fantastic Beasts: Dumbledore’s Secrets’ hits theaters Friday

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