How 'Fantastic Beasts' Changes the Harry Potter Universe
This post contains minor spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Four-time Harry Potter director David Yates is spooked when we sit down to talk about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of five Potter prequel movies in the works. It's just a few days before the election, and the tension is palpable. That feeling prompts a comment on his own film: "There is some serious shit in this movie."
We agree on that. Written by J.K. Rowling -- her first stab at a screenplay -- and set against the bustling canvas of 1920s New York, Fantastic Beasts follows magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he chases a menagerie of super-powered creatures down a rabbit hole that exposes him to a seedy underbelly of the wizarding world. He encounters spell-casting agents operating like J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, anti-witch hate groups and closeted wizards, and a brewing class war infused with the wonder we've come to expect from Rowling's stories. It will, eventually, connect to the events of the original Harry Potter movies.
If the first eight Potter movies felt like distant, epic fantasy, the new movie is salient and ingrained in reality (even with all the fantastic beasts). "It's about how connected we feel to each other," Yates says. "And Newt is this sort of oddly disconnected character. It's about making sure that you value the other and the things that are misunderstood and the things that you think you should fear. You should approach those things with an open head and an open heart, I think."
Besides carving out new "serious shit" for the series, Fantastic Beasts also recasts the rules of Rowling's original books. I asked Yates to explain a few of the ways he tinkers with the Potterverse and sets up for the future of the franchise. Brace yourselves, diehards.
Harry Potter memories became Harry Potter horrors
Fantastic Beasts avoids the pitfalls of Star Wars prequelization by allowing magic to be magic. No midi-chlorians here. The Americans have their own lingo (Muggles are no "No-Majs") and wizarding infrastructure -- in 1920s New York, there's a zero tolerance policy for magical and magic-less commingling -- but in 80 years, little has changed.
When Fantastic Beasts does extrapolate, it's organic. In one scene, we see Newt and Tina (Katherine Waterston) captured by shady forces and sentenced to death by... Pensieve. Yes, Dumbledore's whimsical storage system is expanded into a pool-sized torture device capable of trapping wizards in their memories for all eternity.
"That was an absolute lift from Half-Blood Prince," Yates says, adding that the idea came out of script sessions with original series screenwriter Steve Kloves. "Jo wanted a sudden dramatic shift, so Steve came up with the notion of this memory pool, which I loved. Then I wanted these really benign-looking nurses so it felt like a Swiss clinic. And everybody would be really nice in a creepy sort of way."
There were places Beasts couldn't go
If you've seen the Fantastic Beasts trailers, you know that Newt's suitcase -- luggage that gives Mary Poppins a run for her money -- is his life. In the movie, Newt can walk through his bag into a multi-room zoo and laboratory. The original plan was even more expansive. "As we developed it conceptually, I was really excited about making it trippy and extraordinary," Yates says. "At one point, I got a concept artist to create landscapes in there that were like little universes. They're all completely bonkers... Basically, he had Narnia in his case."
According to Yates, J.K. Rowling wasn't so keen on the idea. "There was one moment when Newt got on a boat and crossed this huge, vast ocean within the case. And Jo said, 'Look, it looks fabulous, but guys, he has to create this with the level of his magic,' and the level of Newt Scamander's magic is home-grown. She said he's got to be Heath Robinson, he's got to sort of knock it together himself. It had to feel much realer. So, out went this sort of multi-dimensional other universe space, and it kind of crushed down to a shed."
Everything ties back to the original franchise
Fantastic Beasts teases a future of its own that should loop Newt, Tina, and her employer, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, into Harry Potter and Voldemort's dueling fates. How we'll get there seems to have everything to do with the Deathly Hallows, the trifecta of magical objects (the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone, and the Cloak of Invisibility) incorporated into the Potter saga in the series' final two movies. Assembling all three Deathly Hallows allows their possessor to wield the power of Death. Harry used the pieces to defeat Voldemort, then scattered them across the Hogwarts grounds.
Fantastic Beasts reintroduces the Deathly Hallows, or at least the recognizable symbol standing in for them, as an engraved necklace gifted to Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a Puritanical anti-wizard protester. Only eagle-eyed fans will notice it. Yates doesn't even give the ornament a sustained shot. This is just a tease -- but a big one.
"It is a delicate process [incorporating the Deathly Hallows], and we hope that people will be able to enjoy this movie without having too much prior knowledge," he says. "Fingers crossed. That they don't need to have absorbed seven books and eight movies. That's really for the people who love the world, and it's for them to enjoy that kind of stuff."
The freshest spells are timeless
Fantastic Beasts works because it's not just a simple remix of Harry Potter. That was key to Yates' renewed interest. He wanted his latest magical movie to feel like it was transported here from 1926. "I looked at those early silent films, Keaton comedies, Chaplin comedies. There was always something about Eddie playing with his physicality, which I loved. loved Keaton, I love Chaplin. They were sort of real lynchpins."
Ultimately, Yates says, it's J.K. Rowling's sensibility that keeps inspiring him and evolving the world. Music to fans' ears. "There's something about the way she writes and the characters she creates that feel singular. There's a purity about what she writes."
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