When the eight-film Harry Potter juggernaut came to an end in 2011, speculation was rife about whether or not that spelled the end for future wizarding adventures on the big screen. At the press conference for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, series producer David Hayman stated categorically that Rowling had no plans to write a prequel or another sequel. Director David Yates brushed off similar speculation by suggesting “lightening rarely strikes twice.” Well, that was five years ago. Despite the absence of any new novels about the lightening-scarred boy who lived, mania for the “Potterverse” is just as fervent in 2016 as it ever was. In London’s West End, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (based on an original story by Rowling and set a decade after the events of the final book) is breaking theatrical box-office records. And in cinemas, Hayman and Yates are about to unleash spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is set in the same magical universe and marks the screenwriting debut of one JK Rowling.
A Textbook prequel
Taking its inspiration (and title) from the compendium of magical creatures Harry and his fellow Hogwarts students studied in The Philosopher’s Stone, the new film began life when Hayman proposed turning the faux textbook Rowling published for Comic Relief in 2001 into a mockumentary following its fictional author, an introverted wizard named Newt Scamander, as he goes about his job as a “magizoologist.” When he approached Rowling about the film, however, she’d already started writing something bigger: a prequel saga that would expand the world beyond Hogwarts by focusing on Scamander as a young wizard in 1926 as he arrives in New York with a magical suitcase full of exotic creatures he’s traversed the globe studying and rescuing.
That 1926 setting of course means there’s no chance of a Harry Potter cameo, but Eddie Redmayne’s casting as the hero of Fantastic Beasts does offer one, somewhat tenuous, link to the Potter movies. At university he auditioned to play the young Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but fluffed it so badly he didn’t even get a callback. Never mind. After winning an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking, the Theory of Everything star was a natural fit for Newt Scamander, who still wears his Hogwarts house colours – Hufflepuff, if that means anything to you – despite being kicked out of the school for reasons yet to be disclosed. More comfortable around animals than people, he begins the new film by accidentally unleashing chaos after letting a New York Muggle – or No-Maj as local parlance has it – see the contents of his magic suitcase. Said human is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who has the distinction of being the first major Muggle character in a JK Rowling movie. Joining him on Scamander’s side are Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as Tina and Queenie Goldstein, a pair of sisters with magic powers who were orphaned at a young age (just like a certain boy wizard). Together, this quartet find themselves on the wrong side of the Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves, Chief Security Officer for the Protection of Wizards at MACUSA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic.
Muggle v No-Maj
If there’s one thing that’s going to distinguish Fantastic Beasts from Harry Potter, it’s this focus on America. The Potter films were fiercely protective of their source material’s Britishness, but for the new film Rowling has created an entire history of magic’s evolution in North America. On her Pottermore website, she’s written essays detailing the backstory of the American version of Hogwarts (known as the Ilvermory School of Witchcraft and Wizardry) and she even references real world history, such as the Salem Witch Trials, to explain why American wizards, such as Farrell’s character, are much more protective of their species and much less trusting of the No-Maj world that seeks to persecute them. Of course, the New York setting also gives the world a distinctive new look. Recreating the Big Apple in Leavesden Studios – home of the Harry Potter films and now the Harry Potter studio tour – the era has allowed the production team to create a romanticised, fantastical Jazz Age version of the city, replete with magical speakeasies and fashions straight out The Great Gatsby.
Fantastic Beasts… and Where to Find Them
But what of the titular fantastic beasts? Rendered with a combination of CGI and puppetry, they range from a stick-insect-like creature known as a Bowtruckle and an ape-like herbivore called a Demiguise (on account of its invisibility powers), to a rodent-like kleptomaniac called the Niffler and a blue bird ominously known as Swooping Evil. Scamander transports them all in his magical case, a TARDIS-like contraption that functions as a gateway to a secret menagerie. With Scamander conceived as a cross between David Attenborough and Bear Grylls, Redmayne spent time visiting wildlife parks and hanging out with trackers to get into character – time well spent given he’s only just found out there are going to be five movies in total. Rowling revealed that particular bit of news – to the astonishment of her cast – at the recent Fantastic Beasts fan event in London. Though she’d initially thought it might be a trilogy, in working out the story she ultimately came up with enough material for five movies. She’s also said they’ll link up with the Potter books and films in “surprising ways”. Yates, for one, has already confirmed that Fantastic Beasts will feature a cameo from a young Albus Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster who is spoken of in the trailer as being fond of Scamander. Also featuring is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard central to the mythology of the books, whose tyrannical rise the new films look set to chronicle. All of which suggests Rowling has her sights set on matching, if not surpassing, the success of those other shared cinematic universes: Star Wars and Marvel. We’re going to be finding these fantastic beasts in cinemas for a long time yet.
*Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is released on 18 November