On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.
This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.
So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.
The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.
They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.
I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.
But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.
fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?