Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the  Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry must buy for school. It’s hardly the  most interesting  thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the  wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the  fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the  Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the  fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

How does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the  textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the  loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the  rise within American society, with a group known as the  Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the  chaos in the  city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.

eddieFantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the  puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The  latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the  latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the  VFX budget.

As far as its place within the  larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the  answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the  timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the  second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the  end of World War II, and the defeat of the  Axis Powers, in the  magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the  Elder Wand, the  unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows.

So if the  Harry Potter books chronicled the  second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the  Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the  same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the  characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the  books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The  possibilities are endless.

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If the  whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the  perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the  course of the  film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the  context of the  movie). This is the  sum total of what we know of him, and the  way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that goldsteinsthere is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the  background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the  most promising young actors out there, is the  repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the  magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the  movie, not at all dampened by the  unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the  make-up department.

Unlike the  events of the  Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the  places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the  backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the  rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the  conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the  microcosm of one school and in the  heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the  one boy altogether, and lets the  larger world splay itself across the  screen, as it does right from the  opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the  other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the  eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the  wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The  question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the  largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the  intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.

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Patrick, Perks and Section 377

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L-R: Patrick (Ezra Miller), Sam (Emma Watson) and Charlie (Logan Lerman)

I’ve been reading Stephen Chbosky’s beautiful coming-of-age book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In this case, I don’t think watching the movie beforehand was a bad decision. It was a great movie, and the characters were visualized so perfectly. I don’t think I could have done it any better on my own.

Hence, when I’m reading and seeing the movie play out in my head, I don’t resent it at all.

Usually, I wait until I finish the book before I begin writing the review (except when it came to the last book of The Wheel of Time series, but that was a special case). But today, two things came together, and that’s sort of spurred me to write.

Warning: there are spoilers for Perks ahead, so if you don’t want to know any more about the book besides the fact that it’s bloody brilliant, you should probably stop reading.

This morning, I got in late to work. There’s a reason for this, namely, that I had reached a very difficult point in Perks. Patrick, the effervescent, quirky boy played so wonderfully by Ezra Miller, has been wrenched from his secret boyfriend, the quarterback Brad. Brad’s father catches them together and proceeds to belt his son, who screams at Patrick to get out of the house. Patrick does.

And after that everything sort of goes to hell for Patrick. Brad ignores him in school, and when Patrick finally does get the gumption to go up and talk to him during lunch in the cafeteria, he gets called a ‘faggot’ by his erstwhile boyfriend, in a ‘nasty’ way.

So there I am, reading this section of the book, and then I come into work, switch on to my Twitter feed to find out what’s happening in the wider world, and find that the Supreme Court of India has overruled an earlier (2009) judgment of the Delhi High Court, which had decriminalized homosexual relationships. In other words, if you’re engaging in consensual sexual relations with a person from your own sex, you’re a criminal.

It’s a huge step back for a burgeoning movement, and of course, I can’t expect to convey the sort of outrage that’s gripped a segment of the population. For me, it seems like a strange, twisted joke. For something to be decriminalized and then reinstated to its former ‘hallowed by the Constitution’ position seems exceedingly stupid. It’s taking the ‘we make laws and hence we can unmake them’ to a whole new level. Of stupidity.

I guess I’m lucky in that I was brought up without being told that loving certain people was ‘wrong’. My parents have always been among the most accepting people in my world, so I never understood what the big deal was about loving someone of your own gender. I never got the feeling that they would be supremely hurt or angry if I, say, brought home a girl. Surprised, maybe, but they would deal with it.

As, I believe, the rest of the world should learn to do.

I think, today, Patrick gave a face to all those people who have really, really been hurt by this decree. Of being open to great hurt and humiliation for loving who they choose to love, of being emotionally scarred in more traumatic ways than those traditionally associated with the scary high school experience. Of standing alone outside in the yard and crying, ‘really crying hard’, and knowing that you can’t even talk about what’s hurting you.

I don’t think I will ever understand the fear that this decree speaks of, what it says about the mindsets of the people issuing it. I don’t think I want to.

But I do want them to know that they have not had the last word.

After all, Oscar Wilde is remembered. The man who testified against him? Not so much.