The one good thing that 2016 did was gift us with two official Harry Potter additions to the universe. The first, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, did well enough as a play but its written format split fans. The second, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, found critical success as both film and screenplay. Normally, shooting scripts and screenplays don’t find their way to the public unless you’re a film student or screenwriter. And, occasionally, perhaps there’s a good reason for that.
Unlike Cursed Child, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a spin-off of the Harry Potter universe instead of a continuation of the story. It takes place over sixty years before the Boy Who Lived became a student of Hogwarts, and follows a character with a familiar name to any super fan of the series. Newt Scamander, a magizoologist, arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures and hijinks ensue. Along the way he meets a Muggle (No-Maj in America) named Jacob, two witches named Tina and Queenie, and several other characters who work both for and against the cause of catching his missing magical creatures. It’s part farce, part political thriller, and part cultural analysis.
While I had many issues with the information J.K. Rowling presented in her “Magic in North America” series when it came to understanding American culture and society versus British, the film itself doesn’t deal too much with that background information—and that is one of its strengths. The main protagonist, Newt, reads as both a familiar and unfamiliar figure in the Harry Potter universe. His determination and strength to do right are characteristics he shares with Harry Potter, but beyond that he is a wiser, stronger, and gentler male protagonist than readers and viewers will normally receive. Instead of lashing out with anger when another male character would, he uses empathy and politeness to his own advantage. He carries the film well enough on his own, and his dialogue is distinctly British when compared to the other characters.
Jacob, Tina, and Queenie make suitable supporting characters and each lend themselves to the adventure in a different way that builds the story rather than distracting from it. Tina, the “career girl”, has a righteous sense of justice and fierce love for her job, friends, and family. Queenie, a character that at first appears to be a stereotypical dumb blonde, is instead a smart and talented witch who uses her mind-reading capabilities to her advantage. Jacob, a Muggle thrown into the magic world, takes things in strides that readers will recognize in themselves and lends himself to most of the comedy without completely being comedic relief.
The cast of other characters are various and well-motivated and, unlike in Harry Potter or Cursed Child, the story is told from multiple perspectives. The story includes the Barebone family, a part of the Second Salemers movement and on the hunt for witches. The mother, Mary Lou, will remind many readers of a more polite, less-overtly-evil Dolores Umbridge. Her daughters, Chastity and Modesty, make an appearance here and there for story’s sake, but most of the attention is reaped on Credence Barebone. He’s been abused and punished, but he’s naturally drawn to the magic that he’s been taught to hate. His grooming by the Auror, Percival Graves, is given a good amount of space in the text and develops both his character and Graves. Percival Graves, while portrayed well on screen and given more nuance through the film itself, is clunky in the screenplay where most of the foreshadowing and backstory is written in the action.
As mentioned earlier, screenplays aren’t usually consumed by the general public, but this is a special case and was released. As such, it both solves and creates problems with the movie itself. Fantastic Beasts contains two plot twists near the end—one is well-crafted and reasonably misleading, but the other is just blatant and unsurprising. In the screenplay more so than the film, the second plot twist is painfully obvious especially when compared to J.K. Rowling’s more subtle foreshadowing in the original series. The “Return of the King Syndrome” ending style in the film works better without the music, acting, and visual tone. The story makes each ending flow together in a more compatible way.
There are some minor issues with the culture, society, and time period, but they’re easily ignored in favor of the stronger elements of the story. The story does suffer at times from its multiple viewpoints being too telling or tonally different from the scenes that come before or after them. Overall, this script works much better than Cursed Child and reads like an in-universe story rather than a well-written fan fiction. While I do have more issues with the film, the screenplay itself stands on its own and does a good job of building the universe in ways that add rather than subtract.
I recommend Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to Harry Potter nerds thirsty for more magic, environmentalists and animal-lovers looking for a character who understands the need for conservation, and people who like to read magical stories set in historical time periods rather than fantasy worlds or the present. While I do hope that this doesn’t start a trend of selling screenplays for cash grab, I can’t say that I regret reading it. Pick up a copy to add to your magical collection and find out what’s so fantastic.