Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: a step into the magical unknown

JK Rowling attends European premiere of film, which moves away from Harry Potter to explore dark themes in adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander

Even for JK Rowling’s most dedicated fans, it is a step into the magical unknown. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them premiered in London on Tuesday night and is due to hit cinemas on Friday. Yet for the first time in the history of Rowling films it will not be a familiar world, or even familiar characters, on screen.

Instead of the comforting surroundings of Hogwarts, occupied by literature’s cherished trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione, it will be the first time the wizarding world has been depicted across the Atlantic in prohibition-era New York – and this time without existing books containing the plot.

Speaking on the red carpet in Leicester Square on Tuesday night, Rowling said that by the end of the film – the first of a planned five – it will be clear to audiences where the story will head. Although she wanted to keep the fun in the film, the author and screenwriter said: “I am dealing with some dark themes in there.”

Rowling described her delight when an Academy-Award-winner, Eddie Redmayne, signed on to star as “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. He is “warm and endearing – and a peculiar sort of hero”, she said.

Left to right: Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Eddie Redmayne, JK Rowling, Carmen Ejogo, Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler at the premiere at Leicester Square.
Left to right: Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Eddie Redmayne, JK Rowling, Carmen Ejogo, Alison Sudol and Dan Fogler at the premiere at Leicester Square. Photograph: Ian West/PA

Fantastic Beasts is even being touted as attractive to non-Potter fans. Redmayne said he liked the fact that the script “stands as its own thing … You can go in fresh, be a Potter virgin and still enjoy the film,” he said.

Fantastic Beasts was initially perceived in some quarters as a risky move. Since the first novel – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – was published in 1997, it has become one of the 10 bestselling books of all time, with sales of more than $8bn (£6.4bn), and the film adaptations have taken $7.8bn at the box office. Yet without the bespectacled boy wizard and the distinctively British backdrop, would Rowling’s fantastical universe retain its magic?

Even David Yates, who has directed four Harry Potter films, admitted he had his doubts about taking the project on. “I was a bit nervous opening the first page,” he said of Rowling’s script. “Is it going to feel like Harry Potter again? Can I go back to Hogwarts?”

Actor Eddie Redmayne poses for selfies with fans on the red carpet.
Actor Eddie Redmayne poses for selfies with fans on the red carpet. Photograph: Joel Ryan/AP

But the $220m budget and Rowling’s recent admission that this franchise will expand to five films across 19 years up to 1945, suggests Warner Bros is confident the film will be another box office smash.

Nonetheless US box office analysts are predicting that the five-year gap since the last Harry Potter film and the fact that the audience has grown up, means the film is likely to take about $75m on its opening weekend – considerably less than the $169.2m kickoff for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.

Central to their confidence is the fact that Fantastic Beasts has been conceived and written by Rowling herself, her first foray into screenwriting. The title first emerged as one of Potter’s textbooks in the Philosopher’s Stone and Rowling wrote it out and published it in aid of Comic Relief in 2001. But otherwise the story of Newt Scamander, freshly expelled from Hogwarts for endangering human life with a beast and arriving in 1920s New York with a rickety suitcase of creatures, is an entirely new dimension of the wizarding universe.

Actress Carmen Ejogo, who plays Serafina.
Carmen Ejogo, who plays Serafina. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

The sell-out success of the Harry Potter play in the West End, also co-written by Rowling and which this week won best play at the Evening Standard theatre awards, illustrates that the appetite for Potter-related material has not waned.

Rowling, who has been outspoken about figures including Donald Trump – whom she described as “worse than Voldemort” – said recent populist movements, including that which drove Brexit and the election of Trump, had inspired the script. She admitted the first drafts had been “really dark, there was a lot of stuff in the sewers” and issues that arise in Fantastic Beasts include rising inequality and a secretive and draconian American Ministry of Magic.

Fantastic Beasts cast: ‘A bunch of squirrels together ... that’s pretty fantastic’ – video interview

“This period [is] threatening to become very dystopian,” she told the New York Times. “I conceived the story a few years ago and I think I was partly informed by a rise in populism around the world.”

The first film will have recognisable references. Scamander’s expulsion from Hogwarts, for example, was argued against by Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore, back then a mere transfiguration teacher. Rowling has promised that the next four films will delve further into stories that were central to the seven Harry Potter books, including the disintegration of the relationship between Dumbledore and the wizard Grindelwald, who will be played by Johnny Depp.

“I would like to say, because this is obviously a five-part story, there’s lots to unpack in that relationship,” Rowling said at a New York press conference. “You will see Dumbledore as a younger man and quite a troubled man. We’ll see him at that formative period of his life. As far as his sexuality is concerned, watch this space.”


Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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