Author: JK Rowling
Publisher: Little, Brown
So, I’m afraid this is again being published later than I’d have liked due to being snowed under by college work (excuse the festive pun), but I figured it was about time I dropped by to give my thoughts on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For anyone who hasn’t left the house in a month, that’s the script-book of JK Rowling’s new prequel to the Harry Potter series, a film of the same name as the book. Set in 1920’s New York, it tells the story of Newt Scamander, a British ‘Magizoologist’ who has ventured to America for the first time in order to release one of his pet magical creatures into the wilds of Arizona. Things become complicated, however, when strange attacks start occurring in the city, and MACUSA (the American equivalent of the British Ministry for Magic for those of you who aren’t in the know) accuses the animals that have conveniently escaped from Newt’s magical suitcase of perpetrating the attacks. Cue a hilarious mission to round up the creatures, but with suitably Rowling-esque darker undertones as it gradually becomes apparent who, or arguably what, has really committed the atrocities. Naturally, I’ve seen the film in addition to reading the book, and I must have to recommend doing both, as it really does enhance the ‘magic’ of the experience. However, I will try my hardest to be impartial and review the book independently of the movie (and disclose as few spoilers as possible!) for the fans out there who haven’t quite managed a trip to the cinema yet.
So, without further ado, I’ll begin my review by introducing the new characters- the most important of which is obviously Newt himself. Potter fans who have read the short novel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which Rowling wrote from Newt’s point of view a few years ago, will be happy to hear the character portrayed in the film script is just as quirky as the narrative of the original book would suggest, as will those who were fond of ‘unusual’ characters like Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom in the original series. He is as socially awkward as fans would hope, clearly preferring socialising with his animals to human interaction (and, to break my promise about not making too many references to the film, perfectly brought to life onscreen by Eddie Redmayne). It is this quirkiness and awkwardness that perfectly plays off his friendship with Tina Goldstein, a MACUSA auror who works alongside him, her sister Queenie and their no-Maj (muggle) friend Jacob Kowalski to round up his various creatures. It is her awkwardness that perfectly compliments Newt’s, proving especially humorous when a will-they-won’t-they situation develops towards the end of the novel, and is made even funnier by neither character seemingly daring to make the first move. As for Jacob, who is accidentally embroiled in the situation after unknowingly picking up Newt’s suitcase rather than his own and being bitten by one of the magical creatures as a result, he is arguably the comedic element that prevents the script from becoming too dark. The audience delights in seeing, and sharing, his wonder as he discovers the magical world around him as if for the very first time. The discrimination he faces from some in the magical community, also makes him a character we pity to some extent, as we realise this means his hopes of romancing Queenie may never be fulfilled. Although it is pleasing to see that he does ultimately have a happy ending, Rowling can be applauded for parodying real-life 1920’s America, with some less than subtle references to the oppression of certain social groups, stemming from segregation-based laws.
I have very few issues to raise about this novel, although, as in my review of the script for Rowling’s new play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, that its format may be difficult for some to access. Even for those who’ve read scripts of plays before, if (like me) you’re thinking of picking this one up but have virtually no experience of reading screenplays, I must say the transition can be a little odd. I certainly spent a little while trying to figure out what all ‘those strange symbols’ meant… before embarrassingly locating a key in the back of the book (free life hack for anyone with the same edition as me: this is the only time I’ll not only advocate, but recommend, flicking to the end of a book in search of said key!). However, if you’re interested in a challenge or discovering a new genre, then this could well be the perfect screenplay to start with, given its familiar, classically Rowling style and plot. That being said, given the lack of a narrator role or any lengthy speeches, it should be acknowledged that this isn’t the book for anyone who enjoyed the original Potter series for its lengthy prose and detailed description. Although the lack of a detailed narrative is a fault of the genre as a whole rather than the author, who does still succeed in conveying the vivid ideas so beloved in the Potter series, it definitely detracts from the detail of the plot and empathy for the characters felt by readers. It should be remembered that Fantastic Beasts is meant to be seen on screen rather than read, something which is reflected in the fact that I felt actually seeing the characters in the flesh made me sympathise with them more in the film, as the portrayals somehow made me feel more like I ‘knew’ them, and thus cared more about the outcome of their plight.
As for the actual plot, Fantastic Beasts could arguably be dismissed as rather slight, probably because, unlike the Potter films, its source novel has so little detail that the film adaptation has been devised from the screen from the off. Another personal complaint was that I felt I guessed the twist, revolving around the mysterious Barebone family and Gellert Grindelwald (Dumbledore’s original nemesis in the Potter series), relatively early into the story. That being said, I did like the fact Grindelwald was featured, setting up events which would later influence Harry Potter’s story. The lack of great detail in the plot is also arguably compensated for by the humorous time Newt spends attempting to round up his magical creatures as they escape into the city of New York. Whilst far from integral to the plot, this is a great opportunity for Rowling to both show off her ingenious imagination in the form of the magical creatures she has dreamed up, and to utilise her setting by having them pay visits to several iconic locations, with Macy’s being used particularly amusingly. In true Rowling style, however, there are darker undertones at work, in the form of an ‘Obscurus’- an evil and all-powerful magical creature on a quest to destroy the city. Conveniently, only Newt knows how to curb its reign of terror, laying the way for a thrilling conclusion. As a whole, the main criticisms of Fantastic Beasts can be aimed at its slight and somewhat predictable plot, although Rowling’s vivid imagination more than compensates for this, as does the fact this story has so effortlessly been woven into the Potter backstory. Rowling’s first attempt at a screenplay can be considered a resounding success, and fans will delight in the news that there are two sequels to follow. And on a less formal note, speaking as a Potter fanatic… it’s great that the magic has been kept alive so well!!
Rating: ☇☇☇☇.5 (4.5/5)