Fantastic Beasts’ Looming Problem

Between the years of 1998 and 2011, the Harry Potter books and movies formed an absolute cultural powerhouse. It started with the release of the first book, and ended with the release of the last movie. But, as we are waiting for the third movie in the prequel spinoff series, Fantastic Beasts, faith in the franchise is at a considerably low. The first movie tried to capture the same magic and whimsy, but couldn’t. The second was extraordinarily bad.

 

This post will include SPOILERS for Harry Potter – and for the Fantastic Beasts series.

While the Fantastic Beasts movies seem to try to focus on the character Newt Schamander, who is mentioned in the original books, it’s very clear that the movies want to focus on the relationship between Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and Wizarding World supervillain Gellert Grindelwald. The one baffling thing is that the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship is that it is mentioned as some pre-series history that gives a little bit of context to certain elements (the Elder Wand) of the original series. Here seems like it will be the focal point of Newt Schamander’s Fantastic Beasts series. The original Harry Potter books passingly mention the historic 1945 duel between the two great wizards. It’s easy to tell that the Dumbledore-Grindelwald duel will be the climax of this series.

 

One thing that kind of has me scratching my head is what we know about Dumbledore and Grindelwald from the Harry Potter series. The duo was close (it’s overtly never said that they were intimate in the books, but that’s been stated), and both believed that they should have rule over the world – particularly muggles – “for the greater good.” But then Dumbledore sees the light and decides he doesn’t want to, taking issue with Grindelwald’s evils. After that, we know that the two became enemies, and that Grindelwald had the Elder Wand – the most powerful wand in the Wizarding World – but he lost it to Dumbledore.

In The Crimes of Grindelwald, Grindelwald argues that Humans/Muggles/No-Maj people should not have any kind of autonomy because within 20-25 years of the movie’s setting, Nazis would take over Europe, and the Americans would use a nuclear bomb on Japan… which, frankly, seems a little high-concept and uber-serious for the same franchise which introduced Quidditch and Dobby to the rest of the world.

After Crimes of Grindelwald, any viewer is inclined to leave confused – is Grindelwald a good guy because he wants to prevent World War II? Or is he a bad guy because he wants to enslave all muggles? It’s hard because this effectively makes him the Voldemort of the prequel series.

Again, Grindelwald’s biggest moment in the mythos of the original Harry Potter series is certainly his 1945 duel with Dumbledore. So far as I can remember – and a quick look through the Harry Potter wiki seems to back this up – not that much is said about the duel. Nothing specific, at least. The only thing we’re told about it is that it’s the most amazing duel in wizarding history. And that’s hard to visualize. What does the most amazing duel in wizarding history even look like? When you’re reading that in a book and it’s mentioned off-hand as an important moment in recent history, you don’t question it because you don’t have to.

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As a huge Game of Thrones nerd, I can easily point to an analogous moment, which is Robert and Rhaegar’s duel on the trident, approximately 20-25 years before the series starts. And because of the way this event is described, we have a pretty clear idea of what it looked like, just because it’s described in specific terms, as opposed to Grindelwald vs. Dumbledore. Robert and Rhaegar dueled in a flowing river, and Robert ended the duel by lodging his warhammer in Rhaegar’s ruby-plated armor, thereby naming the river “The Ruby Ford.” For a scene that’s only ever spoken of by characters, it feels very cinematic. Whereas Grindelwald vs. Dumbledore feels exceedingly vague, which I wouldn’t have a problem with this, if it weren’t the event that the Fantastic Beast series were building towards. There’s no problem with a pivotal moment in the prehistory of a series having no clear description. As long as it remains pre-series history. It works fine for Robert’s Rebellion – but that’s because they haven’t tried to build an entire series around Robert’s Rebellion (and hopefully they won’t). If the Duel on the Trident river were to become the focal point of its own series, I’m not sure it would be quite as fascinating.

And stop me if this is something of a hot take; The duels in the Harry Potter movies are not always engaging. Whenever Harry is in a duel, it seems like the only spell he knows is expelliarmus. By far, the most interesting duel in Harrt Potter’s books and movies is Dumbledore versus Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix. This one actually tries to do somethinf unique.

And this is so well-liked because it’s more than just a good-guy saying “Disarm,” and a bad guy saying “Kill!” It involves two highly-accomplished wizards displaying their abilities in unique ways. In a real-world setting, having “kill” and “disarm” being the two most frequent spells used in duels would make sense – but these are fantasy books and movies. Shouldn’t we want a little more?

Already, I hate the 1945 duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, knowing it will be the ostensible climax of this awful series. I do hope they do something interesting with it. It’s very clearly the upcoming focal point for the series, and serves as a looming problem that they’ll have to figure out before movie #5.

…oh… I’m just realizing…

…oh no…

…1945…

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…They are totally going to show the Wizarding World during World War II. They are actually going to show the Wizarding World confronting the horrors of one of the darkest period of world history. That’ll be… That’ll be… Yikes.

Geez, all I can hope for is that JKR has read some of the reviews of Crimes of Grindelwald and is open to some course-correction because… man. I’m not sure I would suggest that fun and whimsy are Harry Potter’s main appeal,  but they certainly help make Hogwarts a magical place. And Hogwarts is fun, whimsical, and magical despite the series’ more serious moments, like Cedric dying or Fred losing an ear. But Grindelwald trying to enslave the muggles because they’re going to orchestrate the holocaust or drop a nuclear bomb… suddenly, Quidditch and the Hogwarts Express become a lot less fun.

I think sometime over the next year or so, I would like to reread all of the Harry Potter books, and probably rewatch the movies as well. It is an incredibly baffling mystery for the Fantastic Beasts movies to be as bad as they are, that I feel the need to go back and reexamine the source material to figure out just what went wrong.

  • What made Harry Potter successful? Can Harry Potter’s success be replicated?
  • Will you go to see the next Fantastic Beasts movie?

(Also, let me say that a lot of these issues were already covered in a post I wrote year, The Peril of Prequels. Sorry if I retreaded familiar ground.)

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