Sometimes, when a book franchise is popular enough, it receives what every author dreams of—a movie or TV series contract. For the Harry Potter series, first published in 1997, it was only a matter of time before movies hit the screens. Despite minor missteps in the movies (see: “calmly”, book 4), the popularity of the franchise as a whole flourished. It has also just recently been confirmed that a new HBO Max remake is coming as a television series. Because of all this success, new content was put forth by the author, J.K. Rowling. Three new books were published: The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Quidditch Through the Ages, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. From this last book, a textbook describing 70+ magical creatures of the Wizarding World, a new movie franchise sprung forth.
The Fantastic Beasts movie series was slated for five movies, set in America from the years 1927 to the time of the Wizarding War against Grindelwald in ’45. It followed the success of the eight Harry Potter movies, which wrapped up in 2011. The first movie, aptly named Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was released five years later (2016), and was a huge success. It followed the to-be author of the textbook, Newt Scamander, as he arrives in New York on his way to Arizona. His goal is to release a rescued beast back into its natural habitat, but those plans go to ruin after a mishap causes all the beasts contained within his magical expanded briefcase to escape. Combining forces with MACUSA worker Tina Goldstein, Newt recovers his beasts, and thwarts the dark wizard Grindelwald along the way. The film, which was never based on a written novel, but rather was a story sprung to life from a textbook, was commercially successful, grossing more than $800 million globally. From there, the movies’ success only declined. (Read more here.)
The question remains: why was the first so successful, and why were the others not?
Personally, I believe that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was arguably one of the best Harry Potter movies to date. It was such a breath of fresh air to be able to step back into the wizarding world with new characters in new places. As adults, the witches and wizards were not confined to a school environment, and as such, were capable of much higher levels of magic than Harry and his friends. New and exciting things could be done, but the landscape was still familiar enough for the casual fan to understand. What’s more: this movie was not based off a novel, and as such, there was nothing for a book lover to compare it to, giving the screenwriter and director much more freedom to work with.
Newt is a socially awkward wizard who was expelled from Hogwarts due to an incident with a magical beast. He was defended by Dumbledore, allowed to keep his wand, and in the present, he works as a magizoologist. He is much more comfortable around his creatures than with humans. He and the rest of the cast are so different from what Harry Potter fans are used to, and there is such excitement to be felt being introduced to so many wonderous beasts. We fans can take on the role of Jacob, a muggle (or no-maj, as they’re called in America), and be amazed at the world anew.
The plot of the first movie was simple: Newt is in New York; Newt loses his beasts at the same time as a mysterious force is killing people; Newt must find his beasts and prove their innocence. He, as a British wizard, doesn’t know the finer details of the American wizard justice system, which makes him the perfect stand in for the viewer as well, for Tina (American auror) to explain things to him. The movie revolves mainly around the beasts, as the name suggests. Without the subplot involving Credence and Grindelwald, the movie could’ve been a very successful one-off.
These are all reasons why the movie was successful. However, with three movies out of five, with no more scheduled for filming, we must discuss where things went wrong.
Why it Failed:
Change of Direction
As mentioned above, the first movie contained a subplot which carried over into the rest of the franchise, that being of Grindelwald’s rise to power and the first wizarding war. At the same time that Newt’s creatures are running rampant around New York, Grindelwald, in disguise, is searching for a young witch or wizard whose powers have been suffocated so severely that they’ve become what’s called an Obscurial. The Obscurus—a magical parasite—is wreaking havoc, and Grindelwald wishes to use it as a weapon, though his plans are foiled by Newt and Tina. He is captured by MACUSA, and in the subsequent movies, escapes and moves along in his dastardly plans for power and the subjugation of non-wizards.
Fans were not happy with this change.
Not only did the second and third movies continue to move further and further away from the original focus, but Newt was sidelined—seemingly forced into the movies’ plots to maintain him as the protagonist.
This all comes down to poor planning. Given the new central conflict between Jude Law’s Dumbledore and the ever-changing actor of Grindelwald, the original Fantastic Beasts crew is sorely out of place, though included so as not to completely turnover the series. Newt is a non-confrontational character, which is shown in the second movie, as Newt continuously tries to not take any sides in the war that’s brewing. He is thrust into the plot of a much bigger scheme while he himself is trying to clear up a romantic misstep with Tina.
Beasts have been shoved into the movie, it seems, simply for the sake of beasts being included; it is the same with the third film. A new plotline is freshly introduced as everyone speculates Credence’s true identity, coming from the predictions of an ancient Seer, though this plotline was apparently abandoned by the time the third movie came around. Perhaps it was part of a bigger whole and would’ve made more sense if the viewer had the chance to watch all five movies in succession, but as it stands, the second movie felt like a layover, and many more questions arose than were answered.
Another issue of planning came from the new magic incorporated into the series. With adult wizards, the creators were allotted much more freedom in the magic used, and since they were not limited to the school setting, the magic was allowed to be fluid. However, problems arose with fans as new and unexplained magic entered the scene—one such instance being the strange mirror dimension Dumbledore used in the third film. What exactly was happening in the scenes where he fought Credence and later Grindelwald? This feat of magic was never explained, nor could it have been explained by anything the fans knew of from prior work. Theories abound, but nothing concrete was offered.
Then, the icing on the cake: references included in the film despite breaking the continuity of the world (looking at you, McGonagall—who was a teacher at Hogwarts 8 years prior to being born!). The author is allowed to fiddle around with her own work (it’s her right!) but I feel that it’s bad form to invent new canon just for the sake of convenience or cameo.
Lack of Cohesion
Come the third movie, the organization of the franchise seems lost. The plot of this film revolves around the idea of “the plan is that there is no plan” which only serves to confuse the viewer, and it seems the idea was the same behind the scenes. The only thing that seems to carry over is that Grindelwald is the main antagonist, since each movie has followed their own problem. First being Newt and his beasts, then the mystery of Credence’s identity, then a wizarding world vote? It would’ve been okay to move on to new plots if the old ones weren’t then discarded and not mentioned again.
It may have even been better to leave Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as a standalone film, maybe to test the waters of spinoff Harry Potter content, then make a separate Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald franchise afterwards. That way, the focus could first and foremost be about them and their conflict, without the necessity of somehow including the OG Fantastic Beasts characters and creatures into the plot. I would’ve personally been all for a five-movie franchise following Dumbledore’s journey from his arrogant school years to his summer plotting with Grindelwald, to their fallout, to the decades-later battle to decide the fate of the wizarding world.
This unfortunately did not happen, and it doesn’t seem likely to happen either, as the franchise seems to have died out for good. We can only hope that the new HBO Max series will not make the same mistakes.
The last thing to mention is, of course, the behind-the-scenes controversy surrounding the franchise. There was the domestic abuse trial between Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard which caused him to be recast by Mads Mikkelsen as Grindelwald. There were the allegations against Ezra Miller, which they have since apologized for, but are ongoing. And then there is the major controversy surrounding the creator of the franchise herself, J.K. Rowling, and her views and opinions on the trans community.
I will not say more about these topics, but if you wish to learn more, there are many sources to choose from.
How to Be Successful
There is no sure-fire way to know how your art will be perceived by the public; it’s all an artist can hope for that people like what they’ve done. However, you can always increase your chances of success through proper planning and execution. The rest is left to your fans to decide.
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