Whatever you think of the brand, Harry Potter and the associated universe is here to stay. We look at the Pros, Cons, For and Against arguments. We peel back the layers of sycophancy to examine the series’ limitations, whilst embracing the charming allure of JK Rowling and the genius piece that is Fantastic Beasts..
Dark and Difficult Times lie ahead! There are plans afoot for about seventeen new Harry Potter films. Are those two sentences connected? Depends on one’s viewpoint, I suppose. If you are a JK Rowling disciple, then you no doubt buy into the idea that continued wizarding world wonders from her pen constitute a kind of messianic, destined relief from the oncoming storm of a post Trump victory / post Brexit world. If you hate Harry Potter, then you may very well view the prospect of yet more franchise helpings as part of the darkness.
A third way is possible, however. You see Harry Potter for what it was /is.
Yes: it is a well crafted /grafted universe and good old JK has a fantastic gift for language and imagery. Great that any kid puts down the computer and starts reading anything. Grateful for the boost to British industry, trade, craftsmanship and Cinema, as well as tourism. Equally aware, though, that the whole corporate behemoth has been over-hyped hugely and the almost religious reverence surrounding the series is akin to cult like brainwashing on a mass market level.
Imagine, for a second, that the series had not been adopted by Hollywood and had instead, as once mooted briefly, reached say, the BBC pre Christmas tea-time family viewing slot? The books would still be hugely successful, no doubt. But their limitations would have remained grounded, unaided by a billion dollar machine that now has all and sundry seemingly convinced ‘magic’, ‘wands’ and wizards /witches somehow belong to the merchandising / theme park imagery of a single series, rather than an ages old mythology in common domain.
We would probably have been spared the rise and rise of Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, too. Yes, they work hard and are exemplary people; but movie stars? Sans Potter empire..I doubt they’d get a look in with today’s casting calls. Tom Felton is a star in waiting – has a look of a young Daniel Craig; but young Mr. Felton played the baddie kid, Draco, so is not defined as a Hogwarts graduate.
My point is, other child actors went onto to careers as grown ups, without quite the magic dust of their Harry Potter era counterparts. Just imagine if say, BBC’s CS Lewis Silver Chair adaptation from 1990 had been subject to the Potter treatment? Well, Camilla Power would be a star, for starters; a homegrown new Grace Kelly. Sadly, that wasn’t meant to be.
And it goes beyond the casting couch. Potter motifs have been rushed through our culture, with an indecent haste. It was therefore painful to watch the ghastly infantilizing of an actual rail platform and politicians’ speeches, as they begged for Chinese investment via appeals to Harry Potter imagery. Let alone the new inverted snobbery of the lower middle come now upper media luvvy elites (they hate ‘posh’ yet they LOVE Harry Potter and its Boarding school, British establishment set pieces?). And upon the throne? JK, new moral guardian and Twitter empress. True labour socialist. A billion dollar one. Harry Potter and the Hippocriticus doublus standardus?
Sorry. But like I say: dark and difficult times may lie ahead..and are unlikely to be either blighted or prevented by JK and co. Of course, you daren’t say ANY of this. I risk being ‘ostracized’ (it’s a Potter spell: JK totally made that up, yes) by soshal meeja (yep, that too) just for THINKING a non happy Harry Potter thought! But sod it. I do. I did. I wrote it. It’s gone. Feels great. Back to the positives.
See, even if the source material is not ‘original’ in impulse, what JK has done in fusing other mythologies and mining the very best of childhood lore into one parcel? THAT is magic. Real genius in its way, right up there with George Lucas’ Star Wars, even following a similar template with a debt to Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces. The books take a joy in visual imagination and relish games with language.
And those FILMS? Wow. The fact that they came to prominence outside my own childhood, just as I graduated to the blasted heath of adulthood might well have impacted my ability to just embrace the wonder. But I do enjoy their music, effects, pacing and sheer joy in all things British, notably THE best casts assembled since the heyday of the world war 2 picture.
Potter also proved an invaluable reference in my own teaching career. Among my happiest of happy memories is prepping a summer school of eager, imaginative and international students for the Potter night. Just recording my Snape impressions and making magic props, with a lovely fellow teacher lady who looked like Jennifer Lawrence/Lea Seydoux. Simple enough pleasure. THAT’S magic, as the late, great Paul Daniels might have said.
I digress. Back to those Potter movies..
The directors, from Chris Columbus to David Yates, via Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón: all stamped the universe with unique vision. Buy that box set and it’s like Christmas in a parcel of retro-engineered quasi nostalgia. So yes there’s some Ursula LeGuin, CS Lewis, JJR Tolkien, Richard Curtis, Dr Who and even Where’s Wally thrown in, but everything is derivative. Better to embrace that and simply enjoy a cinematic product. And it is for that reason that I am not only accepting of this proposed spin off universe, but actively embracing it.
Fantastic Beasts and where to Find Them is a delight. Visually, atmospherically, pastorally and above all cinematically: charming. And WHAT a CAST! Seriously, stellar. Redmayne! Farrell! Voight! Oh and at least one more name I shall not confirm as it’s a BIG spoiler. Ok, one clue. For his first amazing magic trick? He makes Amber Heard DISAPPEAR! Is that magic? Or piracy?;)
Unfettered by a group of middling kiddie actors, this new iteration of the brand stands to allow its own universe and mythology to grow and thrive. It’s what makes a new series so enticing a prospect. Ironically enough, this is also a truer reflection of the initial impetus behind the whole Potter-verse. Yes, it started with books. But the words in print were inspired, surely, by a pinch of magic movie dust? JK even wrote with actors in mind! So it is apt that perhaps the best version of the franchise will begin and end on the big screen.
It’s a terrible shame (and another irony) that the very franchise mentality which did Potter so many favours now stands, potentially, in its way. There are some tired, jaded cynics out there who deem a $75 million opening insufficient. Guys: really. That is NOT a flop! It’s a solid success and MORE than could be expected for what is a risky departure from established formula and a new franchise starter in itself. So much to accomplish; so little praise. Not fair.
Hopefully, this series will run and run. It’s a toy-box of joyous possibility for visual story telling and production design and world building adventure at its very best, especially given the period setting and a globe trotting bounce. Critically: they have a firm yet flexible format to apply.
There is a fascinating story arc to portray (think the rise of wizard world’s answer to Hitler /Palpatine/Saroun, with a VERY interesting casting choice as a bonus) but also a capacity for self contained serial adventures which to some extent was always the formula. Hint: there is a reason each Potter book was Harry and the something something Indiana Jones style magic mcguffin of the week.
So: go see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Twice! Lobby Warners to keep those sequels coming. And say a little ‘thank you’ to good old JK Rowling while you’re at it. She can be contacted on..Twitter, I believe? Indeed, I am tweeting this piece to the lady herself.
There might be a troll backlash (of the virtual rather than real or magic world variety). I care not one muggle. JK is lovely, beautiful, clever and approachable. Even if I don’t agree with her on everything or rate her legacy quite as highly as the rest of the universe (prefer her soon to be filmed Cormoran Strike books, myself), one has to admit, she has truly created something beautiful for Cinema and especially in the dawn of the Fantastic Beasts.
Oh and if that’s not enough Potter stuff? Try these Harry Potter CARS! Seriously: great fun.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out now. Sequel news will be reported at Movie-Viral. Expelliarmus!