An Englishman in New York

Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York 1926. Credit:

J K Rowling
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
the Original Screenplay

Little, Brown 2016

Stage plays and screenplays are simply another form of text, and whilst it may take some while to adjust to their conventions they remain narratives as much as novels. There is no need to mount a defence of them; the only criterion that matters is whether they stand up as stories in their own right. With the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts made available for the mass market it becomes easier for the ordinary reader to judge whether their interest is maintained and expectations met in the absence of novelistic conventions or whether the presence of technical directions proves a barrier to enjoyment.

My first impression is that this will only make sense to someone who is already familiar with J K Rowling’s wizarding world. Without the whizz-bang-crash of onscreen special effects you’ll need a lot of imagination to picture what, say, ‘Disapparate’ involves. But then, there can’t be many people who haven’t got some inkling of this universe, and they aren’t the people likely to want to pick this book up in the first place.

Nassau Street, New York 1926
Nassau Street, New York 1926 (credit:

Newt Scamander, a so-called magizoologist, is visiting 1920s New York with an express purpose in mind. Within his case he is concealing a menagerie of fantastic beasts, one or two of which are very eager to escape their confines. His attention is briefly drawn to a rally by the New Salem Philanthropic Society, the spokesperson of which — Mary Lou Barebone — denounces witches and declares “Something is stalking our city, wreaking destruction and then disappearing without a trace…” only to find that things are indeed starting to get rather complicated.

Pretty soon he finds himself involved with Jacob Kowalski, who is seeking financial support for a bakery, and then two sisters, Tina and Queenie Goldstein, who are not what they at first seem. There are encounters with the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), its President Seraphina Picquery and its Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves. Overshadowing it all, almost literally, is a dark cloud-like creature, the existence of which the anti-witch campaigner has already alluded to. What too are we to make of the appearance of Albus Dumbledore’s rival Gellert Grindelwald in the opening scenes?

Fantastic Beasts is all-action, right from the start. Directions take precedence over speech, and when characters do speak they seldom manage more than two or three sentences at most before somebody or something interrupts. There are 124 ‘scenes’ in the script, almost as many minutes as there are in the film, which gives a good indication of the quick-fire nature of the action. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (which I haven’t, as yet) there will have been enough clips and stills around to give a good impression of the look of it all — your imagination and the directions can easily fill in the rest — though this New York looks a little less dreary, despite the massive destruction visited on it, than the city of archive photos from 1926.

A brief word about Rowling’s inventiveness in this, the first of a five episode franchise for which she herself has written the script. All the fun names and imagined attributes of her invented beasts are there, many familiar from the fictional book by Newt Scamander which Rowling published in 2001. Fewer of the character names seem as significant as those in the Harry Potter books (the flower allusions, for example, such as Lily, Petunia, Lupin and so on) but appear to be typical for New York inhabitants.

Interestingly, the three who team up with Newt have surnames with Jewish affinities: Goldstein and Kowalski, the first possibly originating from alchemy and the second from a Polish name for a blacksmith. This Jewish link suggests that one of Rowling’s subliminal messages in the film is to point out that people from ethnic communities (such as Jews) or with differences (Non-Maj individuals and so-called Squibs) should not be unfairly discriminated against or victimised. Mary Lou Barebone, who inveighs against witches, may owe her name to the 17th-century individual called Praise-God Barebone, a nonconformist preacher whose name was later given to the so-called Barebone’s Parliament of 1653 set up by Oliver Cromwell. Her presence in the script indicates Rowling’s antipathy towards prejudice, vindictiveness and bullying. And remember, the period this film is set is exactly that time in our own world when eugenics advocates in the US rode high in power and popular esteem, inspiring the Nazis to begin their terrible ‘final solution’ policy.

New York City 1926
New York City 1926

Like all works of true imagination, FBAWTFT has a superficial level that we all can appreciate (or not) overlying depths which may remain obscure to most. Is it too soon to judge what all the hidden depths are? It could be that more will be revealed as the film franchise works its way through (perhaps with associated screenplays), leaving it to fans and academics to examine and digest how passing allusions in it may in time gather greater significance.


8 thoughts on “An Englishman in New York

  1. Those old images of New York City are great, especially that last one with the silhouetted figures in the gloomy weather — do you know who the photographer was?

    1. The online photos (two of which I’ve credited, though not the last) aren’t as far as I can see attributed to anyone named, so I can’t help you there, Sue. But I agree, the silhouette photo is especially striking!

  2. Watching that preview leaves me humming the Ghostbusters theme song. The only thing missing is the 90-foot tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!

    I read Rowling’s HP and the Cursed Child, and I’m guessing it’s a play rather than a novel for at least 2 reasons. One, HP&tCC allows Rowling a chance to experiment with a different medium with its own challenges, but, two, the medium can carry a thinner story. I suspect a screenplay has the same attractions. This is not to denigrate Rowling’s work, but rather to say I’m waiting for my local libe’s copy to become available.

    And I agree about the photos — they’re terrific. BTW, the EATMOR Dairy & Vegetarian Restaurant in the 2nd photo is probably a kosher restaurant.

    1. It’s interesting that although NYC gets regularly destroyed in disaster movies and blockbuster books, it’s rare (read: almost never) that it is restored to its former glory in the twinkling of an eye, as it is here! Well, if it’s not NYC then it’s Washington or LA/SF …

      The screenplay certainly doesn’t have the subtlety and depth and detail of the later Potter books; fantasy movies are pretty much mostly about action, less about cerebral matters. I’ve not yet read HP&tCC however (or seen the play).

      That’s interesting about the restaurant: historic photos have so much fascination as artefacts, and so much potential to inform us of how life was led then.

  3. I have seen the film and there’s no doubt it really gets the feel of the New York in these pictures. Was a little spoilt for me by the acting of Eddy Redmayne as Newt. But I’ll leave you to judge.

  4. I’ve been out of the HP loop for some time now. I was looking forward to jumping back in when I first heard about the book; having no idea it was really a screenplay. I never did pick it up, but am looking forward to seeing the movie.

    With all that is going on around us, it’s nice to know there is still magic in the air.

    1. It’s great to have the ‘Potterverse’ move out into the wider world, Sari; and I wonder if the film sequels will visit other parts of the globe. I only wish that magic could put some of the things wrong in the world right again.

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