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.
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.
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.