'Fantastic Beasts,' 'Last Jedi' and the Cost of Fan Service
[This story contains minor spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.]
This weekend sees the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second in J.K. Rowling and director David Yates’ five-part Fantastic Beasts series. While the first film offered up a relatively straightforward plot concerning Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and a bevy of characters new to Rowling’s Wizarding World, at least until the third act, this second installment goes all in on the lore of Rowling’s universe and taps into Dumbledore’s (Jude Law) struggle against Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) — a backstory briefly highlighted in the Harry Potter series.
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The Crimes of Grindelwald is sprawling, some might say to a fault, and overtly concerned with surnames, family trees, political affiliations and birthrights. This is nothing new for those who have been invested in Rowling’s Harry Potter books for the past 21 years, but for those drawn to the franchise because of the clean plotlines and structure of the Harry Potter films in which nonreaders were welcome, The Crimes of Grindelwald requests to see your reference papers at the door.
The Harry Potter film adaptations, scripted primarily by Steve Kloves, downplayed or omitted significant portions of Rowling’s works, truncating flashbacks, omitting prophecies, and remaining generally unconcerned with who was related to who unless it impacted the main storyline. This was, in part, out of necessity to create a feasible runtime, and in part to usher in those viewers who hadn’t spent their time immersing themselves in Rowling’s novels. If made today, there’s little doubt that every film installment following The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) would be split into two to make room for every plotline. Whether or not this would create stronger films is debatable. The Fantastic Beasts films, which cast Rowling in the role of screenwriter for the first time, are invested in the connective tissue and various threads that another screenwriter might omit on the basis of adaptation. And as such, what was originally set as a trilogy has evolved into a total of five planned films.
Rowling’s novelistic and mythos-heavy approach to screenwriting isn’t exactly new-user-friendly, instead rewarding those who have invested their time in rereading the series and poring through entries on Pottermore, but it does feel true to Rowling’s style and voice. Much of The Crimes of Grindelwald is built on name recognition, not so much in a winking way, but in an effort to show that every introduction and reference matters, if not now then later. Rowling’s emphasis on the power of names in her expansion of the Wizarding World through prequels is an alternate course from what Lucasfilm is creating in their Star Wars sequel trilogy.
Going into J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens in 2015, one of the biggest questions was how these new characters — Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren — were related to the old guard of characters introduced in the original trilogy and the prequels. From the seemingly logical (Rey being the daughter of Luke Skywalker) to the mundane (Finn being the son of Lando or Mace Windu), fans were alight with theories on how it was all connected.
Although talk of The Last Jedi may be regarded as thoroughly exhausted, there is something that remains prescient by the fact that Rey was revealed to be “no one,” or perhaps more accurately, her own person untethered to the fate of another. The only person from this new generation of Star Wars characters with direct lineage of the past is Kylo Ren, and this fact has left him an emotional wreck. While Kylo struggles to fold his identity into the concepts and names of the past, characters like Rey, Finn, Poe and Rose, who offer no relation, are free to carve out their own legacies and be important simply because they exist and not because they are pieces in a name game.
Despite The Last Jedi making it clear that Rey’s past and parentage isn’t important, there are still those hoping that a more fan-service-friendly answer will be forthcoming in Abrams’ Episode IX or one of the Star Wars Stories. Just this summer, fan theories and timelines emerged in an effort to suggest that Rey is actually the offspring of Solo’s Qi’ra and Darth Maul. Genetic issues aside (she’d have at least a couple horns, folks) this probably isn’t the direction any revelations about Rey are headed. But the efforts to make it work, to place importance upon names and family trees, isn’t a far cry from what Rowling is doing — and she’s relying on those factors far more than any of the Star Wars prequels have.
At the center of The Crimes of Grindelwald is Credence Barebones’ (Ezra Miller) efforts to find his true parentage. As Credence is an obscurus, one of the most powerful magical beings in existence, Grindelwald seeks to draw him into his war against the non-wizarding world, while a global coalition of Aurors seek to eliminate him before Grindelwald can seize him.
Credence, interestingly enough, is a dark mirror image of Harry Potter himself: another abused boy who's the key to tremendous power for a would-be dictator. Yet Harry is defined by his surname. Despite his desire to be normal, to be anonymous, his name — and his moniker as "The Boy Who Lived" — wins him allies, prestige and academic favors. The name Potter may have associations with a curse, but Harry is often blessed by it, and it is his family, his bloodline and the love that stems from it that saves him time and time again.
But Credence, as he follows false lead after lead, manipulated by Grindelwald and his followers, is undefined and morally gray. While Rowling toys with the idea that he is no one, and like Rey, a unique entity, third-act revelations provide concrete answers and sent more than a few gasps through a shocked audience. Once Credence’s path crosses with Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and the secrets of the Lestrange family history come to light, he fittingly becomes “The Boy Who Died” once he’s revealed to be someone who, if not for a twist of fate, should not have existed at all.
Credence’s identity changes the course of the Wizarding World mythos we thought we knew, and if the enthusiastic reactions from one fan-screening populated by a handful of people wearing wizard robes are any indication, it rewards those who have invested their time in the series across its various media.
Of course, not everyone will be pleased with the revelation, and Rowling’s latest work has already been characterized as fan-fiction. It’s an interesting criticism given that this is Rowling’s world to play with as she chooses, but nonetheless, The Crimes of Grindelwald is founded on the importance of names and bloodlines, and those who matter do so because of that.
It’s interesting to see some of the backlash to The Crimes of Grindelwald and Rowling’s efforts to tie Fantastic Beasts to Harry Potter when compared to the backlash received by The Last Jedi for straying from previous entries and outright killing off characters considered staples of the franchise. It speaks to the sacredness we place upon iconic stories and raises the question of whether these properties have remained and will continue to be iconic because of name recognition, or because of their ability to expand by severing the ties that bound them.
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