The title of the first episode of a new five-film series by Harry Potter author JK Rowling is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The answer, from 16 November, is: everywhere! The new series will no doubt be as popular with pupils as the originals, and it's set in 1926 New York and features both Segregation and Prohibition. How to slip in some Anglophone culture whilst pupils think they're discussing a fantasy film!
The title of the film is the title of a textbook Harry and co. study at Hogwarts. In 2001, JK Rowling imagined the contents of the book as a fundraiser for British charity Comic Relief, which organises Red Nose Day. The two books she wrote for Comic Relief have raised more than £18 million to help people and particularly children in need in Africa and the U.K. Fantastic Beasts was a sort encyclopaedia of different magical creatures, and included a short biography of its supposed author, Newt Scamander, an English Magizoologist and former Hogwarts pupil.
For her first film script, Rowling has returned to Scamander and made him the central character in a new five-film series. Whereas the Harry Potter films were scripted by other writers from Rowling's books, this time she wrote the films directly as scripts (even if the screenplays are going to be released as books.)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl) stars as Newt Scamander, who travels the world trying to preserve magical creatures, and runs into a spot of trouble in New York in 1926.
Newt is frankly more comfortable with animals than humans/wizards at the best of times. But in the U.S.A., he is faced by an enormous culture shock. Here, the wizarding world is completely separate from the world of the No-Majes (the American term for Muggles, or non-magical people). Wizards are desperate to keep their existence secret from No-Majes. So when a No-Maj accidentally opens Newt's magical case and some beasts escape, the wizarding security services want to hunt them down and kill them.
Harry Potter Returns?
Harry Potter fans are on tenterhooks to see if the new film remains true to the fictional world that has kept so many millions of people spellbound since 1997.
Fantastic Beasts certainly looks like Harry Potter and feels like Harry Potter. This shouldn't really be a surprise as there is the same creative team at the helm. Not just JK Rowling but production and graphic designers, and director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films. Despite the American setting, filming was almost exclusively at Leavesden Studios outside London, which were home to the Harry Potter productions.
Although the heroes are adults rather than children, there is a central group of four friends, all somewhat outsiders, who quickly gain viewers' sympathies: Newt, Jacob (the No-Maj who opens Newt's suitcase), and the two Goldstein sisters, Tina (a disgraced auror, or detective) and Queenie (who can read minds).
Reality, History and Fiction
Just like when she featured real historical alchemist Nicolas Flamel in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling has weaved references to U.S. history into the script of Fantastic Beasts.
In the U.S. wizarding community, there is strict segregation, just as there was in the real U.S.A. in 1926. Wizards are not allowed to marry or even befriend No-Majes (the American term for Muggles, or non-magical people). This is the result of the trauma of the real-life Salem witch trials in 1690s New England. Amongst the No-Maj population, a group which suspects the existence of the magical world and campaigns against it is called the New Salemers.
There is also Prohibition in both the No-Maj and wizarding New York, so there is a scene in a wonderfully seedy speakeasy bar, complete with goblin jazz band.
The American wizards' obsession with secrecy leads them to exterminate the magical beasts that could lead to their discovery. Newt is a wizarding conservationist, desperate to protect the beasts he loves and persuade the rest of the wizarding community to protect them, not exterminate them.
In interviews, the actors are clearly delighted to have entered this magical world. Let's hope that fans are just as satisfied.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
In cinemas from 16 November
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