‘Fantastic Beasts’ Reveals J.K. Rowling Has the Same Problem George Lucas Did — Analysis

Two IndieWire editors debate a franchise trapped by its creators' intentions.
J.K. RowlingEE BAFTA British Academy Film Awards, Arrivals, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK - 12 Feb 2017
J.K. Rowling
Matt Baron/REX/Shutterstock

The release of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” has not brought with it the magic of the previous entries in the “Harry Potter” world, rating 40 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and — more importantly — confusing critics and fans alike, with a convoluted narrative that packs far too many twists and complications into a supposed character-driven adventure.

And there’s no question as to who the person responsible for those story choices is, because she’s the same person who created the universe in the first place. Like the first film in the franchise, author and screenwriter J.K. Rowling wrote the script for “Crimes of Grindelwald,” maintaining her authority over the Wizarding World she created decades ago.

If the “Fantastic Beasts” films were capturing the same spark that made “Harry Potter” a worldwide sensation, there’d be no question that Rowling’s continued control over this narrative world was the right choice. However, so much about what “Crimes of Grindelwald” prioritizes makes it seem like Rowling has lost her focus on what made people fall in love with these stories. And that could be bad news for the future of this franchise. IndieWire’s Liz Shannon Miller and Kate Erbland shared notes on the matter.

LIZ: “Fantastic Beasts” is not the first time the person responsible for creating a franchise has compromised the quality of future installments. The most infamous example is George Lucas: While he did write and direct the first “Star Wars” film, “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” were helmed by others (albeit with him producing). So when it was first revealed that Lucas would be writing and directing the prequel films, it was seen as a return to form for the franchise… until “midichlorians” and “I hate sand” and other infinitely mockable moments.

Most importantly, the prequels may not be as bad as our memories suggest, but they lost sight of the kinds of characters and narratives that engaged imaginations in the first place. In the new “Star Wars” era spearheaded by Kathleen Kennedy, following the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm, opinions vary as to whether the new films are genuine “Star Wars” entries — but there’s no denying that when Lucas surrendered control, new life was brought to a galaxy far, far away.

Kate, how close do you think “Fantastic Beasts” is to hitting that level?

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”Jaap Buitendijk

KATE: After enduring “The Crimes of Grindelwald” and spending the aftermath attempting to untangle its many narrative threads — so many of them unnecessary! — while also fixating on the spare things I did enjoy (baby nifflers!), I am willing to suggest that “Fantastic Beasts” is in danger of going the “Star Wars” prequel route. All of the stuff that made “Harry Potter” so genuinely magical is in such, such short supply in this new series, and while the first film was able to trick some of its audience into thinking it was a return to form, most of that joy seems to have sprung from the basic pleasure of seeing this world back on the big screen. I get that, I felt that way too, and the very promise of the series — that it will literally expand a world we love so much — sounded like a can’t-miss idea.

But it has missed, and this last film makes that readily apparent. Of course no one knows this world better than J.K. Rowling, but while the “Harry Potter” films benefitted from a meticulously plotted book series to frame them, “Fantastic Beasts” is a hodgepodge affair, using different fake textbooks, scant mythos references, and other bits of Wizarding World trivia to justify the creation of a five-film series. Five! And all of that would be understandable, if that hodgepodge actually focused on the good stuff: indelible characters, a richly imagined world, the sense that all of it was driven towards something meaningful, and yes, perhaps even more baby nifflers.

None of that is here, or when it is, it’s in a tiny package, knocked out of the way to make more room for a bloated, incomprehensible story outfitted with thin characters, while the good ones waste away on the sidelines. And, Liz, with three films left to go, I can only imagine it will get so much worse.

LIZ: The question is how bad it would have to get for Warner Bros. to pull the plug on future installments. Another recent example of a creator’s ongoing control compromising the quality of a franchise is “The X-Files,” the eleventh season of which just sputtered to an end on Fox earlier this year. Chris Carter worked with a number of producers since the beginning of the series, and many of them stuck around (except for Vince Gilligan, off creating his own little story world in Albuquerque).

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1650800a)The X-files , Gillian Anderson, David DuchovnyFilm and Television
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in “The X-Files”Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

But it was always Carter’s show, and his love of preposterous cliffhangers and convoluted mythological storytelling, as well as his insistence that only he really knew what was good for the show, led to a season of television that truly compromised the show’s enduring legacy. (Gillian Anderson has been pretty firm about never wanting to come back to the series, and her recent social media posts make it pretty clear that Carter is the reason.)

That said, while “The X-Files” Season 12 seems unlikely due to no shortage of external factors, Season 11’s poor ratings are probably the most important indicator. Meanwhile, “Fantastic Beasts” had a pretty solid opening weekend. How bad would the next film have to be, for the franchise to get derailed?

KATE: As is the case in Hollywood and many of our best rap songs, cash rules. The next film wouldn’t have to be bad to change things, it would have to make bad money. While “The Crimes of Grindelwald” made relatively good money, it did underperform when it came to studio expectations and historical box offices — but mostly in America, as its foreign numbers are strong, many of them even record-breaking. Audiences want to spend time in this world, and it will take more than just one bad movie to break that desire, one bred into them after years of very good movies indeed.

What I think is more telling beyond the cash grabbed, is how so many of the reviews point at the same problems with the new film. This isn’t a few critics nitpicking little things, it’s a critical body — including plenty of people who loved the Harry Potter films — bewildered to see such basic elements as coherent narratives and understandable motivations falling totally apart in a series that used to rely on those same hallmarks with regularity. Like Carter and “The X-Files,” Rowling’s desire to keep the story in the family — which means her, director David Yates, and producer David Heyman — seems to have blinkered them to what really works about this world. And that sounds nuts! She made it! But she’s lost sight of it.

LIZ: It’s genuinely sad to see this kind of success in motion, especially when there are so many counter-examples of franchises that regularly inject new blood and reap the benefits. “Star Trek” wouldn’t have lasted over 50 years without fresh takes on the established universe’s tropes. James Bond is all about reinvention on a regular basis. The “Fast and the Furious” movies became a blockbuster powerhouse after Justin Lin took the reins.

Star Trek Beyond
“Star Trek Beyond”Paramount Pictures

Another example is that “Game of Thrones” has reached a complicated tipping point — on the verge of ending the original series, HBO began developing a number of potential spin-offs that brought in writers relatively new to the franchise, working in development with George R.R. Martin to expand the original universe Martin created and D.B. Weiss and David Benioff brought to television. The first one greenlit, “The Long Night,” is set to star no less than Naomi Watts and will have “X-Men” and “Kingsman” writer Jane Goldman as a showrunner. If it’s a success, it could ensure that the world of Westeros lasts for years longer than expected.

Story universes like these owe everything to their original creators, of course. But sometimes, the best thing a creator can do for the story world they’ve brought to life is recognize when they need help.

KATE: This brings us to another element of the franchise that we’ve so far managed to dance around: that some of the choices that Rowling has made speak to a greater sense that she knows better than anyone else. Like the casting of Johnny Depp, which prompted such severe fan outcry that it spawned multiple petitions calling for his firing. Rowling wouldn’t be deterred, however, and defended the casting on her own website, where she referred to the legal claims of domestic abuse waged against Depp as a matter that was simply over now.

And that’s to say nothing of the back-and-forth regarding Dumbledore’s sexuality and its treatment in this new film. Announcing that Dumbledore was gay was a huge, constructive move that could only come from Rowling, but her latest screenplay hedges it, expecting a single handshake and a tossed-off line about being “closer than brothers” to suffice when it comes to unpacking his and Grindelwald’s backstory. It’s a cheap and dated maneuver, made even worse because it comes from the creator herself.

LIZ: Those are all important factors, especially the part where Rowling remains at the center of it. There’s a difference between this scenario and, say, “Star Trek” fans complaining that the show’s not the same since the death of Gene Roddenberry, or that Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” isn’t really “Star Wars.” Everything here tracks back to her decisions — all which are literally tearing the “Harry Potter” fandom apart when it comes to questions of canon and continuity.

Though perhaps there is an upside to this: These problems all stem from Rowling — which means she still has the power to fix them.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is in theaters now.

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