‘Fantastic Beasts,’ amazing writing and terrible representation

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Warner Brothers Pictures/Courtesy

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On Nov. 17, I dug out my trusty robe, threw on my well-loved Gryffindor scarf and headed to wait in line for the release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” This was something I’d been eagerly anticipating since the moment it was announced. I was prepared to dislike it though. I disagree with a lot of J.K. Rowling’s recent discussions about her books. And the release of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — which I found trite and mischaracterizing — didn’t help. Yet when I left the theater, I felt like the same little kid who was blown away by witches, wizards and magical beasts from the first chapter of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” J. K. Rowling had done it again.

Going in to see “Fantastic Beasts,” it was a completely new experience for me. You could call me a dedicated Harry Potter fan, as I’ve read the books 40 times each. Yet, as a fan, I was navigating completely new terrain with “Fantastic Beasts” — unlike every other movie set in the Potter universe, I didn’t have any idea what I was getting myself into, because Rowling had written an original script only vaguely based off a textbook she mentioned in her series. It has always seemed to me that the Potter movies, while wonderful in their own right, are somewhat lacking in background information — some of the allusions and logical leaps are hard to follow if you haven’t read the books. Walking into “Fantastic Beasts,” I wasn’t sure how Rowling was going to be able to navigate the knowledge gap that she was used to just ignoring.

I shouldn’t have worried. Rowling, in her first screenplay, navigated the gap perfectly by giving each of the main characters a degree of cluelessness. Newt Scamander, the main character, is a foreigner to New York City. He’s come to New York from England with a briefcase full of magical creatures that he studies and protects. He eventually hopes to use this knowledge to educate his fellow wizards about the beauty in these beasts and, as dedicated fans know, he will succeed with a textbook that will eventually have the same title as the movie. The plot begins when he enters New York and some of these creatures escape.

Along the way, he meets plucky former Auror Tina Goldstein, who knows nothing about magical beasts but everything about the wizarding community in America. She serves as our guide to unfamiliar places such as the Magical Congress of the United States of America. They also end up adding Jacob Kowalski to their group, a kindhearted Muggle (or No-Maj, as they’re known in America) who got thrown into an unknown world on accident, but is still happy to lend Newt a hand in his quest to track down his creatures.

Questions the audience had about the American wizarding community compared to one seen in the original Harry Potter franchise are voiced by Newt. Then Tina stands as a surrogate for our confusion and interest in every creature, from the Niffler to the Demiguise. And if the audience is completely lost, Jacob steps in with a wondrous look and complete confusion to ask for clarification. And that isn’t the only problem she navigated flawlessly. In general, the “Harry Potter” movies don’t capture the beauty of the books. I’d always wondered who decided to cut out Harry’s savage clapback to Snape in Book Six — “there’s no need to call me sir, Professor” — and why the characterization of people like Ginny got cut for the sake of battle scenes that weren’t even in the book.

This beautiful characterization wasn’t left out in “Fantastic Beasts.” Rowling’s humor, her ability to weave together complex plotlines and create characters that you can’t help but fall in love with and her amazing proclivity for continuity were all evident in “Fantastic Beasts.” I laughed, I cried, I gasped, I was at the edge of my seat. And don’t even get me started on Newt Scamander. I would write sonnets about Newt Scamander. Between everything he does, the flawless writing, the captivating plot and the rest of the characters, “Fantastic Beasts” soared to the top of my favorite movies list on the back of a hippogriff.

The plot was amazing. The writing was incredible. The visuals were breathtaking. It seems almost too good to be true, right? Right. Nothing is perfect, and “Fantastic Beasts” played host to a few major issues. In this case, the problems aren’t about plot or characterization, the way the original movies were. Instead, it’s the lack of representation. There were only one or two people of color in the entire movie. The movie squeaks by the Bechdel Test on a technicality. Third, and most blatantly, there is a huge, gaping problem with her LGBTQ+ representation.

If you haven’t been following J. K. Rowling’s LGBTQ+ community-related exploits, let me fill you in. She’s problematic. She claims to be an ally because she said Dumbledore was gay after the books were published, but her other actions don’t seem to support this. Among other things, she wrote a character with a disease that stands as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS — Remus Lupin — who ends up in a heterosexual relationship. She sanctioned “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which has more queerbaiting than anything I’ve ever read or seen.

You can argue that an author doesn’t have the responsibility to represent minority groups in their work, but the fact remains that Rowling repeatedly suggests that she is an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and yet acts like anything but an ally. This movie is the worst of all. For the first time, Rowling wrote a character, an American named Percival Graves, as openly gay. Cool, right? Wrong. Graves’s sexuality is only made evident as he leers at a young, abused boy, using innuendo, affection and just-slightly-inappropriate gestures to manipulate him. But of course, he’s only using the boy to get information he needed. Graves is the only concretely villainous character, and part of what makes the audience so disturbed watching him is the leering pedophilic nature of his approach toward Credence (Ezra Miller) — the boy in question. By the end of the movie, it’s revealed that Graves is actually a disguise for Grindelwald. Dedicated fans will recognize the quasi-Hitler as the terror of mid-20th-century Europe for the wizarding world,  the man with whom a young Albus Dumbledore reportedly fell in love but whom he eventually was forced to duel and defeat.

So, to review, the only person that Rowling has ever written as definitively queer in her text is portrayed as pedophilic and manipulative and also a fascist. And he’s played by Johnny Depp, a man who was accused of abusing his bisexual wife. It’s the perfect storm of homophobia and terrible LGBTQ+ representation. Rowling’s actions feed into the plethora of conservative politicians and homophobes who compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality. In short, it’s definitely not OK. It’s certainly not something that an “ally” should do.

I hold out hope that the next movies will pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors and that there will be more than two people of color. I have less hope that when Dumbledore turns up in the sequels there’ll be a definite recognition of his queerness, thereby allaying the terrible representation in this movie. But her track record suggests otherwise. From a writer who supposedly tries to be an ally, in a film that is otherwise extraordinary, this is an incredible flaw. As entertainment, and as a part of the Potter franchise, I can’t deny how wonderful this movie is. I will be in line again at the next “Fantastic Beasts” premiere, in my robe and trusty Gryffindor scarf, waiting to see what Rowling does. This time, she proved my expectations entirely wrong. I can only hope she does it again.

Contact Taylor Follett at [email protected].

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  • mangomelon789

    I didn’t really agree with this article in many ways but it seems that others have already pointed out what I am thinking. The one thing I will add is that this is the first of five movies. It is surrounding Grindelwald and Dumbledore, so I have a feeling we will be seeing a lot more of the LGBTQ+ representation you seem to find lacking in this film.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    Taylor, you might want to look up “projection” in the dictionary.

  • Amelia F

    This is a great piece, but I would like to point out that several of the main characters–Jacob Kowalski and Tina Goldstein (and her sister by extension)–are coded as Jewish, which DEFINITELY would not have been white in 1930s America, no matter how pale they are. I think the rising phobia of witches and magic in the no-maj world is a great metaphor for the rise of xenophobic views toward immigrants and especially Jews, Irish people, Asians, and other such non-Western-European newcomers. Specifically, Jews were often persecuted in Europe in the same ways that witches or wizards would have been–they were often suspected of causing plague, murdering Christian babies, or using Christian blood in rituals (known as the blood libel). Furthermore, the practice of witches and wizards undercover in the world of Harry Potter closely parallels the experiences of “conversos”, who were forced to convert to Christianity when Jews were expelled, but often continued practicing their faith in secret. Anyways, my point is, while there are certainly not many people of color in the modern sense, there are several Jews, who fall in the weird space between “white” and “not-white”.

  • QueerCalAlumni

    This is a ridiculous level of PC-policing. You write “Among other things, she wrote a character with a disease that stands as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS — Remus Lupin — who ends up in a heterosexual relationship.” As another commenter wrote, the idea that being a werewolf stands for a metaphor as HIV/AIDS is your particular interpretation. It is not one I share. Werewolves have been around in literature for quite some time. Also, I see no indication that Remus did not want to be in any relationship he entered. Just as it is bad to force gay people into heterosexual relationships, the opposite is always true. People, or mythical creatures, should be free to love whom they choose (or who the author chooses), and not who the PC police think they should be with.

    Finally, you imply the message of the movie is homophobic because it cast Johnny Depp, a man accused of abusing his bisexual wife. Domestic violence is terrible, period, and it is not made any worse or better due to the sexual orientation of the person being abused. Second, multiple accusations have flown around on both sides in regards to that relationship, and a police report relevant to this case mentioned there was no evidence of an assault. The reason American has an “innocent until guilty” mentality is because it would be awful world to live in if a mere accusation (without a guilty verdict) were enough to throw someone in jail and lock the door.

  • Melissa

    Great piece! I definitely agree about the lack of representation, and really like the points you brought up about Rowling’s failure to illustrate the LGBTQ+ allyship she claims irl. Also was frustrated at the lack of people of color in this movie – and aggravated that the few people of color there were, like the MACUSA president, were so poorly developed next to the other characters! I didn’t even think about how the movie barely passes the Bechdel test until you brought it up. Let’s hope the next movies make up for the lack of representation in this one!!

    • Nunya Beeswax

      Right, because the primary purpose of fiction is to make the world a better place by presenting an imaginary milieu where everything is “fixed.”

      • Melissa

        yeah, exactly! :)

  • Perhaps

    I’ll correct a few things –
    1. Rowling did not create lycanthropy to represent HIV/AIDS, but for things that “carry a stigma, *like* HIV and AIDS.” This is from the source you cite. Furthermore, I was unaware that heterosexual individuals cannot contract HIV/AIDS.
    2. Pedophilia is a sexual urge toward a child; this is from the ICD. While Graves is creepy, and clearly manipulative, I am missing the portion of the film where we see sexual urges, and not just a manipulative arsehole trying to gain an advantage from a child.
    3. On the topic of Dumbledore: While it seems that you want a clear, concrete, outwardly visible sign of a queer character, I urge you to rematch the scene from HBP movie where we see Dumbledore visit the orphanage wearing a purple velvet suit and flower scarf. Going off of outward signs; we are forced to us stereotypes. I posit that this fits a queer stereotype.

  • Anonymous

    When people criticize identity politics and political correctness THIS is what they’re talking about. First, werewolves are mythological creatures that have been around in literature far longer than HIV/AIDS has been a plague on this earth. So you may see being a werewolf as “a disease that stands as a metaphor for HIV/AIDS,” but that’s only one interpretation. If we’re going to go with that interpretation, why is it “problematic” that Lupin “ends up in a heterosexual relationship”? It’s almost like you think being a werewolf is a gay plague that straight people can’t get. I have not read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or seen it on stage, but from the article you link to the PC rule seems to be “thou shall not have awkward straight bromances without also portraying sexy hot gay romances.” I get that you would like to see gay romances portrayed in prominent fiction, but straight bromances really do involve awkward hugs and deriding Rowling for “queerbaiting” seems to demand that she either deliver some steamy gay love or portray straight boys as perfectly comfortable with their sexuality and male friendship. I have seen Fantastic Beasts and in addition to featuring Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, who we learn at the end is Gellert Grindelwald, the premise of the movie plot is that when no maj repress the magic in magical children it does not work, the children do not survive to adulthood intact, and it wreaks pain and destruction on the world. Hmmm, we couldn’t possibly find a metaphor for the harm caused by repressing homosexuality there, could we? Yes, Grindelwald will be a gay villain, you might say kind of like Peter Thiel, but the real deal. Overall, you sell short a woman who made the central message of her magical world that love trumps hate.