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‘Fantastic Beasts,’ amazing writing and terrible representation

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NOVEMBER 28, 2016

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].

NOVEMBER 28, 2016

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