Harry Potter And The Problem With Prequels
As J.K. Rowling’s second Fantastic Beasts movie hits cinemas, we ponder why the Harry Potter prequels might lack a certain magic…
This feature contains spoilers for the Harry Potter books, films, and spinoffs, excluding Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald. Please be aware that the comments may contain spoilers for the new film. This story was originally published on Den of Geek UK.
How much does J.K. Rowling know about her Wizarding World? For some who grew up with her Harry Potter novels, the expansion of that world has been somewhat puzzling. As The Crimes Of Grindelwald, the second of five planned Fantastic Beasts prequels, hits cinemas with a “Wizarding World” logo in front of it, the advance buzz about the film seems to illustrate how it’s a source of frustration to fans, rather than wonder.
Picking up on the adventures of Eddie Redmayne’s magizoologist Newt Scamander as he’s drafted into a mission against Johnny Depp’s magical agitator Grindelwald, the new prequel delves deeper into the first wizarding war that was only briefly alluded to in the original books and movies. In short, it’s a story that’s less about fantastic beasts and more about the crimes of Grindelwald.
When Rowling sold the Harry Potter film rights to Warner Bros., she was understandably protective of her stories, retaining an unusual amount of creative control so that the filmmakers didn’t tie themselves in knots later on. But for some, the expansion of the Potterverse – not only through her Fantastic Beasts films but through the theatrical sequel story, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child – has started to intercede in the original stories in the way that belated prequels and sequels invariably do.
Uniquely, the early films had to be carefully managed in order to avoid contradicting the as-yet unpublished later stories. Certain parts of the novels are built on careful foreshadowing, and the strictly imposed secrecy around the specifics of forthcoming instalments gave Rowling a lot of sway as a consultant.
Despite fan grumbles about sub-plots and characters that get somewhat muddled or omitted in the transition from page to screen, the series is remarkably reverent to its source material as a result of her involvement. Given the popularity of the books, it’s no surprise that the films came quickly afterwards, but if they had waited until after the last book was published, it might have been a more typical Hollywood adaptation.
Knowing that Warner Bros. had also optioned with the Fantastic Beasts textbook she wrote for Comic Relief in 2001, Rowling later parlayed her consultant-turned-producer role into a screenwriting gig, pitching a series of films set long before Harry was even born. Between The Lord Of The Rings, Alien, and Star Wars, it seems like every movie franchise of this size will get its own less popular prequel movies eventually.
Unlike Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott, she created the original idea, and unlike George Lucas, she remains at the forefront of every spinoff associated with her work. Even though David Yates has directed the last six films in the franchise, what Rowling says goes when it comes to Potter, and in the years since the final Potter book was published, she’s said a lot more.
Word of God
As a trope, “word of God” refers to any bit of lore or trivia about a property that has been stated by the creator but isn’t obvious or otherwise readable from the text itself and may even contradict it. For some, a turning point in the general critical view of Rowling came a few months after Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007.
At a Q&A with fans, Rowling discussed how she had read a script for the then-forthcoming adaptation of the sixth book and vetoed a passage in which Dumbledore reminisced about past love interests, noting that “Dumbledore is gay.” This was news to everyone who had read the books and has often been touted as an example of retroactive continuity.
To be completely fair to Rowling, we learn enough about Dumbledore’s teenage friendship with Grindelwald to infer that there might have been a romantic attachment between them. By leaving it in the subtext, some critics felt that there had been a missed opportunity for proper representation. Either way, the new information doesn’t contradict anything else we learn about Dumbledore throughout the books.
As a publishing phenomenon, Harry Potter came up alongside the rise of online fan communities. To a reasonable extent, Rowling has been quite available to her fans, from the regular Q&A section on her official website, to joining Twitter in 2009. For a while, the author was adamant that the seventh Harry Potter book would be her last, but she still dispensed extra information or backstory that was of interest to the fans via these outlets.
In 2012, Rowling announced Pottermore, a digital platform on which the first official e-books of the series would be hosted. Essentially an electronic answer to an author’s annotated edition, the platform gave users the chance to enjoy an interactive experience while reading, opening up the books to new, digital native fans, while allowing more familiar readers to unlock new content, including character biographies.
Like Dumbledore’s sexuality, the new information doesn’t contradict what went before. At worst, it’s an exercise to keep the fans who maintain fan wiki sites entertained, but it was also an interesting way of bringing the books to a new audience who prefer tablets to the printed word.
But ever since the Dumbledore thing, Rowling has come in for criticism for over-sharing. Depending on who you listen to, she’s either revealing new information, or making it all up as she goes along. Where that’s become a problem in some cases is that people have accused Rowling of retroactively working more diversity into the story.
It’s a thorny issue, particularly where it relates to Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’s casting of a Korean actress as a certain character from the novels and the use of unfortunate cultural stereotypes therein. Combined with the ongoing furore over the portrayal of young Dumbledore and the casting of Johnny Depp as the title character, this sequel probably has Warner longing for the great PR of a film like Batman V Superman.
That’s certainly an issue that affects some viewers’ enjoyments, but more pressingly, fans tend to take the Wizarding World personally because of its written nature. This, more than anything else, is the issue with a series of spin-offs from a canon that previously existed primarily in the minds of readers.
Consider George Lucas. Having done all the legwork to create Star Wars, he’s derided by many Star Wars fans, mostly because of the prequel trilogy that he wrote and directed. If Rowling ever goes through the Lucas experience, it will be amplified by a factor of ten, on account of the nature of her creation.
Like Lucas, Rowling’s head-canon is the official canon – the original, you might say. What all of the film versions have to contend with is the reader-turned-viewer’s own head-canon. In the everlasting debate about film adaptations of anything – books, games, even other films – the call for ceasefire remains “well, we’ll always have the original.” But the films and the plays are the originals, and they do play into the original texts as well.
Further Reading: Crimes of Grindelwald Ending Explained
In branching out from novels into telling new Wizarding World stories in a visual medium, rather than a written one, Rowling has shaded in some of the areas that were previously free for wild, mass speculation. While she’s never gone back and altered the original stories, as Lucas did with his various Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, she’s straying close to that area where the Clone Wars are never going to live up to what someone who saw the first one in 1977 imagined it would be.
So far, the Fantastic Beasts movies have the same problem as every Star Wars prequel, from Lucas’ The Phantom Menace to this year’s Solo. With the limitless scope of the universe in which it’s set, it’s set before the stories we know in the most literal sense, with ties to characters whose fates we already know. It makes the Wizarding World feel small, on a canvas that’s intended to be big enough for five films.
As it stands, the series seems to be setting up an epic conflict between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, whose outcome was revealed as a throwaway background detail in the early chapters of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone. We’ve also seen both characters get killed off in the course of Harry’s story.
Granted, we don’t know what happens to new characters Newt, or Jacob Kowalski, or the Goldstein sisters, but the anchor to existing, better-established characters weighs heavily on the series. The plot particulars of Potter were all planned out in advance, but by its connection to that existing story, it feels at this point as if Fantastic Beasts can only be embellishment, at best.
The problem with prequels
Among all the various outlets for J.K. Rowling’s enormous knowledge of her world over the last decade, Fantastic Beasts is the one that presents the biggest problem for fans who swear by the original novels. The franchise is a bridge from the original text to those pesky, painstakingly faithful adaptations, because it’s not available in print, unless you buy the published screenplays.
For this new series, the trouble with transferring from a written medium to a visual one is compounded with all the usual complaints about movie prequels, from the predictability of the Star Wars prequels to the bolted-on creature feature antics of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Heck, it might yet have the gross over-extension of the Hobbit movies too.
There’s nothing to say that the remaining Fantastic Beasts movies won’t be entertaining in their own right. Outside of Marvel, there’s a tendency for these cinematic universes to balloon with films that pass the time with foreboding, rather than telling a story, but we know that if it were up to Warner Bros., we’d probably be onto The LEGO Harry Potter Movie by now.
It’s fascinating to wonder if others will take over making movies in the Wizarding World, as happened with Lucas, but she’s protected her creation well enough so far. Though relatively new to screenwriting, Rowling remains an accomplished storyteller, and she thinks it will take five films to tell the story, whether we agree or not. Given the continuing secrecy, the year will be 2024 before we know for certain.
Ultimately, length is a function of interest, and two films in, we can’t help but notice that the time-honored structure of a school year has no obvious substitute in this continuing epic. Complaints that The Crimes Of Grindelwald feels overstuffed with characters is no dint on Rowling’s ability to juggle large casts in her stories, but rather an overall problem with prequels. It’s the feeling that despite all else, those characters are in a story that’s on rails, and we’re still a long way off the story transferring to Platform 9¾.
You can read our review of Crimes of Grindelwald here.