How Fantastic Beasts Breaks the Hollywood Prequel Mold

Hollywood could learn a lot from the Fantastic Beasts approach to making a spinoff/prequel.

However you might feel about the quality of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s hard to argue with how refreshing it is to watch a blockbuster spinoff that is far removed from its source material.Compared to most Hollywood sequels, prequels, spinoffs, remakes, and reboots, Fantastic Beastsis like a blockbuster unicorn, a film that is allowed to be its own story, even though it exists in an already established universe. 

While the Harry Potter series is a Chosen One narrative about a boy wizard set at a modern-day British boarding school, Fantastic Beastsis an adult ensemble drama about the rise of magical fascism set in 1920s New York. It’s almost as if J.K. Rowling trusted Potter fans to be able to enjoy a new story in the Potter-verse that didn’t have the same characters, plot structure, and setting as the original narrative. And, in turn, Warner Bros. trusted Rowling to tell that story. In an age where almost everything is trying to cash in on the familiarity of franchise, characters, and plot, Fantastic Beastsgoes against the blockbuster franchise mold.

Notable Differences Between Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter

With J.K. Rowling as its screenwriter, there are definite thematic similarities between Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts(more on that later), but Rowling obviously isn’t interested in telling another Chosen One, coming-of-age narrative. Newt, Tina, Queenie, and Jacob are adults who have figured out much of the identity angst that Harry and his friends go through over the course of the seven Harry Potter books. Rather, they are, in part, trying to navigate the complicated adult world of jobs, bank loans, and streudel — three things that you rarely see featured in the Potter stories (at least not in any central way).

No, these are the realities of adulthood, and while Fantastic Beastsmay distract from the seriousness of those responsibilities (streudel is a serious business) with magic and amazing creatures, they are the central, inescapable tensions for our main characters: Newt tries to hide away from adult responsibilities, escaping into his case rather than face the consequences of his actions; Tina is trying desperately to get her Auror job back as part of her struggle to be taken seriously as a career woman; Jacob just wants to have a vocation he loves that doesn’t leave him soulless (and, really, is there any more real adult angst than that?); Queenie just wants all of her adult friends to stop and enjoy the streudel and gigglewater while also being all too aware of their very real anxieties and sorrows. It works well for the now-adult generation who grew up reading Harry Potter…

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Similarly, one of the things that struck me about Harry Potter and the Cursed Childwas that it told a story around the generation that grew up on Harry Potter. It’s central characters are either in school or the parents of adult children. It is a great play, and one that anyone can enjoy (because stories don’t have to look exactly like your life for you to get something out of them), but, in terms of subject matter, it is not at all focused on the generation that came of age with Harry Potter. Fantastic Beastsis interested in telling a story about adults, and maybe that’s something Rowling understood when crafting this story, or maybe it was just a happy coincidence. 

Notable Similarities Between Fantastic Beasts and Harry Potter

Though Fantastic Beastsmight not have most of the traditional markers of a blockbuster set in a pre-existing fictional universe, it does bear the mark of a Rowling story. In addition to being infused with Rowling’s wry wit, it treats magic with a determined sense of wonder (even when it is the destructive kind). This sense of wonder is what sets Harry Potter and Fantastic Beastsapart from the dark, gritty, nihilistic tales that so define this era of pop culture.

Past that, Rowling continues to be interested in highlighting the limits of the institution. While in both Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts, the governmental bodies are fundamentally well-meaning, their beauracracy and negligence often let evil individuals slip through the cracks. As of now, the MACUSA and the larger international wizarding community seems ill-equipped to deal with the rise of magical fascism and the Grindelwald threat. They can’t even handle the obscuras without a bumbling, disinterested Newt Scamander’s help.

Presumably, This Story will Grow Closer to Harry Potter as It goes On

Right now, Fantastic Beastsdoesn’t have much in common with the Harry Potter series, but I am guessing that will change as the franchise goes on — not only because it will start to include more of the Grindelwald/Dumbledore backstory, but because Harry Potter grew to be less about school and more about the fight against magical fascism in its final books. This is an interesting difference between Fantastic Beastsand most prequel/spinoffs, which tend to start in a place very similar to their source material before branching out to do their own thing.

In this way, Fantastic Beastsseems like an odd place to start this story, if it really will eventually lead to Grindelwald and Dumbledore’s battle. Newt Scamander and his new friends are really only tangentially connected, as far as I can tell. We might look back on Fantastic Beastsas an ill start to the larger story of this franchise. Whatever Fantastic Beasts’ legacy might be, whether it succeeds or fails in its larger efforts, I hope it is recognized as a prequel/spinoff that wasn’t afraid to leave its source material behind in its ambition to tell a different story. Hollywood, take note.

Comparing Fantastic Beasts to Other Hollywood Franchise Spinoffs

Back in July, I wrote an article for Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic Con magazine theorizing that franchises are the new genre system. Like the genre system of the classic Hollywood era, these monolithic franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe use familiarity, nostalgia, and narrative continuity to draw audiences in. Fantastic Beasts definitely fits into that mold in some ways, and especially when it comes to marketing, but let’s compare it to other major franchises to look at how it operates slightly differently than your average Hollywood blockbuster spinoff.

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A recent Hollywood prequel spinoff that doesn’t stray too far from its source material is X-Men: First Class, which actually has some things in common with Fantastic Beasts.Like Fantastic Beasts, X-Men: First Classis a period piece where the original movies were not. Unlike Fantastic Beasts,it sticks close to many of the characters from the original X-Mentrilogy — namely, Charles, Erik, and Mystique. While Fantastic Beastsdefinitely seems poised to bring in Dumbledore as a main character, he is the only major character from the original Harry Potter stories that seems likely to play a major role in this prequel series.

It’s actually surprising that Fantastic Beastsdidn’t go the Charles/Erik prequel route with Dumbledore/Grindelwald. Frankly, I would have watched the heck out of a prequel series that starts with Albus and Gellert’s burgeoning relationship as teenagers in Godric’s Hollow, becoming closer through political discourse, just as the fractures in their respective ideologies become increasingly and tragically apparent. This would have been a much more traditional choice for the Fantastic Beastsseries (though it, presumably, wouldn’t be Fantastic Beasts,if this were the case).

5 Ways Fantastic Beasts Connects to the Harry… by denofgeek

Now let’s compare Fantastic Beaststo The Force Awakens. I enjoyed the newest movie addition to Star Wars canon as much as the next person, but it definitely retread narrative structures from the original trilogy and not just in a Joseph Campbell Says Monomyth Is A Thing sort of way. Watching The Force Awakens, I knew many of the characters, recognized many of the settings, and expected many of the plot twists. Even past the character continuity that Han, Chewbacca, and Leia represented, Rey is a very similar protagonist to Luke. The same cannot be said for Newt Scamander and Harry Potter.

It’s actually much more interesting to compare Fantastic Beaststo the upcoming Star Warsprequel Rogue One.We’ll have to see what Rogue Onelooks like when it hits theaters next month, but it seems to have a very similar relationship to its source material as Fantastic Beasts.It is a prequel looking to flesh out one of canon’s major historical events, which means we already know where the major arc of the story will end. It seems to include one major character from the original trilogy in Darth Vader, but is largely about people and places we know little about.

Between Fantastic Beastsand Rogue One,I wonder if this kind of loose-fitting franchise spinoff might be a new trend for Hollywood blockbusters. Perhaps it is the next evolution in an industry that seems afraid of branching out from familiar narrative universes, but that is also realizing that making the same movie over and over again can alienate audiences. If Rogue Onedoes as well at the box office, as Fantastic Beastshas done so far, we may see more franchise films with looser connections to the larger fictional universe from which they sprung.