Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of JK Rowling

An edited version of this piece was published in yesterday’s Hindustan Times. If you haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, in which magizoologist Newt Scamander scampers through 1920s' Paris in search of love and runaway villains, then you should know that there are many spoilers ahead.

An art print from the  House of Minalima

An art print from the House of Minalima

One of the best sequences in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by JK Rowling and directed by David Yates, is also one of the most logically-challenged episodes in the film that introduced us to Newt Scamander. After Credence has been blitzed and Percival Graves turns out to be Gellert Grindelwald, the magical people of New York are faced with a big problem. Not only do the nomaj (or non-magical people) now know there are wizards and weird creatures in their midst, they’ve also seen said wizards destroy the city. Fortunately for the wizards (and unfortunately for Logic), Newt has an idea: Frank the Thunderbird will carry a vial of a memory-loss potion into a cloud just in time for lightning to strike. This will not turn Frank into Thunderbird kebab but somehow seed the cloud, which will then rain over New York City and wipe out all nomaj memories of the past few hours.

How is this cloud seeding happening? Why will the wizards not be affected? What about the people who are not out in the open? What about the photos that were taken? How many hours will be wiped out? None of it makes either human or magical sense, but as the rain falls like a veil over everyone and everything, the wizards walk through the streets of New York, enchanting the broken city back to rightness. It’s a beautiful bit of nonsense that’s oddly endearing because nestled in this film about a foreigner’s first trip to New York is an explanation for just how magical the city feels in reality.

If you’re not one of Rowling’s Army — that multi-million-strong band of Potterheads who loyally cough up cash for everything Rowling has written or even backed because they love the Harry Potter series so much — then you know that these films aren’t really about logic or coherence. They’re fun and they’re imaginative. For those who know and love the books, it’s a chance to return to a lesser-known corner of a familiar place. We all know none of this is real and in fact, it’s the unreality of these films that evokes a sense of wonder.

Unfortunately, reality pricked The Crimes of Grindelwald’s balloon long before the film’s release and it became increasingly obvious that selective amnesia was going to be the order of the day for those looking forward to enjoying the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. First came the studio and creative team’s decision to stand by actor Johnny Depp after he was accused of physical and emotional abuse by ex-wife Amber Heard. Rowling published a post on her site that essentially told fans to get over their outrage because Depp was not going to be recast, without providing any explanation for what informed her stand on the issue.

Then the character of Nagini was unveiled in the trailer and Potterheads erupted in a frenzy of disappointment because it turned out that not only was the human form of Voldemort’s bestie pet a woman, she was a woman of colour who looked like she was some sort of freak show. To add to the outrage, Rowling blithely informed the public that Nagini was inspired by Nagas, "snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology". Among the people who attempted to set Rowling straight was Indian author Amish Tripathi, who pointed out that the Indonesians got Nagas from Indian Hindu mythology.

Now that The Crimes of Grindelwald has released, we can confirm that fans were right to feel anxious about the portrayals of Gellert Grindelwald (Depp) and Nagini (Korean actress Claudia Kim). They’re among the weakest elements in the film, which (aside from being illogical) commits the cardinal sin of messing with the chronology and world-building of the books.

But first, Gellert Grindelwald, the big daddy of dark wizards who, helpfully, wears black to clue us in on his preferences. We got a glimpse of Grindelwald at the end of the first film, but now that he’s front and centre, it must be said that Grindelwald is in desperate need of
a) an appointment with a hairdresser who will introduce him to hair dye, and
b) a course of vitamin D.

Minus this intervention, the villainous wizard looks like he walked into one of those pranks in which a bag of flour falls on you. He also appears to have a terrible cataract in one eye, which would explain why he fell for the door-open-flour-shower trick but doesn’t do much to add menace to Grindelwald’s character. Sadly, Depp thinks it does; so he forgoes acting and emoting, relying instead on his appearance to do the trick. Net result: a bloodless villain who inspires no fear and is in need of an ophthalmologist. Ralph Fiennes, without either hair or nose, was infinitely more chilling. And this is despite the fact that he spent all his on-screen time wearing a dirty, grey nightie.

Kim as Nagini has nothing to do except look miserable, which makes complete sense because she is wearing a hideous blue dress (with ruffles. Ugh), and is literally a circus freak in The Crimes of Grindelwald. (Rowling has three films to explain how the snake-woman goes from seeing magical folk as oppressors to luurving purebloods and Voldemort.) The only action Kim has in the film is to turn into a snake once, while inside a cage, in a circus. How's that for an intersection of postcolonial representations of race, exoticism and gender-based sexual objectification? Since Fantastic Beasts is a five-film series, it’s safe to assume Nagini will have more to do in later films, but in this film, she’s a minor character who feels like an unnecessary tangent.

As Nagini, Kim is one of two women of colour who get shortchanged by Rowling’s script. The other is Leta Lestrange, played by Zoe Kravitz, the first non-white lead in the Hogwarts world. Don’t pop the champagne just yet though. Kravitz’s Leta would have been well worth raising a toast to if Rowling hadn’t also killed Leta off at the end of The Crimes of Grindelwald. We’ll only know by the end of the series whether this was an unnecessary and/or premature assassination (Rowling’s Harry Potter books have a lot of these. Remember Sirius?), but regardless of whether she’s able to justify Leta’s death, it’s a shame that we lose both a complex and powerful black woman, and the quadrangle of the Scamander brothers’ (Newt and Theseus) romances. As things stand, Kravitz feels as much of a token presence as Kim — two sprinklings of colour to make the poster of The Crimes of Grindelwald look less overwhelmingly white and male.

The two other women in the film are the sisters, Queenie (Alison Sudoi) and Tina (Katherine Waterston) Goldstein. Sudoi is tasked with being a dumb blonde, which is really ironic when you keep in mind Rowling’s blonde. You’d think the author would want to smash that stereotype rather than adding to it, but no. Not only is Queenie an idiot, her motivations are a tangled mess. She manages to un-obliviate her nomaj boyfriend and then casts a spell on him so that he agrees to marry her, which offers a troublesome parallel to the well-established trope of a woman ‘conning’ a man into marrying her. Then Queenie goes off and joins Grindelwald — yes, a character with a Jewish surname joins the villain who has more than a shade of Hitler’s Nazism — because somehow, she’s completely missed the minor detail that Grindelwald hates the nomaj. In fact, before she steps over to the dark side, she tells her nomaj boyfriend that she’s doing this for them. How? Nobody knows.

Arguably, this is better than poor Tina’s role in the film, which is to be the object of Newt’s adoration. In the first film, she had her own story arc, but this time, Tina is entirely passive. Rowling could at least have used Tina to explain how Credence is back to full human form despite being zapped to a tiny puff of black at the end of the first film, but she doesn’t get to do even that.

This sexism and tokenism are just the tips of the iceberg as far as the crimes of JK Rowling go, particularly if you’re a Potterhead. Rowling makes elementary mistakes, like saying when a person is obliviated, only their bad memories disappear. She also appears to have forgotten that she herself said Professor Minerva McGonagall was born in 1935 and yet, in a twist that will fox even those who believe in reincarnation, McGonagall is a full-grown teacher at Hogwarts in 1927. Most perplexingly, Albus Dumbledore, whose mother supposedly died when he was 18-ish, appears to have a brother who is about 20 years younger than him. So far, my favourite explanation for Aurelius comes from Reddit, where a user suggested Aurelius is actually a trans man who was originally Dumbledore's sister, who may have been an obscurial. Speaking of obscurials, what happened to the Obscurus that was tucked away in Newt’s suitcase-zoo? And how did Credence end up in Paris? Why isn’t Paris being blown up by his dark energy the way New York was in the first film? There’s also a theory that Grindelwald is lying to Credence and will later reveal Credence was a Lestrange after all (remember Abernathy and Grindelwad’s nameless, slinky French sidekick going into the Lestrange vault with a mysterious box?). Really at this rate, we’ll find out Rowling is Grindelwald.

The Crimes of Grindelwald isn't just disappointing to pedantic Potterheads. For those of us who aren't fanatic, the Fantastic Beasts series should be a feelgood spectacle that is a triumph of the imagination. On paper, the film has everything a storyteller could ask for to pull off such a feat: a story set in the vibrant and intoxicating Paris in the 1920s, wizards and magical creatures, and the deep pockets of producers Warner Bros. Yet neither the production design nor script use the vibrancy that made Paris a legendary city of the time. The Crimes of Grindelwald is set in a city that boasted of can-can dancers, absinthe, jazz; intellectual greats like Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre; the elegant fashion revolutions of Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga; the crazy modern art of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and gang; and party-hard authors like Ernest Hemingway. Not a whiff of any of this is visible in the film.

What we get instead are baby Nifflers, which is great, and a Zouwu, which would be more impressive if it wasn’t a spiritual twin of the Erumpent from the first film. Like the Erumpent, the Zouwu is gigantic, misunderstood and ultimately calmed down by Newt doing modern dance. As far as I’m concerned, the Nifflers are still the pinnacle of Fantastic Beasts’ achievements.

Less cheerful and more disturbing are the details in The Crimes of Grindelwald that suggest an eerie fascination for cruelty. Leta Lestrange, for instance, is born out of an act of horrific violence. Lestrange, a white man, casts the terrible Imperius curse on a black Senegalese woman and then rapes her. The woman becomes pregnant with the child that will grow up to be Leta. Leta’s mother’s first husband vows revenge by binding his son in an unbreakable vow. This is not just a bizarre and unnecessary twist in Leta’s backstory, but one that reeks of toxic cruelty. Was there no other way to explain the presence of black characters in this wizarding world?

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of The Crimes of Grindelwald is that in an effort to feed the fan-shaped beast, Rowling shrinks the wizarding world by connecting everyone we see to the few central characters. There are practically no outsiders in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Everyone is somehow connected to the few prominent surnames and suddenly, the film feels like the mothball-scented, annual gathering of the Bengal Club (replace with stuffy club of choice). The interconnected network of the wizarding world feels more like a bubble of privilege rather than an alternative world that’s refashioning the reality we know. Instead of a vibrant society, it feels like a secret cult that meets at cemeteries (literally).

Another point at which Rowling’s script betrays an unnerving fascination for darkness is when Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) looks in the Mirror of Erised and sees Grindelwald. The mirror is not simply a recap machine; it shows the viewer their heart’s desire. Dumbledore’s heart’s desire is the violence that Grindelwald with his fascist ambitions embody? Keep in mind, Grindelwald was never a hearts-and-teddy-bears sort of guy. Even when they were teenagers/ young men — which is when Dumbledore and Grindelwald met — Grindelwald was still plotting world domination and oppression of muggles/ nomaj.

Speaking of Grindelwald, how is he cheerfully vaporizing wizards in Paris and taking over their apartments when apparently, he’s wanted in Europe for terrible crimes? Theseus Scamander and his team of trenchcoated aurors can show up in Paris by the dozens, but there’s not a single Parisian wizard cop on duty? And what is Grindelwald really after? (Don’t say Jude Law’s waistcoat-clad heart. Dibs on that.) At one point, he tells his supporters that wizards need to take over the world because left to their own devices, muggles (non-magical people) will unleash world wars and widespread devastation upon the planet. Two minutes later, he attempts to blow up Paris, which is an oddly contradictory move from someone who just showed us a mushroom cloud explosion as an example of bad behaviour.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Rowling's storytelling devices are painfully antiquated. In addition to falling back upon clichés like feuding brothers, love triangles and naming a grim-faced killer Grimmson, she's also scattered enough red herrings in the plot to feed the population of Sweden. Finally, someone needs to introduce Rowling to the idea of a great reveal that isn't an expository monologue. Repeatedly in The Crimes of Grindelwald, circumstances lead to a scene in which two or more characters are standing in a circle, listening to one tell a story that will explain their behaviour.

What Rowling has done with The Crimes of Grindelwald is write bad Harry Potter fan fiction and while doing so, she’s made rudimentary mistakes that no loyal fan would make. Written well, fan fiction adds to and enriches the fantasy, helping it grow. Rowling's is lazy and perhaps some of the complacency comes from knowing that there are millions who are so enchanted by the world she created in her books and writing on Hogwarts, that they'll clutch any portkey that she holds out before them. So just as millions flocked to theatres to watch The Crimes of Grindelwald, millions more will flock to watch the next one and the two more that follow, even as they grumble about the mistakes and missteps. They'll buy all the editions of the Harry Potter books that Bloomsbury publishes, even if one is barely distinguishable from the other. The beautifully-illustrated script of The Crimes of Grindelwald (designed by Minalima and yours for Rs 699) will no doubt be a bestseller. The fans do all this because, though she is throwing leftover scraps at them now, back in the late 1990s, JK Rowling gave her readers a whole new world that was and remains genuinely fantastic. No matter what happens in the films, those books and their words remain. That's magic enough — unless Rowling pulls a Grindelwald and rewrites the history of the magical people of Hogwarts in the next three films.