I feel that I owe J.K. an apology. I had always felt that her depiction of evil was a bit naive, 2-dimensional, “comic-booky.” I had long taken the liberal stance that real evil doesn’t exist, or if it does, it’s very, very rare. People are genuinely good, I thought, and genuinely want to do good things. A scene that stands out in my mind is from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, wherein the titular character, a Nazi industrialist, tells the soldiers working in his factory that they can shoot the Jews if they want to. He makes this announcement after the war is declared over. Before then, he had protected his workers from harm, despite his wearing a swastika pin. By asking the Germans to kill the Jews, and I paraphrase here, “if you want to,” he demonstrated the basic goodness of humanity, because no one in uniform acted of his own accord to commit murder. That, I believed, is the reality. Hitler brainwashed his people first before using fear and intimidation to carry out his misdeeds. Aside from Himmler and Goebbels and Mengele and other SS officials, few Nazis were actually evil. In my own The Princess of Aenya, the villain, Zaibos, creates an atmosphere of perpetual dread to exert control. So when, in the Potter films, devotees by the hundreds come out in support of Voldemort, it felt somewhat implausible. It wasn’t as if Voldemort had had some stranglehold over the wizarding community. On the contrary, Death Eaters in hiding went out of their way to serve him. The transition within the Ministry of Magic was jarring. In no time at all, every position of power, including Headmaster of Hogwarts, was filled by followers of the Dark Lord. Where were the institutions to prevent this from happening? How did the good wizards get so quickly pushed underground and into a role of resistance? This was pure melodrama, Ms. Rowling, and poor writing. Or so I thought.
Then of course, it happened in the real world. Now I am sorry if you’ve read thus far and you’re a Trump supporter (and really, did you get nothing out of the Potter books?), you can click the X in the corner or leave me an angry comment, but the way I see it, the takeover of the current administration perfectly mirrors the way in which Voldemort and his cronies seize the wizarding world. What has startled me isn’t how evil and inept Trump is, but rather, the sheer number of his followers who are racists, misogynists, homophobes, and outright hate mongers, people only too happy to throw away their freedoms to ally themselves to a greedy conman. At breakneck speed, we have come to the edge of dictatorship, and Trump isn’t even to blame. He is far too stupid to have manipulated anyone or anything. Rather, it was the people that gave him power. This recent turn in history has helped me to understand that Hitler didn’t make the Nazi Party, it was the Germans who harbored a hatred of Jews and a love for authoritarianism. Likewise, I now realize just how brilliantly J.K. Rowling portrayed Voldemort’s rise to power, because, even as far back as her second book, The Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort’s followers were there, hiding in the shadows, manifesting themselves in the fathers of Draco and Crabbe and Goyle.
So what does this have to do with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? Not much. But I will say my criticisms for The Cursed Child are applicable to this book, in that Fantastic Beasts… is not a novel but a screenplay, and screenplays are meant to be watched, not read. I had so hoped that J.K. would put the same effort into this series as she had Harry Potter, but she may be burned out. I know I would be after writing seven novels! Still, most Potterheads will agree that the movies are inferior, due to the wealth of information the books contain. Film is a limited format, bound by two to three hours’ running time, whereas there is just so much more storytelling you can fit on the page. For Fantastic Beasts…, which was written for the screen, the process should work in reverse. The book should provide more information, to give readers a reason to pick it up. Some adaptations, like for the Star Wars prequels, actually do this. There is a chapter describing how Shmi Skywalker was kidnapped by the Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones, which you never see on screen. Unfortunately, there is nothing like this to be mined from the Fantastic Beasts… screenplay. Honestly, I would say that if you’ve seen the movie, there is no reason to go out and buy the book.
As for the story, it’s quite a simple adventure, featuring a dozen creatures straight from J.K.’s furtive imagination, which are all better portrayed visually, and a lot more interesting than the protagonists. Newt and company can’t hold a deluminator to Harry, Ron and Hermione. But what stood out for me, in the grand scheme of her connected universe, is a subplot involving an evil wizard briefly mentioned in the Potter books. Grindelwald was the original holder of the Elder Wand, until he was defeated by a young Dumbledore. It may be that here, J.K. is showing us how history repeats itself, knowing how Tom Riddle follows in Grindelwald’s nefarious footsteps. What might make this villain more interesting, however, and more relevant to our time, in the book, Grindelwald gives a short speech regarding the inferiority of muggles, his sentiments echoing those of real-world “wizards.” And with Rowling tweeting daily against the abuses of right-wing ideologues, it would not surprise me to see life imitating art imitating life.