5. Five. Cinq. Fünf. Cinco. Cinque. As J K Rowling confirmed last night, that’s how many films we can expect in her upcoming cinematic series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. At a special fan event in London last night discussing the first film, which is released next month, Rowling told crowds, “We always knew it was going to be more than one movie. […] I’ve now done the plotting properly, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be five movies.”
Five. Five movies. More than The Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games, more than half as long the Harry Potter film franchise itself. And, on the surface, Fantastic Beasts is a Potterverse story with far less grandeur and mythology than the story of Harry Potter – the Boy Who Lived, and defeated the darkest wizard his world had ever seen. Newt Scamander is just a magical zoologist who wrote a schoolbook on strange animals. It’s hard to see how he could justify five full feature-length films.
But perhaps this is the great trick of the Fantastic Beasts franchise – it’s been presented to us as one story, when the real tale powering these films is one far more familiar to Harry Potter fans. It’s one of global conflict, a great struggle for power, and the triumph of love over hate. It’s the story of the Global Wizarding War – which stretched from the Twenties to 1945, and has intentional parallels with the non-magical Second World War happening simultaneously in the Muggle world. It’s essentially J K Rowling’s magical Nazi story.
Here’s what we know for sure. The story of Dumbledore and Grindelwald will feature in these films. Director David Yates said at the fan event, “We do mention Dumbledore in this movie, and he kind of features a little bit in a wonderful scene between Colin and Eddie [a clip is shown here at 2:45 minutes]. And Grindelwald does feature in the movie, sort of in the background, and he’s going to become a much more prominent part of the stories going forward.”
The relationship between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald is of great significance in the Harry Potter series for several reasons. Dumbledore and Grindelwald were close friends as young men, until their beliefs diverged as Grindelwald became increasingly involved with dark magic. He rose to power as the darkest wizard of his age, with strong anti-Muggle beliefs, beginning a Global Wizarding World that lasted until he was defeated by Dumbledore in 1945. He is considered the most dangerous wizard in history after Voldemort and the memory of his war haunts many characters in the series. Rowling also later expressed her belief than Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald, causing those “Dumbledore is gay!!” headlines back in 2007.
Yates continued to give us another hint of the plots of the franchise when discussing the second film: “We next see Newt in another big capital city, and it’s not going to be New York. It’s somewhere else entirely.” Grindelwald first rose to power in continental Europe in the Twenties – the same period in which the first movie is set.
A featurette released at the fan event gave us even greater clues. In it, J K Rowling notes, “In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, you’re learning about a part of magical history that’s talked about in the Potter books that you never see.” A newspaper flashes on screen bearing the headlines “GELLERT GRINDELWALD: DARK WIZARD STRIKES AGAIN IN EUROPE”, “EUROPEAN AURORS READY TO FIGHT” and “GRINDELWALD ATTACKS RISKING WAR WITH NO-MAJS – I.C.W. [that’s the International Confederation of Wizards, duh] CONVENED FOR EMERGENCY TALKS.”
We see a shot of a wizard holding a Deathly Hallows symbol – which became associated with Grindelwald’s supporters as a result of his obsessesion with these three powerful magical objects. Then Rowling continues, “There are ways in which we connect to the Potter books that I think people will find surprising.” Another short clip from the film plays, of the head of the US magical government, MACUSA president Seraphina Picquery saying, “They think this is related to Grindelwald’s attacks in Europe.”
In the promotional material for Fantastic Beasts, it’s hinted that Scamander’s escaped animals are less dangerous than they seem. Wizards are famously secretive, seeing their concealment as key to their survival – we learn in the Fantastic Beasts book that in 1750, Clause 73 was inserted in the International Code of Wizarding Secrecy (one of the most important wizarding documents of all time), insisting “each wizarding governing body will be responsible for the concealment […] of all magical beasts.” Should any such creature “draw the notice of the Muggle community, that nation’s wizarding governing body will be subject to discipline by the International Confederation of Wizards.”
Scamander’s animals are feared by American witches and wizards because they might give away the existence of magic to American muggles. “Do you know which of your creatures did this, Mr Scamander?” an authoritative witch asks Newt in the featurette, while a body is suspended in the air. “Look at the marks,” he replies. “No creature did this.” The suggestion is that Grindelwald’s dark wizards are using the magical animals as a convenient smokescreen to hide their attacks on Muggles. As Scamander notes in the trailer, “the most vicious creatures on the planet” are actually “humans”.
The animals have been used as a similar diversion tactic on audiences – amazed by the sensational attributes of the various fantastic beasts (not to mention Eddie Redmayne), it might have slipped our notice that J K Rowling is working on one of her most ambitious projects yet – an epic saga of magical fantasy intertwining with real world history. Rowling insists in the featurette: “We’re talking about the first time a wizard rose and threatened a new world order. This is always where I was interested in going. This is what I wanted to do.”
It’s true that Rowling has long played with the parallels between the Second World War and the Grindelwald story, saying in 2005, “It amuses me to make allusions to things that were happening in the Muggle world, so my feeling would be that while there’s a global Muggle war going on, there’s also a global wizarding war going on.” Grindelwald’s appropriation of ancient symbols to a violent supremacist cause, his familiar-sounding fortress-then-prison Nurmengard, and strong belief in the supremacy of one race of humanity over others for a kind of “greater good” all suggest equivalences with the rise of Nazi Germany. When asked in the same 2005 interview if she intended to imply that Grindelwald had any connection with Hitler, she said, “I have no comment to make on that subject.”
MA: Do they feed each other, the Muggle and wizarding wars?
JKR: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Mm.
MA: You’ve gone very quiet.[All laugh; JKR maniacally.]
MA: We like when you get very quiet, it means —
ES: You’re clearly hiding something.
Could Rowling have been planning these interlinked stories since all the way back in 2005? The rich history only hinted at in the books is probably why Harry Potter fans have always shown more interest in prequels than sequels – desperate for works that cover the generation of Harry’s parents and earlier. Rowling remains resistant to the word, but Fantastic Beasts could deliver on revealing an earlier wizarding world only glimpsed at until now.