Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Preserving the Magic

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner Bros.)

‘Shall I go on?”

This is the question for all creators of magnificent and popular series of tales. After his third Oz story, L. Frank Baum tried to write other works, some of which, including Queen Zixi of Ix, were mildly successful. But he was forced to keep coming back to the Oz franchise, owing to the failures of his other novels. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the death of Sherlock Holmes in an 1893 story, freeing himself, he thought, from what his literary estate’s website calls “a fictional character that oppressed him and overshadowed what he considered his finer work.” By 1901, public outcry had brought more Holmes.

What is the author of a beloved series to do? The later instances of Sherlock Holmes continued in quality. The later versions of Oz are, in the words of our seventh-grader, who has read all of them, “crummy, cheesy, and preachy.” They are also inconsistent in detail with the other books. Perhaps Conan Doyle’s return to the well was reasonable, but Baum’s was mistaken?

What both authors did right was to turn to other artistic and commercial outlets for their creations, particularly the stage. Doyle adapted “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” for the stage, and Baum, a theater junkie who also acted, similarly adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Ozma of Oz. The Patchwork Girl of Oz was written with the stage in mind but ultimately became a film. (The classic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz was made 20 years after Baum’s death.) Baum even spoke of purchasing property to create an Oz amusement park, though there is no evidence that he ever acted on the impulse.

Joanne “J. K.” Rowling said in 2007 that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book, published that year, would be the end of her best-selling Harry Potter series and that her future writing would not likely be in the fantasy genre. Her books had already become a series of rather inconsistently made but unbelievably profitable movies. She, unlike Baum, actually has an amusement park for her creation, along with seemingly endless tie-in toys and gadgets. Rowling bruited the idea of a Potter encyclopedia but claimed that it might take ten years. And though she had written a few extra Potter-themed books for charity, they were supplements to the fiction — books that had “existed” in the fictional universe of the original series, including Newt Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001), Kennilworthy Whisp’s Quidditch through the Ages (2001), and the book of fairy stories that plays such a decisive role in the series’ outcome, Tales of Beedle the Bard (2008).

She did branch out, with The Casual Vacancy (2012), an adult novel that would sell over a million copies and later be adapted as a three-part BBC miniseries, and then, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, the detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), featuring private investigator Cormoran Strike. Early reviews of the latter were solid, but this was no million-copy run — until a tweeter connected to Rowling’s legal team leaked the hypothesis that Galbraith was really Rowling. While Rowling professed disappointment, the result was that the book took off. Two more Cormoran Strike novels have been published, and a seven-part BBC series based on the novels is planned for 2017.

Yet if branching out was successful, moving on was perhaps a broom ride too far. By 2010, Rowling was dishing with Oprah about what future Potter books might be like. In 2011, she launched Pottermore, a website including new writing in the vein of the encyclopedia she had discussed four years before. And 2016 saw the arrival of two new Potter-themed stories. One is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — a play actually written by theater and TV veteran Jack Thorne but based on a story co-written by Rowling — which has had remarkable success in London, recently winning the Evening Standard’s Best Play award for 2016. It’s now in discussion for a 2018 run on Broadway, according to the play’s website. The other is Rowling’s first screenplay, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel to the Potter series. With A-list actor Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, the film has certainly been a financial success, making over $720 million worldwide by December 21 (its budget was $180 million), though the reviews have been mixed at best.

That it’s a moneymaker is hardly surprising. Her books have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. Anything with her name associated with it — as the Cormoran Strike novels show — will reach literary platinum. But the true test of the wisdom of Rowling’s decision to go on should be not financial success but faithfulness to her literary universe. We haven’t been to London for the play, but one of us journeyed with four children to the multiplex for a screening of Fantastic Beasts. And anyway, to judge the stories as stories, we’ve been able to read them both. Rowling’s continuation of the Potter universe via stage and screen has been accompanied by releases of the play and movie scripts — another bit of financial genius resulting in more millions of books sold. Do her published scripts give evidence of the, well, magic that really was at the heart of the Potter books?

Fantastic Beasts has the double disadvantage of being Rowling’s first screenplay and the introductory story of a reported five-film series based on the original book. Its world is 1926 New York, where the American magical community takes a very hard line against interactions between Wizards and No-Majs (the American equivalent of “Muggles”), particularly given the rise of the “Second Salemers” anti-witch movement. Newt Scamander, a world-traveling scholar and protector of rare magical creatures, has arrived, purportedly to obtain one creature but really to release another, a Thunderbird, into the Arizona desert. Several magical creatures escape from his suitcase and, in the midst of retrieving them, he accidentally trades suitcases with a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski. The rest of the story is a madcap 48-hour scramble in which Newt and Tina Goldstein, a demoted American auror (magical policewoman) try to retrieve the creatures while the American magical community searches for a young wizard whose magical power has been suppressed, thus creating an angry magical cloud called an “Obscurus” that has been wreaking havoc on New York and now threatens to kill the young wizard. One character is revealed to be Albus Dumbledore’s old opponent Grindelwald.

This summary can’t do justice to all the plot lines begun in the script, including two love stories and what promises to lie at the heart of the five-movie series — Grindelwald’s desire for war on Muggles. This overstuffed introduction to a larger series results not only in an uninspiring plot but also in a cast of characters for most of whom it is difficult to care, since we know them so little. One of the forgotten aspects of the original Potter books is how much time the books took with the characters, in both ordinary and extraordinary situations — the hundreds of pages that readers would spend with them. Even the best of the films fell short of the charming detail of Rowling’s world and the emotional depth that came from access to Harry’s inner thoughts, but the films could invoke readers’ connection to the source material. By the time the overall plot got going in the books, readers had an investment in the characters. It’s an open question as to whether such investments will be possible with Newt and Tina.

Though Rowling didn’t write the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, this eighth Potter story has an advantage in that it returns to the thematic core of friendship and family that was at the heart of the Potter books. The play follows Harry’s son, Albus Severus Potter, a teenaged black sheep who has befriended Scorpius, the son of Harry’s old nemesis Draco Malfoy. Albus longs to impress his father, now a middle-aged auror who is yesterday’s hero. When the aging father of Cedric Diggory, who died in the fourth book, hears about a time-turner device confiscated by the Ministry of Magic and demands that Harry travel back in time to save his son, Albus sees his chance. Albus and Scorpius, egged on by Delphi, Mr. Diggory’s caretaker and supposed niece, steal the time-turner and end up bringing about various alternative histories, in one of which Voldemort wins. When Albus and Scorpius manage to reverse this time-travel disaster, Delphi, revealed to have a strange connection to Voldemort, strands the two back in 1981, on the eve of Voldemort’s attack on Harry’s parents. Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and Draco Malfoy — now their ally — go back in time to foil Delphi and rescue Albus and Scorpius.

While the time-travel plot has the Swiss-cheese incoherence of all such stories, The Cursed Child has more of the deeper core animating the book series, and an appreciation of the moral seriousness of our choices. The time-travel element also allows a kind of nostalgia tour of the books, with returns to key scenes and deceased characters. Both of Rowling’s new Potter projects are most successful when they stick to the themes and character-driven approach of the original books. The challenge for Rowling in going on with her Potter stories will be to continue in this direction, despite her shift to genres less intimate than that of her original books.

– Mr. Deavel, the editor of Logos magazine, is an assistant professor of Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas. Mrs. Deavel is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.

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