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In the Harry Potter book series, Hermione is always exasperated when Harry and Ron don't know some basic bit of information that came from one of their schoolbooks. The brainiest and most diligent of the bunch, Hermione would probably always prefer a trip to the library over an adventure tangling with hippogriffs or the Whomping Willow; for her the wizarding world was an endless trove of stories and facts to be uncovered, whereas for Ron, it was always another opportunity to get in trouble and save the day (Harry, as ever, was somewhere between the two).
Whether you're a Hermione or a Ron will probably determine your reaction to today's news that there will be a new series of films based in the wizarding world of Harry Potter (no, not the theme park, though that's probably inevitable). Rowling herself will adapt Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the slim 2001 companion book to the mammoth Harry Potter series, as an adventure starring Newt Scamander, the supposed author of the Beasts textbook, which is required reading for all first-year Hogwarts students. "[It] is neither a prequel nor a sequel to the Harry Potter series, but an extension of the wizarding world," Rowling said in a statement. The laws and customs of the hidden magical society will be familiar to anyone who has read the Harry Potter books or seen the films, but Newt’s story will start in New York, seventy years before Harry’s gets underway."
Fantastic Beasts faces the same challenge as any other spinoff: maintain the flavor and appeal of the original while doing something completely different. By telling the story many years before Harry's birth and Voldemort's rise to power, Fantastic Beasts certainly seems to be doing a good job of setting itself apart from the titanic Potter series. Newt Scamander, really just a pen name for Rowling, didn't exist at all in Harry's world except as a name on a textbook, and given the timeframe-- and assuming there won't be any Time Turners or other shenanigans involved-- the only cameos we can expect from Harry's familiars are those of old characters, like Dumbledore or the immortal alchemist Nicolas Flamel, and even then as younger or very different versions of themselves. Harry Potter's wizarding world is undeniably fascinating, and it's possible that enough talk of Muggles and wands and the Ministry of Magic will make Newt Scamander's story feel of a piece. But is that enough to get the Harry Potter faithful to line up?
As one of those Harry Potter faithful, I'm not so sure. Generally I consider myself a Hermione, eager to dig into whatever detail about the wizard universe that I can find. But I never managed to pick up Fantastic Beasts, because as soon as you started presenting details without any context related to the characters I'd met and fallen so hard for, I lost interest. The films suffered from the opposite problem, scrubbing away many of the details of the world that I loved-- the talking portraits, the drama of the Yule Ball, the intricate moments of the Battle of Hogwarts-- to present a streamlined narrative. So Fantastic Beasts seems to roll two problems into one-- digging into details that are irrelevant to characters we already know, and presenting it on film, where Rowling's distinctive voice and talented details will by necessity be less visible.
It's not that Rowling can't invent new characters who will immediately feel as familiar as Neville Longbottom or Remus Lupin, or loop in familiar places like Hogwarts or even a giant Quidditch match to make Newt Scamander's adventures feel part and parcel with the world we've seen inside eight movies. But Rowling will also be trying to get enough distance from Harry to tell a new story-- and as long as Rowling insists on telling no more stories about Harry, Warner Bros. will be finding other ways to set stories in his lucrative world. Is this just the beginning of Harry Potter spinoffs that only get further and further from the details we all originally fell in love with?
I had always hoped for a spinoff series set inside Hogwarts, either about background characters we'd already met or even what was happening when Harry's parents and Snape were there. Rowlling created dozens of memorable small characters that she could revisit while keeping her promise that she was finished telling Harry's story. That always seemed like the natural launching point for a spinoff, and I admit I might just be upset that the idea I'd hoped to see isn't happening. But I'm still wondering how curious I'll be about Fantastic Beasts when it arrives-- and if other Potter fans are skeptical with me. After spending the last six years getting over the end of the Potter series, Rowling wants to lure me back in-- but I'm not sure I'm ready to give my heart over to Newt Scamander just yet. Maybe it's all Marauders fan fiction for me from here on out.