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In response to the news that J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. are teaming up for a series of films based on Harry Potter Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, some have expressed doubt -- our own Katey Rich included -- about the choice of source material for the spinoff. Fantastic Beasts could prove to be a fantastic series for more than one reason.
It's not a sequel or a prequel to Harry Potter.
I won't argue against the potential of a prequel series that focuses on familiar characters featured in the original series. In fact, I'd put Dumbledore, Tom Riddle and Snape at the top of the list of characters I would love to get to know better, either through prequel books or films. But Rowling has already said this Fantastic Beasts movie series is neither a sequel nor a prequel to the Harry Potter series. Rather than dwelling on the missed opportunities that might exist in doing anything related to the Harry Potter universe that doesn't involve characters directly related to Harry Potter, we can choose to see this as an opportunity to return to the rich magical world Rowling has created from an entirely new perspective. In short, let's put aside what this series is not and focus on what it is, or what it's expected to be: the adventures of the fictitious author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander.
Born 1897, Newt's mother was Hippogriff breeder, which may have kindled his love for magical beasts. He attended Hogwarts and got a job working for the Ministry of Magic's Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. He started out working in the Office for House-Elf Relocation, after which he was transferred to the Beast Division. In 1918, when Scamander was twenty or twenty-one, he was asked to write the first edition of Fantastic Beasts, an authoritative compendium of magical creatures. From that point, he spent his holidays traveling the world looking for magical species. All of that information comes from the Fantastic Beasts book.
Rowling says the film's story will pick up in New York, "seventy years before Harry's gets underway." It's unclear if she's referring to 70 years from when Harry was a baby (around 1981), or 70 years from when Harry first found out he was a wizard (1991), so assuming Rowling's planning on sticking to the timeline referenced in Fantastic Beasts, the film will either begin in 1911, when Newt is about 14, or 1921, when Newt is about 24. Since he would have been at Hogwarts in 1911, it might be safe to assume the latter, and that Newt Scamander will be in his twenties in the film.
Magical Beasts abound.
Regardless of what age he is when the story starts, there's huge potential here for Fantastic Beasts to be its own great series, connected to but not directly related to Harry Potter. In addition to giving us some background information on Newt, everything within Fantastic Beasts indicates that he has always had a deep appreciation for magical beasts, including their history in the wizarding world, their varying degrees of dangerousness, and how a witch or wizard can defend themselves against them. Newt doesn't go into detail as to how he came to learn about each individual creature, though he does cite references to encounters from other wizards, but that's all the more reason to consider the potential of this story. Did Newt ever encounter the shroud-like smothering Lethifold, or keep a Krup as a pet? Has he ever visited a dragon reservation to study the various species of winged, fire-breathing beasts? Has he ever heard the dying scream of a jobberknoll, a creature that, when it dies, lets out a long scream made up of every sound it has ever heard, regurgitated backwards? And what are his experiences with Grindylows and Merpeople? Fantastic Beasts is brimming with fantastic beasts, many of which were not featured in the Harry Potter films.
Go ahead and thumb through Fantastic Beasts and note the detail Rowling has put into it, including the occasional amusing anecdote or reference included in the footnotes. If one thing is clear, it's the limitless potential in the Harry Potter world. One of the best aspects of the Harry Potter series was the world in which the story was set, which Rowling often described in colorful detail. But most of that was related to Harry's story. From what was referenced in her previous books, it was always fairly evident that the wizarding world had a rich and thrilling history, and Harry Potter really only scratched the surface of it. Rowling knows this world better than anyone, which makes her the perfect person to do the screenplay. Newt Scamander's story seems like an exciting place to start exploring different times and places within the world with a character we know very little about. It's a whole new story, but set in a world we know and love.
In terms of potential for crossover with the Harry Potter world, we know his career overlaps with Dumbledore's tenure at Hogwarts, and Voldemort's original rise to power. Newt retired in 1979, which was at the point when Voldemort would have been at his strongest, and just a couple of years away from being thwarted by a baby. Whether or not Newt's retirement had anything to do with Voldemort, we couldn't say, but it seems worth noting the time frame. So while we are dealing with a non-prequel/sequel, it's worth considering that the later part of this character's life overlaps with the prequel-space of the Harry Potter series.
Is Newt Scamander the next Harry Potter?
What it comes down to for me, as a die-hard fan of the Harry Potter books, is optimism, particularly in the fact that Rowling is writing the screenplay. Granted, that's somewhat new territory for her, but the fact that she's directly involved in this adaptation makes me hope that we're going to be in for another great story set in the same world many of us spent years visiting and revisiting. Will Newt be the next Harry Potter? I don't even know if we should be intent on drawing that kind of comparison, since Newt presumably has a completely different story and background than the boy destined to face off against one of the most deadly wizards in the history of this world. Newt has his own story to be told, but that's all the more reason to be excited by this project, since there are so many blanks for Rowling to fill in. And on quality, the story could prove to be just as thrilling, entertaining and engaging on its own merits.
With all of the above said, I say, bring on the dragons! Bring on the Sphinxes and Sea Serpents, Salamanders and Shrakes. Throw in some Manticores, Doxies, Pixies and Phoenixes. And tell me a story of a young wizard whose job it is to travel the world seeking out these exciting magical creatures.