Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place in J.K Rowling’s wizarding world, but it’s set in an as-yet-undiscovered corner of that world for most Harry Potter fans. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely unfamiliar territory, however. The film, which premieres this weekend and kicks off a proposed pentalogy, is an extension of the author’s hit book series, a series that launched a hit movie franchise. Whether you’re a fan who’s only watched the movies, just read the seven books, or will take your first trip to the wizarding world with Fantastic Beasts, here’s a helpful guide to read before going to the theater.
Where Does Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them Come From And How Does It Connect To Harry Potter?
Much like the Star Wars universe, which has a massive number of viewers for its films but a smaller percentage who read the novels, comics, and keep up with the animated series, the wizarding world is more than just Warner Bros.’ eight film adaptations. There’s Pottermore (both the original and post-overhaul versions), the official fan site where Rowling posts additional content; expanded universe books like The Tales of Beedle the Bard; the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play (and script book); and even the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks in Florida and California. All that supplemental material can make for a hard-to-navigate landscape. And even if you were aware of the existence of something called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them before news of the film, you may not be sure how we got to a whole other film franchise from it.
While it’s true that Fantastic Beasts is based on a book, it’s not a traditional adaptation. Fantastic Beasts, the textbook, was fictionally published in 1927 by Newt Scamander, famed Magizoologist. It’s a standard textbook required at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and mentioned in both the book and film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Fantastic Beasts, the real book, was written by Rowling back in 2001 to raise money for Comic Relief. (I purchased it in a box set along with another wizarding world book, Quidditch Through the Ages.) Neither are very long and Fantastic Beasts is essentially a fictional encyclopedia. So how did we get what was once three, but now five, films out if it?
When Rowling revealed the extent of the new films, many fans worried this was another case of stretching material, much like Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit films, which were created from one, not particularly long, novel. That’s not the case. In her first time as a screenwriter, Rowling has written all new material for this prequel spinoff. It’s safe to say she’s been immersed in the wizarding world since she started Sorcerer’s Stone and she (and likely she alone) knows an absurd amount of information about that world never included in the novels. Rowling has admitted this film, and the follow-ups were “always where I was interested in going. This is what I wanted to do.” She also said Fantastic Beasts will “connect to the Potter books [in ways] I think people will find surprising.” So let’s start with what we know.
First, what does the Fantastic Beasts book tell us? One of its chief concerns is helping the audience discern the difference between a “being” (a “creature worthy of legal rights and a voice in the governance” of the wizarding world) and a “beast,” a matter that troubled the authorities attempting to make a determination. Issues around the number of legs, speech, and other attributes were considered and a consensus wasn’t found quickly. Much like history itself, it involved countless arguments and a fair amount of bias, including a campaign by extremists to categorize Muggles (non-magical people) as beasts.
Some species, like the centaurs we met in Sorcerer’s Stone and subsequent stories, prefer to be called beasts and steer clear of humans and their complications. While others, who for all intents and purposes should be classified as beings are not because, to put it quite plainly, they like to eat humans. The giant spiders, a.k.a. Acromantulas, Harry and Ron meet in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are one of the best examples.
Who is Newt Scamander?
The beasts in the book are categorized from most dangerous (“known wizard killer”) to least dangerous (“boring”) by its fictional author Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne in the film). In 1897, Newt was born to a mother who bred fancy Hippogriffs which is probably where he caught the beast bug from. He went to Hogwarts, was sorted into Hufflepuff, and subsequently expelled for endangering his fellow students and teachers with… you guessed it. A dangerous beast. I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out all about that event, which Newt claimed was an accident, in Fantastic Beasts (or its sequels).
Although its not clear how many years Newt had at the school, after his expulsion he found a job at the Ministry of Magic. Although the Office for House-Elf Relocation (remember Dobby and Kreacher?) wasn’t the best part of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, he worked his way up to the Beast Division. While there he helped create the Werewolf Register and the Ban on Experimental Breeding.
Have We Seen Any Of These Beasts Before?
Speaking of experimental breeding, we’ll leave the story of Newt there and move on to the Harry Potter character you probably most associate with magical creatures — Rubeus Hagrid! Even before he became Hogwart’s Care of Magical Creatures teacher, he was its groundskeeper and was tasked with taking care of a number of beasts. He also just really, really loved them, no matter how dangerous. While Hagrid won’t appear in Fantastic Beasts (he was born two years after it takes place), you’ll be able to connect some dots through knowing him and his favorite work.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book only) Hagrid introduces the students to nifflers, burrowing creatures that goblins often use for treasure hunting. Ron Perlman is playing a goblin named Gnarlack in Fantastic Beasts and as we’ve spotted in the trailers, it looks like he may be using one to rob jewelry stores. Nifflers are gentle but can be dangerous to keep in a house as Dolores Umbridge found out when students purposefully put a few in her office during Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (book only). You may have also spotted a bowtruckle keeping close to Newt in the trailers. It’s a beast that could easily be mistaken for plant life and in fact, they guard wand-wood trees. When Professor Grubbly-Plank takes over the Care of Magical Creatures class from Hagrid in Order of the Phoenix she teaches the students about them. They’re mentioned just once in passing by Hagrid in the film series but never appeared.
One last beast of note: the Erumpent, a magical beast from Africa, which will also make its (living) debut in the film. You may recall the Erumpent horn being talked about by a concerned Hermione in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Luna Lovegood’s father, Xenophilius, believed it to belong to the Crumple-horned Snorkack (which doesn’t exist) much to the detriment of his house. You can only imagine what a live Erumpent will do running loose in New York. However, as we’ve seen from the trailers, there’s going to be a lot more beasts in the film than we’ve ever seen before and many that were only ever mentioned in passing in the novels.
But What About The Humans?
Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves is an Auror in the film. Aurors are the specially trained wizard officers who report to the Ministry in the UK and who have a specific eye on catching dark wizards and witches. Graves is the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement which reports to the Ministry equivalent in New York, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Katherine Waterston’s character, Porpentina Goldstein, apparently used to be an Auror but was demoted. Her sister Queenie (played by Alison Sudol) is a skilled Legilimens, that’s the mind-reading skill Professor Severus Snape and the Dark Lord himself were so adept at in the novels. Snape tried to teach Harry the opposite, blocking skill, Occlumency, in Order of the Phoenix. We’ve yet to see if that will play a large role in the film.
It was recently revealed Johnny Depp would have a cameo in Fantastic Beasts as the famed Dark Wizard Gellert Grindelwald. In the universe Grindelwald lived from 1882–1998, went to the Durmstrang Institute (where Triwizard Tournament competitor Viktor Krum went to school), and eventually wound up imprisoned in his own fortress, Nurmengard. He was the first Dark Wizard to rise (before Voldemort came into power), but in his younger days he had a friendship with Albus Dumbledore. In 1945 the two had a famous duel, which Dumbledore won. But as far as we know, Grindelwald’s villainy was relegated to Europe. Dumbledore’s name has also been mentioned in the trailers and we can expect him to be cast for subsequent films.
While we’d heard Grindelwald’s name in trailers long before Depp was announced, character posters revealed Percival Graves might have a connection to the Deathly Hallows. A key plot point in both the book and film adaptation of Deathly Hallows, they were symbols of both Grindelwald and his followers but also a much older story told in The Tales of Beedle the Bard which involved cheating death itself.
This is a lot of information, I know. You don’t have to memorize it. This is just a helping hand. The important thing to remember when sitting down to watch Fantastic Beasts is that mostly everyone in the audience is on an even playing field. While some may already be familiar with the concepts I’ve written about here, even the most dedicated of Harry Potter fans don’t know what to expect from the film because so far, it’s only lived in Rowling’s imagination.
Variety is reporting Fantastic Beasts is expected to make between $70 million and $75 million domestically on opening weekend and around $200 million globally which are great numbers but doesn’t quite hit what the Harry Potter films themselves made. Will a new generation, possibly devoid of Potter knowledge attach themselves to Fantastic Beasts with the same kind of fever? Without children starring in the film, maybe not. But those who originally grew up with the book and film series are more than likely to turn out and go for seconds. After all, who doesn’t need a little magic in their lives?