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After the Mess of ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ Let’s Fix Harry Potter

After the Mess of ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ Let’s Fix Harry Potter

In our review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we wrestled with how to reconcile the poor quality of the new movies with the brilliance of the original series. Here are some of the takeaways we pulled from the messy, miscalculated sequel:

  • Harry Potter was excellent because it let you, the fan, take ownership over the story and participate in the Wizarding World (even if, as a Muggle, you couldn’t participate in the Wizarding World). Fantastic Beasts denied that participatory element.
  • Fantastic Beasts includes some classic Harry Potter characters (Nagini, Flamel), but as none of them affect the story, their inclusion feels pointless instead of fun.
  • Johnny Depp and Jude Law are well-cast as Dumbledore and Grindelwald, but neither receives enough screen time. This is because Fantastic Beasts is trying to force their story—part human drama, part romance (?), part war movie—through the lens of a creature feature. It’s just the wrong strategy.
  • Five movies is too many for this particular story.

Have stock of all that? Basically, we’re looking at two main issues: framing and core storytelling. Fantastic Beasts is premised on something that can’t really support the story it wants to tell, and that means it’s not telling that story as well as it could. But all hope isn’t lost. There’s a way to fix Beasts, but while we’re here, we have some other idea for how to expand the Wizarding World of Harry Potter beyond its existing forms.

1. Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald Done Right

This is an awesome story at its core. Dumbledore and Grindelwald were close as young men (there’s some coyness as to how close, but it’s a safe assumption they were lovers), but when they foresaw their divergent paths to power, they took a vow to never fight each other. When Grindelwald begins his mission to exterminate Muggles, Dumbledore has to defend humanity while battling his emotions toward his old friend. That’s terrific conflict.

So if the biggest hurdle to telling this story in Fantastic Beasts is the, um “fantastic beasts” part, let’s strip all that away. Let’s make some movies about Dumbledore and Grindelwald fighting. How many? Three.

A template for this kind of story is actually the Star Wars prequels. Anakin and Obi-Wan come together, split apart and fight each other over the course of three movies, and while there’s certainly a bunch of other junk happening in the background, that conflict did make for a neat centerpiece, especially with our foreknowledge about Darth Vader coloring the proceedings.

Dumbledore and Grindelwald can use the same approach. The first movie can be about their friendship as young men (it ends with their vow). The second movie could detail their rise to power as a powerful magic teacher and a radical extremist, respectively, and the final movie can be them moving against each other. It’s enough time to tell the story in full without being too baggy, and it leaves lots of room for dramatic emotional beats that will take this story above thin magic action.

2. Harry Potter: The Miniseries

Ten hours of movie is too much for Dumbledore and Grindelwald, but if there is a 10-hour story to be told in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it’s better suited to television. Crimes of Grindelwald watched like an episode of TV anyway, so let’s lean further into the format.

A good season of television (or a good miniseries, as it were) sprawls enough to cover its runtime, but stays focused enough to leave each episode feeling trim and valuable. Big Little Lies, Sharp Objects and the recent Homecoming are all good examples; there’s just not a lot of wasted space on those shows.

For a Harry Potter miniseries, we need to dodge the fan-service pitfalls of Beasts and use the opportunity to go somewhere afield to the Hogwarts/Dumbledore/Potter arena. As miniseries like Maniac and The Terror showcased this year, the format provides plenty of room to build out a world, establish its rules and populate it with memorable characters. So let’s rely on Harry Potter lore, but focus it with a bit more intention.

A natural fit is Azkaban. The wizard prison works on two levels: 1) It’s an isolated setting physically and temporally, so there’s room to define how it operates without messing up established Harry Potter history. 2) It provides a strong point of specificity, because while all Harry Potter fans know of Azkaban, it’s intentionally presented with so much mystery that to use it as a backdrop would bring a sense of discovery along with that vital sense of the familiar.

So we’re looking for our Harry Potter edition of Shawshank Redemption. Let’s see what an escape from Azkaban looks like for a wrongly-accused prisoner. They have to trick the dementors, but what other protections do they have to anticipate? How do they interact with other prisoners? Do they face tortures and punishments and penalties like solitary confinement? These are all exciting questions, and the answers are contained to Azkaban, so we won’t need to mess with Harry Potter mythology. The playground has borders, but still feels fun.

Does a prison escape plot work for a miniseries? Of course. A well-planned escape will take time and strategy and collaboration and there’s sure to be all kinds of betrayal and deal-making and unexpected obstacles along the way. Give us a hero to care about and some dark magical hurdles in his way, and we’ll have a good show on our hands.

3. Harry Potter: The Crime Show

The best scene in Crimes of Grindelwald is when Newt Scamander uses magic to search Credence’s last known location for clues. The spell he uses makes no sense (so he, like, dusted everything with gold powder? and that helped him see their footprints? what?), but it’s nonetheless a nice bit of procedural fun, like if Harry Potter mixed it up with CSI.

Let’s make a whole TV show about that, a procedural series like NCIS or ER, in which there’s a “case of the week” or “patient of the week” that our main characters have to figure out. It would be exciting to follow a group of Aurors as they solve crimes in London (no need to cross the pond and set up whole other national structures of wizard-kind; let’s keep it simple). We’d see new spells and extensions of magic, but best of all, that magic would be put to practical use, so it would be given that satisfying sense of functionality that makes the best spells (Stupefy, Expelliarmus) feel sensical—of course a wizard would do that.

It’s another example of growing a world through specificity instead of familiarity. We know about the Aurors, sure, but we don’t know anything about how they function as an office or a law enforcement unit or as a hierarchy of commanding officers, rebellious subordinates and desk jockeys.

Better still, while each season of Harry Potter: Crime Scene Investigation would see our heroes track down a big bad, the procedural format still allows for the show to contain a great deal of fun. Harry Potter is a delightful world, but we’ve been in the weeds of Killing Curses for too long. Some office-talk about last night’s quidditch match or some indignation over who took the last cauldron cake from the vending machine would make the Wizarding World feel like a place you wanted to go again. That’s what this was all about in first place.

You know, come to think of it…couldn’t we just do Harry Potter Nine-Nine?

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