There are some things a film can’t show as well as J.K. Rowling can tell them.
The movies inspired by her Harry Potter novels, while eye-catching and well-acted, have never clarified confusing characters, riddles and time-travel as well as Rowling’s books have. After all, the films are adaptations of novels hundreds of pages long, trimmed to fit a feature-length film.
But the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book (Arthur A. Levine, 280 pp., *** out of four stars), the Potter prequel set in the 1920s, skips the whole cutting-the-story-down step. This is the screenplay — Rowling's first — for the movie that’s out now.
It's a breezy read (screenplays have many page breaks) that film fans will appreciate as a companion to the movie. (Before it was a movie and a screenplay, Fantastic Beasts originally was a best-selling book released in 2001 and written by Newt Scamander, aka Rowling.)
Fantastic Beasts follows Newt, a well-meaning British magizoologist who brings his case of magical creatures to New York. After he bumps into Jacob, a No-Maj (the American word for "muggle"), Newt accidentally lets some of his animals escape.
These fantastic animals, including the Thunderbird, "a creature like a large albatross, its glorious wings shimmering with cloud- and sun-like patterns," are the best part of the story. As Jacob says in the screenplay and in the movie which barely changes a thing from its source material, "I ain't got the brains to make this up." Only Rowling does.
By inadvertently releasing his creatures, Newt has committed a crime, and a former investigator from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, Tina Goldstein, wants to turn him in to authorities. While that's happening, and Newt desperately tries to find his animals, there's something else at play: Anti-wizard sentiment is on the rise, with protests against “witchcraft in America.” Also, a manipulative MACUSA security man, Percival Graves, keeps meeting with the shy Credence Barebone, a member of a family of anti-wizard extremists.
The story is a lot to take in during a two-hour movie, but much easier to digest in Rowling’s descriptive screenplay, which seems to require too much of its actors.
As a result, the characterization in the movie isn’t particularly strong, with Graves’ (played by Colin Farrell) motives unclear and Newt's (Eddie Redmayne) human relationships (the animal ones are obvious) seeming undeserved. The screenplay, however, fleshes out the characters with descriptions that may be too specific to accurately portray on-screen, such as how Newt “recognizes a kindred spirit” in Jacob, and how eventually “there’s a new warmth between” Tina and Newt.
The screenplay is easy to read, if you’re familiar with reading that sort of thing. Rowling suspects many aren’t, and so the book contains a glossary of film terms, including “Ext. – Exterior; an outside location."
At its best, the Fantastic Beasts screenplay can serve as a learning tool for film fans interested in how director David Yates interpreted Rowling’s words. But it also pulls back the curtain on the emotions the actors were trying to portray, without always hitting their marks.