‘Fantastic Beasts’ Has a JK Rowling Problem

The idea of suggesting that JK Rowling, the woman whose imagination has birthed the magical Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which has enchanted the lives of millions and grossed billions of dollars in movies alone, has somehow become a problem for the franchise may sound like heresy, but hear me out.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, released this week to less than stellar reviews – currently sitting at a ‘rotten’ 39% on Rotten Tomatoes – with many critics citing the fact the story is far too overstuffed for a movie in which, ultimately, not much really happens. Its main cast is forgettable, otherwise borderline annoying (looking at you, Newt). And while the new characters are all interesting and compelling (Dumbledore, Leta Lestrange, Grindelwald) they’re never given nearly enough screen time to develop and get to know, as an audience. Grindelwald is seen by many as just a stepping stone to the next film in the 5-part series. The problem isn’t the direction – David Yates does a great job with what he has and the film is visually stunning – it’s not James Newton Howard’s beautiful score, and it’s not the acting, which is top-notch on all counts. The problem is the script.

The film spends much of its time explaining lore, family trees, and blood lines – something that’s interesting for Potterheads, but also something that was mostly left out of the original eight Harry Potter movies. While those eight movies were adapted from Rowling’s best-selling novels, they were not written by Rowling herself. Professional screenwriters were brought in to take JK’s story from the pages and translate them into a story fit for the screen – and while some fans would’ve liked more of a deep dive into certain areas of the mythos, for the most part they did a really fine job.

For the Fantastic Beasts movies, though, Rowling has taken on the screenwriting burden by herself. She negotiated a very friendly contract that gave her creative control over just about every aspect of these new movies – and more power to her, I want these new stories and ideas to come straight from the creator’s mind. But, she should not be writing the scripts for these movies – at the very least, she should not be the sole screenwriter.

Writing novels and movies is extremely different. Truly apples and oranges. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels became known for their length, focus on lore and history, and attention to detail – the way she would explain the back stories of so many characters and drop breadcrumbs early on that would come back as an important detail towards the end, or even in an entirely different book. This is fine when you have 700+ pages to explore every bloodline and explain the story behind every portrait in the Headmaster’s office. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate well on-screen, where visual and concise storytelling is key and audiences are beginning to prove that – there’s no room for wandering in a tight, 135 minute run time.

The initial hype surrounding the Wizarding World’s return to the big screen has all but worn off. According to Rotten Tomatoes, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was the worst reviewed movie in the franchise and, while making a solid $814M at the global box office – still less than all original Potter movies, save for Prisoner of Azkaban – was ultimately fun but forgettable. A nice re-intorduction to the universe, but let’s move on and get to the good stuff. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets had previously been the lowest domestic earner in the franchise, with a total haul of $262M. 2016’s Fantastic Beasts finished its domestic run having earned just over $234M – almost $30M less than Chamber of Secrets. And Crimes of Grindelwald is now on pace for an even lower domestic number.

With $26M on Friday, the film is projected to make somewhere between $63-65M for the 3-day weekend, around $10M less than 2016. The previous opening weekend low for the Harry Potter franchise was Fantastic Beasts’ $74.4M in 2016, which was at least relatively close to the low of the original Harry Potter films, which belonged to The Order of the Phoenix with $77.1M.

With a franchise-worst critical reception and a ‘B+’ CinemaScore, compared to the original’s ‘A’ grading, we can assume that this movie won’t have the same longevity or performance that its predecessor did two years ago. (Though, it should be noted, that Grindelwald is currently performing well overseas).

Surely, not all of this can be put on Rowling – while these movies take place in the same universe, they are not ‘Harry Potter’ movies. Harry is not in them, nor is he ever even mentioned. While they include some of the same characters and references, they don’t include Harry, Ron, Hermione, Luna, Snape, Voldemort, or any of the other characters we learned to love so much over those ten years. So a drop in box office numbers should be expected to a point. But while this is true, there is no reason to diminish returns even further just so JK Rowling can be the sole screenwriter of these films. People want to like these movies. People want to get lost in the Wizarding World again, and if you give them the opportunity they will show up in droves. I’m not saying Warner Bros. should try to cut Rowling loose, I’m not even saying she should be taken off as a screenwriter – I’m just suggesting that a seasoned, professional screenwriter be brought in to keep Rowling’s imagination focussed and optimized for the big screen.

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