The imaginary world of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was born 15 years ago, when J.K. Rowling penned a book by the same (under the pseudonym of the fictitious wizard-author Newt Scamander) benefitting the charity Comic Relief. It was released in the midst of her seven-part Harry Potter book series as a “textbook” Harry used at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
As Rowling wrote, her non de plume took on a life of its own, and she felt as though she knew Newt Scamander, the magizoologist obsessed with his suitcase of creatures, just as well as her beloved Harry Potter.
Years later, Newt and a new crop of witches and wizards apparate onscreen in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spin-off (of sorts) of the Harry Potter series that opened nationwide November 18.
“I knew that Warner Bros. wanted to do something with Fantastic Beasts and optioned it a long time ago,” Rowling explained at a press conference promoting the film. “When I wrote the little book that I wrote for charity, the character of Newt appealed to me, and as often happens with the Potterverse, I had some thoughts of what happened to Newt and who Newt was. I don’t think at that stage I ever imagined writing a screenplay. Then, when Warner Bros. came to me and said they wanted to do something with Fantastic Beasts, I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I better tell them what I got because I wouldn't want them to get Newt wrong because I knew I liked Newt,’ and before I knew it, I had written it. I had sat down to write some notes, and then I wrote the story, and that story became a screenplay.”
The new story is set in 1926—54 years before Harry Potter was born—and follows Newt to New York City, where he travels to expand his work as a magizoologist (a person who studies magical creatures) for what would eventually become the textbook Harry uses at school.
Tony Award-winning Red actor Eddie Redmayne plays Newt. “He attended Hogwarts,” Redmayne explained. “He was thrown out under slightly questionable circumstances, and he is passionate about creatures. Magical creatures are sometimes deemed uncontrollable, or they have erratic behavior or wizards can’t necessarily understand them, [but] he loves them.”
In turn, “What I love about Newt is that he is not very good with human beings or with wizards,” said Redmayne. ”He doesn’t have a particular social capacity, but he is familial with his creatures.”
Fate leads him to Jacob Kowalski, a World War I veteran (and muggle) looking to open a loan at the bank, played by Tony Award-winning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee actor Dan Fogler.
“All he wants to do is settle down and open up a bakery,” Fogler said of Kowalski, “and he gets mixed up with these witches and wizards. I equate it to Bottom from Midsummer Night’s Dream… Bottom gets to go to the forest and play with the magical creatures, and he falls in love with Titania. It’s in the zeitgeist already. These characters are iconic archetypical heroes.”
Rowling said she knew all about the world she would create before it even came to life.
“I’ve been aware, since the end of Harry Potter, that there was still a huge hunger for more,” she said, “and I think it would be easy to say, ‘Then I’ll just keep producing them,’ but I never was that person. I planned seven books; I knew exactly what I wanted to write, and that story was finished. But, I always had some ideas about Newt. So, here we are.”
Although Fantastic Beasts is a pre-Potter story of the wizarding world, and one set in America rather than its native U.K., there are references back to the wizarding world we all know and love strewn throughout Fantastic Beasts. And, over the course of the new five-part Beasts series, Rowling will shed new light on Albus Dumbledore (and possibly his unrequited love affair with Gellert Grindelwald and how he deals with his homosexuality). “It’s a five-part story, so there’s lots to unpack in that relationship,” she told the press. “I will say that you will see Dumbledore as a younger man and quite the troubled man because he wasn’t always the sage.”
Rowling is already writing the future screenplays for Fantastic Beasts, and, while we wait, she teased that the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which finds Harry and his friends as adults, is aiming for a Broadway bow in the near future.
The author and screenwriter feels anxious for fans to see the new film, and as always, she’s even more excited for what’s to come. “We’re very proud of what we made,” she said. “This is just the beginning. It’s a five-part movie. I know which characters are coming next, and I know what’s coming. This is Chapter One.”