Fantastic Crimes of JK Rowling

Long before it was released, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was raising hackles. First came the film’s decision to stand by actor Johnny Depp after he was accused of abuse by ex-wife Amber Heard. Then, Nagini as a character was unveiled in the trailer and Potterheads outraged because Nagini was a woman of colour who appeared to be some sort of freak show. How’s that for an intersection of postcolonial representations of race, exoticism and sexual objectification? To calm fans down, author and screenwriter JK Rowling blithely informed the public that Nagini was inspired by Nagas, “snake-like mythical creatures of Indonesian mythology”. Among the people who attempted to set Rowling straight was Indian author Amish Tripathi, who pointed out that the Indonesians got Nagas from Indian Hindu mythology.

It turns out the fans were right to feel anxious about Depp playing Gellert Grindelwald and Nagini (played by Claudia Kim). Kim as Nagini is literally a circus freak with nothing to do but wear an ugly dress and weep. Depp’s Grindelwald is a bloodless villain who embodies neither menace nor fear. Ralph Fiennes, without hair or a nose, was infinitely more chilling as Voldemort (whose shadow looms large over Grindelwald, especially in the scene where he almost pulls a Voldie by proxy killing a baby and its parents). And this is despite Voldemort spending all his on-screen time wearing a dirty, grey nightie.

Fans have pointed out that Rowling has mangled timelines and introduced characters in this film who make a mess of the existing Potterverse. Lurking under these attempts to shock the audience (while pandering to them) is a disappointing lack of imagination. On paper, The Crimes of Grindelwald has the perfect setting to achieve a flight of fantasy: Paris of the 1920s, wizards and magical creatures, and the deep pockets of producers Warner Bros. For much of the film, Scamander is in a city filled with can-can dancers, absinthe, jazz. This is the Paris of Simone de Beauvoir, Collette, Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre; the elegant fashion revolutions of Coco Chanel and Cristobal Balenciaga; the crazy modern art of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and gang; where party-hard authors like Ernest Hemingway passed out. Yet not a whiff of this energy and edgy newness is present in the film.

In addition to falling back upon clichés like feuding brothers, love triangles and naming a grim-faced killer Grimmson, Rowling has also scattered enough red herrings in the plot to feed the population of Sweden. The writing is lazy. She re-uses familiar tropes like two or more characters standing in a circle, to hear one tell a history that will explain the present. While it’s true that Agatha Christie made this work repeatedly for Hercule Poirot, the same cannot be said of Rowling.

Most disappointing is the way Rowling shrinks the wizarding world in The Crimes of Grindewald by connecting every character to one another. There are practically no outsiders in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Everyone is connected to the few prominent surnames and suddenly, the film feels like the mothball-scented, annual gathering of the Bengal Club [replace with elitist collective of choice]. The interconnected network of the wizarding world feels more like a bubble of privilege rather than an alternative world that’s refashioning the reality we know. It doesn’t help that the women and people of colour are use-and-throw tokens. For fans and non-fans, the Fantastic Beasts series should immerse us in an enchanting, alternative reality. Instead, it feels like a secret cult that meets at cemeteries.

What Rowling has done with The Crimes of Grindelwald is write bad Harry Potter fan fiction, which is ironic since she’s the one who created Potter and this wizarding world in the first place. Written well, fan fiction can add to the fantasy and enrich it. Rowling’s is lazy and perhaps some of the complacency comes from knowing that there are millions who are so enchanted by the Potterverse that they’ll clutch portkey that she holds out before them.

First Published: Nov 18, 2018 01:07 IST

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