Rowling’s Potter spin-off could be better than the previous films

[Warning: spoilers!]

Yesterday it emerged the Harry Potter franchise isn’t done. JK Rowling’s wizarding world, following her announcement of a spin-off film series, clearly has still to give up the ghost. (Or the dragon. Or the hippogriff.)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due for release presumably within the next two years, will be inspired by the fictive textbook of that name, mentioned peripherally in the Potter series, and perhaps the real-world version marketed for charity in 2001. The textbook’s author Newt Scamander, a kind of magical David Attenborough, will be the film’s lead figure, and the story will apparently take place in twenties New York, 70 years before Harry and Hogwarts.

I’m excited about this. As someone who grew up with Rowling’s books, in fact, I’m very excited by it.

The project’s attracted critics already, of course – nestled between rejoicing Potterheads, users on Twitter have labelled it a cash-in, Warner Bros’ attempt to milk a sacred cow for never-ending profit. They’re right, of course: film studios seldom let a moneymaking series die (hence this century’s ceaseless appetite for reboots), and why should Potter be an exception? Like Imogen McSmith at the Independent though, I don’t actually mind.

Plenty of films well liked by critics and by me have been cash-ins. Before its 2008 release, Iron Man was viewed as a barrel-scraping shot at siphoning the last financial dregs of a superhero genre past its prime, more camera-friendly names like Batman, Superman and Spiderman having been exhausted; in fact, it met with acclaim and helped revitalise comic book film. It spawned two sequels, themselves quite definite money-spinners, the first admittedly perfunctory but the second (earlier this year) the series highlight. X-Men: First Class was anticipated much the same way, but tends now to be viewed by fans – in competition with X2, another cash-raker – as the best X-Men to date. Most sequels are, in the end, pursued for profit, but plenty are seen widely as eclipsing their precursors: Terminator IISpider-Man 2, Superman II, Batman Returns, The Dark KnightAliens, A Shot in the Dark, The Bourne Supremacy, Mad Max 2Star Trek II (the actually-second one), Godfather Part II; for my money, Scream 2. Beloved franchises exist, Star Trek and Bond among them, due in large part to studios’ cashing in.

Many a worthy film, of course, has been dragged through the dirt by mercenary trade-drumming. (Highlander producers, I’m looking at you: there really should have been only one.) It needn’t be so, though. Sans Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, conceived to keep a flagship show in business, it wouldn’t now be toasting its fiftieth year – and what did JK Rowling’s publishers want anyway from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, another sequel better than its predecessor, if not profit? Fantastic Beasts could be something quite special, an exemplary cash-in-done-right – if so, in fact, it may be better far and away than the Potter films preceding it. A devotee for my sins of Rowling’s books, I never cared for Warner Bros’ adaptations; actually, I loathed them. Entering production with the books not yet half-published, they form a case study in how in how not to cash in on something – and, more specifically, how not to film a literary series.

Made much too soon, they had no chance to kit out their narrative with moments of prefiguration, as a film series made now would surely do  – exploring the Chamber of Secrets Horcrux more for instance as Rowling’s novel almost did, to avoid an expodump down the line which works in print but not celluloid, or weaving the Deathly Hallows’ symbol into scenes from earlier books – but in the end, they’re just bad adaptations. Steve Kloves’ scripts don’t just leave out key details and explanations, they make needless changes for their own sake, often (especially late in the series) showing disregard and disrespect for Rowling’s source material. It means something that Harry’s mother’s eyes were the same colour his are, i.e. not brown; that Wormtail exits via redemptive, self-sacrificing hero’s death, not getting knocked out by an elf; that Snape dies where he would have years before without a man he hated, Harry’s father, not in a random fucking boathouse. Characters’ names are indiscriminately mispronounced (the ‘t’ in Voldemort is silent), and they themselves are near universally miscast. The series as a whole feels horribly disjointed, directors, sets, composers, costumes and effects changing as frequently as Hogwarts’ staircases, and aesthetically plain wrong – there’s little to no sense here of a world detached for centuries from our own.

The single biggest problem with the Harry Potter films, in all these respects, is Harry Potter – more specifically, their being adaptations of a pre-existing narrative from Rowling’s books, against which they were bound to be assessed and failed in my view to measure up. In Fantastic Beasts she offers us what is at base a Potter film sans Potter – an independent story, written straight for film, in the same universe. Gone will be Kloves’ unfaithful scripts, with them unflattering comparisons with prior texts and convoluted plots. Newt Scamander is little more than named in the Potter novels; his character and history will be new to us, accepted on their own terms, not weighed against a prior version, and he’ll be twentysomething, played by a full-grown actor from the off. (Daniel Radcliffe, never a natural talent, deserves applause for working at his craft. Ironically, the more he blossoms in indie flicks like Horns and the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings – gasp at his note-perfect Ginsberg in its trailer – the more clearly wrong he was as a blockbusting action lead.)

That this project stands alone is what makes it, and why I hope established people and plots will be avoided. Forget the previous films, however satisfactory or not you found them: JK Rowling has carte blanche here, and she’s giving us her own fantasy film, with monsters and magicians roaming Jazz Age New York. On its own strengths, that’s a mouth-watering prospect – already, I’m hoping Guillermo del Toro directs – and facts to date show that given carte blanche, Rowling impresses.

How I learned to celebrate Hallowe’en

This time two years ago, I wished someone at university a happy Hallowe’en. Then I realised I’d never done that before.

Alom Shaha, an ex-Muslim, writes in his memoir The Young Atheist’s Handbook about not being allowed to celebrate Christmas as a child. For me, the forbidden festival was October 31st. ‘As Christians’, a woman named Doreen told us in school, who also ran the Operation Christmas Child collections, ‘we don’t celebrate Hallowe’en.’

Of course not: it was a celebration of witchcraft, demonic creatures and evil spirits, and thus verboten, as the Harry Potter series is to thousands of children. Oddly, I was never one of them, reading the books without any parental resistance and introducing one teacher to them – though that teacher, Mrs. Walker, did still issue me with a spiritual warning against Warhammer, when I mentioned aged ten that players could cast soul-rending spells. (She needn’t have worried: I was, and am, a Dungeons & Dragons purist.)

One irony of banning Hallowe’en, a festival of fear, was that I always spent it terrified. At school, I would join in the collective prayers with extra vigour. In the evenings, I would stay in my room, inwardly chanting ‘Jesus is Lord’. If my mother was at work and I was home alone, I would chant it out loud in the sitting room, with curtains shut and all the lights on that I could reach. All this, in a foetal huddle below the front window, so as not to be seen by trick-or-treaters peering through the curtain gaps.

Only once or twice do I remember ever opening the door. Perhaps I was absent-minded or determined to face down whoever was outside. In fact, all I managed was to meet the mask-clad pairs of eyes and retreat inside again, slamming the door after telling them ‘No!’ with all possible force.

You have to understand: to the ten-year-old me, these were not children in white bedsheets and Frankenstein masks. It wasn’t those which scared me. I honestly believed they were the devil’s unknowing servants, engaged unwittingly in his hellish schemes, glorifying the powers of night.

A part of my current self, especially whilst writing about it, still hates the people who raised me this way: rarely, if ever, have I since felt the abject terror that I did on Hallowe’en into my early teenage years.

I know that my upbringing was far more extreme than many believing children’s, and I generally stop short of calling religious upbringings child abuse, but when I make myself recall my own, few other phrases seem sufficient.

At the same time, I don’t doubt my parents and teachers believed what they preached, which means their victimisation, unlike mine, continued into adulthood.

Fittingly for today’s date, what I’ve just told you is a kind of horror story. (A scarier kind than most, in fact, since its central monster – faith – really exists.) There is, however, a happy ending: at 21, I love Hallowe’en, just as I’ve always loved Bonfire Night. These celebrations are my favourite of the year: the collective appeal of hot food on cold nights, fireworks and flames satisfies me on a very primal level. Moreover, since that first ‘Happy Hallowe’en’, I’ve learnt to love this carnival of monsters.

The sight of children dressing up as their greatest fears is, I think, an encouraging one. Put on the clothes of your nightmares, and you become them; take their power to petrify, claim it for yourself, and suddenly you’ll realise that being frightening is just as easy as being afraid. Confronted with our fears, that lends us hope.

Also, of course, Hallowe’en teaches skeptical inquiry as an antidote to terror.

In my post-religious years, my rebellion has stretched to becoming a seasoned horror fan – not so much of contemporary horror films, but very much of classics from the seventies and eighties. In Aliens, the hero Ripley finds a petrified girl, her parents violently killed by the titular creatures, about which both characters have bad dreams.

The girl, Newt, is played by the then ten-year-old Carrie Henn. During the picture’s filming, which includes a slew of gruesome and highly graphic deaths in a dimly-lit abandoned structure, rumour has it that Henn was guided through the puppets and special effects used by producers. The finished movie, as a result, wasn’t frightening for her.

Show child actors the mundane fakery behind chest-bursting aliens, and suddenly their wellbeing is at much less risk. Teach five-year-olds to dress as Dracula, and the sinister powers of the Count are much less imposing. Teach my teenage self the baselessness of Christianity, and the demons at the door are no longer such a threat.

We can use Hallowe’en to teach valuable lessons about fear – namely, that scrutiny rather than panic is the best response to ghouls, including the emotional kind: it was skepticism that stopped Hallowe’en from traumatising me.

At the end of Aliens, monsters vanquished and planet escaped, Ripley and Newt are settling into their cryochambers for the journey back to Earth.

‘Are we going to sleep, now?’ Newt asks Ripley.

‘That’s right’, she replies.

‘Can we dream?’ tries Newt, still wary of nightmares.

‘Yes honey,’ Ripley says. ‘I think we both can.’