JK Rowling's debut as a screenwriter

Directed by David Yates

Written by JK Rowling

133 minutes, rated M

JK Rowling’s first film as a screenwriter takes us to New York in 1926, where something is tearing up streets and knocking down buildings. Where’s Harry Potter when we need him? Well, he’s unborn, so this is a tale of a different young wizard – a geeky ‘magizoologist’ called Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, with his usual array of tics and twitches.

Crossing the ditch was inevitable and right. Of course, there would be wizards in the new world, and of course, they would be different to their British and European cousins. Placing the story in 1926 allows more texture, in terms of look, costume and theme (the coming Depression, the age of Fascism). Where the Harry Potter series was all about carved wood and cathedral ceilings, this is all gleaming metal and Art Deco design, a tribute to American spirit and invention. Of course, it’s also a not-quite-subtle condemnation of American greed and the disparity between rich and poor – brought to you by Warner Bros and the richest female writer in the world. But given that most of the original book’s revenues went to Comic Relief (around $A28 million so far), Rowling has probably earned to right to say a few things about redistribution of wealth.

Newt Scamander arrives in a city without pity, carrying a suitcase full of banned magical critters. They are prohibited for good reason – given their mischievous, even dangerous behaviours. Newt is like Hagrid: he sees only their beautiful side. An early scene takes place inside a huge, unsympathetic bank, where a chubby everyman called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) has his application for a loan refused. Jacob has just fallen over Newt’s identical brown leather suitcase. On the steps outside, we hear a speech by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who wants to rid the world of witches and wizards. Watching from the sidelines is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the elegant head of security for the American congress of witches and wizards. Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who monitors unusual arrivals of witches and wizards, notices immediately that Scamander is an oddball.

The film is largely original material suggested by Rowling’s 2001 book, which was itself a playful sidebar to the original Harry Potter series. The book purported to be a textbook, a guide to the study of magical creatures written by Newt Scamander and first published in 1927. It was compulsory reading for first year wizards at Hogwarts, although Scamander did not appear in the original books.

Why Rowling chose to write the screenplay, rather than trusting the team that made the movies, is a mystery. That team remains in place: the director is David Yates, who did the last four Harry Potter films. Steve Kloves, who adapted all but one of the Harry Potter films, is credited as an executive producer. The Hollywood Reporter says that Rowling wrote three drafts, before final polishing of the script by Yates, Kloves and David Heyman, producer of the original series. How much they rewrote is anyone’s guess, but I would bet on not much. Rowling remains executive producer, the leader of the pack. That would also explain why the film goes on too long and has about five endings, each more sentimental than the last. Perhaps no-one could tell the boss it needed an edit.

Even so, what’s there is fun. The magic here is a little more grown up, given that the wizards are not children, but still playful and inventive. The creatures are wondrous, whimsical, occasionally terrifying, and the film offers a strongly-felt sentiment about caring for all creatures, great and small. That idea, part of the Potter films, is more central here. The hunt for the great evil spirit terrorising the city is less integral, and it drags the movie back into conventional Hollywood territory (good vs evil, all that binary nonsense).

Even if a stiff edit would have made the film stronger, it’s not going to matter to the fans of Ms Rowling’s work. Warners will still make a shedload of money, and it’s a quintet, with four more to come. Rowling’s reign in Hollywood as the queen of royalties will continue for a few more years, at least.