Breaking down the magic of the 'Harry Potter' franchise

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The imminent debut of a new fantasy film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, ushers in a new era for fans of Harry Potter and his wizarding world. Even though the franchises are connected only by thin threads, they share the same DNA and creator.

Here we look back at the Harry Potter phenomenon and forward to what lies ahead with another series initiated by J.K. Rowling. Fantastic Beasts opens worldwide on Nov. 18, five years and four months after the final Potter opus premiered.


When Joanne (Jo) Rowling found herself on a stalled train from Manchester to London in 1990 and suddenly dreamed up the supernatural tale of boy wizard Harry Potter, no one outside of her own limited world knew her. Her seven Potter novels and the eight films, plus one stageplay and other spin-offs such as the fan-friendly Pottermore website, changed all that spectacularly. J.K. Rowling is now the most one of the world’s most prominent, most beloved, most reclusive and richest writers.

Besides wielding enormous creative power, Rowling has also become a remarkable philanthropist, devoting much of her Potter fortune to helping children in distress. She also funds research into multiple sclerosis, the disease that tragically claimed her mother in 1990, just months after the long train ride. No surprise: Harry’s fateful odyssey involves serious, dark and often violent themes related to death and despair as well as child abuse and abandonment.

Harry Potter: Selling the film rights more easily than she sold her first novel for publication, Rowling worked with British producer David Heyman from the beginning. She also collaborated with screenwriter Steve Kloves (who wrote seven of eight Potter scripts), and the four directors who worked on the series. Rowling’s mission was clear: While giving filmmakers licence to work their own magic, she wanted to ensure that plot points and character development would match her intentions in future novels, which she was writing as the films continued. Rowling also compulsively divulged secrets to actors, among them Alan Rickman and Robbie Coltrane.

Fantastic Beasts: This series was triggered by Newt Scamander’s opus, which is seen in Potter as one of Harry’s textbooks at Hogwarts. The series goes back in time to when Scamander was a young wizard, not an academic, and suddenly Rowling is a first-time screenwriter. “Yeah,” she said recently as a surprise guest at the Warner Bros. Global Fan Event, “I learned how to write a script while writing a Hollywood movie. I wouldn’t recommend that as a way to learn. It’s quite stressful. But it has been an amazing experience. I’ve loved it. Hence, me writing another one and another one …” There will be five films, Rowling herself revealed. She is also making up this fantastic world on the run. As noted by Beasts director David Yates, who directed the final four Potter films, he had novels to guide him then, with Rowling occasionally offering advice. Now Yates & company have Rowling full-time at script conferences. The screenplay for the second Beasts is already complete. “We next see Newt in another big capital city,” Yates confirmed. “It’s not in New York. It’s somewhere else entirely and Jo has actually written the script and it is just as magical and just as marvellous as the first one. But very different, which is so exciting for all of us!” Meanwhile, Rowling is still giving away secrets, selectively. “I get excited,” Rowling said from London. “I tell actors things!”


The casting of the Harry Potter and the Fantastic Beasts franchises could not be more different, except that both series generally feature actors from the original countries of their characters. So most British parts in Potter were played by British actors, at Rowling’s insistence. For Beasts, with the setting moving from Britain to New York with Newt Scamander’s arrival by boat, there is a mix.

Harry Potter: Christoper Columbus, the American filmmaker who helmed the first two Potter films, once told me that the original choices for core cast members collectively evolved into “a miracle in casting” because raw child actors were plucked out of obscurity. Among them was Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. Those three — and young support players including Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Bonnie Wright and identical twins Oliver and James Phelps — proved to be uncanny and even brilliant selections, despite extremely limited experience. None became a psychotic, a Hollywood brat, a drug addict or an incompetent slug on-screen. Few in the ensemble even ran into scandal, other than trainwreck Jamie Waylett. Otherwise, it was tragedy thrusting one young Potter actor into the news: Hogwarts student Robert Knox was murdered by a thug outside a London bar in 2008 while protecting his younger brother. Columbus had a hand in the casting process, as did American screenwriter Steve Kloves. Most critically, producer Heyman made all the right decisions as the quiet powerhouse behind all eight Potter films. He is now over-seeing the Beasts franchise.

Fantastic Beasts: Unlike Potter, a coming-of-age tale, the new series involves a more mature story. The shy and reluctant hero is Newt Scamander — and Heyman’s team cast British star Eddie Redmayne. He is 34 (although still youthful enough that girls at a preview teaser called him “cute”). Talented, he already boasts two Oscar nominations, with one win as best actor for playing physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. There are few big risks in the ensemble: Redmayne co-stars with Irishman Colin Farrell, fellow Britons Samantha Morton and Carmen Ejogo and a clutch of Americans in Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Jon Voight as a No-Maj U.S. senator and Ron Perlman as a goblin gangster.


The two franchises live in the same fantasy arena, the same wizarding world, but in distinctly different eras.

– Harry Potter: Aside from flashbacks in the novels and films and flash forwards into Harry’s married family life in Rowling’s stageplay, we engage with the boy wizard from 1991 through 1998, culminating with his final battle with the dark wizard, Valdemort.

– Fantastic Beasts: The action begins in 1926, as Newt arrives in New York with his magical suitcase, finding himself in the midst of a looming war. Wizards are obliged to keep themselves out of the public eye because of a general antipathy towards those with special powers by those with none. An ordinary person is not a Muggle, but a No-Maj.


– Harry Potter: When the first Potter film went into production in September of 2000 — near London at what was then a ramshackle former factory that morphed into Leavesden Film Studios — digital special effects were rapidly evolving. Especially because of the staggering breakthroughs pioneered by Peter Jackson’s team on his Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

– Fantastic Beasts: Fantasmagoric effects are now routine. Audiences go with anything, when care and money creates quality effects. Based on the opening scenes of the new movie, director Yates and his team deliver high quality effects. Even Newt’s first beast, a platapussy creature that escapes his suitcase in the first eight minutes, is as cool as he is odd. Nothing is impossible in this era.


– Harry Potter: The eight films took up 10 years of our lives from 2001 to 2011, as we watched Radcliffe, Grint, Watson & friends literally grow up on-screen.

– Fantastic Beasts: Release dates for the franchise remain uncertain, because films four and five were just added. Two is currently scheduled for Nov. 16, 2018, with three on Nov. 20, 2020. After that, only wizards know.

Ranking the Harry Potter films is a fool’s game, primarily because hardcore fans embrace and love the entire eight-film series as one entity. That said, there are differences, and none is subtle.

Meanwhile, after watching the first eight minutes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the no-Harry prequel) at a special sneak-peek event, this one has tremendous potential to vault up this list. Eight minutes is not enough, of course, but Eddie Redmayne looks comfortable as shy wizard Newt Scamander, New York of 1926 is authentic and the early effects depicting good and bad magic, and some beasts, are spectacular. So we will see …

My Harry Potter rankings, from best to worst:

1 — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2: Wow, what a climax! Harry triumphs and Valdemort is doomed. Classy, exciting, satisfying.

2 — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Alfonso Cuaron replaced Chris Columbus as director on this, the third Potter film, and transforms the series by elevating the stakes, tone and aesthetic.

3 — Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Albus Dumbledore dies; that seriously ups the ante for Harry & friends as they set out to find the remaining Horcruxes. Good storytelling.

4 — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1: It is important only because it set up the finale; but a camping trip? Buzzkill.

5 — Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: The Triwizard Tournament keeps things exciting; the kid heroes are in their awkward phase; and Valdemort looms.

6 — Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The series begins to get darker, a good thing.

7 — Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: This original film sets up the franchise, but it is really is just mediocre overall.

8 — Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: As the longest and dullest of all, it labours to honour the novel.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland