Ian Harris: Harry Potter and the Peril of Prequels

Tuesday, September 25, 2018 - 5:43pm

Eddie Redmayne in 'Fantastic Beasts'

Eddie Redmayne in 'Fantastic Beasts' Buy this photo
Warner Bros.

This morning saw the release of the third and final trailer for the upcoming J.K. Rowling film “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” and with it the reminder that, oh right, there’s a “Harry Potter” prequel series going on right now.

Beginning in 2016 with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” J.K. Rowling, along with director David Yates, began telling what they claim will be a five-part story exploring the life of Newt Scamander and a young Albus Dumbledore, the fight against archvillain Grindelwald and a great wizarding war that appears to bear a striking resemblance to another wizarding war we witnessed not that long ago.

Before this series not-so-subtly revealed itself as a full-blown Harry Potter prequel, it was ostensibly supposed to follow the adventures of Newt as he traveled around the world collecting creatures to study for the eponymous book for which the first film was named. That seems to have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of the story surrounding Dumbledore and Grindelwald, arguably one of the larger portions of backstory given to us in the original Potter text. While possibly an interesting story in its own right, how can it ever compare against the backdrop of the boy wizard saga that taught a generation to love reading?

For many creators, prequels appear like a safe way to move forward with more of a beloved story without actually having to do so. It’s a way to give you more Star Wars without having to write past the natural ending, and a way to give the world more Harry Potter without ruining Harry’s story. Prequels, at first glance, seem like a good bet but they inevitably hurt a franchise more than they help it. Harry Potter, in particular, feels like a franchise that should be allowed to die while it’s still alive. For a time, J.K. Rowling herself seemed content to let Harry lie low and relax, but in recent years, she has become far more willing to go back to the proverbial well and (at the risk of mixing metaphors) milk the cow for all its worth. Like Tolkien and Lucas before her, Rowling simply can’t resist the pull that her creations have over herself and over the wallets of the world. First came “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” a play that received rave reviews for the production but came under intense scrutiny by fans for its confusing narrative, shock value twists and seeming disregard for the previously established canon.

This newest trailer for “Grindelwald” leans even more heavily into previously established Potter lore, name-dropping Voldemort’s snake Nagini, seen here as a young woman one presumes will eventually become trapped in the form of a snake in a twist straight out of an Animorphs book. This development is another classic example of the plight that prequel stories often have to contend with. In the original series, Nagini was merely a creepy pet of a creepy villain. Now, she’s a seemingly central character, hinting that Voldemort himself will eventually appear. How are we supposed to be afraid of Johnny Depp’s Grindelwald when we know that the real ultimate evil, the one who will one day murder Grindelwald himself, is just waiting slightly offstage?

Such is the problem with prequels. For the audience to maintain interest the stakes have to be upped, but if the stakes are upped too high, it can undercut the narrative of the original story that the prequel is building towards. Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy fell straight into this trap. Instead of trying to make something different from “Lord of the Rings,” Jackson tried to make “Lord of the Rings” again. At times in this new “Fantastic Beasts” trailer, one can’t help but wonder if Rowling is heading down the same dark path. Surely, this is all leading to a scene two or three films from now where Dumbledore or Newt face off against Grindelwald in a wand-waving feat of fantasy filled with colors and explosions and just enough orchestration to stir the heartstrings of geeks everywhere. Will that be enough to satisfy the demands of the fanbase that grew up with Harry but who might now have kids of their own? Will it be enough to satisfy the bottom line needs of Warner Bros.? It seems unlikely. Just a few years ago, most people thought Harry’s story was over. Who doesn’t now think it will be only a matter of time before we see Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and all the rest back on the big screen? With a world as expansive as Harry’s, in today’s day and age of IP recognition against all else, it’s a wonder the original films were allowed to end at all. The Boy Who Lived indeed. Perhaps one day soon we’ll be wishing that he hadn’t.