I’m going to be completely honest with you guys: I had zero expectations for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. I’m not really sure why–maybe it was the general feeling of disappointment in Cursed Child, maybe it was that I didn’t really love the textbook edition Rowling released in 2008, or maybe it’s just that I don’t want people messing with the story and the universe I love so much. Even if that person is J.K. Rowling herself. (After all, can we not agree that Ilvermorney is a little…ridiculous?)
Guys, let me be the first to say it: I was completely wrong not to highly anticipate this movie. I was lucky enough to be able to attend an advanced screening of Fantastic Beasts this past Saturday at Carnegie Hall, as a benefit for Rowling’s charity, the Lumos Foundation. Ms. Rowling herself was there (excuse me while I attempt not to faint), and did a discussion about her foundation and the film with its star, Eddie Redmayne, prior to the screening. I really don’t know which I loved more–Rowling’s humble, straight-forward and inspiring way of talking about one of the heaviest topics there is or the unbelievably incredible film that is Fantastic Beasts. I’ll tell you a bit about them both, in the order we learned about them at the event.
Founded in 2005, the Lumos Foundation’s goal is to end orphan institutionalization by 2050. It sounds counterintuitive, right? Well, Rowling hit us with a lot of staggering facts: 80% of children placed in institutions (orphanages), have at least on living parent. If children have caring family members, then why are more than eight million (that we know of!) institutionalized? There are three main reasons: poverty, illness, and natural disaster. In perhaps the most heartbreaking part of her discussion, Rowling described how institutions have become a business because Westerners are quick to donate, especially in the wake of a natural disaster. Each child brings in an average of $6,000 in foreign aid money. For that reason, some less than reputable orphanages employ people to go from home to home convincing parents that their children will have a better life if they are placed in an institution. Parents are made to feel that their only option to ensure their child is given regular access to food, medicine, education, and protection is to allow their child to be taken away and placed in an institution. And what parent would deny their child food? It’s a convincing argument.
To give more context, here’s the film with which Rowling opened the event:
What Rowling suggests, and what her foundation is attempting to achieve, is to redirect funds currently supporting institutions and instead help families stay together when possible, or set up small family-like group settings, or foster care. The smaller groups and family-like environments give young children the individual attention and affection they require for their brains to develop normally–something that very often does not happen in traditional overcrowded and poorly run institutions. According to the eighty years of research Rowling presented us with, children raised in institutions are 10 times more likely to be involved in prostitution, 40 times more likely to have a criminal record, and 500 times more likely to take their own lives as compared to their peers. Aiming to stop all children from entering institutions by 2035 and completely ending the use of orphanages by 2050, Lumos works with local governments, other NGOs, and community based services to ensure care is properly given and funds are maximized to help as many children as possible.
The good news is, there are tons of things we can do to help! First of all, if you bought The Tales of Beedle the Bard, you’ve already helped support Lumos Foundation, as Rowling donates all proceeds for the title to the foundation. The other things Rowling asks of us all is to please spread the word about the foundation’s mission (they use #WeAreLumos), and if you hear that family or friends are donating money to an orphanage, ask them to think carefully about where they’re sending it. Cutting off funding and making the business unprofitable for those running the institutions will significantly help the situation. If you would like to send money to support children worldwide, you can donate to Lumos here, but there are many other NGOs and community based services using money well, Rowling said. Just do your research before you donate. More information about the foundation and what you can do to help can be found here.
Here’s a bit of Saturday’s discussion:
Heavy stuff, but as you can see, Rowling is hopeful and ended the discussion about Lumos on a very optimistic note, saying the foundation is “the thing of which I am most proud.” Transitioning into discussing Fantastic Beasts, Rowling described the process of writing the script. “Of all the characters that were mentioned in the Potter books but never appeared, Newt always fascinated me the most,” she said. When the time came to start writing the film, Rowling wrote down a description of the character because she “already knew him.” But soon, “the description became a story, and the story became the screenplay.” Rowling found the process of writing a screenplay very different than writing a novel, and got through it by adding long passages of descriptive copy along with the dialogue. Which, Redmayne said, made reading the script for Fantastic Beasts unlike any other script he’d ever read. Want to read it for yourself? It’s being published.
And Rowling’s description paid off. Big time. The film completely holds its own. Visually, it’s stunning–everything from the beasts themselves to the sets, costumes, and, of course, the magic, looks like the even more grown up version of the latter Potter films. Which makes sense, since the Fantastic Beasts series–there will be five films total–is directed by David Yates, who also directed Harry Potter films five through eight. The period costumes, music, and New York City setting mixed with the familiar elements of magic and references to characters we already know made me feel like I was hunting for easter eggs in a vaguely familiar place. The film is probably the closest we Muggles, or rather No-Majes, will ever come to knowing what it’s like to have the incredible imagination of Rowling. When Yates joined her and Redmayne on stage, she complimented Yates’s work by saying she loved going to the set, because it was like “walking around in my own brain.”
The story itself centers on Newt Scamander, who you may already know as the author of the Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, published as a spinoff by Rowling in 2001, with proceeds benefiting Comic Relief. The film opens with Scamander disembarking from an ocean liner in New York City, where he is immediately shown his idea of what America is, is not at all reality. Rowling said the idea of being an outsider is something she’s always been interested in, as evidenced by the first sentence of Harry Potter: “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal,thank you very much.” For this story, she said she wanted to explore that idea further:
“I am very fascinated with the idea of normalcy. The thing is, I’m not sure it exists.”
To end the discussion portion of the evening we received a special surprise: cast members Katherine Waterston (Tina), Alison Sudol (Queenie), Dan Folger (Jacob), and Ezra Miller (Credence), joined Rowling, Redmayne, and Yates on stage for a brief moment. Then we all sat back and watched the incredible film. As I mentioned, I didn’t watch the trailer beforehand and I’m glad I went in with no knowledge or expectations. But if you want to see it and haven’t yet, here it is:
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them releases this Friday, 11/18. Get tickets here.