The impact of – and worldwide love for – JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise can never truly be dimmed, but this doesn’t mean that the legacy of those seven books and eight films is invulnerable. The original Star Wars trilogy is one of the most universally beloved film series of all time, yet its creator George Lucas is, at this point, despised by the vast majority of major Star Wars fans – to the point where jokes at his expense transcend their nerdy origins into the mainstream. Up until this point, additions to the ‘Potterverse’ like the website Pottermore and the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have been largely well-received, but with a five-film plan for the Fantastic Beasts prequel series and Rowling’s ceaseless Twitter-based retconning of the books, is there a danger that she could become the George Lucas of her own universe?
Obviously, a full and measured answer to that question cannot be given until Fantastic Beasts comes out and we see how it stacks up to the rest of the Potterverse. Yet the rather underwhelming trailers and less-than-stellar opening weekend projections suggest that while this certainly won’t be a flop, it won’t match up to its predecessors either, and most likely won’t leave the world with a burning desire for four followup movies.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by JK Rowling in-character as monster-cataloging wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne’s character in the film), is an incredibly slim volume that was originally printed for Comic Relief in 2001. It’s just a list of the various magical species that exist in the wizarding world with some fun descriptions attached, and no plot whatsoever. On the one hand, this lack of a binding story leaves room for imaginative and original new ideas: the 1920s New York setting, for example. But stretching the premise to five films – especially after the Hobbit films proved so divisive – means there’s every chance that the story will underwhelm.
It takes an impressive amount of confidence to commission five films at once, given that we’re already hearing casting news from the sequel before the first film even releases – Warner Bros. clearly have faith that Fantastic Beasts will capture audiences’ imaginations very swiftly. This sort of faith can be a good sign – just look at Marvel’s success with their decade-long plans – but that can also mean sacrificing individual films in service of the larger narrative (as with Batman v Superman: Dawn of the DC Extended Universe). What is most worrying, and where comparisons to Lucas’ prequel trilogy come more naturally, is that Rowling herself is on script duty for at least the first film.
For Warner, this is a huge selling point: Rowling’s name is the easiest way to tie the Fantastic Beasts franchise to its Harry Potter progenitor. On the other hand Rowling is not a seasoned screenwriter, and being given carte blanche over his own universe was what proved fatal for Lucas. He had designed a brilliant world when coming up with Star Wars, but had plenty of outside guidance to craft his stories. By the time of the prequels he was both writer and director with no one around to challenge his ideas, leaving us with trade agreements and Jar Jar Binks.
While we’re not suggesting that Rowling would ever suffer from the same fundamental misunderstanding of what her fans want, one of the reasons that the Harry Potter films were such excellent adaptations were their separation from the books. Rowling’s world of Hogwarts, dark wizards, and chosen ones is one of the most fully-drawn and compelling fictional universes ever, and the story of The Boy Who Lived is the most popular story of an entire generation. Letting other people, with greater cinematic experience, tackle this world and story proved to be a smashing success; with the quality of the films probably surpassing that of the books around the same time that Rowling’s success allowed her to reject having an editor.
Unfettered creative control can be liberating. But when it’s a creator’s own universe, it can be a worry. Lucas gave us the Star Wars prequels, and leaving George RR Martin to his own devices has just resulted in longer and longer delays for new books in A Song of Ice and Fire. Not every detail of every fictional world needs to be canonically confirmed by its creator. Especially not if it takes five whole films to do so.