J. K. Rowling and the Curse of the Prequel Series

With the new Fantastic Beasts movie, the Harry Potter author is making some inexplicable and unnecessary additions to her beloved wizarding universe.

Ezra Miller in 'Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald'
Ezra Miller in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Warner Bros.)

This article contains major spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

When J. K. Rowling first announced in 2013 that she was working on a film adaptation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, she called it an “original story.” That is, it would be “neither a prequel nor a sequel to the Harry Potter series,” taking place 70 years before her original books. Five years later, upon the release of the follow-up movie Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, it might be fair to quibble with Rowling’s initial claim a little. Yes, the stories aren’t specifically related to the heroic arc of Harry Potter. But they’re hardly self-contained, existing mostly to fill out an ever-expanding legendarium.

The original Fantastic Beasts book was a miniature paperback (written in 2001 as part of a charity drive) that’s supposed to mimic a Hogwarts textbook. So it may be unsurprising that the movie series, while ostensibly following the book-within-a-book’s author, Newt Scamander, feels like an encyclopedia. The Fantastic Beasts franchise adds new entries and addenda to Potter lore, and new branches to old family trees, at a genuinely confusing rate. Can any sense be made of it all—particularly the baffling final revelation of one character’s heritage?

The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up months after the events of the first Fantastic Beasts, where the magic zoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) met the wizard cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) in New York, along with her kindly sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a non-wizard (“No-Maj,” in American parlance) baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Together, the pals uncover a conspiracy involving a repressed and very powerful wizard with the Dickensian moniker Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is also being tailed by Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a notorious wizard criminal who preaches magical superiority.

If this new film can be said to revolve around anyone, it’s Credence. Though Newt and Grindelwald are major players, they spend most of the action circling each other, with Newt acting as an advance agent for his former teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). Credence, meanwhile, is the only person driving the film forward while the others bide their time; he’s in Paris trying to prove the rumor that he’s a long-lost member of the Lestrange wizarding family. What follows is a twist that is cataclysmically plotted and nigh-impossible to understand.

A lengthy monologue from Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) helps explain it. She once had a baby half brother. But young Leta, who resented the child, switched him with another baby in a fit of pique while on a boat crossing. The boat sank, and her half brother drowned; the new baby she kidnapped grew up to be none other than Credence. Later, Grindelwald arrives and completes the picture: Credence, somehow, is in fact named Aurelius Dumbledore, and he’s the brother of the beloved teacher who will decades later mentor Harry Potter.

There is no reasonable way to justify this revelation, which is deployed as the film’s most shocking moment. Why a random Dumbledore baby would have been on the same ship as the Lestranges is not explained. It’s improbable that Credence, who is 18 years old, could be brother to Albus Dumbledore, who is 46 in the film. Albus’s mother died before Credence was born (though his father’s fate is less clear, so Credence could be a half brother). It’s also possible that Grindelwald is lying—but then why make the reveal the movie’s big ending? True or false, Albus Dumbledore was not interested in telling Harry about Aurelius years later, instead only ever mentioning his brother Aberforth and his sister Ariana.

This is the curse of making a prequel series, one that Rowling is perhaps only beginning to understand (The Crimes of Grindelwald is getting far worse reviews than the first Fantastic Beasts): You can’t drop bombshells that end up having no effect on the original stories you’re referencing. Secret brother or not, Credence is never referenced by name in the Harry Potter series, so it’s hard to care about him. If the Fantastic Beasts movies were more careful about staying separate from their forebears, then they could stand alone with their own wild twists. But the presence of crucial characters such as Dumbledore link the two franchises inextricably.

That link lowers the dramatic stakes for Grindelwald’s story. The wizard spends the entire movie gathering followers and preaching a message of isolationism, even winning over Queenie. But anyone who’s read Harry Potter knows that Grindelwald, a sort of wizarding parallel to Hitler, is eventually defeated by Dumbledore in a grand duel and imprisoned for the rest of his life. Yet there’s no hint of that showdown here—it’s likely being saved for a future sequel, which only makes The Crimes of Grindelwald feel flimsier, as I’ve written.

There are references to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s teenage friendship, which J. K. Rowling has clarified involved unrequited same-sex attraction on Dumbledore’s part. But fans looking for onscreen acknowledgment of Dumbledore’s sexuality will be disappointed. The best The Crimes of Grindelwald has to offer is a youthful blood bond made between the two, which is cited as the reason Dumbledore cannot personally fight the dark wizard. Digging into that relationship could have been a better justification for the prequel; instead, audiences are led on strange side tracks. One story line shows that Nagini, a snake belonging to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort, was once an Asian woman (Claudia Kim) cursed with a blood disease that will eventually turn her into a snake.

Now anytime viewers see Nagini in a movie, that bit of information is retroactively relevant. In the books, Nagini kills one of the most pivotal characters, Snape; she’s eventually killed by another one, Neville Longbottom. Knowing that a woman is trapped inside that animal form changes those plot points drastically, but for an unclear purpose. Nagini’s origin story is thus as useless as George Lucas’s revelation that the Star Wars character Boba Fett was in fact a clone of his father, or Prometheus’s hint that the aliens of Alien were created by 10-foot-tall rubber goons. Prequels can be enjoyable adventures in their own right, but it’s rare for them to offer meaningful new backstory that audiences don’t already know. The original Harry Potter series is presented as a complete narrative, and it is one. So far, Fantastic Beasts is just muddling, rather than deepening, the grander plot.

Bad reviews or not, The Crimes of Grindelwald looks poised to be another box-office success; a third entry (of a proposed five) should be in preproduction soon, perhaps with a little more for Law as Dumbledore to do. However, one shudders to think what further needless explanations could be on the horizon. An origin story for the grandfather of Hedwig the owl isn’t out of the question. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Buckbeak the hippogriff was once a human (maybe played by Nicholas Hoult). Horror of horrors, there could even be an elder Potter on the horizon. Rowling has a limitless canvas on which to paint these new movies, but so far, she seems more intent on paying useless homage to portraits past.