Unlocking ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ Part One – J. K. Rowling, Screenwriter: the Narrative

fb7I spent the better part of a day last week reading the transcripts and watching the videos of online interviews with Fantastic Beast actors, the director, the producer, and the principal screenwriter, The Presence. I stopped counting after the first fifty articles. My notes, essentially cut and paste extractions of the parts of each interview I thought memorable, ran to just shy of 7,000 words. Please note: I have never bothered to read any interviews with the stars of the eight Harry Potter movies or with the various directors, producers, or screenwriters involved with those blockbuster projects.

I did this for Fantastic Beasts not because I have lost my mind, or, at least I hope that is not the reason for or a consequence of this largely demeaning exercise. I spent a precious day searching and surfing the pablum of discussions between journalists assigned to the entertainment beat and celebrities using those journalists to create greater interest in their product because I wanted to understand J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In the not so distant past, if I wanted a greater understanding of Rowling’s work, I re-read the text she wrote. With her Harry Potter adventures and Cormoran Strike mysteries that has proven to be a successful method: read, reflect, re-read, discuss with thoughtful readers, write about, reflect, re-read, chart, et cetera.

fantastic-beasts-book-coverBut with Fantastic Beasts that method won’t work. Yes, we have a text that purports to be “The Original Screenplay.” It is not, however, the Rowling screenplay used to shoot the film or in which she tells her story. It does not include the six deleted scenes we have been told about (I assume there are more). It does not include the explanations and information available only in exhibits and in the number of movie tie-in books that have been published for the Wizarding World fandom to purchase in the Christmas gift-giving season. There are at last count five revelations with important ramifications that have been discovered by fans in the last two weeks alone and Rowling is making almost daily supplements to what we know on her revitalized jkrowling.com website.

Interpreting a movie is a different thing than reading a book. I have said that before in the context of the difference between the imaginative and sense experiences one has in a book and at the movies. It is true as well because of the significantly different artistry and techniques involved in delivering such antipodal experiences. Here I mean something else.

fb21Reading a book and understanding it for the most part is me and the text as published and, sadly, too often as augmented by continued revelations of the author. ‘Reading a movie,’ especially a blockbuster movie involving hundreds of millions of dollars, I’m learning is a scramble to assemble the text, a definitive text, from the inputs and changes made to the screenwriter’s text by the many collaborators and decision makers involved in making the sausage, not to mention the designers, prop makers, and tie-in books writers.

Today I want to start a five part series on ‘Interpreting Fantastic Beasts’ with a review of all we’ve been told to date about Rowling’s writing process as a new screenwriter. In the next four posts, I hope to look at the filmmakers’ story about Rowling’s efforts, the six cuts we know they made to the original screenplay, the five tie-in story revelations fandom has discovered thus far as well as Rowling’s addenda, and, to conclude, a ‘So What?’ review of what we’ve learned and what it means in understanding and speculating about the five film series.

It starts after the jump!

fb67Rowling as Screenwriter

In relating what the Fantastic Beasts story tellers have said about the background of their magic making, I want to emphasize that these people — the producer David Heyman, the director David Yates, the screenwriter J. K. Rowling — are masters of spin. Creating believable fictional narrative that has the desired effect on their audience is what they do.

I don’t think this story telling, narrative spinning artistry, in other words, is something they turn off when they speak with reporters. Far from it. Creative deception is not only their strength and expertise, it is an essential aspect of the marketing of blockbuster films to excite the potential audience with a back-story trailer that is engaging, even exciting. Take the answers they give with a grain of salt, note where their stories contradict or slip from their agreed to media/fandom narrative, and make of it what you can.

f39164326Let’s start with how the decision was made to make a Fantastic Beasts film. I think Warner Brothers wanted a Wizarding World film, any film, to cash in on Harry Potter’s continued popularity and the success of the eight part movie franchise. Rowling stepped in with a Newt Scamander idea when they were going to do something inane with the originally-for-charity textbook.

Sound preposterous? It is entirely speculative, of course. Here is my evidence.

David Heyman says as much.

“We were thinking about what to do and Lionel Wigram, who was one of the producers on this and who was the executive who I first sent Harry Potter way back in the beginning of 1997… He was thinking about what we could do and he had the idea of maybe doing a documentary about Newt. But ultimately I think Jo got word of that and sort of—I mean, we wouldn’t have done it without Jo’s permission or also a lot like, not sure we could’ve, but most certainly wouldn’t have done even if we could’ve [without her blessing].”

“So, Lionel had this idea. Jo got wind of it. She said, ‘Well, funny enough I’d been thinking about something already.’ And she had this whole idea in some form. I mean, it’s changed and developed over the course of the year and a half and two years that’s been going on. But she knows how each part connects with her universe. She knows the history of magic before we were with Newt Scamander. She knows the history of the school where Queenie and Tina may have gone—I mean she has all this in her head. She knows creatures, their history, where they’re from and so on. She’s knows who Newt’s family is, she knows Queenie and Tina’s family, she has it all figured out in some way. So, when she started, she showed us the script and [we] went, ‘Whew. Thank you.’”

Rowling’s version of the team narrative is similar (it just leaves out the possibility of a documentary her script from the drawer cut off).

“Fantastic Beasts” became a movie franchise when Warner Bros. optioned the rights to the novella several years ago. When the studio approached Rowling about adapting it into a movie, she told them she had a back story already etched out for Newt Scamander (Redmayne), the Magizoologist who arrives to New York with a briefcase packed with magical animals. “The character of Newt appealed to me,” Rowling said. “I had some thoughts about what happened to Newt and who Newt was. I thought, ‘I better tell them, because I wouldn’t want them to get Newt wrong.’” Her notes turned into a draft for the first script.


jkrNewt Scamander shows up in Harry Potter as the author of the guide Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—a book J.K. Rowling then wrote as Scamander in 2001 for charity. “The character of Newt appealed to me, and as often happened with the Potterverse, I had some thoughts about what happened to Newt and who he was,” Rowling said at a press conference for the Fantastic Beasts film. Warner Bros. then optioned Fantastic Beasts, and when they approached her about finally making it, “I thought ‘Wait a moment, wait a moment—I’d better tell them what I’ve got, because I wouldn’t want them to get Newt wrong,’” she said. “I sat down to write some notes, and [before I knew it], I’d written a story, and then that story became a screenplay. So it was never really a calculated, ‘I think I want to revisit the world.’ It came as these things always do—through a story.”

Did she have the Newt story in the drawer, though, or did she start writing the story after the 800 pound gorilla said a film was going to be made?

J.K. Rowling: I was in the Wizarding world for 17 years, and if you’ve been with something for 17 years, it doesn’t leave you. I knew I was only going to write seven Harry Potter novels, but it’s there, that world is still in my mind. 

And, like I said, never say never, because I knew Warner Bros. might want to do something with Fantastic Beasts – which was the thing I was most interested in writing. 

When Warner Bros. came to me and said, ‘We’d like to do something,’ I thought, ‘Right, now I need to tell you what I’ve got.’

I always had a lot of backstory about certain characters, so I started writing what I saw as Newt’s story

So it started “through a story” — and the story writing got a huge push from the market forces of a conglomerate optioning one of her stories for adaptation.

2015-hI think that the Fantastic Beasts textbook can only be seen as a “novella” by a media corporation eager to serve its shareholders with another Harry Potter movie of some sort. Rowling “got wind of it,” realized there was very little she could do to stop it, and took out her notes to offer a much more exciting alternative for them as businessman and for her as a writer. J. K. Rowling tells her Newt Scamander story so they get The Presence’s imprimatur and full engagement (essential to fandom buy-in); she gets a lot more control in how her story is told than her thumbs up or down power over the Potter adaptations.

Rowling’s Screenwriting Method 

Rowling pretty much disregarded the conventions of the screenwriting craft to tell the story the way she thought it should be told. She has had significant success as a novelist (!) and doesn’t think the tricks of that trade, the tools in her kit, need to be disregarded.

She tells us as much.

“I think we’ve done the best job we can,” she said. “I’ve told a story I really want to tell.” But Rowling said she wasn’t giving up her day job. “I’m still writing novels,” Rowling said. “That’s why I look so tired. I’m writing a novel and a screenplay currently.”

The first screenplay was, as you’d expect, a book more than a script with stage directions:

According to lead actress Katherine Waterston, who plays Porpentina Goldstein, it didn’t bother her to not have a book to go to as a resource going into Fantastic Beasts. “I was thrilled to just have the script, which was quite like a book itself,” she said in a roundtable interview before the movie’s release. “It was so detailed and rich, but ours and a secret from the world.” The actors couldn’t take the scripts home with them, though—they had to lock them up in a safe at the end of the day. “It was like a library on set,” Waterston said. “You’d check [the script] out, put it back in.”

Rowling did buy a book on the craft of screenplay writing, but didn’t open it.

How did she learn the craft of screenwriting? “I did buy a book that I never read,” Rowling said. “It just sat on my desk. I was very involved with the ‘Potter’ scripts,” she said about her screenplay approval of those stories.

“I read eight scripts so I pretty much knew what I was doing.” Ouch. Of course, if Gilderoy can back up her braggadocio, who’s to complain? Confirmation for the doubters

Fantastic Beasts marks Rowling’s screenwriting debut, and though she was very involved with that process during the filming of the Potter franchise—she had final approval on all screenplays—she still bought a book about how to write a script. But she never opened it. “It just sat on my desk, and I think I felt that that was my homework,” she said at a press conference for the film. “I haven’t actually done my homework, maybe I just thought I’d absorb it somehow.”

Evidence that we have besides her testimony of not doing her homework? David Heyman says Rowling threw the conventional movie-making story-telling template, the 3 Act, 8 Part, template out the window.

fb70What I love about the script is it’s unconventional. Certain scripts fall into tropes of what happens at the end of act one – all is lost at the end of act two, and onto three. I like the fact that this defies that convention. It’s its own, no pun intended, “beast.” The final script, which will be published, I think is something very special.

“Very special.” A screenwriter working as artist-in-residence at a local university gave a lecture recently on the conventional template for film-making, 3 acts, 8 parts, inciting indent at 12:00 minutes, story reversal at 55:00 minutes, etc. He described it as a form that was as locked down its formal requirements as an Elizabethan sonnet was — and that no studio would even look at a script not conforming to these conventions. 

Unless, of course, that writer is the best selling novelist of all time with a global following counted in units of ‘billions of people.’ Heyman was not going to reject Rowling’s “beast” script.

He — and she — had Steve Kloves, master Potter adaptation artist, on hand “to help her” and to smooth out the roughest edges:

Thankfully, she had Steve Kloves—who penned the Harry Potter scripts—to help her. “I would say that Steve was my tutor on this, and it’s a reason I was so keen to have him attached to this project, because I knew he would be the guy I could phone at 4 a.m. if I needed to. I never phoned him at 4 a.m., but I suppose I could have.”

Does the script show signs of a newbie scriptwriter, evidence she should have called Steve Kloves more often? The movie reviewer for Slate sure thinks so:

fb66But while it’s a decent table-setter and a welcome return to a magical world that many of us love dearly, it’s no Force Awakensbogged down as it is by exposition, dull characters, and sludgy pacing. Rowling herself wrote the script, and it plays like a first screenplay about which few dared to deliver notes. And this is the first time that David Yates—who directed the final four movies in the Potter series—has been defeated while dueling his wizardly material….

In E.M. Forster’s formulation, Fantastic Beasts is antic with story but doesn’t really have a plot. People get killed, beasts get Newtsplained, rugs get pulled, but little of it feels connected. Subsidiary characters gradually grow to admire Newt and even love him, but it’s never clear why.

fb1Redmayne’s performance doesn’t make it easy. Newt is capable and brave but reticent to the point of silence. In what feels like an elementary screenwriting mistake, that’s a choice that makes comic sense in Newt’s first encounter with talkative palooka Fogler but that pays off less and less as the movie goes on. It’s painful to watch Redmayne tamp down his charisma so thoroughly.

And Yates, too, seems overwhelmed. He’s as sure as ever with his special effects, but simple conversational beats and banter seem beyond him. Jokes land with thuds; scenes drag on without end. One sequence, a meet-cute between Fogler’s no-maj and a flapper named Queenie (Alison Sudol), is excruciating, every emotion exaggerated, every magical effect double-underlined for emphasis.

That’s not just one crazy reviewer’s Rita Skeeter jag. I wrote two screenwriters I know to ask them to comment publicly on Fantastic Beasts and both balked, politely. They confided in me that there is an unwritten Guild rule not to criticize another writer’s script (“Who knows what happened to the original as they made the film?”). Neither had anything nice to say, so they just said nothing.

Rowling/Film Makers Process

The new jkrowling.com has a page from the Fantastic Beasts screenplay open on her homepage with Rowling’s handwritten marginalia. It describes Gnarlack’s introducing himself to the foursome in ‘The Blind Pig’ speakeasy. Nothing from it survives in the printed/film version (pp 192-196). So if “few dared delivered notes” to the new screenwriter as the Slate reviewer opined, then “those few” must have been pretty thorough.

Sure enough, the narrative Heyman, Yates, and Rowling all stick to in interviews is that she wrote a draft, they suggested changes, she re-wrote it, they suggested changes, she re-wrote it, et cetera. Director David Yates:

fb71Jo’s an extraordinary writer. She hasn’t written a screenplay before, so for her this was a new experience. If you work with a traditional screenwriter you’ll give the screenwriter notes on a draft, you’ll spend three days, five days going through the script and you’ll give lots of notes on that and the writer will go away and spend three months or six months re-writing. With Jo it’s a sort of extraordinary process because she doesn’t realize that’s how it should work. So, you give Jo notes and then a week later you’ll get a script. And I’ll be like, ‘Whoa! Jo’s just delivered a script—after a week.’ And what she’ll do is she’ll kind of riff off notes and she’ll create a whole new series of things within that screenplay, which take us off in all sorts of different tangents.

She’s like a sort of volcano of ideas. And the process was really paring down, tuning, finding ultimately the form that would best become a movie. And she’s a really quick learner, so pretty much after several months of that process she kind of got the form really, really quickly. And realized that it was about paring down and simplifying, rather than adding absolute new sequences and new ideas all the time.

Producer David Heyman is faithful to this narrative:

SnitchSeeker: When you were originally talking with Jo, what was the first draft like versus the final draft?
fb72David Heyman: When I read the first draft initially, it was with a little bit of trepidation because she’s a great novelist but it doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great screenwriter. The very first draft had something. The characters were vivid. The storytelling was wonderful. There were scenes that just leapt from the page that you couldn’t wait to film. But it was quite whimsical. So then working with her on the second draft, pushing in a slightly darker direction, the script came back and it was really dark.

But some of those elements – that whimsy – still remain in the script today, and some elements of that darkness remain in the script today in the film that you see. The challenge was really, she’d be the first to admit – was she was learning on the job. But once she found her tone, then she was off to the races.

Rowling confirms the back-and-forth but doesn’t admit that this was anything novel for her; “That’s always my process,” i.e., ‘They may have made changes and cuts but I am still in charge of the material (I’ll sneak it by them in the next movies).’

2013“One of [the drafts] was really dark,” Rowling said at the press conference. “There was a lot of stuff in the sewers. I don’t know what was going on in my life at that moment, I just remember David [Yates] saying ‘This is very dark draft …’ Dot Dot Dot. ‘You need to lighten this up a little.’ We went through a lot of drafts, but that’s always my process—this isn’t a screenwriting thing. I tend to generate a lot of material, and some of the ideas from some of those drafts I’m sure will be in the following movies.”


We knew already that Rowling’s screenplay was not the conventional movie-making formula but her applied-for-patent ring composition story scaffolding. See that discussion here. What we learn from the interviews is that:

  • f39164262Warner Brothers optioned “the novella” Fantastic Beasts, Newt Scamander’s textbook, in their need for another Wizard World blockbuster. Rowling “got wind” of the project and hastily started writing a story from some character notes she had on Newt to keep them from making a hash of it.
  • Rowling did not do her “homework” on screenwriting, but chose to write the screenplay as she’d written her books. Steve Kloves helped in ways we’re not told to bring this book-like story to script form.
  • David Heyman and David Yates asked for rewrites of her first drafts, which she responded to in hurried fashion and as “a volcano of ideas.” Their struggle was in getting her to focus and cut out all the extras.
  • Rowling does not see the drafts-notes-rewrite process “as a screenwriting thing” but as her natural way of writing with editors, albeit ones with film making concerns rather than those of novels’ publishers.

In our next two posts in this ‘Interpreting Fantastic Beasts‘ five part series, we’re going to look first at Heyman and Yates’ responses to those drafts, their narrative of their role in the screenwriting process. That will segue neatly into a much longer post about the six deleted scenes that they cut from Rowling’s script and what it means for our understanding of the story and of Rowling’s artistry.

Stay tuned — and please share your comments and corrections below!

Interpreting Fantastic Beasts: Finding the Text Round Up

Part 5A: So What? The Found Text and Its Meaning

Part 5B: The Shooting Script — A Corrected Text for Serious Readers

Part 5C: Conclusions and Predictions





  1. Kelly Loomis says

    I’m looking forward to hearing about all of the deleted scenes. I know a few but probably less than you do!!

    It’s been frustrating how much of the story is spread out into so many sources. Little facts or pictures buried in the movie books make it hard to get the whole story. I’ve felt like a detective pouring over fansites and social media to make sure i didn’t miss a critical fact. It’s a fun task but a little aggravating.

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