In a now-deleted tweet, another author wrote that the Fantastic Beasts movies sounded like the Star Wars prequels, because they focused on worldbuilding at the expense of characterization. That got me thinking about the basic appeal of fantasy stories, and what role worldbuilding and characterization plays in making that appeal long-lasting.
If someone as savvy as the one mentioned above thinks the Fantastic Beast films have Star Wars Prequel-level characterization, that’s a major failure of the WB marketing department. Whatever the flaws of the Fantastic Beast movies, boring lead characters are not one of them. Newt Scamander might be the most peculiar hero of big budget studio adventure films in my lifetime. Even something as simple as the way he stands when he talks to other people subverts the idea of a male hero, the guys who wipe a trickle of blood from the corner of their mouth with their fist.
Honestly, I found Newt’s body language off-putting at first. His body language suggests that he believes other humans are dangerous predators, even the friendly ones. Imagine a Harry Potter who can barely make eye contact with Draco. It’s a bold choice, and it’s about a thousand miles from sulky, petulant Annakin and whatever Liam Neeson was doing.
One the problems with the second film is that the newer additions to the story aren’t as distinctive as the characters from the first film. Grindelwald’s hench-people in particular are a bunch of stoic blank-faces and a big disappointment from the writer who created the faculty at Hogwarts.
But I have to ask, if you want to talk about interesting characters, what about Harry Potter as a character? He comes from an abusive background (without the harmful damage kids in that environment get in the real world). He’s good at sports. He’s earnest and brave and snubs Flashman… er, I mean Draco from the start of the story.
We like him because, in part (and I’ll get to the second part in a bit), he’s a good guy in difficult circumstances, but it’s the specifics of those circumstances that make his story compelling. That’s on the worldbuilding.
Really, it’s Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the centerpiece of the appeal of the Harry Potter stories. Yeah, the characters. Yeah, the names of the characters (which I love). Yeah, the mix of plot threat, magic, interpersonal character bonding and conflict–Rowling has a sense for mixing those things in just the right order. But the Harry Potter books work so well because of a fairly ordinary Brave Young Hero in an extraordinarily appealing setting.
There’s a moment in FB2 where the story briefly returns to Hogwarts and it’s announced by that musical motif. You know the one I mean. It made me wonder why the other characters didn’t have their own music. Shouldn’t Credence’s scenes have their own little jingle? Shouldn’t Grindelwald’s? (Or maybe they did, but if so I didn’t notice) It would have helped establish the various factions in the plot, and helped us connect them.But Hogwarts deserves its own jingle because Hogwarts is the place we want to be.
Personally, I think the worldbuilding is an obsession with fantasy readers and fans. I have seen people complain about The Lies of Locke Lamora because it didn’t give them a sense of the world as a whole. It’s been said that a crime novel is, at its core, about a city, while a spy novel is like a tourist’s travel guide. Well, I think fantasy readers want their novels to be expeditions into fictional places, and I suspect Rowling has plenty more travel guide in her.
This isn’t to say that characterization isn’t important–obviously it is–but I think what really matters (this is the second part I mentioned above) is the relationships between the main characters. How they’re connected, how that relationship is tested, how it survives (or doesn’t).
I think this is the biggest flaw in the FB2: not enough emphasis is put on the connections between the characters. Jacob and Queenie spend most of the movie apart. Credence and Nagini need a scene to demonstrate the powerful connection between them to make his climactic choice meaningful. Leta’s connection to Newt is demonstrated powerfully, but not her connection to Theseus. And Grindlewald’s connections to his henchfolk is simply assumed.
Yeah, the movie has problems, but I think it’s better than people think. As I said on Twitter, in a few years’ time I expect people to reappraise it, especially in light of the FB series as a whole, however long many movies turns out to be.
But I’ll sum up by saying the worldbuilding has to have lasting appeal to sustain a long series, which I think the HCU (Hogwarts Cinematic Universe, ‘natch) does. Also, it helps to have interesting supporting characters and standard heroic leads with strong relationships to the other characters, because it’s the connections the readers will invest in, not the characters themselves. IMO.