The Case for Reading the Screenplay

Apr 05, 2019

Posted by: Dawn Johnson

Fandom, Fans, Fantastic Beasts, Films, J.K. Rowling, Movies, News, Opinion, Yates

Perhaps you thought J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald screenplay was not worth reading. You might reason, what more can it reveal that I didn’t see in the film which is a direct adaptation of the script? You might think, I’ll be disappointed. What I wanted was a book, not a screenplay, so there’s no point in settling for less. I’d like to argue, however, that the screenplay, while assuredly a different story-telling medium than we’re used to, still has much to offer fans of the series and is well worth reading at least once.

I was quite surprised at the number of new things I picked up on as I poured over the screenplay. Not mystery-solving mind-blowing observations, mind you, but plenty that added nuance and context to my understanding of the story. In fact, while some critics and fans have criticized the film for having a poorly-constructed plot (though we believe those plot twists should not be mistaken for plot holes), I found that the screenplay read more smoothly than expected, in spite of the fact that it cuts from scene to scene.

Without the pressure of maintaining a film’s visual pace and flow, it read more like the plot synopsis of a novel. No surprise there given that Rowling is a consummate novelist, and a screenplay, by necessity, must sacrifice much of a book’s development in order to hit the essential highpoints. Sure, some will argue that a more seasoned screenwriter could work around these constraints and provide a more polished finished product but, nonetheless, I think we’ll find that the context is all there in Rowling’s head, we just don’t have it yet–and by design.

What you can discern from the reading is clues that are easy to miss in the viewing. Though I’ve seen the film multiple times, it was easy to get caught up in its production quality, charismatic performances, special effects and overall entertainment value and overlook its subtleties. With the Harry Potter film adaptations, we had the benefit of falling back on the books to fill in those details and seeming plot holes. Here, we must wait and glean what we can from what Rowling has given us…which is more than you’d think at first glance.

1) Abernathy’s missing tongue and Grindelwald great escape. 


The screenplay makes it clear that Abernathy is missing a tongue. I missed this detail in each viewing. I mistakenly thought that the reveal of the forked tongue was part of his magical transfiguration and belonged to Grindelwald, not making the connection, spelled out in the script’s notes, that Abernathy has no tongue and is gifted the new one by Grindelwald in much the same way that Voldemort gifts Peter Pettigrew with a new hand.

This is very interesting because it makes you wonder when they switched places. If MACUSA removed Grindelwald’s “silver tongue” months prior, that would mean Abernathy was wooed to his cause and took his place earlier than presumed. The question then becomes, why did Grindelwald stay rather than bolting immediately?

Probably, it was important that he remain nearby in order to keep up the transfiguration ruse, highly skilled magic likely affected by proximity. If he fled months prior, his escape would have been revealed as well. This would suggest that timing was an important factor in Grindelwald’s plans. Perhaps his cohorts had not yet located Credence. Whatever the reason, it’s thought-provoking.

Alternatively, it’s possible MACUSA removed Abernathy’s tongue immediately before the prisoner transfer because “Grindelwald” would no longer be in isolation, and this would be the most certain way of ensuring that he could not influence the Aurors assigned to interact with and escort him. That being the case, he and Abernathy could have switched places mere hours before the escape. Either way, it makes you wonder about his plan and how intricate it is.

2) Newt’s history with both the Ministry and Grimmson.


When I first watched Crimes of Grindelwald, I thought it was odd that Newt was so hostile during his hearing at the Ministry of Magic. Granted, we know Newt has a low opinion of office work and finds Ministry bureaucrats unsympathetic and obstinate in their hardline approach, but his reaction only makes sense if there’s more to the story than we know.

That history is hinted at in the screenplay. In the script notes, Rowling identifies Grimmson as a “Beast Hunter.” Where I originally assumed he was an auror with special skills, it seems he’s more of a gun for hire, a mercenary tasked with doing the dirty work the Ministry wants to stay out of.

If he’s a “Beast Hunter,” this gives much more context to Grimmson contemptuous dressing down of Newt and Newt’s leap of logic that the Ministry wants him to kill Credence. It suggests that they crossed paths over Grimmson tracking and extermination of magical creatures, which puts him directly at odds with Newt, who wants to preserve the beasts and educate the wizarding world about them. It’s probable that the Ministry approached Newt with just such an offer at one time, further explaining his lack of faith in and disconnect from the Ministry.

This is further confirmed later in the film when Newt tells Tina, the Ministry’s “answer to everything they fear or don’t understand is, ‘Kill it!‘” Clearly, Newt has been here before. The Ministry is not interested in evaluating the true dangers presented; being a perceived threat is reason enough to strike and strike decisively.

 3) The extent of the Blood Pact’s reach.


We’ve already discussed the Blood Pact between Grindelwald and Dumbledore extensively, breaking down the implications, timing and other theories. We discussed how nuanced, and specific, Rowling’s magical world can be when it comes to the subtleties of magical properties and the practical applications and parameters of spells. Given the amount of analysis devoted to these things, I was surprised to find that reading the dialogue further cemented a few ideas.

The conversation between Newt and Dumbledore in the trolley car always struck me as somewhat difficult to follow. Dumbledore jumps around in his thought process, failing to say, or intentionally leaving out, important information. He doesn’t connect all the dots for us or for Newt. At one point he seems to be talking about Credence and the rumors swirling about the missing Lestrange heir, and then, when Newt asks why Dumbledore cannot go to Paris himself, Dumbledore abruptly says, “I cannot move against Grindelwald.”

Reading the flow of the words on the page, it is more clear than ever that in Dumbledore’s mind, it’s all connected, even though Newt will not understand until the end. Dumbledore cannot seek out Credence because that amounts to an intentional move against Grindelwald. Credence is so significant to whatever is coming that a coordinated, planned effort to lure him in would amount to an offensive. This suggests much about the far-reaching extent of the Blood Pact’s constraints.

It also explains why Grindelwald later tells his minions that Credence “must come freely.” I assumed it was because Grindelwald wanted to secure Credence’s voluntary loyalty so that he would be fully committed to vengeance and channel his violent powers to those ends. But, in truth, Grindelwald is so powerful he does not need his acolytes’ loyalty. He could simply Imperius Credence and force him to confront Dumbledore on his behalf. But the emphasis here is on the “must.” Grindelwald cannot actively pursue Credence anymore than Dumbledore can. Credence must come of his own accord or it violates the pact.

They can, however, send intermediaries to act in their stead. Dumbledore sends Newt, and Grindelwald sends Grimmson. It will be interesting to see how Rowling continues to develop the conflict introduced as both men dance around the magic binding their actions–until such time as the pact is broken.

4) Creative license with the screenplay and Queenie’s journey.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Final Trailer screen grab Credit:Warner Bros.

I assumed that when Rowling wrote the screenplay, we would get a film version that depicted her vision exactly as written, so I was surprised to discover that some things were interpreted differently when translated to the visual medium.

For example, when Newt lifts the love spell Queenie put on Jacob, the film shows him being purged from its effects–it rises from his body like a toxic vapor leaving his system. However, the screenplay simply says he reacts to the lifting of the charm as to “a bucket of cold water.” It sounds like a shock, yes, but a waking up or resurfacing rather than an exorcism of sorts. Perhaps David Yates chose to show the charm’s effects as having consuming power over an individual in order to visually foreshadow Queenie’s desperation, inner turmoil and willingness to push the bounds of ethics for a cause she wholeheartedly believes in. In effect, Yates is saying, this seems innocent, but it’s far from it.

The interpretive license makes sense in context. Through the medium of film, the audience has little time to understand Queenie’s journey to Grindelwald’s side, so Yates must use everything at his disposal to get us there.

Another interesting change comes later in the film when Queenie sinks into the street corner overwhelmed by the voices around her. In the screenplay, it reads as though Jacob and Newt are actually nearby. They are so close, in fact, that Queenie can hear their thoughts in her head and runs after them. When she cannot find them, she then drowns in her despair. Her hopelessness is what makes her susceptible. Grindelwald offers her false hope, and she grasps after it.

However, the way the scene is cut, we cannot tell if Jacob and Newt are there or not, and she comes across as delusional and paranoid. This gives us a different impression of her mental state and motivation, but Yates may have opted to play up her hysteria in order to explain her radical change. Whether this hurts or helps the film is hard to say, but it is fair to say that reading even the brief descriptions included in the script adds to a fuller understanding of her story arc. Queenie is an optimist, and understanding her fall from that lofty idealism better justifies her vulnerability.

These are only a few of the observations drawn from a careful reading of the dialogue and notes included in the screenplay. There is something about being able to take in the bare words for what they are that allows you to process the story in a different way, and for fans who love the series or are simply interested in a better understanding of the complex story, it is well worth the effort.


The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.