It’s all gone a bit wrong in the Wizarding World recently. With Covid-19 delaying the third instalment in the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them series – scripted and produced by JK Rowling, starring Johnny Depp, set in Brazil – there are grounds for wondering if the billion dollar Harry Potter spin-off is now the most problematic franchise in cinema.
Rowling has become a lightning rod in the debate over gender identity. In the past several weeks many Harry Potter fans – even Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe – have turned on the author because of her “transphobic” tweets.
Likewise in the headlines is Depp, at the High Court for a libel case in which he is suing the Sun for calling him a “wife-beater”. While Depp denies the allegations the trial has put his personal life and his unhappy marriage to Amber Heard in the spotlight. The grilling looks set to continue for some time to come.
As if that wasn’t enough for a saga already suffering diminishing box office returns, there are also question marks over the participation of Ezra Miller. The young actor went viral in the worst possible way – is there a good way of going viral any more? – after a video of him appearing to choke a fan in Iceland pinged around social media in April.
That’s the worst “triple threat” imaginable for a film which has already seen its release date shunted back to November 2021 because of Coronavirus.
Shooting on the latest Wizarding World adventure was due to begin at Warner Bros Studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire, on March 16 but production was suspended as the country went into lockdown. Much of the action is rumoured to unfold in Rio De Janeiro, though it is unclear whether any filming will take place on location, with the Covid-19 crisis in Brazil continuing to spiral out of control.
Miller plays the central character of Credence Barebone and was due to return for Fantastic Beasts 3 (such is its working title). One theory ricocheting around Hollywood gossip blogs is that Warner Brothers is considering quietly bumping off Barebone off screen. This, though, has yet to be confirmed.
Whether or not Miller stays there are likely to be some uncomfortable silence as production resumes at Leavesden. Eddie Redmayne, around whose wide-eyed performance as wizard Newt Scamander the entire wand-waving edifice has been constructed, is among the Potter stars to publicly take issue with Rowling’s remarks on trans people.
The actor went so far as to issue a statement criticising Rowling’s view that “if sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives” .
“They simply want to live their lives peacefully,” said Redmayne of his transgender friends and colleagues. “It’s time to let them do so.”
The problem – one of the problems – for Fantastic Beasts is that Rowling isn’t simply the creator of the source material, as she was with the Harry Potter films. She is intimately involved in the new movies as producer and screenwriter (while HP veteran David Yates directs). This is entirely and utterly her cinematic vision. Thus at some point, she and Redmayne are going to have to cross paths. It is going to be awkward.
Then Rowling will already know all about “awkward”, having experienced a backlash after it was revealed at the end of the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2016 that uber-villain Grindelwald would be portrayed by Johnny Depp.
That bombshell caused an outcry, coming as it did on the heels of his nasty and public divorce from Heard and accusations of domestic violence. Rowling went so far as to put out a statement on her website explaining the casting. “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies,” she said.
This did not go down well in Potterdom, where Rowling was regarded not simply as an author but a big sister whose novels have serving as a guide to negotiating young adulthood. Depp poured fuel on the story when he gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly, the only promotional duties he would undertake for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald on its release in November 2018.
“I felt bad for JK having to field all these various feelings from people out there,” he said. “I felt bad that she had to take that. But ultimately, there is real controversy. The fact remains I was falsely accused, which is why I’m suing the Sun newspaper for defamation for repeating false accusations. JK has seen the evidence and therefore knows I was falsely accused, and that’s why she has publicly supported me.”
Fantastic Beasts’ reputation would take a further hit over claims of “queer washing” the character of young Dumbledore, portrayed by Jude Law. Rowling had stunned the Potterverse when in 2007 she revealed Harry’s grandfatherly mentor was gay. Later she elaborated his “great tragedy” was falling for Grindelwald.
But when presented with the opportunity to depict a gay romance in a tentpole film, Fantastic Beasts 2 baulked. This led to accusations that Rowling was happy to score “progressive” brownie points without meaningfully addressing in her work Dumbledore’s sexuality. She was telling, not showing.
There was also a groundswell against lack of representation in the Potterverse. An Asian character named “Cho Chang” has drawn claims of lazy stereotyping. Rowling’s “hook-nosed” goblin bankers have come in for criticism too. In the case of the Crimes of Grindelwald there was pushback over the casting of Korean actress Claudia Kim as ‘Nagini’, given that the Nāga mythology that inspired the character of South and South East Asian origin.
Did Depp’s involvement and the “queer-washing” accusations impact negatively on the box office of the Crimes of Grindelwald? It is hard to say as there was already a great deal amiss with the film, which was noisy, confusing and entirely lacking in the charm of the original Potter pics. What we do know is that audiences globally were cool on it, with FB2 grossing a ‘disappointing” $654 million – some way behind the $814 million earned by its predecessor and the lowest total to date for a Potterverse movie.
It is unclear when production will resume on part three. But it is very possible that further damage will by then have been inflicted upon the Wizarding World brand. Depp and Heard’s unhappy marriage will continue to be dissected forensically at the High Court, with the actor having already spoken frankly about his dependency on alcohol. Rowling, for her part, has displayed little inclination to cease her divisive tweeting. It’s possibly she will have even more to say, and sooner rather than later.
One controversy might be survivable. In the case of Fantastic Beasts new ones seem to be popping up quicker than a hyperactive magician can yank rabbits from a hat. Can it survive them all? That may require a feat of movie-making sorcery that would challenge the wand-work of even the mighty Dumbledore.