To quickly say for the record: I rather enjoyed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I found it full of charming (if quirky) characters, delightful magic, and a rich setting. That said, the movie wanders for quite a bit of its first hour. The audience is hit with disjointed scenes of the wizarding world, Newt Scamander, a muggle (no-maj) named Kowalski, an anti-magic cult, and a harried former auror named Tina. It’s a lot to take in, and it doesn’t really start making sense until all the main characters are together.
Watching the opening of the film, it suddenly dawned on me: these scenes play out in a very similar manner to chapters from a book. Think of the very opening of the movie: the dark wizard Grindelwald confronting a powerful magical parasite (an Obscurus). This would be a very compelling opening in a book, similar to the opening with Frank in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. With it, Rowling establishes her wizarding world (time and place), as well as the main threat of the story.
At least that’s how it would work in novel form…
What the audience sees is the back of someone’s head (we don’t know it’s Grindelwald) and an orb of light, followed promptly by an avalanche of newspaper clippings that tell (not show) what the time period is and what is happening.
Screenwriting is not a one-to-one equivalent with novel-writing for one simple reason: films are visual narratives, books are not. Even the best illustrated volume is not as innately visual as a movie. As such, what works on the page does not always work on-screen.
Let’s look at another scene in the opening. Newt Scamander doesn’t do a lot of talking right away. He is an awkward, reclusive shell that is hiding a very caring man (this, by the way, does come out wonderfully later on in the film when we learn more about him). That said, in the first half-an-hour, when the audience is trying to learn/get attached to the character… it’s difficult. Newt merely mumbles and makes facial gesture.
In a book, an inner monologue could be present. We could know exactly why Newt is in New York and, much more importantly, why he seemingly has no time for any of the characters he interacts with. I feel that a reader could bond with Newt much more quickly, allowing a much quicker immersion and investment into the story.
That said, J.K. Rowling’s script does allow visual storytelling to flourish at times. When the audience descends into Newt’s suitcase, we learn more about him (and he becomes much more endearing) than in the entirety of the movie up to that point. Newt doesn’t explain all his creatures, he merely interacts with them. This is a natural way to draw out personality… even if it is from a mythical snake dragon that lays silver eggs.
In short, Fantastic Beasts is worth seeing just to watch the struggles and successes of a first-time professional screenwriter. I feel like this film is a good companion piece to any author who would like to try their hand at the wonderful world of film.