Harry Potter gets political in new prequel

Potter politics: Eddie Redmayne stars as the ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander. © Scope Features

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a tale of quirky magical creatures causing chaos in New York City. It is also a warning about Donald Trump. Should children’s stories be political?

Populist forces are taking over America. Economic inequality is extreme, and the country is ‘caught in the jaws of fear and paranoia’. Charismatic politicians are stirring up hatred of minorities. Marginalised communities fear for their safety.

No, it is not 2016. It is 1926 in New York City, and a ‘magizoologist’ named Newt Scamander has arrived from Britain with a briefcase bursting with magical creatures. Elsewhere in the city, a ‘fanatical’ group called the ‘Second Salemers’ are calling for the persecution of wizards and witches.

This is the premise of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in a series of five Harry Potter prequels written by J.K. Rowling. It is out in cinemas today.

The film offers an insight into the history of the magical world that Harry, Ron and Hermione will eventually inherit. It is also ‘the first anti-Trump blockbuster of the Donald’s presidency,’ says Rolling Stone. Beyond the film’s fantastical special effects is a story ‘about building a wall, literal and metaphoric, to keep out scary things people don’t understand.’

Rowling admitted this week that she was ‘definitely’ drawing on the ‘rise of populism’ and ‘a desire to smash the status quo.’

But then, she is no stranger to politics. She says her heroes always ‘feel themselves to be set apart, stigmatised or othered.’ She was a strong campaigner against Brexit. She warned on Twitter that Voldemort was ‘nowhere near as bad’ as Donald Trump.

And yet it is her stories themselves which seem to have had the most influence. In 2014, a study found that ‘the Harry Potter generation’ grew up to be more tolerant of outsiders. In 2016, another researcher argued that Potter fans were less likely to support Donald Trump’s campaign for president.

Could Fantastic Beasts have the same effect? ‘Things are happening now that are extreme and extraordinary,’ said its director, David Yates. ‘To not reflect that or to (not) explore those things seems to be a missed opportunity.’

Expelliarmus!

Must we talk about politics? ask some. Children’s stories — especially fantasies — should be about joy and escapism. Who wants to think of Donald Trump while watching a blockbuster about spells and magical creatures? Can writers not create imaginary worlds for young people without pushing a political agenda at the same time?

The best children’s stories have always had deeper messages, counter others. Fairy tales once warned children about the dangers of strangers and powerful authority figures. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to change people’s minds about slavery. And Harry Potter is about the consequences of fear and prejudice. That is part of what makes it so interesting — and so successful.

You Decide

  1. Does Hollywood make too many sequels and prequels?
  2. Should children’s stories be political?

Activities

  1. List five books or films which changed the way you think about the world.
  2. Write a story about a political event in 2016, in the style of a fairy tale.

Some People Say...

“Artists to my mind are the real architects of change.”

William S. Burroughs

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t care about Harry Potter. Why would I care about this?
The film can be enjoyed separately from the original series, its producers promise. But more importantly, children’s stories can have a profound impact on the way we understand the world around us. Whatever your political persuasion, 2016 has been an enormous year. Many would argue that it is the job of writers to reflect and ponder social changes — even in fantasy.
Why is the film set in the 1920s?
It is a fascinating period of history, and J.K. Rowling is not the first person to draw parallels with today. The Republicans had control of both the White House and Congress for most of that decade, as they will in 2017. Populism was rising in Europe. Economic strife was just around the corner. Is this a fair comparison to make?

Word Watch

Newt Scamander
In Harry Potter, he is the author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling published the book in 2001 for charity.
Salemers
A reference to the Salem witch trials which took place in America in the early 1690s. The trials led to 20 executions of people accused of witchcraft.
More tolerant
Harry Potter readers have ‘greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture,’ says Anthony Gierzynski, co-author of the book Harry Potter and the Millennials.
Less likely
This study was published earlier this year by University of Pennsylvania Professor Diana Mutz. ‘Trump’s dominating kind of politics is something people associate with Voldemort.’
Fairy tales
Many of these were originally dark tales of incest, torture and cannibalism passed on through generations of storytellers.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
An American novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1852. It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

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