E. C. Ambrose Takes the Fun out of Movies: “Fantastic Beasts” and the Ethics of Magic

This weekend, I went to see the new Potterverse film, “Fantastic Creatures and Where to Find Them.”  Let me preface these remarks by saying that I love a good fantasy creature, but I have some issues with Rowling’s work overall (from the writerly perspective)  so while I have read the Potter books, I would not describe myself as a fan.  So, as I wrote this blog, I realized it has a certain kinship with my entry on Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe in its examination of aspects of worldbuilding that the author and filmmakers probably did not intend to present–and a new blog series was born!  If you don’t want me to take the fun out of this movie by making you think about it in a different light, perhaps it’s best not to read any further.

Newt Scamander and his muggle sidekick, Jacob

Newt Scamander and his muggle sidekick, Jacob

This film was thoroughly entertaining for the first two-thirds or so, with Newt’s interactions with and devotion to the Fantastic Beasts of the title.  As it reached the climax, it got me to thinking about the nature of Rowling’s Wizarding World as portrayed in the books, and now in this film.  There are enough witches and wizards to have entirely separate governments, bureaucracies, banks, and shopping districts–apparently around the world.  And, aside from needing proper training to use the hereditary gift of magic (there are occasional wizards born to muggle families–apparently a mutation of some sort?), there is basically no cost or limitation on what they can do.

In the books, of course, you get a more nuanced perspective on this, but not greatly so.  The books tend to introduce magic because it’s fun and solves a problem, but without  extrapolating either the consequences of the problem, or of the magic used to solve it.  So when Harry breaks his arm during a quidditch match, and his bones are accidentally dissolved, they are re-grown again at the cost of some pain and a fairly brief recovery time, to be completely normal. I always wondered, what happened to the muscles and tendons which were attached to the bone in the meantime?  Apparently, they were all just fine.  But I digress.

In the film, we are presented with the large and well-organized Macusa, the magical congress of the United States (apparently rhymes with “Yakuza”:  coincidence?).  They are capable of repairing huge swaths of damage in a very short time using waves of their wands, so that the structures are as good as new. They can then obliviate any non-magical persons who might have witnessed the magic, leaving them all perfectly normal.  Again, all of this at no apparent cost, with no apparent difficulty.  They have strict laws to keep themselves apart from the muggles (no-majs in the new parlance).  Naturally, the protagonists have a token muggle friend, but they do eventually comply with the laws.

I would like to contrast two meal scenes in the film, to illustrate my concern with this structure of magical society.  In one, a muggle woman, leader of an anti-witch movement called Second Salem, feeds dozens of children in exchange for their distribution of her leaflets.  In order to make the meal, this woman and her family presumably had to work for the money or to seek out charitable contributions. They then had to work to produce the meal in order to feed so many people.  Their kitchen, indeed their home, is dark, gloomy and poorly furnished, but they manage to feed all of these children, at least once a day.

In another scene, American witch Tina takes home the protagonist Newt Scamander and his muggle acquaintance, Jacob.  There, her washing dries on magical racks. Her table sets itself with beautiful details like soaring napkins, in a cozy and rather luxurious apartment.  Her sister whips up a meal in moments, apparently from nothing, all the way down to a freshly cooked and delicious apple strudel.  The place is bright, airy, comfortable, the food is excellent, provided with no labor at all.  The sisters do have jobs at the Congress, though I don’t have a clear idea of how their work puts food on the table in a literal sense.  Work seems to be unnecessary at least as far as daily needs and wants are concerned. (Tina’s earlier demotion seems to have had no effect on her standard of living, only on her sense of self.)

Here we have a large group of people with extraordinary resources that cost them, so far as we can tell, absolutely nothing.  What if Superman never used his powers to try to save anyone (except from trouble he created)?  What if he just lived as Clark Kent, and went home everyday to fly around his apartment and use his x-ray vision for, well, other purposes?  Would he still be considered a hero?  How about a whole society of supermen who use their power only for their own benefit, who have such an excess of power that they can use it for every trivial purpose?

Is the philosophy of the Wizarding World that muggles need to pull themselves up, to make their own way in the world?  If so, it is a surprisingly pervasive philosophy–are renegade witches ever arrested for running magical soup kitchens for muggles because they feel they’d like to use their powers for the good of others?  Do witches infiltrate and guide search-and-rescue teams to injured muggles, or work as nurses where they secretly prompt better healing than the muggles might otherwise have?  What about in cases where the injury is magically caused or a result of wizardly dueling?

I am not sure you can cause that much destruction to Times Square without anyone getting injured, and simply making them forget exactly how they got hurt, then abandoning them in a perfectly repaired city seems like a recipe for a psychological breakdown.  But the Wizarding World is not concerned with any of this, and even the man whose son is killed seemingly walks away without explanation.  I wondered why, given all of their power, the wizards aren’t just running the country, whether overtly or covertly.

It is implied that the villain of the new film series, Gellert Grindelwald, intends to spark war with the muggles.  This seems rather pointless.  If he wants to rule the world, or just America, all he has to do is run for president.  When you can coerce or bribe people with unlimited wealth (or unlimited threats), and even make them forget they’ve been influenced–there’s really no end to the potential abuses of power.  Second, why would a muggle war be remotely threatening to the Wizarding World?  I have trouble conceiving of any way that the muggles could fight back:  they might have superior numbers, but they’d still be building weapons and directing troops while the wizards would be appirating and firebombing with a flick of their wands.  The wizards, as enemy combatants, would be akin to Isis sleeper cells, but with completely invisible modes of travel, communication and weaponry–only there seem to be many, many more wizards and they are much more organized.

((as an aside, it is implied that Newt and/or his brother, fought in World War I, but I don’t know why the wizards would have been involved, or how. If they either aid or infiltrate muggle society as soldiers, why not as policemen, doctors or psychiatrists?  and wouldn’t they have more effective ways of preventing conflict–hello, time-turner?))

Spiderman lives with the ethos he learned from his family:  with great power, comes great responsibility.  And Spiderman is a limited resource–he’s the only one who can do what he does, he can’t be in many places at once.  In the Wizarding World, the only responsibility seems to be “clean up your mess, and obliviate the witnesses.”

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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2 Responses to E. C. Ambrose Takes the Fun out of Movies: “Fantastic Beasts” and the Ethics of Magic

  1. Laura says:

    Really interesting post. The whole of that world is just littered with plot holes. It takes about whole lot of suspension of disbelief to get through all seven books (I really liked the first three). I think an evil wizard slipping in through the back door as president would make for a great story!

    • It’s good to hear from you–thanks for reading!

      As a some-time workshop leader about fantasy fiction, Harry Potter is handy because almost everyone is familiar with it, so it’s easy to pull examples we can discuss. Alas, many of them are examples of what not to do (or at least, what to think very, very hard about).

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