The Harry Potter series is one that I hold very nearly and dearly to my heart. I can still remember reading the books with my parents before bed, the first time that we had done that in years, at least as far as I can remember. Later, the movies came out and began to cement my love for what that particular form of media can do, as the incredible adult cast helped the young cast grow into the pretty strong performers that they were by the end of the franchise in 2011. Not only that, but Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of the third novel is genuinely one of my favorite movies, full stop. Throughout the years, the books and the films taught me the power of friendship, the evil of thinking one group of people can be inherently better than another, and how even small children can be truly brave. On the surface, it’s everything that one could want from a franchise.
Since 2011, the series has gone…well, it hasn’t been great. A sequel play was released that seemed to completely forget what the previous franchise had done, and we’re expected to just accept it as canon. And, in late 2016, the Fantastic Beasts franchise was introduced, bringing on its own issues. As a film, the first Fantastic Beasts movie, suffers some of the most severe tonal whiplash I’ve ever seen in a movie, jumping from moments of whimsy like Eddie Redmayne seducing a rhino-like creature in order to get it back into his magic briefcase to a scene where Ezra Miller gets beaten with a belt. By the end of the film, we’re introduced to the real problem with the movie: the introduction of Johnny Depp as the series’ main antagonist, Gellert Grindelwald. At this point, Amber Heard’s accusations of Depp physically and emotionally abusing her throughout their marriage are pretty well known, and his presence in this franchise that is, at least in some ways, about how the mistreatment of marginalized groups is wrong, is troubling, to say the least. Yes, the situation was settled out of court, so there were no formal punishment or final guilty plea, but when the prepared statement that came along with the court settlement states that “our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile” and “there was never any intent of physical or emotional harm” (emphasis added), it certainly seems like there may be some level of truth to the accusations. Either way, seeing a man with this background playing dress-up in what still mostly feels like a franchise you can bring your kids to is a bit difficult to get over. Add in that the film’s director and J.K. Rowling herself have defended Depp’s casting, despite some very real issues that people have with what that might be saying to victims of abuse, and the franchise is already something that I feel, at best, indifferent towards.
Then the most recent trailer came out. To be fair, I liked it pretty well on my first go around. Yes, Depp features heavily, which is a bummer, but the tonal whiplash/two entirely different plots that bogged down the first movie seems to have gone away, and Jude Law looks great as Dumbledore. But then I saw the internet talking about Nagini, so I watched again to discover that Claudia Kim’s character is, indeed, Nagini, Voldemort’s murderous pet snake. At first, this struck me as just stupid, some good old-fashioned, George Lucas level of prequeling: explaining something that didn’t need explaining in the weirdest possible way. Then I started to read more about other people’s reactions, particularly those of Korean individuals (Kim was born in South Korea), who bring up some way more troubling issues with this decision, one that Rowling has apparently had in her mind for two decades (basically when the series started).
Before I dive in, I do want to say that I hope I’m wrong on a lot of what I have issues with here. I hope that Rowling’s script and Yates’ direction will prove me wrong and this post will just seem like the rantings of someone counting the chickens before the eggs hatch. That said, I’m far from encouraged based on some of the things I discussed above.
First and foremost, a genuine critique of the franchise is a vast lack of diversity. If you were to compile every line of dialogue spoken by a person of color in the original film series, that video would be about 6 minutes and 6 seconds of a nearly 1,200-minute long franchise (0.5%). The first Fantastic Beasts film does feature Carmen Ejogo as the President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, and sets up Zoe Kravitz as Leta Lestrange, who will play a larger role int he sequel as the main character’s former love interest but still, two characters, one of whom doesn’t speak until the second film, hardly corrects a major issue.
So when Claudia Kim was announced in the movie, it seemed like another step in the right direction, although her having a disorder that will permanently change her into an animal was a bit of a red flag. An Asian character (one of four named characters of Asian descent in the franchise) being cursed with something that will turn her into an animal can be a bit tricky to pull off without seeming to take the character’s humanity away, which is an issue because of the general way that people of color can be treated as “other.” But, maybe Kim’s character becoming an animal is something the filmmakers could conceivably make work without her losing her humanity. However, making her an animal character that we already know makes that even more difficult. Because of the history we know of this character, every time that we see Claudia Kim’s character, we will at least partially think of her as that evil snake that gets its head chopped off by series end (more on that in a bit). One of the few Asian characters in this franchise is someone we predominantly know as a snake, which inherently dehumanizes the character. Which isn’t a particularly great look. That said, Claudia Kim’s presence as this character is still better than not having any kind of representation for Asian actors, and none of the frustration with this decision is meant to be directed towards Kim herself; its a major role in a major franchise, and something that she is clearly and deservedly excited about. The issue lies with Rowling and others behind the scenes, making the right move (giving representation to a group that doesn’t have much) in the wrong way (casting her as a character who we know to be an evil snake).
The other major issue here is how this reveal interacts with the characterization of the Nagini that we have known since the character’s introduction in Goblet of Fire. She’s the pet of a deeply evil character and commits evil acts under his command. On several occasions, Nagini either cleans up Voldemort’s dirty work by eating his murder victims or, on at least one very major occasion, actually does the killing herself. We also learn that Voldemort took part of his soul and connected it to Nagini, such that she needs to be killed in order for there to be any chance that Voldemort could be. Beyond that plot detail, we want her to die because of all of the terrible things that we have seen her do. It’s to the point that one of the biggest moments of the franchise, both book and film, is when Neville Longbottom, former zero now super-attractive hero (good for you Matthew Lewis), straight up decapitates her. It’s one of the few major moments in the last book that actually holds up on screen, a great moment of victory and one of the first times we start to feel like maybe Harry and the gang will be able to pull this bonkers mission off. And now we know that Nagini has a tragic backstory. She was once a human suffering from being a Maledictus, a person with a blood curse, passed from mother to daughter, which will turn her into an animal forever. Now when we see Neville decapitating a snake, a part of us will know that this snake used to be a woman, and that woman was treated as a circus sideshow because of her disease. We know that the snake that kills Snape once was a woman whose disease was used to get non-magic people to give money to a circus. We are humanizing a character whose death we once cheered for. The death of that character is now associated with the death of a woman who had no choice in being the creature that she was. Also, is any part of her humanity alert as she eats other people? These are seriously troubling questions that really put a damper on a fairly major part of the franchise.
And, yes, there is the question: well, what if she’s evil, and her death is still worth celebrating? Which is a very valid question. However, my concern here lies with that, in order to convince us that Nagini’s death at the end of the franchise is worth celebrating because of the snake’s evilness, the franchise will now have to convince us that the cause of her villainy is in no way attached to the way she was mistreated because of her disease. She’s treated as a sideshow because of something entirely outside her control. She is able to turn into a snake with her own free will, but the change will someday be permanent; she knows this but still has to do it as part of a show. Her life as a human is running out, and it’s all used as a form of entertainment. If any of this plays any role in her turn into an antagonist, it should still complicate the way we celebrated her death at the end of the franchise. The idea that she was initially good but corrupted by her mistreatment is further supported by the actress has described her character as “a wonderful and vulnerable woman who wants to live. She wants to stay a human being.” It seems that the “villain” she becomes is due to the way she was marginalized and mocked, which should complicate the character’s now partially tragic end.
Again, I hope I’m wrong on this. I hope that Rowling shows herself to be the storyteller I once believed her to be and finds a way to craft this in a way that isn’t deeply screwed up in the long term. But from what I’ve seen of her of late, from the very existence of this franchise to her being “genuinely happy to have Johnny [Depp] playing a major character in the movies,” I’m beginning to think that, at best, she has corrupted a wonderful series by over-elaborating. Or, at worst, was given more credit that she deserved. This isn’t to say that I won’t continue to enjoy this franchise, or that anybody should stop enjoying the franchise because of some admittedly troubling issues. The nostalgic feelings I have with this franchise are enough to keep me hanging on to the love that I have for it, not to mention that positive messages that still exist in it. But I have to balance my enjoyment of the things that make it great with a willingness to critique its failings, especially its failings as it deals with things that people identify with that are beyond their control.