Introduction/Full Spoiler Summary
(feel free to skip if you already know the story & its problems):
Fantastic Beast 3: The Secrets of Dumbledore is the third movie in a prequel series set in the Harry Potter universe. The story largely follows Newt Scamander, a slightly awkward and kooky magizoologist, with the famed conflict between Dumbledore and Grindelwald serving as the backdrop for the whole series. It has a 6.2/10 rating on IMDB and 46% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not a good movie by most measures, and most commentary ends with that conclusion. But I think the script has more potential than that.
On paper, FB3 has an interesting premise. Grindelwald (the series villain) has gained such immense support that he is poised to be elected the leader of the magical world in a Hitler-esque fascist revolution. At the same time, Dumbledore (the strongest good guy and canonically the one who defeats Grindelwald) cannot openly act against the villain because of a magical pact. This leaves Newt (our eccentric and non-combative protagonist) and his crew of allies in charge of taking him down. But they face a legion of enemies and to add another twist, Grindelwald has obtained the ability to glimpse the future so any single plot or scheme they attempt will likely be foiled.
A non-standard pacifist hero and his motley crew of misfits faced with the task of taking down a highly powerful villain and his army of rabid minions. So far, a good setup. But here’s where things go off the rails.
Discovering that Grindelwald can see the future, the group settles on a plan. Or rather, the lack of one. Chaos, they decide, will nullify Grindelwald’s advantage. If there is no cohesive plan behind their actions, Grindelwald cannot make countermoves. So not five minutes after grouping up, all members of Newt’s group go off on individual missions without a word of explanation to each other or the audience. Then for the first half of the movie, we are stuck watching characters make decisions with little to no context, reaping consequences and rewards with little to no context. It all feels nebulous in terms of what is important and what is not.
Furthermore, although they are going for a ‘chaos’ strategy, each of the individual missions ends up being fairly simple once deciphered. One infiltrates the villain group to become a double agent. One was given the task of hiding Newt’s suitcase. One rescues another that was captured earlier in the story. The rest go to Germany to stop an assassination and keep the villain from being acquitted. None of these benefited from their lack of explanation and it ends in a minor disaster for the heroes as, while most of their minor moves work out, the biggest one of keeping the villain from being acquitted fails. When they regroup with Dumbledore at the halfway mark of the movie, he succinctly puts their efforts as leaving them no better off than at the start.
So that’s a bad sign. The characters themselves are stating everything they did for the first half of the movie was meaningless. But let’s keep going.
The second half of the movie begins and the group decides on a second plan: To reveal that Grindelwald is a fraud with a creature in Newt’s suitcase (a qilin). To do so, they all take copies of the suitcase to confuse Grindelwald and rush the election ceremony. This is the only time where Grindelwald’s future sight appears to affect the story at all, as all of them are stopped. Except for Newt’s unassuming assistant (Bunty) who somehow sneaks in at the last second to overturn Grindelwalds false election without any explanation. There’s also a bit of a defection side-plot action going on with Kowalski and Queenie, as well Credence and Dumbledore, but I’m putting those story threads aside as their plot relevance is somewhat dubious. What is important is that due to this fairly simple switcheroo scheme and people bravely standing up in the face of mortal danger to call out his lies, Grindelwald was stopped. His political rival is elected world leader and muggles are saved from annihilation. It ends with Grindelwald and Dumbledore’s their pact being broken, but their famous duel is cut short and saved for another day.
So in summary: the setup of having Dumbledore out of the picture and Newt and his crew fighting a villain with futuresight is great. The ending of having multiple characters and red-herring plotlines come together to defeat Grindelwald is great. But the nuts and bolts of the entire middle section, especially the first half, are just a complete mess. Essentially we watched a bunch of characters run around doing things without explanation or context, without adding much progress to the conflict, for over an hour.
Now, what was the idea behind this horribly ineffective middle section? Putting aside the easiest answers of incompetence and cash-grabbery, there’s actually a fairly creative explanation. It is possible that the writers wanted the audience to feel the confusion Grindelwald felt -or was supposed to have felt- due to the hero group’s shenanigans by literally not explaining anything they did. A cool idea, except that their plans weren’t particularly complex enough to warrant disguise, they didn’t gain better odds from avoiding communicating, and most important of all, a confused audience is the antithesis of a good storytelling experience. All in all, a terrible creative decision.
Which makes the question, how can we deliver this idea better?
A few goals to identify before we begin. These are here either because they are highly central to the initial vision of the story, or they are particularly effective scenes that we want to keep in the story if possible.
- First, we want to keep Grindelwald having future sight.
- Second, we want to keep the theme of chaos being the counterstrategy.
- Third, we want to keep the election plotline.
- Fourth, we want to maintain all the major character decisions, like the defections & Bunty’s delivery of the suitcase.
- Fifth, we want Kowalski to get his wand, and for that to actually make sense.
- Sixth, we want to set up Dumbledore & Grindelwald’s duel in a sequel.
So where should the story start?
In my opinion, we should start with Vogel (the man who acquits Grindelwald) sitting at his desk, worrying over death threats, curses, and various demands from the villain’s supporters. Outside his window are hordes of protestors, shouting names of Grindelwald and Santos alike. He has a moment of hope when he sees a letter from Dumbledore, but all that’s written on it is to ‘do what is right, not what is easy’. Dumbledore’s favorite saying. He curses Dumbledore, saying ‘it’s easy for him to say that, hidden and safe up in Hogwarts,’ then he steps out into the reception hall, up to the podium, and acquits Grindelwald in front of the entire magical world. As green fireworks with Grindelwald’s sigil erupt above a roaring crowd of supporters outside the windows, we shift miles away to Newt delivering the Qilin twins in the forest. His assault plays out exactly the same as in the movie, with Credence showing his face before vanishing into the night with one of the baby Qilins in his arms. Then we hear the cry of the second Qilin before Newt fades out.
Essentially what we’ve done here is move around pieces of the story so that it begins where when the need for action is highest. The middle of the original script. The acquittal of Grindelwald is a great inciting incident because it essentially threatens to render all the hardship suffered by the good guys in the previous stories meaningless, which will motivate them to act against him as quickly as possible. On top of that, Newt’s assault serves as additional motivation for potentially reluctant members of the crew to join in and help, and the theft of the Qilin gives an idea of what Grindelwald’s next step is -which they must disrupt. As a bonus, we’ve accomplished all this by repurposing the terribly weak plotline of Dumbledore having Newt deliver a letter to Vogel. It was too simple to add to their chaos strategy, and it brought up too many questions about why Dumbledore didn’t simply send the letter himself, especially given his more overt acts of intervention later on.
So with all the necessary motivation set in place, the crew gathers at Aberforth’s. There is no hesitation, no need for convincing, they all have their reasons to want to stop Grindelwald. Kowalski wants to save Queenie from his influence. Kama wants to avenge his sister. Dumbledore feels responsible for Grindelwald as a former lover. The others are either motivated by association with other members of the team, as well as from simply being on the side of good.
From this point, I can see two options. The simple option, and the complex one.
The simple version has an injured Newt arriving last to the meeting to deliver the additional stakes that Grindelwald has taken a Qilin, a magical beast of great significance to the election. The crew will be ignorant about Grindelwald’s future sight until the midpoint turn, where their mission to foil an assassination plot against Santos (Grindelwald’s main political rival) is countered so soundly that they conclude he has obtained information about their movements somehow. They do still manage to save Santos though, but Grindelwald gains immense popularity for surviving an assassination attempt. The second half of the story would be the same ‘cloned suitcase’ plan to reveal Grindelwald’s fraud, except written with far greater concreteness in terms of planning & details. There would also be a lot of repurposing locations the characters visit so that they are located in the same general area, instead of spreading them around random locations in the world. Overall, this would vastly improve the clarity of the story while still following the flow of the original story fairly closely. The only issue would be fitting the side plots of infiltration & defections into the story (which are already very clunky in the original), and it would be a less original story as a whole.
The complex version (and my personal preference) starts with an injured Newt already by Dumbledore’s side by the time the crew gathers (instead of being the last to arrive) and they start the story will full awareness of Grindelwald’s futuresight. One difference with the futuresight though. Instead of leaving its function entirely unexplained, my version would state that Grindelwald must focus his thoughts on a particular person to see their future. This is a crucial detail that keeps Grindelwald’s visions from feeling like a matter of pure luck, and consequently the good guys’ victory as well. Then, matching the original story, Dumbledore will state that chaos will be their strategy; that they will run multiple schemes concurrently to confuse Grindelwald. But in a twist, he adds that only one of their schemes will be the true plot to stop his rise to power and that the rest are simply distractions. Dumbledore proceeds to give letters containing instructions to each of his allies, telling them to read it, memorize it, then destroy it. They do so, before setting off into the night.
What follows is something more of a heist story. One by one, we follow the perspectives of each crew member as they set out on their missions, with Dumbledore’s instructions narrated overtop. But what we discover is that Dumbledore has lied to his allies. In a way that is truer to his reputation as a trickster, Dumbledore has written to each one of his allies that their particular mission is the special one; that ‘only they can truly stop Grindelwald’. However, as we watch, we find out that each member truly does have the potential to stop Grindelwald. Kama has the role of infiltrating Grindelwald’s crew to steal away the kidnapped Qilin, thereby stopping the election manipulation. Professor Hicks has the role of stopping the assassination of Santos, whose popularity could beat Grindelwald in a fair election. Theseus has the role of revealing Grindelwald’s corruption of various magical institutions, which would reduce Grindelwald’s influence & potentially overturn his acquittal. Bunty has the role of safeguarding the suitcase, which would be the only way to prove Grindelwald is unworthy if all other plans fail. And Kowalski has the audacious role of attempting to assassinate Grindelwald with his snakewood wand (played comedically as is usual for the character. But what could be more unexpected than a Muggle with a wand?). Newt is sidelined for now, bedridden from his injuries.
As we follow each member’s perspective, we will often dip into Grindelwald’s viewpoint to see him figuring out their schemes in real-time. And of course, one by one, Grindelwald will foil their attempts. First will come Kama, who will attempt to infiltrate Grindelwald’s group by hiding in the huge number of supporters that show up once Grindelwald is acquitted. Just as it happens in the original, his memory of his sister is wiped, which seemingly removes his motivation to fight against Grindelwald. Then will come Theseus, who will be captured and jailed by corrupt Aurors as he searches for proof of Grindelwald’s influence. Professor Hicks & Kowalski’s missions are more of a mixed bag. Kowalski does fail to kill Grindelwald as his wand was ‘fake’, but his distraction allows for Hicks to successfully save Santos and to apparate them away by the skin of their teeth. These are all fairly similar to how they played out in the original, simply presented differently.
At the tail end of the first half of the story, the surviving crew regroups with Dumbledore, both furious and despondent. Of the missions he sent them out on, three have already failed. Worse yet, although they managed to save Santos, Kowalski’s assassination attempt only served to make Grindelwald even more popular. They realize Dumbledore has set them up to fail, and they demand answers from him. He smiles and explains that Kowalski was never meant to succeed. He knew that Grindelwald would be mesmerized by the image of a Muggle killing him with a wand, that he would figure out that Kowalski was a trap designed to have him attack a harmless muggle in front of the magical community and discredit him, and that his ego would keep him from realizing there was a further use for Kowalski’s assassination attempt. Which was to save Santos, of course, the real goal from the start. This, Dumbledore says with a laugh, is proof that Grindelwald isn’t infallible, not even with futuresight. And now that he is ahead in the polls, Grindelwald has no reason to kill Santos. She is a pureblood, his code would not allow for it.
“As for the others,” Dumbledore’s eyes somehow meet Grindelwald’s through his futuresight, “don’t count them out just yet. They’re making progress as we speak.”
This is how we begin the second half of the story. We return to the perspective of Kama, who is still neck deep in Grindelwald’s crew. After surviving a torturous re-interrogation from Grindelwald, he reveals that he had preemptively removed some memories of his sister before Grindelwald could and had kept them hidden in a vial on his person. In my version, Kama plays a far more important role than just taking out a few Aurors in Bhutan. He serves as the main influence on Queenie & Credence to defect from Grindelwald. I’m not sure exactly the details, but it would mostly be through scenes of dialogue (after Grindelwald has treated them poorly in some way) that prompt them to rethink their allegiances. Themes of recognizing manipulators & abusers, as well as forgiving oneself would be the major throughlines of these dialogue scenes. This sub-arc ends with Grindelwald’s crew heading out for Bhutan.
At the same time, Theseus’s rescue would play out largely the same as the original. Although I don’t particularly like the dark-comedy tone shift that occurs in this sequence in the original, every Harry Potter movie has this kind of ‘monster in a room’ scene, so this would be a good place to put it in. But when Theseus is rescued, he will reveal that he has managed to store away hard proof of Grindelwald’s corruption and that if they manage to present it to the magical world he will have to be removed from the election. They too, head to Bhutan. Grindelwald sees this and thinks this is what Dumbledore means when he says that the others are making progress.
Finally, we see that Hicks is sent to continue bodyguarding Santos, who heads for Bhutan for the election. At the same time, Dumbledore takes Kowalski to Hogwarts, which is a good opportunity for some fan service, as well as time for exploration of Aberforth & Credence’s connection, and consequently to Queenie as well. They -including Aberforth- take a portkey to Bhutan as well, because they know from contact with Kama & Credence that Grindelwald’s whole crew will be there.
So now all the characters are converging on Bhutan, each with their own purposes. In the meantime, we will see Grindelwald negative behavior towards his allies escalate as he feels the pressure of Dumbledore moving against him. He knows their pact should keep them from working directly against each other, but due to his obsession with Dumbledore, most of his future visions are about him. The lashing out towards Credence that occurs in the original would fit in here, as will the glimpses of the dark magics he is conducting with the Qilin twin. However, right as things seem to look the worst for him, he receives one final vision. The sight of Newt delivering the other Qilin twin from his suitcase. This is the key information he thinks he needs to secure his election. Kill Newt, and there will be nothing solid left to interfere with his rise to power.
When all the players arrive in Bhutan, the climactic battle begins. Right from the start, Newt and Theseus are on the run, chased by Aurors in Grindelwald’s pocket. Theseus hands Newt the evidence of corruption -which he thinks is the reason they are being targeted- and buys time for Newt to reach the Qilin selection. The ensuing commotion draws in the other allies one by one, and they also work to clear a path for him to reach the selection. Hicks receives permission to help out from Santos (so we have a reason to like her), and Kama diverts the mob of Grindelwald supporters to chase in the wrong direction. But even with their help, things begin to look dire as Grindelwald’s inner circle arrives at the scene. However, Kowalski and Aberforth’s timely arrival finally pushes Queenie and Credence to defect and the good guys rush to the selection with Newt at the head.
This whole time, the Qilin selection will be proceeding as it does in the original, serving as a kind of countdown before their mission fails. And by the time Newt arrives at the selection, the dead Qilin is already kneeling in front of Grindelwald. Vogel has just pronounced him as the new world leader. When Newt interrupts the ceremony, Grindelwald is clearly concerned, but Newt doesn’t produce a Qilin. Instead, he produces the documents his brother had found, and as is fitting for his character, he fails to clearly communicate the importance of the evidence. Grindelwald, being the better-spoken and more charismatic person, dismisses the documents as fabricated nonsense made by an unstable individual. One by one Newt’s allies arrive, but they have little to add other than their voices, which Grindelwald dismisses as the lies of sore losers, and insists that nothing can overturn the judgment of a Qilin. The crew looks to Dumbledore for a solution, but it appears he has none.
This is when Bunty -who we have not seen since the start of the movie, two hours ago- steps out of the crowd like she does in the original and hands Newt his suitcase, and we see the Qilin stumble out. Dumbfounded Kowalski asks Dumbledore if this had been his plan all along. He smiles and shakes his head, and we get to see Bunty’s full instruction letter read out. “This Qilin is the last line of defense against Grindelwald; the only way to prove his unworthiness to lead. I leave its protection in your capable hands. But remember, do what is right, not what is easy.” Then in a quick montage, we see Bunty’s solo mission, one which she decided all on her own when she sees Kowalski on the front cover of the newspaper, a nerve-wracking, dangerous one that is much against her nature to pursue. But she knew it was the right thing, the necessary thing, so she did it.
Then we return to the Qilin, whose dead twin collapses in its presence. Given no choice, Vogel announces that the selection will be conducted again, and surprisingly Grindelwald does not protest. He stands there, with the other candidates, not because he has no choice, but because he actually desires to be chosen. For all his evil ambition, he still wants to be worthy. But the Qilin does not choose him. It also does not choose Dumbledore as it does in the original because that is completely inconsistent with the character from the books which we know to be heavily flawed. It chooses Santos, who hopefully has been built up to seem like a really good person from small side scenes throughout the movie (have her quietly doing kind or heroic things in the background whenever she’s on-screen).
The result enrages Grindelwald, and he reveals his true nature by sending a killing curse at the Qilin. But Credence, Aberforth, and Dumbledore move to intercept the spell -a slight twist from the original- and they successfully stop him. Just like the original, this act somehow breaks the pact Dumbledore has with Grindlewald, and they have a short duel before he escapes. Everyone looks to celebrate his defeat, but then they realize Credence has been severely taxed by stopping Grindelwald -possibly also implying that he somehow broke the pact with his Obscurial nature- and the scene ends with Aberforth insisting that they go home together.
The final wedding scene is the same as the original. Except that maybe Newt convinces Dumbledore to step in for a moment and share a few words.
I think the main thing that I took away from editing this story is the importance of making every scene and plotline count. The original script has a lot of good scenes and ideas but none of it comes across as competent because it hasn’t been pieced together appropriately. The characters are spread across too many locations and objectives, and the plotlines aren’t anchored together properly -it’s a weird case of the parts being greater than the sum of the whole. It honestly feels like the writers weren’t given enough time to execute their idea, and with certain choices (like Dumbledore being chosen by Qilin) it definitely feels like there was executive pressure in the writer’s room.
As it stands, I think either one of my edits would be significantly more coherent than the original, but it still has some problems. First, I’m not sure exactly where to insert the contact occurring between Credence and the Dumbledores. This includes the mirror messages to Aberforth, as well as his assassination attempt on Albus. Second, Kama is vastly expanded in role in this version, and I’m not sure that’s particularly warranted for a rather insignificant side character. But perhaps he felt insignificant because they did such a poor job characterizing him in the original script. However, aside from those issues, I feel like I did a fairly good job delivering on the promise of the premise while maintaining the core creative decisions of the original.
Let me know if you have any criticisms or ideas of your own about how you thought the movie script could’ve been fixed. Or if you managed to read this whole thing.