Fantastic Beasts, the crimes of Grindelwald. A fantastic introduction to the ethics of Veganism?


Fantastic Beasts, the crimes of Grindelwald. A fantastic introduction to the ethics of Veganism?

Is the crimes of Grindelwald a fantastic introduction to veganism?

I have just returned from the cinema after watching ‘Fantastic beasts and where to find them, the crimes of Grindelwald’. The new film in the Harry Potter canon, and a greatly enjoyable entry in my opinion. Initially I was mainly struck by the amount of nostalgia and joy I was feeling, being able to enter that universe again with all new content, and mysteries to unravel. But upon later reflection I also realised it was a weirdly ethical film in terms of its portrayal of animals and the themes of subjugation. It led me to wonder, is JK Rowling a supporter of the Vegan movement or did she accidentally stumble upon these opinions in her fantasy? Either way, it is clear to me at least, that this film serves as a great introduction to the concepts of veganism and I hope in the following essay to discuss why I have come to this opinion.

Firstly as background for my assertions, I am a student of story. An animator by trade and a wannabe writer by night. It is with this educational background that I tend to approach most of the media I consume, not always consciously at first. But eventually upon reflection of it. It is with this same context that I began last night to unpick the story presented in this film.

It is first worth noting that J.K. Rowling tends to signpost the good and the bad people in her stories quite obviously. Though her characters can have complex and often tragic backgrounds, hinting at a deterministic outlook from the author. The end result is nearly always categorised morally by the opinions of the narrator, which tends to be in the third person of the main protagonist. By implication, the opinions of the narrator are assumed to be the opinions of the author herself. Bear in mind that in film, the role of the narrator is more transient, often we the audience in a cinema, tend to become the narrator of the story in the film world. Taking our cues from the performances of the actors and using those to determine how we feel about, and describe the story to ourselves.

So in the crimes of Grindelwald, who is this protagonist we the audience are aligning with?
In this film, the main protagonist is of course Newt Scamander. An animal lover and writer who professes to not take sides in an argument, and who looks at whether something is right or wrong despite social bias or outside pressure. Described in the words of Albus Dumbledore like so,

“Do you know why I admire you, Newt? More, perhaps, than any man I know? You don’t seek power or popularity. You simply ask, is the thing right in itself? If it is, then I must do it, no matter the cost.”

This is an interesting position for the protagonist and author/narrator to take, as it suggests that the morality of the film is going to be examined closely and without preconceived assumptions, as is the characters way. The next defining feature of Newt Scamander is his affinity for wildlife, creatures, and non human life forms. He studies, rescues, philosophises and tries to understand the magical and non magical animals he encounters. Notable is the scene in which he is nursing a normal, non magic Raven back to health, suggesting that he does not perceive a line between magic or non magic beings. An important point for the story, and one that I will return to later for the purposes of this essay.

This, alongside a supporting cast of new and old characters is our good guy. Our lens through which we can examine the films message, and by implication, J.K. Rowling’s.

So who is our bad guy then? Who are we going to be collectively weighing Newts morality against?
Grindelwald is the de-facto bad guy in these films. Known from the original Harry Potter series as the Dark Wizard that Dumbledore defeats in 1945. A clearer signpost is not needed as his back story is already quite famously detailed in the original books. Instead, because J.K. Rowling knows that Grindelwald is already the bad guy by his own previous reputation to the famously knowledgeable Harry Potter film audience. She can explore much more thoroughly his personal agenda. His philosophy and his personality.

Grindelwald is - by his actions in the film, defined as a highly principled man with an ego, and the talent needed to take very decisive anarchist action in furthering his beliefs. A revolutionary of sorts, determined to see his world built. His belief system, his campaign, stems from the idea that wizards - being genetically different from muggles. Are in fact superior. Blessed with the skills needed to take the lead in society.

Grindelwald says in the film,
“For I do not fight out of hatred. I say the Muggles are not lesser, but other. Not worthless, but of other value. Not disposable, but of a different disposition. Magic blooms only in rare souls. It is granted to those who live for higher things. Oh, and what a world we could make, for all of humanity. We who live for freedom, for truth and for love.” 

(The difference in muggle and wizard physiology is noted in the first film of fantastic beasts and where to find them when Newt is treating the muggle character Jacob for a murtlap bite). This is important as it defines a natural psychical reason why wizards might make distinctions between themselves and muggles.

“Ah, that’s definitely the Murtlap. You must be particularly susceptible. See, you’re a Muggle. So our physiologies are subtly different”. Newt is quoted as saying.  

Grindelwald then, as is common with principled people, believes in his message. And his character in the movie is presented in a strangely gratifying way that allows the audience to a small degree, to think about whether they agree with him and his angle. His character is highly relevant in this day and age, as the values and methods he represents in the film echo the tactics and messages of certain world leaders. However global politics is not why I am here. What does this have to do with veganism?

To go back to my original point, we are not watching this film through the lens of Grindelwald. We are watching it through the lens of Newt. And so it is through his morality and sensibilities that we began to make sense of the ethics on show in this movie.

First take Grindelwalds basic assumptions about the differences between muggles and how they are less than wizards and contrast them with our own world. The parallels between his belief in natural hierarchy determining to what extent he can use and control muggles, is an obvious simile for most humans belief that our greater intelligence and agency over the planet means we can use and control animals. 
Not to mention his screened willingness to kill muggles without remorse, which again is a poignant simile for the human habit of killing animals. (I guess on the plus side at least he doesn’t try and eat the muggles. Yet).

But I feel the most telling moment in the film about how Grindelwald sees natural hierarchy, and by its inclusion in the screenplay for the Newt leaning audience/narrator, what J.K Rowling’s opinions on the matter are. Is this quote about how many muggle deaths is acceptable for Grindelwalds cause,

“Not all of them. Not all. We’re not merciless. The beast of burden will always be necessary.”

This does not need explanation. The similes here between animals in the real world, and muggles is clear. 

To contrast this we have Newts opinions on morality, life, and animals in particular. He is an advocate of understanding and compassion across all boundaries. He is often heard talking about how they are misunderstood, and wrongfully assumed to be dangerous and not worth our time.

“Well there are no strange creatures, only blinkered people”.

This borderless compassion extends further to real life animals as well, as I mentioned earlier with the scene of him caring for a young Raven.

A real world parallel in my opinion would be the cognitive dissonance we see in meat eating people. Especially the professed animal lovers. Why is the cow a strange animal, when the dog is considered not to be. Aside from perhaps literal exposure to cows. It is fair to say that the inability to see the similarities between the two animals, and determine ones life as more valuable than the others is a prime example of the blinkered-ness that Newt is alluding too.

As our entry point into this film universe we are often presented with scenes in the film of Newt showing, through his actions, that he stands by what he says. Coming to understandings with the animals he cares for, most consistently the little Niffler he carries in his jacket. As well as animals that the film cast portray as scary or menacing such as the Chinese cat like creature that he builds an affinity for through out the film. 

A particularly wonderful character moment for our protagonist Newt, is when he is shown putting the task of removing the constraints of an animal in chains, over his own needs to explain his love for Tina. A perfect example of how he does not allow speciesism to define his day to day choices. Even when other members of the cast are berating him for it. (Looking at you Jacob!)

On top of that, he is consistently portrayed as the mediator in the film. The character most likely to see the value hidden behind the veil of a characters perceived facade. His willingness to try and find Creedence and help him as an example of this. And his relationship with Leta Lestrange, a maligned student of Newts Hogwarts days. Again drawing comparison to our collective need to see past the language and species barriers between us and other lifeforms, to the heart of the lifeforms. Rather than falling for the lazy assumptions society presents us with. This is relevant to both our relationships to animals, as well as our relationships with each other. Racism is another way we can interpret this need for Newts message of compassion.

When we spend some time considering these contrasting characters and how J.K. Rowling has decided to portray their roles in the story. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that at heart the film is about equality. An equality that not only extends to Muggles from the wizards perspective. But to non human animals too. After all, the film is titled ‘Fantastic Beasts’. And it spends a surprisingly large amount of screen time showing that equality being extended towards animals by humans both wizard and muggle alike. Particularly for a modern Hollywood blockbuster. A distinct point considering the expense assigned to every single second of footage we see on the screen. Not to mention the work that goes into animating these creatures and worlds, and breathing life into them.

I will concede that the film, much like the times we live in, is not perfect. There’s is the niggling question of whether Newts collection of creatures is there by his agency or their own. As an example of one ethical problem with the main character and his views on speciesism. But on the whole I have to say it is a remarkable step forward I believe in normalising human and animal equality for the modern audience. And with an audience as broad as the Harry Potter universe, it is a message that will hopefully reach millions of eyes and ears and hearts. I choose to see this as a huge positive, and I hope the rest of the vegan community will too.

I will finish this essay with a quote by Newt to Albus Dumbledore. 

“Grindelwald doesn’t seem to understand the nature of things he considers simple.”

A fine way to summarise how to understand our relationships with the animals we humans consider simple too, if we hope to live up to our heroes vision of an ethical future.