It’s been just over eleven years since J.K. Rowling published the final volume of her “Harry Potter” saga, a series of books that became a cultural phenomenon – but it was just the beginning for a fantasy franchise that had already spawned a massive fan culture.
The most recent addition to Rowling’s “Potterverse,” as fans call it, was launched in 2016, with the release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The first of a planned prequel film series starring Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander (a “magizoologist” mentioned, but never portrayed, within the original Potter novels), it began the epic history of the political upheavals and conflicts that came before the story we already know.
Now, just in time for the holidays, comes the much-anticipated second installment, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.”
As a film, it is much as expected – big, colorful, full of spectacular special effects and dramatic plot twists, leaving some questions unanswered and creating new ones with its obligatory cliffhanger ending. It’s darker – much, much darker – than the first entry in the series, and the increasing complications of the continuing narrative sometimes grow ponderous and confusing. Character development takes a back seat to advancing the storyline – sometimes to the movie’s detriment – and the performances are a mixed bag; Redmayne, as always, is superb, and franchise newcomer Zoe Kravitz gives a standout turn, but Johnny Depp is disappointingly one-note as the movie’s titular antagonist. It’s heavy on political allegory; Rowling has been a vocal opponent of Trumpism and other nationalist movements in the contemporary world, and its clear she means to make her points about their dangerous influence within her fictional setting. It’s a movie that has a lot going on, but it’s at its best when it shows us the whimsical menagerie of magical creatures that are, after all, promised by the very name of the overall saga – and it does that a lot.
Critical analysis of a movie like this, of course, is beside the point. It’s for the fans, and though it has performed less well than the original film, its opening-weekend box office take was more than enough to put it in the number one spot and declare it to be a success.
That’s no surprise; like all new entries to a popular franchise, it has been the source of anticipation from fans.
It’s also been the source of controversy.
Much of this amounts to little more than nitpicking about plot details, though there has been considerable disapproval over the casting of accused sexual assaulter Johnny Depp.
There is one problematic issue, though, that has cast a heavy shadow over the new movie – and it stems from the words of J.K. Rowling herself, uttered at a fan Q&A session held at Carnegie Hall a mere three months after the release of the final “Harry Potter” book, about one of her most beloved characters.
When asked by a fan if Dumbledore (the benevolent wizard headmaster who mentored young Harry to victory against the evil Voldemort – but if you’re reading this, chances are pretty good you already knew that) had even been in love, the author stunned the crowd by responding, “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.”
The revelation was not universally welcomed. There was, of course, the predictable homophobic backlash – but even within the LGBTQ community, though many lauded the inclusion in a touchstone of mainstream popular culture, there was disapproval. Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said at the time, “It’s good that children’s literature includes the reality of gay people… but I am disappointed that she did not make Dumbledore’s sexuality explicit in the book. Making it obvious would have sent a much more powerful message of understanding and acceptance.”
With the new “Fantastic Beasts” movie, the controversy has been brought to the forefront once again. The young Dumbledore (excellently portrayed by Jude Law) plays a significant role in its storyline, which starts to explore the history of his relationship with the villainous Grindelwald (Depp) – an aspiring demagogue who believes in the inherent superiority of pure-blood wizards over their human counterparts. It’s a relationship that – as Rowling clearly stated in her original “outing” of Dumbledore – began as more than a friendship.
When director David Yates stated, back in January of this year, that the upcoming film would “not explicitly” deal with Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald, many took it as a signal that the character was going to be “straight-washed.” Yates later back-pedaled on his statement, saying that it would be “clear in what you see.”
Actor Law later addressed the subject in an interview, saying “What you’ve got to remember this is only the second film in a series… there’s obviously a lot more to come.” Even so, for those hoping for definitive confirmation, it was not enough to allay skepticism.
Of course, for many devotees of the franchise – even some LGBTQ fans – such confirmation was immaterial. After all, it has become public knowledge that the character is gay, so why did it have to be explicitly stated onscreen?
The answer to that question is well-expressed by GLAAD, who in their 2018 Studio Responsibility Index said, “Far too often, LGBTQ characters and stories are relegated to subtext and it is left up to the audience to interpret or read into a character as being queer. In other cases, audiences may not realize they are seeing an LGBTQ character unless they have outside knowledge of a real figure, have consumed source material for an adaptation, or have read external press confirmations. This is not enough.”
So, now that “The Crimes of Grindelwald” has finally hit screens around the world, does it finally give us a gay Dumbledore?
The answer is yes – and no.
Anyone who doesn’t want spoilers for the movie should stop reading here.
One of the central conditions of the film’s plot is that Dumbledore, known to be the only wizard in the world powerful enough to defeat Grindelwald, is unable to move against him for reasons he is unwilling to make clear. When confronted about the relationship he shared with the would-be dictator when they were younger, he deflects – although he does admit that the two were “closer than brothers.”
Later, however, we see Dumbledore staring in the Mirror of Erised (look it up, if you have to), and what he sees is very revealing. Grindelwald is there, and we are shown a vision of the two young wizards, clasping hands and staring soulfully into each other’s eyes. Closer than brothers, indeed.
Ultimately, we learn that the real reason Dumbledore cannot battle Grindelwald – directly, at least – is that the two young men created a “blood pact” charm which prevents them from ever fighting with each other. This effectively renders the nature of their former relationship irrelevant, in terms of advancing the plot; if the obstacle is a magical object – which can, presumably, eventually be destroyed – instead of an emotional attachment that cannot be broken in such a straightforward way, then Dumbledore’s personal feelings don’t matter.
Is this a cheat on the part of Rowling and the rest of the creative team responsible for “Fantastic Beasts?” It remains to be seen.
Rowling is still emphatic that Dumbledore is gay, and both Yates and Law have asserted that future films will certainly delve deeper into the connection between the two wizards, but what we are given in “The Crimes of Grindelwald” falls far short of concrete confirmation.
Yet it is more than strongly implied, both in the dialogue and in Law’s performance (again, he’s excellent), that Dumbledore loves – or at least, once loved – Grindelwald in a decidedly non-platonic way; and that depiction in the mirror of the two characters’ younger selves leaves little doubt to the nature of their relationship.
Out queer actor Ezra Miller – who plays a significant role in the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise – said in an interview, “For me, personally, I find Dumbledore’s queerness extremely explicit in this film… What does the Mirror of Erised show you? Nothing more than the most desperate desire of your heart. If that’s not explicitly gay, I don’t know what is.”
Miller went on to praise Rowling, saying, “People have to also take a moment and acknowledge the gift that Jo Rowling gave us by writing one of the greatest characters in literary history… and then, at the end of writing that series, was like, ‘Oh, yeah, and he’s gay. What? Step to me.’ She is forever a god for that.”
In addition, he commented on the storm of pre-release internet vitriol surrounding the movie’s handling of the subject. “Why don’t you wait until you see the film before you start talking shit on Twitter? Or wait to make up your own mind about something for once in your life,” he said. “Do your own research. Make up your own mind… before you identify yourself and pick a side, and start throwing things at the opposition. Because that’s what’s totally screwing everything up right now. And it polarizes us. We’re all human, and there’s a lot of things we can agree on.”
The bottom line? There really isn’t one – or rather, it depends on who you ask. While “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” never comes right out and says, “Dumbledore is gay” (and therefore fails to meet the GLAAD recommendation of explicit inclusion by leaving it to be gleaned from subtext only), it certainly makes it clear to all but the least observant of viewers that he is. From an artistic standpoint, that’s arguably a stronger choice – at least at this point in the story. For LGBTQ inclusion advocates who desire a stronger and more definitive depiction of the subject, it’s yet another example of Hollywood trying to have it both ways.
What is certain is that this second film essentially defers the controversy to be resolved by future entries in the franchise. The Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship is an essential factor in the story’s central conflict, and it’s not going to go away. Sooner or later, Rowling and company are going to have to swing open the door of their beloved wizard’s magic closet; if they don’t, the bold stand for LGBTQ representation taken by the author with her 2007 revelation will have been for naught.
As for Law, in a New York Times interview earlier this week he confessed that, although sexuality is “certainly a defining element of who he is and what he’s about,” he is himself unsure whether upcoming films will go further in depicting Dumbledore as gay – but he added a strong argument into the ongoing conversation about the subject.
“I think the world is ready for it,” he said, “and if it isn’t, it bloody well should be.”