(Spoiler Alert! There are a few limited spoilers concerning the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the following post!)
Anyone who knows me at all knows that one of my greatest and most passionate literary loves is the Harry Potter series by J.K.Rowling. I know every spell. I know every character, even the minor ones. Every location, every little piece of trivia, and every scrap of information having to do with books 1-7. I grew up with the series, aging as Harry did and learning alongside him all about Hogwarts and the wizarding world it was a part of.
So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced as a movie, I was jumping up and down with excitement that the journey wasn’t over, that we got to see more of Rowling’s world beyond Hogwarts.
The first thing I loved about this movie is that while the original Harry Potter books and movies taught us about what magic was and how to use it from the perspective of adolescents coming into their power, Fantastic Beasts showed the adult world. These characters knew how to cast spells without making themselves vomit slugs and apparate without splicing themselves. It was a great addition on that front alone.
But even better were the new characters essentially invented for this new movie without anything that solid to work off of from J.K.Rowling’s original writing beyond a few names and technical details like “This person wrote a textbook.”
So let’s discuss the main character, Newt Scamander. His goal is to write a textbook. It’s such a dull premise on the surface if you just say it aloud, but think about what he wants to do. He is a compassionate individual borderline ‘obsessed’ with learning everything he can about magical creatures so that he can document them and categorize them in order to save them, while finding beauty in beings that his fellow wizards and witches might be afraid of or seek to destroy. He sees the world differently from they do. He even walks and moves differently, as if he’s not completely aware of the space his body takes up and is more focused on the purpose behind his movements than how someone watching might perceive them. He struggles to make eye contact with people, and even has the following lovely exchange:
Jacob: Oh, well, I’m-I’m sure people like you too, huh?
Newt: No, not really. I annoy people.
I think a lot of autistics out there can relate to internalizing that sentiment.
You can see where this is going.
While never flat out stated to be (possibly because of the time period, or maybe the wizarding world doesn’t have a lot in the way of mental health? Harry Potter would have been seeing a psychologist if he’d gone to a muggle school by the end of book one), the way I ‘read’ Newt Scamander is as an autistic adult. But he’s not the typical autistic male white adult that we see in so many adaptations, despite being all those things, and that makes him amazing.
While most autistic characters gravitate towards science, technology, and math (in the wizarding world, perhaps potions and arithmancy would be the equivalent?) with savant like perfection, Newt Scamander does not have this stereotypical characteristic. For one, I wouldn’t classify him as a savant. He has a special interest which he’s extremely passionate and knowledgeable about, but that in and of itself does not make someone a savant. Just passionate and knowledgeable. And it’s noteworthy the choice of focus: animals. I’ve heard that autistic girls are said to commonly have a passionate interest in animals, aspiring to be veterinarians and the like. Girls like horses and dolls, boys like cars and computers. For the character of Newt, this is flipped. He goes against the stereotype by adopting a trait I’ve most often seen described in lists of “symptoms” associated with female autistics. And I absolutely love that.
Related to his passion for fantastic beasts (and where to find them), one of the most important aspects of Newt’s character is that he does not at all struggle with empathy. In fact, I’d say it’s his biggest strength. He’s even far more empathic than most of the presumably neurotypical characters surrounding him, as exhibited by this bit of dialogue:
Newt: I’m writing a book about magical creatures
Tina: Like an extermination guide?
Newt: No, a guide to help people understand why we should be protecting these creatures instead of killing them.
He shines in every moment he’s with these creatures, and seems to understand them more than he understands people – not an unheard of autistic trait. He understands them so well that he even can perform an erumpent mating dance to placate the large rhinoceros like creature, and keeps a plant-like bowtruckle in his pocket because the poor thing had a cold and needed body warmth – also because he had attachment issues. This sort of understanding and empathy towards different creatures isn’t exhibited by anyone else in the film. Indeed, others are afraid of the erumpent and when the bowtruckle is revealed, it’s desired by other characters for its lockpicking abilities without thought for what it wants or needs.
But an even more striking an example of Newt’s empathy and goodness are the moments just after he’s been arrested, and then again when sentenced to death. When arrested, his immediate concern isn’t for himself, but for the creatures in his care. He begs that they remain unharmed, emphasizing that nothing in his menagerie is dangerous over and over again even as he’s taken away in shackles. When sentenced to death, his first concern isn’t begging for his own life, but worry that his companion, Tina, might also be punished.
(Image dialogue – Newt: Please, you don’t understand. Nothing in there is dangerous.)
This is such an incredibly powerful portrayal of an autistic individual when compared to other autistic and autistically implied characters in media. They often have little concept of empathy, or have to truly struggle to learn or become aware of any form of recognizable empathy, thanks to lack of empathy being an trait inaccurately assumed to go hand in hand with autism. For a prime example, see my previous post about Atypical’s main character, Sam. In contrast, Newt shows autistic empathy. He feels deeply for everyone around him, including those that his society looks down on such as magical creatures and muggles (I refuse to use the term ‘no-maj’, sorry JKR), those he’s essentially been told not to feel empathy for. Note though, it’s not sympathy or just compassion Newt feels – something I think a lot of neurotypicals conflate with empathy. It’s true, full-blown empathy. He feels for himself what the creatures he studies feel. When the erumpent is happy, he is happy. The music played during the scene when he confronts the giant beast is whimsical and light, a beautiful piece of piano and strings indicating how they both feel. When other creatures are causing trouble or in trouble, he knows how to find them and deal with them because he can put himself into their minds and feel what they feel.
Finally, I’d like to point out one more thing about Newt that makes him an absolutely beautiful example of an autistic character. He has friends. Not a roommate who begrudgingly learns to put up with him, not coworkers who learn to see his brilliance and accept him on that basis alone. Over the course of the movie, Newt is shown becoming friends with Jacob, Tina, and Queenie through their shared struggle. They genuinely like him as a person not in spite of his differences, but because of them. There’s even hints that there’s romantic tension with Tina by the end (curse you sequel bait, I wanted a kiss!) and mention of previous love lost in Newt’s life. All social things that autistics struggle with, and in media are often portrayed without.
Overall, Newt Scamander is fantastic. He is intelligent, capable, brave, giving, and unashamedly empathetic. He is also autistic, based on the traits I mentioned above. And while I will always love Harry, Hermione, Ron, and all the wonderful characters introduced in the Wizarding World created by J.K.Rowling, Newt Scamander just might be my favorite.
Image dialogue –
Jacob: Hey, Newt, why did you keep me around?
Newt: Because I like you, Jacob. Because you’re my friend.
What were your thoughts when you saw the movie for the first time? Agree, disagree? Feel free to engage with your opinions in the comment section!
This particular fantastic autistic can be found on facebook on the page ‘Some Girl with a Braid’ or on Twitter @AmalenaCaldwell. Like, share, comment, and/or follow to show support!