At first glance, the idea of a film series based on JK Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sounds about as impressive as a big-screen take on JRR Tolkien's little-read The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. But the more one looks at yesterday's announcement by Rowling and studio Warner Bros, the more it looks just the ticket to return Harry Potter fans to the world of Hogwarts, muggles and fizzing whizbees.
For a start, the first instalment in the Fantastic Beasts series will be written by Rowling herself, making her debut as a screenwriter. It therefore matters little that the original source material comprises a Hogwarts first-year school textbook supposedly owned by Potter and lacking much by way of storyline. Rowling created the universe within which both Harry and Fantastic Beasts author Newt Scamander live, and the British writer is more than capable of taking the film version in any direction she sees fit.
To garner knowledge of the various beasts for his compendium, Scamander had to travel the world in search of dragons, fwoopers and pogrebins. One can easily imagine a film series with titles such as Newt Scamander and the Awful Acromantula (an eight-eyed hideous giant spider from the jungles of Borneo) or perhaps Newt Scamander and the Lethal Lethifold (a rare shadow-like creature which suffocates then eats its victims).
Fantastic Beasts was first written in aid of Comic Relief, and the new film series also promises to return Potter to the cheerier climes of the earlier movies in the £4.9bn saga. While I enjoyed the increasingly dark later films, Rowling's work often translated more readily on the big screen when Voldemort wasn't turning up every five minutes to murder someone, and Harry, Ron and Hermione were more concerned about who got picked for the Griffindor quidditch team than saving the world from the wizarding equivalent of the Fourth Reich.
Fantastic Beasts, with its looser space within the Harry Potter canon, will also allow Rowling and her chosen director more freedom to mould the storyline to the cinematic medium. The Potter films often ignored or skipped over essential episodes in the books, much to the chagrin of fans. There need be no fat trimmed this time around.
With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them having supposedly been first published in 1927, the first film in the new saga is likely to be set just prior to that date. Rowling said yesterday that the story would begin in New York, "70 years before Harry's gets under way". As Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone hit bookshelves in 1997, that sets the events of the new film in the mid-1920s. We are therefore being teased with the alluring prospect of discovering the American wizarding world at the height of the gilded jazz age.
Of course, without He Who Must Not Be Named and his cronies lurking around the edges, Rowling will have to dream up new ways of building dramatic tension. Some of the beasts mentioned in Scamander's compendium are known to be intelligent, offering up the prospect of Smaug-like encounters in exotic corners of the world. But wizarding history's most famous "magizoologist" will presumably have to come up against human enemies, too. The 20th century offers boundless possibilities for later instalments, from sorcerous Nazis to wand-waving occultists such as Nikola Tesla. The Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts suggests the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman are both genuine magical creatures that we poor muggles are prevented from believing in via various wizardly wiles: which other myths of the modern world might Rowling choose to explore?