"London's 'Harry Potter' Debut: Movie Magic of a Special Sort"
by T.R. Reid ("Washington Post," November 5, 2001)
LONDON -- Witches, wizards, white owls, dwarfs, trolls and other magical creatures were joined by a mob of Muggles tonight in the heart of London as children of all ages gathered for the world premiere of the movie version of the first book in the blockbuster Harry Potter series.
More than 10,000 fans turned out, police said, to cheer, touch and beg for autographs from the stars of the new Warner Bros. film "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." Tonight's opening on Leicester Square drew the usual movie-premiere crowd of pop stars and princesses; what was unusual was that the biggest cheers of all were saved for an author: the unassuming single mother who created the Potter phenomenon, J.K. Rowling.
The new film about the most famous student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry will open in U.S. theaters on Nov. 16. Advance ticket sales guarantee it will be the hottest movie of the holiday season, Warner Bros. says. In the United States the film, like the book it's based on, is called "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," because Rowling's American publisher thought the word "philosopher" in the title might turn away young readers.
In fact, nothing can turn young Muggle (non-Wizards) away from Harry Potter and his adventures. The first four volumes in Rowling's promised seven-book series have become the greatest success in publishing history. In four years they have sold more than 110 million copies in more than 40 languages. The books became extremely popular in America; the New York Times even started a separate bestseller ranking for children's books after Harry Potter spent weeks atop its fiction list.
Choosing not to gamble with success, filmmaker Chris Columbus -- director of the "Home Alone" movies and "Mrs. Doubtfire" -- has adhered slavishly to the original text. "My final check on every scene," Columbus said at the premiere tonight, "was to make sure that Jo [Rowling] was sure we had captured her book exactly."
The movie has a strong feeling of magic right from the opening moments, when Rubeus Hagrid's flying motorcycle roars through a foggy English sky carrying the infant wizard Harry Potter.
The film faithfully captures the surprise and spectacle of other key elements in the now-familiar text, including the massive mail drop by hordes of owls, the Hogwarts Express train at Platform 9 3/4 of Kings Cross Station, the 2,400-year-old shop selling magic wands on Diagon Alley, the three-headed dog named Fluffy, the astounding Hogwarts sport of Quidditch -- it's basically soccer played on flying broomsticks, with four balls -- and the life-size chess set where the knights brutally slay the bishops.
As is almost obligatory for hit movies, "Harry Potter" has a soundtrack by John Williams ("Star Wars," "E.T.," etc.), a brassy score that the director plays ever louder to rachet up the tension.
The adult actors perform admirably -- particularly the oversized Robbie Coltrane as the giant Hogwarts groundskeeper, Hagrid. But the 12-year-old actor Daniel Radcliffe -- who looks almost exactly like "The Weakest Link" hostess Anne Robinson -- brings a disappointing minimalism to the plum role of Harry. Faced with stuff that would thoroughly gross out most kids -- from vomit-flavored candy to a splat of dragon saliva in his eye -- Radcliffe routinely responds with the mildest of shrugs.
The movie also raises the old question of whether there can be too much of a good thing. For all its dazzle, this first Potter film carries on for more than 2 1/2 hours; at a screening in London this weekend, some young Potter fans dozed off just over two hours into the movie.
Still, nobody doubts that "Stone" will be boffo at the box office; indeed, director Columbus has already started filming the second book, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
Warner Bros. spent about $125 million to make the first Potter movie. The studio has signed an endorsement deal with Coca-Cola that will make back about $100 million of that sum, according to the trade press, and merchandise tie-ins are expected to bring in hundreds of millions more. By Christmas, children all over America will likely be going to school wearing the long maroon-and-yellow-striped scarf worn by the residents of Gryffindor, Harry Potter's house at Hogwarts School.
Some of this cash will presumably find its way to the pockets of J.K. Rowling (rhymes with bowling), but the 35-year-old author has said over and over that she doesn't need any more money. Barely four years after publishing her first book -- she earned a piddling advance of $15,000 after four publishers had spurned the manuscript -- British tax records suggest Rowling is the second-richest woman in Britain, surpassed only by Queen Elizabeth II. Her books sell four or five times as many copies as novels by the likes of John Grisham and Stephen King.
Rowling was a high school French teacher in Scotland when she created Harry Potter, and the rich evocation of life in a British boarding school is one of the features that have made the books so appealing to schoolchildren everywhere.
At the premiere tonight, Rowling said she was reluctant to sell the movie rights to her creation in the first place. She finally agreed to give Columbus the go-ahead because he promised to preserve the British elements of the fable.
"I wanted a British cast and a British setting, because it is a British story," she said. "And we have all that. I wanted the movie to have its world premiere right here, in Britain. And here we are."
And then, gazing out at the filmland hoopla surrounding her -- the searchlights, the fireworks, the air-kissing starlets and the thousands of squealing fans, Rowling blinked for a minute with a look of sheer amazement.
"I still can't believe all this has happened," she said. "For a person like me, this is not a run-of-the-mill kind of night."