Harry Potter

"Harry's Downfall?"

by Linton Weeks ("Washington Post," July 12, 2000)

Now that the new Rowling tome has been toted home and the floo powder has settled, we're getting a sinking feeling about Harry Potter, the movie.
We know, we know. There has been so much hope and exhilaration in the midst of the hubbub over the release of the fourth book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." But after reviewing the evidence, talking to experts and practicing arithmancy--divination by numbers as taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry--we hope to Harry that Hollywood doesn't screw everything up.
The prognosis for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," scheduled to begin filming this fall and to be released in November 2001, is not good.
"The people who love Harry Potter have created a Harry Potter universe in their heads," explains David Thomson, author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film." The hazard, of course, is that people will over-expect. "The more intensively that imaginative process has been undertaken, the more disappointing the film will be."
Hollywood often treats much-beloved books badly. Or stupidly. Or both. Harry Potter could sink like, well, a sorcerer's stone.
For starters, Warner Bros. has chosen as director Chris Columbus, who has a track record for making inane movies such as "Jingle All the Way" and "Bicentennial Man." His best outings were "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," so brace yourself for a Macaulay Culkin type to play the indefatigable Harry.. Or Robin Williams, who obviously believes he can play anyone of any age.
The screenplay was written by Steve Kloves, who wrote the forgettable "Racing With the Moon." He also scripted and directed "The Fabulous Baker Boys." The Financial Times of London opined: "Kloves's movie is a sort of 'Ishtar' without the jokes."
Already there have been scads of people ground up and spit out of the Harry Potter movie scuttlebutt mill. Steven Spielberg was going to direct, but he and author J.K. Rowling disagreed on several points--one of which is reported to have been whether Harry would be played by an American. Other directors mentioned along the way included: Brad Silberling ("City of Angels"), Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs"), Mike Newell ("Donnie Brasco") and Tim Robbins ("Cradle Will Rock").
Who will play Harry? This is a caster's dream. What hip young actor wouldn't want to portray the most popular wizard on Earth since Merlin? Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense" supposedly wanted the role, like, real bad. And didn't get it. One name mentioned was ballet dancer Jamie Bell ("Dancer"). Rowling and others are bucking for an all-Brit cast, so Columbus has opened the floodgates. Thousands of little Brits have signed up for tryouts as Harry, Hermione, Ron Weasley and the rest. Warner Bros. could begin announcing cast members any day.
It is widely rumored that British actor Tim Roth will be Severus Snape, professor of potions, and Scottish actress Maggie Smith will play Minerva McGonagall, the deputy headmistress at Hogwarts School. According to reports, Rosie O'Donnell wants to be Mrs. Weasley in the epic movie.
Ann Neely, a Vanderbilt specialist in children's literature, was thinking about the unfolding cast recently when she popped an audio version of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" into her car's tape deck. "Rosie O'Donnell doesn't look anything like Mrs. Weasley in my mind," Neely says.
And that's the rub. "I think it's very risky," says Neely about making a movie of Harry Potter. She's concerned that the powerful egos and commanding presence of Columbus and actors such as O'Donnell could overpower Potter.
Rowling, she says, has done a masterly job of drawing mind pictures for readers.
"With high fantasy," Neely says, "the strength is the value of the mental image. You have to create in your mind the setting. In the Harry Potter books we all have a very different view of what Hogwarts looks like. A different image of Harry."
Another possible snag: To hear movie insiders tell it, producers never read books, they read treatments. And too often a movie is made not because a producer or director envisions a powerful story, but because there is a preexisting market for the movie--the legions of loyal readers who bought and loved the book.
Epic books seldom make epic movies.
"Dune," "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," "Under the Volcano," "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "Devil in a Blue Dress," "The Bonfire of the Vanities"--the list goes on and on of books, beloved by the masses, that were fashioned into famous Hollywood flops. The exceptions--"To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone with the Wind" and, perhaps, "The Perfect Storm"--are far fewer.
Only a very small handful of movies, such as "Jaws," "The Bridges of Madison County" and maybe "The Godfather," were better than the books that spawned them. More often than not, Hollywood turns silk purses into sows' ears. Especially when it comes to delightful kids literature.
The 1964 book "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh, for example, is full of wit and psychological nuance. The story revolves around a young girl who wants to be a writer. She is a keen observer who spies on the world around her. She uses words as weapons. When Harriet's notebook is discovered by classmates and read aloud, the mean-spirited descriptions hurt the feelings of her friends.
The 1996 movie "Harriet the Spy" was an unmitigated mess. The Washington Post called it "draggy and rather dull." Produced by Nickelodeon, the movie was jumpy and jerky and junky.
The 1981 book "The Indian in the Cupboard" by Lynne Reid Banks is a weird and wondrous tale of a young boy with a toy Indian that comes alive. The New York Times called it the best children's novel of the year.
The 1995 movie, directed by former Muppeteer Frank Oz, was wonderfully wholesome but sinfully uninspired. The Baltimore Sun said it "felt slow and didactic."
You connect the dots.
To be sure, some children's classics have made fine films. Roald Dahl's "James and the Giant Peach" and E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" worked well on the big screen.
In Harry Potter's case, however, there is a lot to be concerned about. Reports abound that the budget will exceed $100 million. The bigger they're funded, the harder they fall. Remember "Heaven's Gate" and "Hudson Hawk"? For Kevin Costner, "The Postman" didn't even ring once.
Columbus has said that Rowling will be involved in the creative process. And she told Newsweek that she has been. But writers don't always get what they want. On screen, or off.
Rowling told The Washington Post in an interview last fall that she wanted Harry Potter merchandise to be high-quality and bookish.
"As a mother," she said, "I want to see stuff kids can play with."
Yeah, right. If the recent Licensing 2000 trade show is any indication, store shelves will soon be sagging with Harry Potter gimcracks and gewgaws--everything from shampoos and chocolate frogs to magic cloaks and baseball caps. Enesco Group announced recently that it will be working with Warner Bros. to develop "gift and collectible products based on the global literary phenomenon Harry Potter." There were no details of what the company will produce. But these are the same folks who brought us Cherished Teddies teddy bears, Mary's Moo Moos cow figurines and Blushing Bunnies rabbit stuff--ceramic collectible items that sit on doilied shelves and collect dust.
What are they doing to Harry? the true Rowling fan might ask.
Ironically, says film critic David Thomson, when a movie is made from a popular book, "the people most likely to be disappointed are the people for whom the book meant the most. They've invested more in it."
He adds, "People who haven't read the book are more likely to enjoy the movie."
If that's true, the movie could be in real trouble. After all, who hasn't read the book?