by D.W. Lundberg

Saturday, July 30, 2011


It is, without a doubt, one of the great rags-to-riches stories of the past two decades: A single mother, living off of welfare, carts her baby down to the local coffee shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she writes the first book of what will become the most successful children's series of all time. She goes from poverty to multi-millionaire status all within the span of five years; her novels sell over 400 million copies; are translated into 67 languages; and her iconic creation – Harry James Potter, aka "The Boy Who Lived" – becomes a permanent fixture in households worldwide.

Joanne "Jo" Rowling says she conjured up the idea for Harry Potter in 1990, while on a return train to London. But she didn't actually finish writing The Philosopher's Stone – the story of an eleven-year-old boy who attends Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry – until six years later. During that time, Rowling suffered a series of emotional setbacks that pushed her close to the breaking point: Her mother, Anne, died of multiple sclerosis in December 1990, the impact of which forced Joanne to move from London to Portugal, Spain, to pursue a career as an English teacher. While there, she met and married Jorge Arantes, a journalism student with whom she had a tumultuous relationship. The birth of their daughter, Jessica, in July 1993 only seemed to heighten the tension between them, and following a violent argument in November of that same year, Joanne took the baby and fled back to England. (The couple eventually divorced in August 1994.) Jo's father, Peter, had since re-married and their relationship had become strained, so she moved to Edinburgh to live near her sister. Jobless, penniless, and living on a weekly £69 allowance from social services, she began a daily routine of wandering her neighborhood streets, pushing Jessica in her stroller until the baby fell asleep. Then she would duck into the nearest coffee shop or restaurant and write. She completed Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone in early 1996, and after many rejections from different publishing houses, the book was finally purchased by Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury, for an advance of £1,500. Scholastic Books followed suit, a mere three days after its publication in Britain, and bid an unprecedented $100,000 to distribute Potter in the United States. The rest, as they say, is history. Rowling would never know poverty again.

(In 2004, Forbes magazine cited J.K. Rowling as the first author in history to earn over $1 billion in U.S. sales, and the second-most successful female entertainer in the world, after Oprah Winfrey. Since 2000, Rowling has become a noted philanthropist, anti-poverty spokesperson, and advocate for multiple sclerosis research. She is humble and knows her place – and deserves every ounce of her success.)

Reading her books, it's easy to understand the appeal. Rowling's prose reads like gangbusters – it's concise, to the point, and there's a wicked sense of humor shot through almost every line on the page. (I like this early description of the insufferable Dudley Dursley from Book One: "[He] looked a lot like Uncle Vernon. He had a large pink face, not much neck, small, watery blue eyes, and thick blond hair that lay smoothly on his thick, fat head. Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked like a baby angel – Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig.") The characters are quick to define, too, with names that give you instant insight into their personalities (Dursley, Malfoy, Voldemort) or tweak your expectations of them (Sirius Black, Professor Quirrell). And Harry himself is an easy protagonist to rally behind. We're told early that he's Destined For Greatness, yet he's forced to rise above his humble, Cinderella-like origins – to learn, to grow, to become a man – to achieve that destiny. It's the classic monomyth that has been the template for every character from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker to Mr. Thomas "Neo" Anderson in the Matrix trilogy.

Muggles and mudbloods, Hippogryffs and Acromantulas: Rowling created a world that crossed the everyday with the extraordinary, a fantasy world grounded in reality - wands and trolls and potions infused with aching adolescent angst. Ask any fan, and they'll tell you it's the coming-of- age story, it's the characters, it's the eternal struggle between good and evil coursing throughout the entire series that captivates them most. It's about triumph over adversity, about tolerance for others, about how are actions define us, make us human. With magic!

It was only a matter of time before studios began to recognize the series' potential as a box-office cash cow. In 1999, Warner Bros. and Heyday Films' David Heyman bought the rights for $2 million. Part of Rowling's contract allowed her final approval of the movie's director, and stipulated that the entire cast be carved largely out of British actors. Steven Spielberg initially expressed interest in directing The Philosopher's Stone (re- titled The Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S., to avoid confusing audiences), but left to pursue more personal projects. That left the door open for director Chris Columbus, whose experience working with children on Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire (for Twentieth Century Fox) influenced the producers' decision to hire him for the job.

An extensive casting process followed. The adult roles were filled by a virtual who's-who of classically-trained actors, including Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Richard Harris (and later, Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Helena Bonham Carter and Jim Broadbent). Virtual unknowns Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were cast in the movie's coveted lead roles as Harry, the rascally Ron Weasley, and know-it-all Hermione Granger, respectively.

Filming on The Sorcerer's Stone began on October 2000 and wrapped in April the following year. Warner Bros., which originally planned to open the movie in July 2001, pushed the release back to November instead, to allow for extensive post-production work. The anticipation paid off: What became a phenomenon on the page turned out to be a genuine sensation on the big screen as well, grossing over $974 million worldwide. And that was just the beginning: Its follow-up sequels – The Chamber Of Secrets, Prisoner Of Azkaban, Goblet Of Fire, Order Of The Phoenix, Half-Blood-Prince, and The Deathly Hallows – have, so far, amassed a staggering $6.4 billion in ticket sales combined.

Their appeal is undeniable, yet I'm not really a fan of the first two films in the series. They're clunky and impersonal, and so eager to give fans a literal scene-by-scene translation of the books that there's no room for play; Chris Columbus's directorial style is so bland, he simply points his camera at all the magical goings-on and lets his set design do all the work. (He directed his actors in much the same way: According to reports, Columbus merely acted out scenes for the kids, exactly as he wanted it, and had them copy his pitch and facial expressions for the cameras. Which got the job done, I suppose, but never allowed them to fully inhabit their roles.)

It took a change in directors to finally inject the franchise with genuine enchantment. In 2003, Spanish capitán Alfonso Cuarón was chosen to helm The Prisoner Of Azkaban – the first Harry Potter with an actual personality, rather than a slavish devotion to its source material. Despite streamlining Rowling's ever-expanding narrative (the horror!), Cuarón was able to re-capture the novels' sly signature wit (there's more humor in Azkaban's opening five minutes than in all of Columbus's five-hour opus), and even helped deepen the performances by Radcliffe, Grint and Watson.

Mike Newell followed with The Goblet Of Fire in 2005, a movie with a typically British, cynical flavor, and David Yates took over the reins for the final four films, concluding with Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 in 2010, and Part 2 in 2011. Each director brought his own singular style to the franchise, which has divided many fans. I put it this way: Columbus set all the pieces in place, with dividends that would pay off in future installments, Cuarón set the gold standard for all chapters to follow, and Yates became the series' unofficial grand master, mixing the fantastical with a gritty, real-world tone.

As this decade (!) of Harry Potter movies comes to a close, it's fun to look back and see how it all began. Kudos to Warner Bros. for mapping out their entire production schedule from the start, almost year after year, to make sure that Radcliffe, Watson, Grint and the rest remained age appropriate for each subsequent adventure. We've watched them mature before our very eyes, from precocious child actors to capable adult performers, something I believe is unique to this slate of blockbuster Hollywood franchises. Hard to believe it all sprouted from the mind of a struggling 28-year-old single mother, never dreaming she'd wind up capturing the hearts and imaginations of audiences the world over.


The Original: Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001)

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith

Plot: On his eleventh birthday, an orphaned boy discovers that he is actually a wizard, and attends his first year at Hogwarts School For Witchcraft and Wizardry.

How It Set The Tone: J.K. Rowling's now-world-famous creation makes his big screen motion picture debut, in a consummately-wrapped, two-and-a-half- hour entertainment package practically guaranteed to win over die-hard fans. The set design by Stuart Craig leaps straight from the page, exactly as Rowling intended, with an A-list roster of British character actors (including Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane and John Hurt) perfectly suited for their roles. And John Williams' E minor- heavy title tune ("Hedwig's Theme") became an instant classic.

Room For Improvement: There's plenty of magic in Rowling's introductory 300-page tome, all of which the filmmakers hoped to get across, virtually word- for-word, to magic-happy audiences worldwide. But the script by Steve Kloves hits each and every plot turn with a sledgehammer thud (it's a checklist of all the novel's biggest moments, rather than an actual screenplay), and Chris Columbus's directorial style is so point-and-shoot predictable it drains the fun right out of the movie. The climax is pretty much a bust too, which fails to correct Rowling's lackluster, deus ex machina plot resolution. Final verdict: The pieces may be in place for a transcendent, one-of-a-kind adventure, but unfortunately, this ain't it.

Grade: C+

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets (Chris Columbus, 2002)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith

New Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Jason Isaacs

Plot: Harry Potter returns for his second year at Hogwarts, and finds the students under attack from mysterious forces.

How It Compares: Chris Columbus' return to the director's chair doesn't fare much better, I'm afraid. It's still just as clunky, and dispassionate too, like Teflon – the magic is all surface, and it doesn't stick. That's why Chamber Of Secrets almost dashed my hopes for the series completely: The tone may be darker, sure, but it fails to improve on The Sorcerer's Stone in just about every way, and only accentuates its problems. And screenwriter Steve Kloves still can't find a way around Rowling's over-reliance on deus ex machina plot devices (first Harry's "hands full o' love," and now this Sword Of Gryffindor/Sorting Hat nonsense). As for the cast, leads Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint show some additional personality, and Kenneth Branagh adds some fun as the pompous Gilderoy Lockhart.

Grade: C+

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón. 2004)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith

New Cast: Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson

Plot: Harry Potter learns that a convicted murderer, whose betrayal led to the death of Harry's parents, has escaped from Azkaban prison.

How It Compares: Like night and day. Where Chris Columbus's staging was stolid and impersonal, Alfonso Cuarón is looser and more playful, and he injects this third Harry Potter adventure with plenty of mischievous wit. (He also manages to get real performances out of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, who only get better from here on out.) The screenplay's an improvement too, giving Harry a couple of real conversations between two ingenious new characters (Remus Lupin and Sirius Black), which help deepen the character's emotional plight. And notice how adept Harry's become at resolving his own conflicts at the end! There's still too much attention paid to Rowling's signature motifs (the expected Quidditch match feels more like a side note than an actual plot point), but Azkaban, for me, is best summed up by its final glorious image: a look of pure, unadulterated joy on Harry's face as he soars off on his new Firebolt broom. For the first time, I left a Harry Potter movie feeling exactly the same way. (I go on about the pleasures of Azkaban a bit more here.)

Grade: A-

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall

New Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Miranda Richardson

Plot: Harry Potter is selected, under questionable circumstances, to compete in a treacherous multi-wizard school tournament.

How It Compares: Puberty rears its ugly head at Hogwarts, as does the evil Lord Voldemort, played with scene-chewing relish by Ralph Fiennes. And death makes its first token appearance too, when a key character is killed late in the movie. Needless to say, this is where the world of Harry Potter officially began its fall from innocence, the fun and enchantment of J.K. Rowling's earlier entries giving way to a less fanciful, more cynical tone. Director Mike Newell, however, favors the dull, let-the-CG-do-the-talking approach of Chris Columbus's efforts – a major disappointment, after the glorious other-worldly sheen of Prisoner Of Azkaban. As a character, Harry regresses a lot too: He may be Destined For Great Things, but he's sure a slow learner, passing each Tri-Wizard Tournament challenge based purely on luck and the assistance of others. Goblet Of Fire runs 157 minutes, which is an awful long wait to see the great boy wizard succeed through no particular skill of his own.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson

New Cast: Helena Bonham Carter, Imelda Staunton

Plot: Harry Potter fights to spread word of Lord Voldemort's return, by leading his fellow students in a revolt against the Ministry Of Magic.

How It Compares: HP5 gets a dose of fresh blood, and a dose of much-needed menace, from British TV director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg. The change is electric; despite an even darker shift in tone, the movie feels lighter on its feet than the cumbersome Goblet Of Fire, and better still, Yates is able to re-conjure the bold, slightly chiaroscuro color scheme that made Prisoner Of Azkaban such a pleasure to look at. (The climax, set in the Ministry Of Magic and the first to play in IMAX 3D, is probably my favorite sequence of the entire series so far.) Yates and Goldenberg also manage to whittle the book's 870 pages down to a relatively paltry 138 minutes (the shortest of any Potter so far), so that Harry's evolution from whiny teenager to natural-born leader has a genuine emotional pull. The movie's real genius, though, is the diminutive Imelda Staunton as Professor Dolores Umbridge, a fascist oppressor in pink whose cuddly, soft-spoken exterior masks horrors even Voldemort himself wouldn't possibly dream of.

Grade: B+

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis

New Cast: Jim Broadbent

Plot: During his sixth year at Hogwarts School, Harry Potter comes into possession of a mysterious textbook owned by the "Half-Blood Prince," while also unlocking the secrets behind Voldermort's dark past.

How It Compares: You'll hear a lot of critics call this latest Harry Potter adventure "dark" and "moody," yet I heartily disagree. Oh, David Yates' second turn in the director's chair sure opens dark, with an attack by Death Eaters on Muggle- world London, and the plot certainly feels like it's headed somewhere portentous and threatening (I particularly like how Tom Felton's disdainful Draco Malfoy is constantly seen skulking around Hogwarts Castle, gearing up for something horrible). In between, though, there's a blissful teen comedy just dying to get out. Both Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have become gifted comic performers, while Emma Watson plays exasperated and heartbroken so well (often at the same time), you'd think the oncoming threat of war was the least of their problems. Yates' touch is so deft, you half-forget that The Half-Blood Prince is really just a 153- minute epic about... stealing a memory. (That, and Steve Kloves' return to script-writing bungles the titular Half-Blood's reveal at the end.)

Grade: B

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (David Yates, 2010)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis

New Cast: Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy

Plot: Harry Potter and friends go on the run to find and destroy the five remaining Horcruxes – the splintered fragments of Lord Voldermort's soul and the key to his destruction.

How It Compares: Or, Harry Potter And The Interminable Campout Of Doom. Part 6 ended on a gorgeously melancholic note, a mood that continues here, often to the detriment of the plot. This is the only franchise chapter I'd call a placeholder between films – Harry, Ron and Hermione set out after Voldemort's precious horcruxes just as they'd promised last time, but then mostly just stand around, arguing and trying to map out their next move. (You know how I feel about this. Read here for a lengthier post on Potter 7.1 as blatant box office cash grab.) David Yates describes Hallows, Part 1 as "quite vérité, quite real," almost like a documentary. I get that. It's our teen heroes removed from the safety of adult guidance and supervision, forced to grow up all on their own. But the script spends too much time recalling past adventures, and despite opening and closing the movie in the same location (SPOILER: it's Malfoy Manor), it never reaches an actual, authentic resolution; it's simply one half of a larger epic.

Grade: B-

Sequel: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (David Yates, 2011)

Returning Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Jim Broadbent, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon,  John Hurt, Jason Isaacs, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson

New Cast: Ciaran Hinds, Kelly Macdonald

Plot: Harry Potter and friends infiltrate Hogwarts to prepare for their final confrontation against the forces of Voldemort.

How It Compares: It's all come down to this, and save for a few characters who get the short shrift, Team Potter doesn't disappoint. In fact, from the instant our heroic trio step back inside Hogwarts, Part 2 is all payoff – ten years of built-up narrative tension given explosive, cathartic release. Each crescendo carries the same visceral charge: Harry, under threat of detection, revealing himself to the entire student body; the ensuing wand-off between Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and the dubious Snape (Alan Rickman); Ron and Hermione's triumphant first kiss (SPOILER!) in the Chamber of Secrets; the rise of Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis) from loveable loser to Sword of Gryffindor-wielding warrior; and, of course, Harry's final showdown with his arch-enemy and dark mirror, Lord Voldemort. Remarkably, it's the character beats, large and small, that stand out among the battle sequences – in particular a centerpiece pensieve, late in the movie, which shows us the true intentions of Professor Snape and reveals Rickman as the series' rightful MVP. It's moments like this that turn a once kid-centric entertainment into something wholly Shakespearean.

Grade: B+

More To Come?: Rowling has said in interviews that she "might" return to the world of Harry Potter sometime in the future, so you never know. If that ever happens, you can bet Hollywood will be all over that like a boggart on a broomstick.


Hungry for more Franchise Face-Offs? No problem! Click here, here, here, here and here.


  1. Good job Darin! This was no easy task to tackle! You know, however, that I don't agree 100%. =) I think the first two were brilliant! Done exactly as it should have been!

    Had they not been done that way, I think, the movies wouldn't have done as well and wouldn't have brought fans back for short...most fans fell in love with the books first and needed to see that it could be just as good on screen!

    Also, I believe, for those who had not read the books before the first movie came out, wanted to read them once they had seen the first movie...THAT,in my opinion, is a great movie and was a very smart move on the directors part!

  2. Some very good points, though you have to wonder why the producers decided to change the style of the series only three movies in. (They probably figured, "Well, we've got them hooked. How about we shake up the formula a bit?") Part 3 is where it all started getting interesting for me, and that's because the movies started taking on a life of their own... even Rowling herself went on record to say she wanted to see a good movie first, and a faithful adaptation of her books second.

    I agree that you have to be true to the source material, otherwise you lose the magic of what made the original so special in the first place. And for the most part, Chris Columbus is true to the spirit of the books (Rowling also says the design of the movies matches exactly to what she'd created in her head). But what I loved most about the novels is missing from the first two movies, and that's Rowling's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. Columbus has no patience for that; he wants you to be wowed by the movies simply because you were wowed by the books, so all he does is film the action exactly how it was written on the page. If that's all you want, why not buy the Harry Potter Book-On-Tape and listen to that instead?

    The point is, you can't always please everyone. Most HP fans tend to like the other six movies less, which is understandable. They love the books so much, they can't bear to see a single moment altered, and the changes Alfonso Cuarón or David Yates made to Rowling's masterful prose are simply heartbreaking to them. There's no arguing with that; you either fall into one camp or the other.

    My problem with the HP movies is that, if I hadn't read the books first, I wouldn't have understood the appeal of the movies. I wouldn't have stuck around waiting to see if the filmmakers would finally get it right. Columbus' movies did what they set out to do, I guess, but what if they'd had a true filmmaker behind the camera, someone with an actual imagination, or sense of play? There's a single shot about four minutes into TPOA, as Harry storms out of the Dursleys' house with his suitcase, where you can see inflated Aunt Marge swirling around in the sky, far in the background... and it gave me the first honest laugh I'd had in the entire series so far. One instant, and Alfonso Cuarón was able to capture Rowling's sense of humor in a way that Columbus could not. And from that moment... I was hooked.