“Dear Mr. Potter, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”
– Harry’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts
When I was in third grade, I saw my older sister doing something that shocked me beyond all belief – reading a book. Not a girly magazine, not 30 posters of Devon Sawa and Johnathan Taylor Thomas stapled together, an honest to goodness book. It was one her best friend recommended she read. On the cover was a boy riding a broomstick; the back whispered of an orphan boy, midair sports, dragons and a school for magic. Vaguely remembering the name Harry something-or-other from a quiz featured in an issue of Disney Adventures (yes, really), I fell into the usual baby sister routine of waiting for the older sibling to pass her book down to me so I could see what the fuss was about.
It was worth the wait.
An unprecedented worldwide success, Harry Potter was to literature as Star Wars was to film, revolutionizing the fantasy genre and changing the way people viewed “children’s” entertainment. JK Rowling, a woman who suddenly made reading not just for lit nerds, quickly became a household name along with Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and a cast of hundreds of magical characters she brought to life in an immersive original world that any kid would give their front teeth to visit. Luckily most wont have to do that now that we have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Studios theme parks. Speaking as someone who’s gone there twice, I’m not ashamed to say it feels like the whole Hogwarts experience was ripped right from the page and screen. I even got myself my own wand (reed, 12 inches, leafy vine pattern spiraling towards the tip, very firm and reliable).
With three hit books and a fourth on the way, a movie series was as inevitable as the dawn of the twenty-first century. Rowling was courted by many studios and directors for the rights to produce one of the biggest blockbuster franchises in history. Disney was among them, but since this was during the Eisner era they let it slip through their fingers along with prospective theme park rights, respect for legacy, and common sense in general.
“”Let Warner Bros. make their little wizard picture,” he said. “They’ll be too busy watching Little Mermaid 2 to go see it”, he said.”
Thanks to a largely faithful screenplay by Steve Kloves and Rowling’s adherence to detail (as well as insisting that the entire cast be authentically British), the stage was set for a perfect adaptation. The one caveat was who would be helming Harry’s first foray into Hollywood. Rowling’s first choice was none other than Monty Python alum, the brilliant mind behind The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Director With The Worst Luck in the Universe, Terry Gilliam. Unfortunately the heads at Warner Bros were wary of potential box office returns with Terry because, well, see the last title. With that they unceremoniously dumped him in favor of the significantly safer bet, Chris Columbus of Home Alome fame. Chris is not a hack by any means, yet book fans and Terry’s fans (and poor Terry himself) have criticized this movie as too safe by half under his direction. And…
…honestly I don’t see it. Chris Columbus, in my opinion, not only does a fine job introducing the wizard world to us, but later manages to top himself in the sequel. As the initial entry into the Harry Potter saga there’s a load of backstory and world building that needs to be done and he does so with whimsy aplomb, but not without that undercurrent of mystery and darkness that turns this boarding school romp into a true adventure that explores the power of friendship and love and the lines between good and evil. One can’t help but imagine every now and then what kind of creativity and wonder Terry might have brought to the film, but as a wise man once said, it doesn’t do to dwell on dreams.
So grab your wand and settle in with a mug of butterbeer, let’s dive into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone.