There was a time that some of us can remember before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter juggernaut came to life. Contrary to popular belief, children were still reading books before the adventures of the boy wizard first arrived, but there’s little doubt that the Harry Potter series nonetheless gave the book selling industry a massive shot in the arm, and also, you suspect, got many more interested in reading than they were before. While much snobbery seems to get aimed in the direction of J.K. Rowling’s creation, even the harshest would at least have to cede that point.
Such was the success of the books that when it was announced, therefore, that Warner Bros had done a deal to bring the books to the big screen, it was assumed pretty much from the off that we were looking at a money minting franchise here. With shops offering midnight openings whenever a new instalment of the written adventures was released, there can rarely have been a book series with such a ready, built in, young audience waiting to go.
Philisopher’s Stone/Chamber Of Secrets
We’ve looked in the past at the numerous directors who turned down a Harry Potter film, the most notable of which was Steven Spielberg. He was one of Warner Bros’ most wanted when it came to helming 2001’s Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone (which is known as Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US). Yet he wouldn’t cede creative final say to J.K. Rowling, and eventually, a deal simply couldn’t be reached.
Warner Bros, in the end, opted for a safe pair of hands, in the shape of Chris Columbus. By this stage, Columbus had on his directorial CV films such as the two Home Alones, Stepmom, Nine Months and Mrs Doubtfire. He hadn’t had experience in such an effects-driven film, but in terms of churning out accessible family fare – and considering that Warner Bros would spend heavily to bring in effects experts anyway – he was a comfortable choice.
Columbus’ approach to the material could best be described as reverential. In the first film in particular, it feels like a very risk-free approach being taken (something, to the franchise’s credit, that you can’t say of all of the five films to date), as Columbus squeezes as much of the book onto the screen as possible. Granted, there’s a lot of scene-setting going on here, but by the time that’s all done, there’s barely room to squeeze in the story elements hinted at in the film’s title. In fact, they feel like a bolt on at the end of the film.
But credit where credit’s due. There’s a lot of visual flair thrown at the screen in the first film, and in terms of setting the foundations, it cashes in on the novelty factor a little too much, yet nonetheless is a genial introduction to the franchise (albeit derivative in its style of a collection of other films: while packaged very well, there wasn’t much feeling that you were seeing a great deal of fresh and new thinking). It’s also the highest grossing of all of the films to date, and brought to the fore a union of British thesps to round out the cast that would be an ongoing philosophy where the films were concerned.
The original plan for the Harry Potter movies was to bang them out at a rate of one a year, and thus, twelve months after Philosopher’s Stone came Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. This actually had a lot more story to tell, but Columbus approached it once again in pretty much the same way. Given the virtually non-existent turnaround between the two projects, they could, fairly easily, be argued to be two parts of the same movie.
It’s still decent fun, and the introduction of Kenneth Branagh as Professor Lockhart proved to be a wise choice. Sadly, it did get bogged down with a CG character in the form of Dobby the House Elf, at a time when moviegoers could go into the screen next door and watch Gollum in Lord Of The Rings instead. To put it bluntly, one of the characters is far more rounded and less annoying than the other.
In the aftermath of Chamber Of Secrets (2002), Chris Columbus moved away from the director’s chair, understandably citing that he hadn’t really seen his family much in the years he’d been working away on the Harry Potter films. A further personnel change was required when the great Richard Harris passed on, leaving the pivotal role of Dumbledore needing recasting (a part that went, of course, to Michael Gambon).
Warner Bros, as Chamber Of Secrets‘ grosses came in lower than the first film, also relaxed its planned release policy, knocking back the movies to every eighteen months, to allow some needed extra preparatory space between projects. Every subsequent film would benefit from the move.
And it then, to its immense credit, took a fairly sizeable gamble. In scouting around for a director for Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, which would arrive in the summer of 2004, it somehow ended up at the door of Alfonso Cuaron. By this stage in his career, Cuaron was riding high of the back of his international success Y Tu Mama Tambien (a film about as far removed from family entertainment as you could get), but he’d before that helmed a pair of films in the US. Great Expectations was one, but arguably the film that swung things in his favour was the excellent A Little Princess. However it came to be, though, he signed up for the job.
Cuaron delivered a tighter, shorter film than Columbus, and was in some way hamstrung by a plot that insisted on turning things into Back To The Future Part II by the final act. But he also got darker material to work with, manifested particularly with the spectacularly sinister Dementors. This, for many, was where the Potter franchise really started to change and lift, and the reviews for Prisoner Of Azkaban – which also wisely added Gary Oldman to its cast list – were arguably the best the series has picked up to date. Visually, it’s a superb piece of work, and Warner Bros not only took a risk on its director, but gave him more flexibility than expected. Certainly there’s no way most people could watch the earlier films next to this one side by side and believe they were made by the same person.
Azkaban isn’t a perfect film, of course, but there’s a strong argument that it’s the best directed of the franchise to date, and the one that was genuinely willing to unnerve its young target audience. Those Dementors have likely been floating around many people’s nightmares since.
Goblet Of Fire
Film four followed eighteen months later, and Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005) had a swine of a job on its hands. The book it was based on was over 1000 pages long, and Warner Bros seriously considered splitting it into two films. In the end, it went with just the one, and hired British director Mike Newell to helm the film.
Newell, whose CV included by this time films such as Four Weddings And A Funeral, Enchanted April, Donnie Brasco and Pushing Tin, had a bit of a poisoned chalice to handle. After all, he’s a very different director from Alfonso Cuaron, and that was bound to reflect in the end product.
In the end, however, it’s hard to grumble with the job that Newell did, even if the final result did fall short of Azkaban (which many argue is the best in the series to date).
In trying to pack quite so much story into one film, the first half of Goblet Of Fire belts along at such a pace that you pretty much have to hang on for dear life. But Newell had a few aces up his sleeve.
Firstly, when the film settles down, he stages some impressive sequences based around the Tri-Wizard challenge. Plus, he gets the job of introducing us to the big villain, Lord Voldemort (with Ralph Fiennes lured in for the role, despite confessing that he’s not been keen on the first two films), for the very first time. He keeps the character in the shadows primarily, and wisely so, but it builds up to an intriguing ending. And by the time the end credits role, you’ve not had the visual feast that Cuaron served up, but you’ve had good value for money.
Mike Newell, off the back of his Goblet Of Fire success, nonetheless passed up the opportunity to return to the Potter director’s chair. And after some scouting around and a variety of names being touted, Warner Bros took another gamble. And this one, again, richly paid off.
British director David Yates was best known when he landed the director’s job on Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (2007) for the excellent mini-series State Of Play (which has since been turned, of course, into a big screen Russell Crowe movie). He had several features to his name, too, but few would have classed him as the running favourite for the Potter gig.
And yet, arguably more than any of the directors attracted to the series thus far, there was every sign with Order Of The Phoenix that Yates was having a whale of a time. Keen to keep his camera moving and exploring the world of Hogwarts, he also wisely managed to truncate plot elements into a series of newspaper headlines that alone must have knocked ten to fifteen minutes off the running time (you can’t imagine Chris Columbus doing that).
He was blessed too by one of the most inspired pieces of casting in the series to date, with Imelda Staunton blasting everyone off the screen as Dolores Umbridge. As an exercise in measured, controlled acting that really gets under your skin, there are many people who could learn a lot off Staunton here, a villainous performance that stands among many of the best of them in modern day blockbusters. Even if the Potter clothing puts you off, it’s a performance that makes the film worth watching all by itself.
But don’t underestimate too some of the sequences too that Yates brought to the screen. The battle with Voldemort is lively and simply doesn’t mess around, fused with a brutality and hatred between the characters that’s hard to miss. The sequence near the end in a warehouse whose contents is shattering around the main characters deserves mention as well.
Order Of The Phoenix continued the franchise’s path to box office gold, and Warner Bros invited David Yates back for the incoming sixth film, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (2009). Effectively in the can since the end of last year, given the last minute decision to delay its release to this summer, the film finally arrives in cinemas on July 15th.
However, that doesn’t mean that Yates isn’t busy. He’s also been signed up to bring the last two films home, as Warner Bros opted to split the final book, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, into two films. The first we can expect at Christmas 2010, and the final movie will be out in the summer of 2011.
While Yates is an excellent choice, and has clearly earned the right to tackle the back three films, there’s just a small part of us that’s enjoyed Warner Bros’ rotating of directors on the Potter films, not least because each has brought a differing approach.
Yet, this is a time for consistency now, as the Potter saga heads for its denouement. Don’t be surprised, though, when it’s all over, if Warner Bros pressures J.K. to find any way possible to pen another story in the series – a prequel, perhaps.
After all, Warner Bros’ upcoming slate will be looking a good deal emptier once Potter has fled the nest…