In 2001, the movie world was completely different. Titanic had been predicted to fail, then became the biggest film sensation in years. Digital effects were coming into their own. Streaming didn’t exist, and DVD was only just becoming a major part of the movie economy. Blockbuster fantasy films were largely non-existent.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, depending on your country of origin) opened in November 2001. Between Harry Potter and The Fellowship of the Ring, which opened a month later, the very concept of the movie series changed entirely.
Here’s how the Harry Potter movies got started.
Even super-fans might not know the name of the person most responsible for bringing Harry Potter to the screen. That’s producer David Heyman, the production’s own Dumbledore. He pursued a deal with J.K. Rowling, oversaw the scripts, found Daniel Radcliffe, and kept the cast together for years.
Ironically, Heyman wasn’t interested in Rowling’s first novel. He thought the title was terrible and disregarded the book when it showed up at his office before publication in the US. But a secretary was curious and spent a weekend tearing through the novel. Back at work, she convinced Heyman to pay attention to Rowling.
That was in 1997. Two years later, Heyman negotiated a rights deal between Rowling and Warner Bros. for the first four Potter novels. The price: £1m, or about two million dollars.
As a mega-popular author, and thanks to her working relationship with Heyman, J.K. Rowling enjoyed a rare position as the films were first developed. When most authors sign away film rights, any involvement they have in the resulting films is often a courtesy. As a superstar author whose novels were a legitimate phenomenon, Rowling had the power to dictate several important terms. She specified that the characters must remain British and that the films remain true to their natures.
Now imagine having to find a director for Harry Potter – or getting to. Of course David Heyman went to Steven Spielberg. They nearly reached a deal, but Spielberg wanted to make an animated, condensed movie – with American actor Haley Joel Osment voicing Harry. That wouldn’t abide by Rowling’s rules. (Instead, Spielberg and Osment collaborated on A.I. Artificial Intelligence.)
Chris Columbus, who collaborated with Spielberg often early in his career, was chosen to direct. He ultimately brought a family-friendly style to the first two films. Columbus directed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with an eye for clarity. The barrage of information in the first two novels is translated into quick, clever scenes that make audiences feel at home. That contributed massively to the success of both movies.
Finding The Friends
Casting was the film’s biggest problem by far. Heyman cast a net across all of Britain and into the rest of the world. He and the rest of his team looked at thousands of candidates to play Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
Daniel Radcliffe’s casting is one of the great stories of talent discovery.
As Heyman despaired of finding the right actor to play Harry, he and screenwriter Steve Kloves went to a play. Daniel Radcliffe was there, but not on stage. He sat behind the producer and writer, and Heyman convinced Radcliffe’s parents to bring him around for an audition – and then convinced them that playing Harry wouldn’t be detrimental to the boy’s upbringing. Rowling loved him.
Daniel Radcliffe had a slight bit of professional experience, but Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were basically total newcomers. Each had experience with school plays, and no more. With that core trio in place, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone really came together.
The adults around Harry, Hermione and Ron were just as important. Eventually the Potter films would be so popular that actors would beg for roles, but that wasn’t the case at the beginning. Heyman and Columbus had to choose well, and did. Their cast did more than any other element to establish the film’s sense of reality.
Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid provides a heart. Alan Rickman’s brilliantly sneering Snape brings a dark uncertainty and sense of danger to the story long before we see Voldemort. As the nasty Dursley family, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Harry Melling helped us understand how wonderful it would be for Harry to arrive at Hogwarts.
We can’t say enough about Richard Harris, who brought such centered calm to the role of Albus Dumbledore. He was one of many actors who took a Harry Potter role at the insistence of a young family member. Harris passed away after filming The Chamber of Secrets. While he was replaced by the very able Michael Gambon, Harris’s vision of the character was unique and quite lovely.
All Points To Gryffindor
So many other choices added to Harry Potter’s success. Getting John Williams to score the first two films was a massive coup. The entire costume, makeup, and effects departments made the story come to life. Sets were so well-built and immersive that they’ve been preserved as tourist attractions.
Yet David Heyman, with Chris Columbus and Steve Kloves, truly guided Harry from the beginning. They acted just like the characters who support young Potter in the story, whether their efforts are known or not. Their dedication to Rowling’s texts paid off in both movies. The films maintained all the idiosyncrasies of Rowling’s novels while finding the tone that guided us all deep into the Wizarding World – where part of our imaginations still happily reside.
Grab your floo powder and get to an AMC Theatre, to see the entire Harry Potter series! Every Sunday, from 9/2 to 9/23, we’ll be showing two films.