The latest of the Harry Potter prequels has faced set closures, cast changes and controversies, but it might be just what post-Covid cinemagoers need
The Harry Potter brand has taken a battering of late. In late 2019, JK Rowling was set upon by activists after tweeting support for Maya Forstater, a woman who was fired after saying that trans women are male. That row has rumbled on, with Rowling writing essays to clarify her position, stating that “if sex isn’t real, then the lived reality of women is erased”, and explaining why she finds terms such as “people who menstruate” demeaning.
Her enemies in this regard have labelled her a ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, and some of the actors made rich and famous by her stories have joined in the criticism.
Then Johnny Deep went to court.
He had been starring in the prequel series Fantastic Beasts, playing bad wizard and all-round reprobate Gellert Grindelwald: the latest film, The Secrets of Dumbledore, had already started shooting when Depp was asked to leave the production by Warner Bros following accusations of domestic abuse, which he denied.
In Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, which is released next Friday, he is replaced by Mads Mikkelsen, a better actor, but how the public reacts to this latest Rowling creation we shall see.
And yet, for all this hoo-ha, Rowling remains a massive figure in the entertainment business, and a kind of one-woman film studio. Her effect on the publishing world has often been written about, but almost as impressive is the creation of a film series that has to date grossed more than $9bn.
The eight Harry Potter films grossed almost $8bn, and the first two Fantastic Beasts movies around $1.5bn. And they’re not just glib money-spinners: what’s striking about the movies inspired by Rowling’s work is their high quality. The Potter films were groundbreaking in their imaginative use of special effects, and their casting of classical actors. Some of this was due to Rowling’s own stipulations, and as the ‘wizarding world’ franchise has moved forward, she has become more and more involved, writing screenplays, even producing.
But while the cinematic potential of Harry Potter was obvious from the start, it could very easily have been fumbled.
Just two years after the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Warner Bros paid Rowling £1m for the rights to the first four Potter novels, and Steven Spielberg was approached about directing the film version of Philosopher’s Stone. He saw it as an animation, then he lost interest: making a Potter film, he said, would be like “shooting ducks in a barrel — there’s no challenge”.
Chris Columbus begged to differ: he wanted to bring a sense of darkness to the film, and was inspired by David Lean’s early Dickens adaptations. But he and his screenwriter Steve Kloves quickly realised that Rowling would have a big part to play in the movie’s creation.
Her contract with Warners stipulated that all major parts be played by British or Irish actors, and she took an active role in the casting. Rowling, with impeccable judgment, picked Alan Rickman to play the crucial role of Severus Snape, and gave him details about his character’s history and motivation that had not yet been revealed in her novels.
It was also her idea to have Maggie Smith play the starchy Hogwarts teacher Minerva McGonagall, another inspired choice.
Richard Harris apparently only agreed to take on the role of Albus Dumbledore because his granddaughter had threatened never to speak to him again if he didn’t. Sadly, he died shortly before the release of the second Potter film, Chamber of Secrets, and was replaced thereafter by Michael Gambon, who made the transition seamless by channeling his parents’ Dublin accents.
Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were picked from thousands of auditioning children to play the roles of Harry’s friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, but of course the most crucial casting choice would be that of Harry himself.
More than 5,000 boys auditioned, but Columbus meanwhile had spotted the 10-year-old Daniel Radcliffe in a BBC production of David Copperfield, and became convinced he was the perfect Harry. Radcliffe’s parents, concerned about the effect a movie franchise might have on his childhood and education, were not initially keen on the idea, which might involve long shoots in Los Angeles. But when assurances were given that the films would be made in England, they relented.
Radcliffe would play the role for 10 years in eight films, and came to embody everyone’s idea of Harry, that “solemn intelligence” and “delight of discovery”, as one American critic put it.
Released in November 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was an instant and phenomenal success: made for $125m, it would end up grossing more than $1bn. As the series gathered pace, the films would get better and better, seamlessly blending flying cars, ogres and dragons into the ongoing story of Harry’s slow coming of age. The films caught the tone of the books perfectly, while avoiding their sometimes tortuous plotting, and there were some wonderfully hammy cameos to enjoy too.
Gary Oldman was excellent as the wronged and vilified Sirius Black, Helena Bonham Carter oozed sultry menace as Bellatrix Lestrange, Emma Thompson was kookiness itself as the half-blood witch Sybill Trelawney, and Kenneth Branagh revealed a seldom-used comic flair playing Gilderoy Lockhart, a celebrity wizard and supposed slayer of monsters who turns out to be a callow fake. Scariest of all was Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort, a wraith-like villain and Harry’s nemesis, who moved like a dancer and hovered in the shadows, waiting to pounce.
The technical and dramatic standards set by these films should not be taken for granted, and can be appreciated properly if you compare them with the Narnia franchise, which would have faced similar challenges.
In the early 2000s, the CS Lewis estate reached an agreement with the Mark Gordon Company which led to the release of three Chronicles of Narnia films, between 2005 and 2010: the first, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, was a success, but after that it was a case of diminishing returns. There are seven Narnia books, but only three were filmed before the series was abandoned: the movies had been stiff, stilted and humourless in the extreme.
By contrast, the Potter movies sing, at times achieving a near-perfect rendition of Rowling’s original vision. Rarely has an author been so well served by movie adaptations.
There was criticism, though, of the decision to split Rowling’s last Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two films, delaying Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort. But they were beautifully made, and grossed over $2bn between them. And that, one thought, was that. Not quite.
In 2001, Rowling had written a cod guide book by one Newt Scamander, which identified and characterised all the magical creatures to be found in the Potter universe. And in 2013, she decided to adapt the idea for film. Producer David Heyman, director David Yates and writer Steve Kloves, all veterans of the Potter franchise, were involved in the creation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016).
Good as they were, the Potter films were sometimes limited in their cinematic ambitions by having to serve the books’ plots. But with Fantastic Beasts, Rowling and Yates had a blank canvas. Eddie Redmayne was well cast as Newt Scamander, the eccentric wizard dedicated to protecting magic animals, one of whom has escaped into 1920s New York.
Colin Farrell was the pantomime villain Percival Graves, who at the end of the film meta-morphoses into Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), principal adversary in the coming series.
The 2018 sequel Crimes of Grindelwald was not as good, partly because of its convoluted plot, and partly because of Depp’s mannerisms and overacting. For The Secrets of Dumbledore, Depp is gone. But the film enters cinemas to a changed landscape, post-Covid, less Rowling-friendly.
It is very hard, though, not to be impressed by the relentlessly fecundity of JK Rowling’s imagination. In 1990, on a train stalled between London and Manchester, she dreamt up the entire Potter universe, which led to a publishing revolution, the creation of an 11-film franchise and so much more besides. And that’s not to mention her adult novels, and the Cormoran Strike detective stories.
It was fashionable, when Rowling first became famous, to sneer at her sometimes functional prose style. Sour grapes, if you ask me: her achievements are extraordinary.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is out in cinemas from Friday, April 8