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Fantasy, driven by reality

The makers of the second installments of 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings' face even greater expectations.

November 03, 2002|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Fidelity has long been a touchy subject here in modern Babylon, but last year Hollywood had a very particular faithfulness issue. Could two worldly men, film directors at that, really understand the nature of devotion, constancy and commitment?

In a matter of a few weeks, those fears were assuaged. The many devoted readers of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" showered directors Chris Columbus and Peter Jackson with fistfuls of ticket stubs in gratitude for the respect they showed in their film adaptations of these works. Indeed, the criticism most often leveled at "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was that it was too faithful to the book.

So this year, as audiences prepare for Round 2 -- the Nov. 15 release of Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and the Dec. 19 opening of New Line's "The Two Towers" -- the fans are very calm. Impatient, but calm.

Which actually makes the filmmakers a little nervous. Because the only thing more daunting than a suspicious audience is a really, really expectant one.

For both directors, success came with a few strings attached. Although the budget for the second Harry Potter film is reportedly about the same as the first -- about $125 million -- the hope is that even more dazzling special effects will break through the disdain many critics and adult viewers felt for the by-the-book script of "Sorcerer's Stone." But the film is still only the second of what was originally conceived as a series of seven books and films, and so must prove that the Harry Potter franchise is still on the upswing.

Across a few time zones in New Zealand, Jackson has worked steadily through the $300 million pledged by New Line at the onset of the project. "The Two Towers" also will introduce characters and scenes representing the latest in film technology, but that will not address the biggest obstacle the film faces. The extraordinary critical success of "The Fellowship of the Ring" set a high bar: To make this middle film of a trilogy best picture or best director material will require all kinds of magic, computer or otherwise.

"There was much more pressure this year," said Jackson from New Zealand. "For 'Fellowship,' " he said, "we had the advantage of being the mystery film. This time, we don't have the future of the studio riding on our shoulders, but we have to worry about the millions of people who loved the first film, who are counting on us."

The makers of "Chamber of Secrets" felt much the same way, with the additional nagging memory of critics' charges that they had gone too strictly by the book last time around. "The goal was to make a film that was even better than the first," said Columbus. And having the trust of the fans made that task much easier. "We had proved to the audience that we were faithful, so with the second film we could be a little more relaxed," he said.

Which is not to say that Columbus threw caution, or Rowling's book, to the wind. When Columbus says "more relaxed," he's referring to a few ad-libbed exchanges and a couple of drawn-out action sequences. But overall, "Chamber of Secrets" is a more straightforward adventure tale. The paintings and staircases still move, Quidditch players whiz through the air, but neither the characters nor the camera spend much time in wide-eyed wonder at this. Even the appearance of Dobby, the computer-generated house elf, is pretty much taken in stride by Harry, and the story line.

"Magic is more magic when it's just there. The first movie was about Harry discovering what is essentially his home," producer David Heyman said. "The second film is about what he does when that home is threatened."

"Second film" is the term both sets of filmmakers are using to avoid the word "sequel." This is not, they would have you know, "Home Alone 2" or "Batman Returns" territory. And according to Columbus and Jackson, the new films are very different in mood and focus.

" 'The Fellowship' was much more whimsical," Jackson said. "And it had to cover a lot of ground, backstory-wise--it was a half-hour before we even got out of the Shire. 'The Two Towers' is much more of an adventure film, with horses and swords and battles."

"The Two Towers" begins right after the final action in "Fellowship," and if people are expecting a when-we-last-saw-them prologue to get them up to speed, they're out of luck. "That is just too TV miniseries," he said. "And I'm not really concerned with the people who didn't see 'The Fellowship'why would they be going to see this movie if they didn't see that one?"

"Chamber of Secrets" also forgoes any kind of recap, but over at Warner Bros., folks have a slightly different definition of a non-sequel sequel. They stress that, like the books, each film can stand on its own. "You don't have to have seen the first film to enjoy the second," Heyman said, "although it makes it a richer experience if you have."

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