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'Harry's' wonder boy

The series' screenwriter loves 'Potter,' but his divining rod is pointing to other projects.

June 25, 2004|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

Steve Kloves, the screenwriter for all three Harry Potter films, sounds a lot like mob boss Michael Corleone when Corleone declares in "The Godfather: Part III," "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in!"

Deliriously happy with "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," the third entry in the series, Kloves says that he hopes to get started soon on his first film as a writer and director since "Flesh and Bone" (1993). It's a version of British author Mark Haddon's prize-winning novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

The tale of an autistic teen who turns detective when he's blamed for the death of a neighbor's dog may sound strange -- but no stranger than J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" did when Kloves pulled a summary of it out of a pile from Warner Bros. and got himself a copy of Rowling's first book.

But with Rowling's entry No. 4, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," filming in London -- also from a Kloves script -- he is on call for problem-solving rewrites. (Mike Newell, of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," is directing "Goblet.") So with Haddon's book beckoning, Kloves has been hesitant to plunge into Rowling No. 5, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

The producers would be wise to keep Kloves on the case. Reviewers have rightly praised first-time "Potter" director Alfonso Cuaron for the artistic great leap forward of "The Prisoner of Azkaban," in which Harry and friends turn 13.

Cuaron has won international renown with films about children ("A Little Princess," 1995) and teenagers ("Y Tu Mama Tambien," 2001). But adolescents have preoccupied Kloves too.

His first produced script, "Racing With the Moon" (1984), features some of the best early work of Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn, as buddies facing friendship and courtship crises before they enter World War II. "The Fabulous Baker Boys" (1989) stars Jeff Bridges as a nightclub pianist nursing romantic fantasies and jazzy artistic goals as he plays out lingering sibling tensions with his partner and brother (Beau Bridges). And "Wonder Boys" (2000) follows Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas as writers of different generations handling the challenges of interrupted promise.

So it's not surprising that some of the best moments in "Azkaban" belong primarily to Kloves.

The key adult character in "Azkaban" is Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), a warmhearted academic sad sack and, for a time, Harry's most important mature ally. Because Kloves drew on his own creative resources to flesh out this endearing, threadbare character, Lupin's simply talking to Harry on a bridge is the film's most touching scene. Its piercing emotion derives partly from Lupin and Harry's bonding as outsiders. But as Lupin divulges his close friendship with Harry's late parents, Lily and James, he becomes, as Kloves says, "Harry's extended family."

Kloves says that when he first met Rowling, he told her he intuited that Lily "was quite special" and that James "was complicated."

And in the bridge scene, Lupin "illuminates Harry about his mother -- the most wonderful thing about her was that she was understanding toward Lupin at a time when few were. She saw something special about him when others, including himself, couldn't."

Kloves' sensitivity to the emotional reverberations beneath wild adventures is what makes him an ideal screen interpreter for Rowling. And in "Prisoner of Azkaban" he shows how much content he can conjure from fleeting suggestions. With a few spare brushstrokes, he renders the relationship between Harry's studious friend Hermione (Emma Watson) and the foggy Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson) as a cataclysmic clash of two worldviews: the rational and the madcap.

Kloves says he wants to be sure that Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Potter films and was a co-producer on No. 3, gets proper credit for the series. "Alfonso inherited amazing things from Chris," he says, "including some remarkable casting and Stuart Craig's production design. What you see in 'Azkaban' looks different because of Alfonso's eye. The Great Hall is still the Great Hall, but with Alfonso's incredible wide lenses, you get so much information in each shot."

Columbus' success at establishing the Potter universe on film allowed Kloves and Cuaron to "lift off from the page" on "Azkaban."

"I've never been an exposition guy," Kloves admits. "When Alfonso and I started working together, we decided that familiarity with Harry's world was going to be part of the price of admission. We weren't going to reintroduce things."

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