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Why `Potter' magic sticks

COMMENTARY

Staying true to the spirit and driving action of J.K. Rowling's books is what's kept the movie franchise fresh.

July 20, 2007|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

Pottermania has reached fever pitch with the arrival of the film of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" (novel No. 5) and her final book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (No. 7).

The focus of the frenzy is not tortured-adolescent wizard Harry or the appealing young actor playing him, Daniel Radcliffe, but Rowling herself -- even with the Potter movies becoming one of the most phenomenal film series in history.

I first "grokked" to the spellbinding quality of Rowling's mythology as a pair of tween girls prattled on charmingly behind me through the whole 2 hour, 22 minute, big-screen extravaganza of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (2004).

The experience convinced me that just as Beatlemania enriched all branches of popular culture with fresh reservoirs of poetry and melody, Pottermania has roused new generations to the pleasures of engulfing storytelling, sculpted characters and inspired inventions -- on celluloid as well as on paper or computer screens.

The girls sitting behind me responded not just with the giddiness of friends out for a good time or fans getting a fix of their favorite series but also with the combination of ebullience, erudition and irritation you'd expect, say, from traditional theater critics watching a modern vision of a Shakespeare play.

They ooohed and aahed over the perfection of witty casting coups, such as cuttingly brilliant Emma Thompson playing foggy visionary Sybill Trelawney, professor of divination. They loved it when Trelawney said, "You boy! Is your grandmother well? I wouldn't be so sure of that." They expressed perplexity over Harry and his pals, on their first night back at Hogwarts, scarfing down enchanted snacks that pushed heat clouds out of one lad's ears and made another bellow like a big cat. "Was that in the book?" they wondered -- but they did their wondering between laughs.

In short, they enjoyed pointed interpretations of the sacred text; original invention alternately annoyed and delighted them. But it was the film's core fidelity to the spirit and driving action of Rowling's book that left them sated.

As individual pictures, the Harry Potter films have been fair to great. (I think "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is one of the best fantasy films of all time, precisely because the director, Alfonso Cuaron, and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, fused their own lyrical talents to Rowling's storytelling.) But as a franchise they've been all of a piece. Chris Columbus, the director of the first two movies, and Kloves, who wrote the first four (and will return for the sixth) made the decision early on that they would cleave to the books' textures and tones as well as plotlines.

As a result, the Potter movie series is one of the few in which the films' auteur is the original author. Consider the competition. C.S. Lewis' writing is so spare and suggestive in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" that when director Andrew Adamson fleshed it out, however faithfully, it became an imagistic outburst, epic and surging. Peter Jackson performed such bold surgery on "The Lord of the Rings" that he ended up sharing the celluloid trilogy's authorship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

When moviemakers take on Harry Potter, they accept the challenge of crafting movies that can hold an audience with their own powers of invention while advancing a seven-entry series and withstanding the scrutiny of die-hard fans. Only Cuaron has pulled off each prong of that triple-pointed feat. But staying close to Rowling has made every movie a fondly anticipated event for book fans and nonreaders alike.

Rowling chains her moviemakers to enormous expectations yet also provides fecund characterizations and narrative and visual lucre worth the plundering. Even if you got itchy during "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (2001), you might think back fondly on your first glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe's strong, sensitive Harry, Rupert Grint's cocky yet goofy Ron, and Emma Watson's bright, spirited Hermione. It's difficult enough to fill crucial roles from a beloved bestseller with aptness and flair, but to do it with a group that would have to grow up before an audience required a master caster's touch. Chris Columbus had it.

Rowling's kaleidoscopes of outlandish incident, eccentric characters and extravagant locations provide such varied opportunities for directorial finesse, it's no wonder that even a Shakespearean director like Kenneth Branagh once expressed interest in guiding a Potter novel to the screen. Rowling even allowed Columbus to succeed where Bernardo Bertolucci failed in "The Last Emperor": shooting the enchanted cityscape of Diagon Alley for maximum supernal effect. The camera peered awe-struck, along with Harry, as Robbie Coltrane's giant and hugely funny Hagrid stood up straight against the leaning storefronts.

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