There is truly something great about the hunt for actors in a film that is based upon a massive best-selling novel, or series of novels. It was said the hunt for Scarlet O’Hara was a publicist’s dream while everyone had an opinion on who should have played James Bond before Sean Connery was announced, something that would happen every couple of years whenever an actor left that particular role.
It was very much the same when Harry Potter made the journey to the screen. How could it not have been? The books were massive bestsellers that had captured the imaginations of children, and even adults, prompting Warner Bros. to spend a million pounds on buying the rights.
The press went into overdrive over who would play the famous child wizard and who would end up directing. Given the magical nature of the series and its inbuilt status as a potential blockbuster, commercial success was pretty much guaranteed, so it was no surprise that many had linked Steven Spielberg to the director’s chair.
Rumours abounded that he wanted to cast Haley Joel Osment in the role, an idea that did not go down well with many; after all, Harry Potter was British and that was the way that many wanted it to stay.
Spielberg, in the end, did not direct, but the director who would end up calling the shots wound up being someone who had a similar touch to Spielberg, and had even worked on several Amblin Entertainment projects throughout the years.
Chris Columbus was the perfect choice to get a franchise off the ground that would dominate multiplexes for a decade and while future films in the series are arguably better for sure (hello, Prisoner of Azkaban), we would not have gotten Fantastic Beasts if it wasn’t for the director of Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire.
Both those movies depended heavily on child casts, with both movies launching the careers of Macaulay Culkin and Mara Wilson, both very talented child actors which indicated that Columbus had a great eye for talent.
While he may not have been a director to be classed as a great auteur by any stretch, his ability to work wonders with child casts, complete with a devilish sense of humour, not to mention having scripted Gremlins with its demented taste in cartoonish violence, meant that here was someone who had the ability to mix magical adventure, with a sense of menace and to be able to elicit great performances from children.
There was of course much speculation as to who would play the titular character and his friend Hermione and Ron, but the correct decision was made to go for unknowns, the last time Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint would ever be referred to as unknowns again.
Released into cinemas of Christmas 2001 (part of the reason why the films and the series have always had the holiday season associated with it, another being that since the films take place over the course of a year we get a Christmas sequence in it), it goes without saying that the film was a massive success, grossing over $974 million and becoming one of the most successful films ever released.
Interestingly, it would end up being one of two fantasy-laden Christmas season blockbusters at the box office in 2001; that same Christmas season would see the release of the first Lord of the Rings in cinemas, becoming a massive success also and spearheading a second fantasy franchise that would dominate our cinemas for the next few years before spinning off in itself to The Hobbit trilogy.
It’s interesting to go back and look at the first Potter film again. The Chris Columbus movies are sometimes lumped together as being somewhat lesser than the later films and the work that Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and David Yates brought to the series.
One could argue that since the later books had darker and more intense stories, and they are at the point where the series had settled into itself as an ongoing entity, those films were going to be inevitably better and more confident, but to write of The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets is a little unfair.
The Philosopher’s Stone, in particular, has to work hard to set up the world so it does come with exposition that is plentiful, introductions to a large cast that are going to play variously important parts in later films, all the while centring itself upon three lead performers at the start of their careers.
It’s easy to be dismissive to the work here, but it has a lot of charm. Yes, the story is maybe nowhere near as complex when we get to the later stuff when Rowling’s books, and by extension the movies, have so much to work with and balance, but there is magic in the air here.
There is a sense of wonder throughout that feels like Spielberg, which Columbus utilises so well; the first reveal of Hogwarts, the first Quidditch match, those opening bars of John Williams’ score, Hagrid’s apology for kicking down the door when he finds the Dursleys, even the most enjoyable sequence from Rowling’s book, the onslaught of mail that basically stalks the Dursleys and which they try to hide from Harry, is a joy to watch.
Rowling’s book was the definition of magical, no matter how many times one reads it, where her prose and world building sweeps you along in a way that it sometimes is remarkable to know that it was her first book (how she was turned down by so many publishers will forever be a mystery for sure).
It never feels like work and by extension neither does the movie. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint do well, admittedly they will do even better in the later movies, but the film’s ability to build this world visually before our very eyes is remarkable; from the production design to the visual effects and that gorgeous, beautiful score from one of Hollywood’s greatest; Spielberg may not have directed, but there was really only one composer of choice to lay down the themes that would recur throughout the series.
It goes without saying that some are cynical about the series overall, but if you’re someone who feels the magic that lies at the heart of the film and how it extends beyond this film into the rest of the franchise, then resistance was futile. While the later films are more highly regarded, and there is no denying that Prisoner of Azkaban is a superb film, it’s hard to discount the great work that was done here.
The groundwork that was laid here was a very strong foundation for what was to follow, with the decisions in casting, the visual look and the feel of the film ricocheting into everything that would follow.