Hot take incoming: the Harry Potter books are all better than the movies! Okay, that’s not really a “hot take” so much as just an extremely common opinion. The books were a once-in-a-generation cultural phenomenon and the movies, while successful, were always secondary. Still, even if they weren’t as great as the books, the Harry Potter movies are an impressive accomplishment for how well they captured the magic of the source material. There were ups and downs over the course of eight films under four directors, but even the worst of the films were carried by excellent casting and wonderful design work. Alongside the Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man movies, it established a modern era of high quality blockbuster fantasy escapism.
As Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling attempt with mixed success to recapture the magic of the original series with their Wizarding World extended universe (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald releases November 16, 2018), let’s look back on the making of the original Harry Potter movie series. This cinematic accomplishment took a decade, facing and conquering many challenges along the way. No need to use Parseltongue: we’ve unlocked 15 interesting stories from the Chamber of Behind the Scenes Secrets for your reading pleasure!
15. SPIELBERG WANTED TO MAKE AN ANIMATED MOVIE
When producer David Heyman bought the movie rights to Harry Potter in 1999, many major directors wanted to get involved. Steven Spielberg had a vision for the movies extremely different from any of the films we got. He wanted to do an animated film adapting the first three books in one movie.
Haley Joel Osment was his first choice to voice Harry.
J.K. Rowling was adamant about wanting British actors to play the lead roles, so she would have likely vetoed Osment’s involvement. However, she was not in charge of choosing directors, and she was open to working with Spielberg. Spielberg simply decided he was more interested in making A.I. following the death of Stanley Kubrick and backed away from Harry Potter of his own volition.
14. ROWLING’S FIRST CHOICE: TERRY GILLIAM
Eventually, it came down to four directors in the running to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. You had two directors of family films, Chris Columbus and Brad Silberling, and two more esoteric picks, Terry Gilliam and Alan Parker. Of these options, Terry Gilliam was J.K. Rowling’s favorite choice. The former Monty Python animator and director of such wild films as Time Bandits and Brazil would certainly have been an inspired choice.
However, Gilliam’s films have a history of troubled productions, and he has a history of struggling with major studios. Given that, it’s understandable, if somewhat disappointing, that Warner Bros. went with the safest choice in the form of Chris Columbus. While the Potter series cycled through directors and Gilliam could have directed one of the later films, by 2005 he had lost interest in working on big budget studio films.
13. DANIEL RADCLIFFE’S DISCOVERY
While Rupert Grint and Emma Watson went through a more traditional audition process, David Heyman first found Daniel Radcliffe by happenstance. Exhausted from the search for his lead actor, producer David Heyman and screenwriter Steve Kloves took a night off to see a production of Stones in His Pockets. Sitting behind them in the theater happened to be 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe.
Heyman told the LA Times, “I remember my first impressions: He was curious and funny and so energetic.”
Heyman already knew Radcliffe’s dad as a literary agent, and Radcliffe already had acting experience in the BBC’s 1999 David Copperfield miniseries. Heyman convinced Radcliffe’s parents to bring him in for an audition. That audition, naturally, was an immense success. Rowling said in a BBC interview that watching the audition “felt like seeing my son on screen.”
12. WHY HARRY’S EYES AREN’T GREEN IN THE MOVIES
Everyone has their own vision in their heads of what the characters in the Harry Potter books look like, but Daniel Radcliffe’s appearance comes pretty close to Rowling’s descriptions and Mary Grandpre’s illustrations. That is, except for one notable physical detail: the eyes. Everyone in the books constantly talks about Harry’s green eyes being just like his mother’s. Radcliffe, however, has blue eyes.
Radcliffe actually tried wearing green contacts but had an extreme allergic reaction to them. David Heyman was open to digitally altering Radcliffe’s eye color, but Rowling told him the only important thing was his resemblance to his mother. Yet the actress who played Lily Potter as a kid in flashbacks had brown eyes, not like Radcliffe’s blue ones at all, so… Oops?
11. ONLY ALAN RICKMAN KNEW THE ENDING
In an ensemble filled with some of the greatest British thespians, Alan Rickman went above and beyond as the loathsome yet sympathetic potions master Severus Snape. One reason his performance was so great throughout the whole series was that he knew more about his character than anyone else in the cast did about theirs.
Unlike the others, he knew his character’s final fate before the last three books were even written.
If Rowling was going to give spoilers to anyone, Rickman would be the one who’d benefit most from that knowledge. Snape remains a mysterious character for most of the series, a double agent whom audiences are not sure how much to trust him at any given moment. Even as no one else knew what was going on in Snape’s head, Rickman needed to know for the performance to be truthful.
10. PEEVES’ SCENES FILMED AND CUT
Chris Columbus’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was overall an extremely faithful adaptation of the original book, almost to a fault. The general faithfulness, however, made the few changes notable. One of the most notable eliminations was the character of Peeves the Poltergeist.
Columbus actually filmed a few scenes with comedian Rik Mayall as Peeves, but the character ended up on the cutting room floor and never appeared in any of the other movies. Peeves isn’t even included in any of the deleted scenes on the DVD release! Why did Peeves never make it into the movies? Columbus wasn’t satisfied with the character’s design, the effects budget was already used up and the character was, in his view, pointless to the final product. However, Peeves was in the Sorcerer’s Stone tie-in video games.
9. JASON ISAACS’ AD-LIB
One of the best parts of the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets movie was the introduction of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy. Isaac gives one of those performances where you can just see how much fun he was having playing evil. He was extremely into his character, coming up with Lucius’ whole style and wardrobe.
He actually managed to improve upon the script and ad-lib the film’s greatest sarcastic laugh line.
Feeling his final scene in the movie lacked punch, Isaacs ad-libbed the spiteful line, “Well, let’s hope Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.” Without missing a beat, 12-year-old Radcliffe came up with an appropriate comeback: “Don’t worry, I will be.” The scene was such a highlight it made it into the film’s first trailer.
8. ALFONSO CUARÓN MADE THE ACTORS WRITE ESSAYS
Alfonso Cuarón took the movies in a darker direction with his acclaimed adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. As the child actors were growing up, their acting skills were improving. Cuarón had ideas for how to push their talents further and make them delve deeper into their parts. One of the first exercises he put them through when he first got the directing job involved a writing assignment.
Cuarón asked the three leads, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, to pen essays on their characters. Emma Watson’s paper on Hermione was 16 pages long. Radcliffe wrote a single page about Harry. Grint didn’t even bother to turn in anything. The results of this assignment were perfectly in character for the actors’ roles.
7. WIZARDING STORES ARE THE SAME SET REDRESSED
Building a whole fantasy world for a movie is hard. Keeping that world intact for a decade is even harder. Building all of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and keeping them usable for all of the movies simply wasn’t feasible. The fact you don’t see every location in every movie, fortunately, gave the set designers opportunities to save both space and money.
The Ollivander’s wand shop from Sorcerer’s Stone (pictured above) is the same building as the Flourish and Blotts bookstore in Chamber of Secrets.
Just give it a paint job and replace the wands with books. Another paint job and the installation of a lot of candies and the same space becomes Honeydukes in Prisoner of Azkaban. Since we never see all three locations in the same movie, it wouldn’t even occur to viewers that they’re looking at the same space refurbished.
6. NOT EVERYONE READ THE BOOKS
Almost everyone in the cast of the Harry Potter movies is a fan of the books. Almost everyone, because three major stars never actually read the books. Even though Rowling informed him about her plans for the books, Alan Rickman never picked them up. Ralph Fiennes also never looked at the source material (or even watched the finished films) when he was playing Voldemort. The most infamous non-reader, however, was Michael Gambon, the second Dumbledore.
His reason for not reading the books makes a certain degree of sense. He says if he was familiar with the books, he’d “get upset about all the scenes it’s missing” when looking at the scripts. Fair enough, but Gambon’s performance is a controversial one because he was replacing the late Richard Harris, who was a fan and gave a much more book-faithful performance. Gambon’s tone kept shifting with each new director.
5. GOBLET OF FIRE WAS ALMOST TWO MOVIES
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the third longest of the books. Order of the Phoenix, the longest book, doesn’t actually have that much action so it was easy to trim down to a single movie. Deathly Hallows, the second longest book, was made into two movies, which made sense but inspired something of a cynical trend in YA movie adaptations (see: Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay, The Hobbit).
Goblet of Fire almost made the leap to splitting one book into two movies.
Screenwriter Steve Kloves said, “we always thought it would be two movies, but we could never figure out a way to break it in two.” Adapting the book into a single movie required some of the biggest changes in the series. The Quidditch World Cup opening was trimmed, S.P.E.W. was removed entirely and Hermione and Ron’s roles helping Harry study were diminished.
4. ALL FILMS HAD THE SAME WRITER EXCEPT ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
While the series repeatedly switched directors and the stories slowly evolved from lighthearted PG children’s stories to darker PG-13 films, one area of relative consistency was Steve Kloves’ screenwriting. For seven of the eight films, he provided a voice which successfully approximated Rowling’s writing. After the challenge of adapting Goblet of Fire, however, he needed a break.
For Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Warner Bros. hired Michael Goldenberg, one of the other writers considered for the first movie, as the screenwriter. Phoenix is already an angsty tonal departure from the rest of the books, so if any movie was going to change writers, this one made sense. Kloves returned for the last three movies, while WB gave Goldenberg the reins on… the unmade Green Lantern sequel.
3. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE NEEDED TO BE RECOLORED
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the only film in the series nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar. It is an unusually beautiful-looking film, with compositions and lighting effects inspired by the paintings of Rembrandt. Bruno Delbonnel honed his sense of style on such films as Amélie and Across the Universe.
Yet his style was almost too much for Warner Bros.
At one point, executives dismissed the dark visuals, intentionally defocused shots and soft wipe edits as “too European.” Delbonnel reworked the visuals extensively in post production, going through at least a half dozen different “looks” for the film in digital color grading. Eventually he came up with a look that was closer to the familiar style of the Potter films while still standing out in its own right.
2. FLEUR’S WEDDING DRESS ACCUSED OF PLAGIARISM
Yeah, seeing these two dresses side by side sure doesn’t look good for costume designer Jany Temime. Fleur’s phoenix dress she wears at her wedding in the opening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I is almost identical to a peacock dress from the late designer Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2008 collection.
Intellectual property law is a lot looser in regards to fashion (categorized as “useful articles” under US copyright law) than it is with other artforms. As such, Temime wasn’t facing any lawsuits over this. Costume designers for movies frequently use ideas from the word of high fashion. What people found unacceptable, however, was Temime’s refusal to even acknowledge her obvious influences despite being asked about it in the LA Times.
1. THE EFFECTS ARTISTS BUILT A FULL CG MODEL OF HOGWARTS
Hogwarts, as it exists in the movies, is a piecemeal creation, a combination of different sets and real world locations. This proved to be extremely impractical for the final movie, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, where the whole school becomes a battleground.
While practical locations were still used when feasible, bringing the Battle of Hogwarts to life required extensive special effects work.
In 2008, three years before the release of Hallows Part 2, Double Negative Visual Effects designed a full digital replica of the Hogwarts castle, allowing for the camera to move seamlessly through all parts of the school. The effects work for the Battle of Hogwarts took two years. Further complicating the work was that this was the only Harry Potter movie fully designed with a 3D release in mind.
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