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J.K. Rowling on adapting her fantasy series to the big screen

By Frank Garcia     November 23, 2000

While author J.K. Rowling was in Vancouver, Canada on October 25 for two appearances as part of the city's annual Writers and Reader's Festival, she sat down with reporters at a press conference prior to the event. Rowling spoke out about the Warner Brothers feature adaptation of her first book in the Harry Potter book series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which is currently in production in England under the direction of Chris Columbus (Bicentennial Man).

The films' producer David Heyman, and screenwriter Steven Kloves (writer-director of The Fabulous Baker Boys) have been careful to consult and involve Joanne Rowling as part of the production. Referring to Kloves' adaptation of Sorcerer's Stone, Rowling appears to be very pleased. 'It's very faithful to the book. I mean, if everything that's in the book were in the film, it would be over three hours long! Goodness only knows what would happen if they tried to film [book] four [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire]. You may have to have three films.'

Rowling was so impressed with Kloves' screenplay that easily overcame her initial trepidation. 'He was the person I was most antagonistic towards without ever having met him because he was gonna butcher my baby. And the first thing he said to me was, 'You know who my favorite character is?' and I really thought he was going to say Ron, and I love Ron, but Ron is very easy to love and I got tense about it. He said, 'Hermione,' and I melted. I thought, 'If you can get Hermione, then we can work together...'

As with many authors who release the film rights of their literary children into the world, there is concern for what direction the movie will take. Many authors live to regret seeing their stories poorly adapted to the screen. Aware of this, Rowling is apprehensive, but yet she has been consulted. 'My opinion has been asked about all sorts of things that I really didn't think I'd ever be consulted [[about]. And I am grateful for that, obviously, but I'm very aware that's not anything to do with me. It's really to do with the readers. I think they see me standing in, with a million of children wanting to see it done my way. So that's what gives me any power I have. I have script approval, and as of the present moment the script looks great to me.'

Because the books are so rich in detail and so dependent on the reader's imagination, there has been some concern that a film adaptation might supplant the readers' own 'mind's eye' view of the stories. 'I've been writing about Harry and these characters since 1990,' explains Rowling. 'It is gonna take a lot more than watching someone else's vision of what my characters look like to do that. It goes too deep. No way. I really hope it's a great film. I look at the Great Hall and my hair stands up because they asked me exactly what the Great Hall looked like, and I told them. If I'm looking up at my Great Hall that I see inside my head, it will be a most wonderful experience.

'They asked me what Hagrid's hut looked like, and I gave them as much detail as I could. In fact, there's loads of details in the books. They didn't need much extra from me. Quidditch is described very faithfully in the books. If they're doing that and I'm seeing that, it's going to be a very wonderful experience. But if I see stuff I didn't write, I'm not going to be taking it home and putting it into the books.'

Ultimately, says Rowling, films and the books can happily co-exist. 'I believe they will. I never would have sold the film rights. In fact, I said, 'no' to Warner Brothers initially. It was about two years after Warner Brothers first approached me that I said 'yes' because I really did want the books to be well established before anyone made a film version. But, selfishly, I did want to live to see a film version because I just want to be able to watch Quidditch.'

Warner Brothers' commitment to bringing Harry Potter to the big screen has created a lot of excitement from readers and Hollywood's elite talents. The overwhelming success of the books just about assures a successful film franchise, if properly executed. Last year in the fall of 1999, some of the best filmmakers in Hollywood were considered for directing the film. Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner, Brad Siberling, Alan Parker, Terry Gilliam, Wolfgang Petersen and Jonathan Demme were among the names being thrown about. Spielberg finally fell out of the running while he juggled numerous projects, and when he wanted The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment who is American, for the lead role. But Osment went on record in interviews that he did not want to play the role.

It wasn't until March this year that Chris Columbus finally won the directorial competition. The film is now shooting at Leavesden Studios (where The Phantom Menace was filmed), with Rob Legato (Titanic and Star Trek: The Next Generation) as visual effects supervisor. The Gloucester Cathedral in England will stand in as the all-important location of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Also, the Australian High Commission in London will double as the Gringotts Bank.

Many Hollywood actors were also interested in appearing in the film, such as talk show host and actress Rosie O'Donnell. But both Rowling and Columbus were adamant that the cast remain authentically British. Award-winning, famous actors have been chosen for the supporting players. Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye) is Ruebus Hagrid, Harry's very large and very hairy friend and gamekeeper at Hogwarts School. Maggie Smith (Hook) is Professor McGonagall, the stern deputy headmaster at Hogwarts. Richard Harris is Professor Dumbledore. John Cleese (The World is Not Enough) is the ghost Nearly-Headless Nick. Richard Griffiths is Uncle Dursley. Alan Rickman (Galaxy Quest) is Professor Snape, and Julie Walters is Mrs. Weasley.

In the important central roles of the three youthful leads, unknown stage/film actors have been chosen. Emma Watson snatched the role of Hermione Granger while red-haired Rupert Grint has personified Ron Weasley. For Harry Potter, the coveted role has fallen to a young, 11-year old actor Daniel Radcliffe. 'That was getting really nerve-wracking because no one could find Harry Potter anywhere!' says Rowling. 'They had cast Ron and Hermione, and I was getting more nervous because I thought if they don't find an English Harry, what are they gonna do? They've got to find a Harry somewhere, and maybe they'll go to American. They never did see an American actor, but I was nervous. Because my characters are British, I didn't want the Dick Van Dyke situation. You see Mary Poppins, and Dick Van Dyke Is playing the world's only Australian Cockney. I was dreading that would happen.'

It was only when the producer and the director, walking into a theater, actually bumped into Radcliffe that they were stunned to find their living Harry Potter. 'They sat down next to Dan. The whole thing was bizarre!' says Rowling. 'They approached him in the interval with his parents, and asked, 'Do you act?' and he said, 'Yes!' Great, he can act; he's got black hair; he's shortbut his parents didn't want him to do it. Which I find really reassuring because I did say to David, who's British, 'I don't want these children's lives ruined...' I loved the fact that his mother didn't want him to do it. He burningly wanted to do it so she said, 'Okay...' His test was fantastic. I really wanted him to get it.' The production was fortunate to find Radcliffe, who had previously appeared in a British TV adaptation of David Copperfield, opposite Sir Ian McKellen, who recently filmed his scenes as another famous wizard, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.

Still, eager children are going to have to learn a new virtue: patience. Sorcerer's Stone won't be released until Christmas 2001. Although it seems assured that Harry Potter won't have to cast powerful spells to attract an audience at the box office, he has a powerful enemy that just might pull them away. Also scheduled to be released during the holidays that season is another film based on a very popular fantasy series that has inspired generations of readers: J.R.R. Tolkien's epic adventure Lord of the Rings. The imagery is fascinating: Gandalf, the gray-bearded, immortal wizard will engage in a supernatural battle against an inexperienced, 11-year old boy who is just about to enter wizard school. The stakes? Potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in box office and merchandising revenues and the loyalty of a rapturous worldwide audience.


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