Harry Potter and the Bone-Head Screenwriter

About ten years ago, a courtly, genial Brit named David Heyman sent me a book, for my consideration to adapt into a feature film. I was in the middle of a bunch of other projects and was not looking for work, but Mr. Heyman was very polite and my representation assured me he was a real guy. So I said I’d take a look.

It was a paperback of a boy’s adventure novel, not yet published in the US, titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’d never heard of it or its author, and frankly, the front cover didn’t look promising. I flipped it over and started reading the back-cover blurb: “Harry Potter is entering his first year at the Hogwarts Academy of Wizardry — “

And that’s as far as I got. I rolled my eyes at the cutesy names, breathed a sigh at what felt like labored whimsy and handed the book to my wife, who is a children’s librarian and an expert in kid lit. “Could you do me a favor?” I asked. “Read this and tell me if it’s any good.”

She read it and said it wasn’t very good. She felt the plot was sluggish, the protagonist was too passive and the narrative devices were simply a cobbling-together of things that had worked better in other authors’ work. I politely declined Mr. Heyman’s offer and Harry Potter was never heard of again.

No, wait, that’s not what happened. What happened was that Harry Potter went on to become a publishing phenomenon on the scale of the Bible and I did a rewrite on Valentine.

I was not alone in my disinterest in Harry Potter; many other writers turned down Mr. Heyman, before and after me, before Steve Kloves, legend has it, found the title on a list of open projects and was intrigued. Soon after, the book exploded in a super-nova-like blast of sales and an A-list movie franchise was born.

I followed the development of the movies with interest, heard all about how the book’s author was making all kinds of outrageous demands, was stunned at the four generations of Great British Actors they got to be in the first movie, grumbled at my wife every time we drove under a billboard for one of them, but somehow never got around to seeing any of them. It wasn’t out of spite, my career just kind of seemed to always be heading somewhere else.

Anyway, now all the studios are looking desperately for the next Harry Potter and I am shown every kid-lit magic adventure with whimsical names under the sun, all of which aspire to the sales figures of Harry Potter, if not his ambitions. Which means that I get shown, frankly, a lot of shallow, irritating, poorly thought-out crap about magical kids and goofy adults with names like Flipperus Flappy and Stumblebum Stinknose and Percy Peddiwig, stuff that is trying, without trying hard enough, to copy the Potter magic. It then, naturally, falls to me to try to make it more like Harry Potter, while making it completely different from Harry Potter. So, in recent weeks it has become my duty to finally sit down and watch these movies and see what they’re all about.

Know what? They’re pretty good.

No author in history, including God, has been better served by Hollywood than JK Rowling. The production of the Harry Potter movies is probably the most lush, attentive and sympathetic in cinema history. Reviews of the new one, Order of the Phoenix, have all been like “yeah, it’s good enough I guess,” and I have to wonder what movie those people watched, because Order of the Phoenix, like the rest of the Potter movies, is exquisitely produced, cast and acted, and hugely entertaining. I suppose The Prisoner of Azkaban was scarier and snappier than the others, but it wasn’t better plotted than Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire is better plotted than Azkaban. In script terms, I would say that the Potter movies keep getting better and better, with the caveat that they are only getting better as Harry Potter movies — that is, like James Bond, Harry Potter has become his own genre, with expectations and habits all his own. The “year per movie” device is the enemy of typical cinematic narrative, which demands events follow hard upon each other. But now that that has become a formal given, it allows the Harry Potter movies to explore the life of its teen characters with a complexity and depth that I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored before, certainly not in movies aimed at children. The stories are deeper than Star Wars, scarier than Jurassic Park and more fun than Lord of the Rings, but at the same time we care about Harry and his friends because we literally see them age from movie to movie, and while I still haven’t read the novels, I’m guessing that “coming of age” is a strong theme of Rowling’s mega-narrative.

The casting — hoo boy, what casting these movies have. I expect old pros like Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman to bring depth and subtlety to characters with names like Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape, but those kids! They’re miracles. I have the same feeling watching Daniel Radcliffe as I did watching Jody Foster as a teenager — not watching a “kid actor,” but watching a great actor, who happens to be a teenager. Radcliffe is amazing in these movies, and the great thing is that, like Foster, I’m confident that he’ll shed his Harry Potter skin the moment he needs to and not end up like, say, Danny Bonaduce. Radcliffe is not Roger Moore, he’s not Jerry Mathers, he’s a real actor and he’s going to be fine. But Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are great too, giving three-dimensional, living, breathing performances, and it’s, frankly, breathtaking to see them literally grow up in these parts. In their own way, the Harry Potter movies constitute a daring cinematic gamble, placing long, complex, subtle, grown-up narratives (far more grown-up than most “adult” narratives in the marketplace today) in front of a “children’s” audience and hanging their leads on three unknown, untested actors, who then have to sustain the quality of their work through what are traditionally the most tumultuous and torturous times of human maturation. Growing up in public, as it were.

I also understand there’s a new book out — is this true?

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41 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Bone-Head Screenwriter”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    You should check out some of the little bits Radcliffe has been doing in stuff like Extras lampooning his own image. Looks like he’s having fun.

    There is a new book out — when I went to the bookstore, everyone kept anticipating my requests for it — I guess it’s doing well.

    Goblet of Fire really blew me away, I’m hoping the Order of the Phoenix movie can redeem the book.

  2. eronanke says:

    Wow. I am glad you are comfortable enough with us to admit you passed on it.

    The new book is out, yes, the final one. HP’7 in ’07, etc. Not that I’m a fan. I did, however, see “Valentine”.

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    What I love about those movies is that they don’t let the star-studded nature of the cast bog down the plot or overpower the hero or the principals. I must admit though, that I was marked by the “confrontation” between the two Emmas. It took me some time to recover after seeing Professor Sybil Trelawnney tell Hermione Granger what her future could be.

  4. We are in the final lessons of the school year, and somebody was finishing the book instead of watching our class movie…

    Do you think that children’s movies need to be based on novels, in the main, or are there notable examples of children’s original screenplays?

  5. teamwak says:

    Book 1 was very slight. Book4 must be 5 times the size of book 1. I think JK realised that she could take control of her books by that point (it had become a genuine phenomenom).

    Im glad you like them movies, buth the books are much better. There are characters and subpolts that are barely touched in the films.

    I finished book7 in 12 hours. I can safely say that it was one of the most exciting books I have every read (and I’m pretty well read). You may feel the denouement is a little vanilla, but I think JK wrpped her world up magnificently. And there is quite a death count at the end (I’ll say no more on that!). But the finale will be quite something to see on film. I am not giving anything away when I tell you one of the final chapters is called The Battle of Hogwarts. It will be the biggest HP set piece ever. Cannot wait to see that realised!

    • sheherazahde says:

      Book 4

      “I think JK realised that she could take control of her books by that point”

      I think so to. But I tend to phrase it as “Her editor couldn’t say “no” to her anymore. And really should have.”

  6. planettom says:

    with names like Flipperus Flappy and Stumblebum Stinknose and Percy Peddiwig

    The two child actors in 28 WEEKS LATER are named Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton (the actors, not the characters).

    I think they should get parts in the final two HARRY POTTER movies “as themselves.”

    • Todd says:

      I stayed to watch the credits for 28 Weeks Later because I wanted to find out who the lead girl was; I wanted to cast her for the lead in a big-budget sci-fi trilogy I’m writing. When I saw her name was Imogen Poots I just threw my hands in the air.

      • Anonymous says:

        “When I saw her name was Imogen Poots I just threw my hands in the air.”

        To quote a line from “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, “Charmingly Anglo-Saxon.”

        She’s gotta know. Or is the term “poots” purely American? She is wonderful in 28 Weeks Later(1 of the high points, IMO); I know you won’t discount her based on the (giggles) name. Consider the name Peter O’Toole.

  7. r_sikoryak says:

    “…it’s, frankly, breathtaking to see them literally grow up in these parts.”

    They could have pitched the series as “7 Up” with magic.
    I’m surprised Michael Apted hasn’t directed one.

    • Todd says:

      It’s funny you say that; as I was pitching this post to my wife the same thought occurred to me. It really is like 7up done as a $200 million dollar feature. And Michael Apted would make a fine Harry Potter director.

      • greyaenigma says:

        “When we last left Tom Riddle, he was an adolescent struggling with his place at Hogwarts. Now, let’s look at what he’s up to seven years later… Oh dear.”

  8. ghostgecko says:

    Have you read Phil Pullman’s series? They’re making those books into a movie, I believe the first one comes out this year, and the studios are pushing it to be the next Harry Potter. It’s hilarious, because besides having child protagonists and magic the books are nothing alike – Pullman’s books are much deeper, there’s a strong anti-religion theme and the characters end up accidentally killing God (it’s a mercy killing, he’s completely senile). It’ll be interesting to see how much of this is retained in the film, considering the religious backslide we’ve been experiencing lately.

    • mr_noy says:

      Did anyone at New Line actually read the His Dark Materials trilogy? I’ve got no problems with it but if the Christian right hated Potter I can only imagine how they’ll react to God being portrayed as feeble and insane, the quest to abolish the Church once and for all, gay married angels and twelve year olds having a romantic (possibly sexual) relationship. Good times lie ahead.

      • greyaenigma says:

        And Terry Pratchett’s books have lots of witches, with pretty consistently pointed things to say about religion. But I think there’s a certain point of critical mass where they become popular enough that the religious right feel they have to add their own publicity (as was done with the Da Vinci Code as well).

        • teamwak says:

          If I had to name one thing in life I am the biggest fan off; it would be Terry Pratchett.

          I discovered him at 15 and have every book first edition from Moving Pictures onwards. Terry has grown the Discworld from a comedy/fantasy realm, to a mirror to our own world. His insights and detailed philosophical arguements are cunningly hidden in the most outrageous characters and situations. And his skill at word games and jokes in unsurpassed in my view.

          Basically he’s the greatest living writer today, and I wish he’s write more books!

            • teamwak says:

              They were shown on UK TV about 8 years ago. Wierd Sisters and Soul Music. They were only so-so. Brutally cut, and missing all the joy that comes from the language.

              Last Year Sky TV did an adaption of Hogfather that was pretty good, with Ian Richardson as the voice of Death, and David Jason as Albert. Marc Warren was Teamtime. Not too shabby at all. The next one is The Colour of Money with David Jason returning as Rincewind! DJ is 70 years old. I always imagined Rincewind as about 35.

              Hey ho!

          • greyaenigma says:

            Write more books? He’s cranking out 1-2 a year! He’s only human! Do you want him to turn into some sort of zombie?

            I think Discworld was always a mirror of our own, and is still a fantasy/comedy, but it’s true that he’s focused less on the geography and more on getting the books a little deeper. I’ve just finished the main series recently and have been loving the “kid” books. He’s promised that the next “adult” book (“Making Money”) will be more light-hearted.

            He’s definitely one of my favorite authors. Someday I should check out the annotations to get the other 90% of the jokes.

            • teamwak says:

              :S That picture is just, plain, wrong!

              Personally I think his last 3 of his last 5 books have been his strongest yet. I think Nightwatch is my favourite book, fullstop! And Going POstal and Thud! are both staggering as well. Thud!, a book about Dwarfs, vampires, werewolves, and citywatchmen addresses religeous fundamentalism, ridgid dogma, indoctrination, race-hate, spin, and politics. And has a hero who stops at 6pm to read his son Where My Cow? Fan-bloody-tastic

              When I first started reading we would get two or three Discworld books a year, then it petered out to one and a special diary! But Pterry himself says he tries to write inbetween answering letters! He deserves some time to spend his millions.

              I cant wait for Making Money. I loved Going Postal and I think Moist and Adora Bell Dearheart are fantastic characters. Plus you cant have enough of the Patrician! Have you read the burg on the book yet? Sounds just as funny.

              • greyaenigma says:

                I read Going Postal almost exactly a year ago. I think Nightwatch probably is my favorite in the series, although I also really loved Lords and Ladies. (Carpe Jugulum seemed like kind of a rip-off of Lords, actually.)

                The only thing that disappoints me with the direction he’s going is that he seems to have supplanted the Librarian with the Igors. Not that I disliked the Igors, particularly, but I like the Librarian so much.

        • Anonymous says:

          Religious differences

          Interesting that when I was running a Catholic church-affiliated library in Rome, the Pullman and Pratchett books were as popular as the Harry Potter series, and not one parent complained about them.

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t read them but my wife is a big fan. From the stills I’ve seen they seem to be getting it right.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Why I Love Daniel Radcliffe

    When Daniel Radcliffe was doing EQUUS in London, he struck upon a most brilliant method to confound the paparazzi: He left the theater wearing the same outfit every night.

    Since every picture a celebrity photographer took of him on any given night would essentially look the same, the photos were effectively unsellable.

  10. noskilz says:

    Did any of the potterish stuff that you’ve looked at seem promising?

    You mentioned that various folks are hoping to emulate Harry Potter’s success, has any of what’s crossed your path thus far seemed promising? By promising, I mean in the “hey, this seems to be a reasonably entertaining and interesting series” sense.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Did any of the potterish stuff that you’ve looked at seem promising?

      Having not actually read the books, I feel unqualified to judge, but from the way I’ve heard people talk about the Harry Potter books, the stuff I’ve been reading is not them. Some of it honestly makes me throw the book across the room.

      • Re: Did any of the potterish stuff that you’ve looked at seem promising?

        That’s funny! I almost threw Order of the Phoenix across the room! What a total waste of 870 pages!

        OK, I’ll promise to stop now.

  11. w_a_b_t_y says:

    I honestly can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic. Hopefully you are, because I detest the movies more than anything.

    • Todd says:

      Sorry, no sarcasm here. I thought I would detest the movies but have found them to be engaging, entertaining and rather thought-provoking, as well as being sumptuously produced.

  12. Anonymous says:

    thank you

    I just wanted to say, thank you. My idiot fan-boy roomate refuses to admit that Order of the Pheonix could be anywhere as good as Transformers. It warms my heart (as a former 12-year-old-reder-of-book-#1 and anticipator of every movie) to hear someone who actually knows what he’s talking about praise the movies. Thank you.

    • Todd says:

      Re: thank you

      Just between you, me and everyone who owns a computer, Order of the Phoenix is substantially better than Transformers, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean III, Rise of the Silver Surfer and any other current summer blockbuster you care to name, with the exception of Ratatouille.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Any idea when you’ll get around to reading the books? I’m curious to what your take will be on how difficult it will be to translate the last book to screen. (It seems to me that the most efficient way to successfully compress HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS to a screenplay is to mostly cut out the plotline of the Deathly Hallows, which I’d imagine defeats the purpose.)

    • Todd says:

      Any idea when you’ll get around to reading the books?

      No time soon, unless WB calls me up and says “Hey, guess what? All the Oscar-winning writers who are usually cutting each others’ throats for a shot at this have all died mysteriously, you want to maybe give it a shot?” It’s not out of prejudice, I just never have the time to read for pleasure.

  14. I suppose if you can leap over the giant plotholes littering the films, they’re decent movies. I had to explain several storylines not wrapped up properly to my husband, who teaches film and hasn’t read a Potter book to date. I’m not a huge fan of the books, but I read them and generally enjoy them; at least I’m able to understand the movies by reading the books right before the films are released.

  15. Great news regarding Harry Potter .Hey nice to hear about the Beginning of the Harry Potter Series.Great Piece of work Keep it Up.