Just Above Sunset Archives

January 18, 2004 - Will Harry and Hermione get down and dirty?

Home | Odds and Ends | Music Notes | Book Notes | Sidebars | Culture Wars Lost | Culture Wars Won | Gay Marriage | Jesus Flogged Repeatedly | Photography | Quotes | Links and Recommendations | Archives | Daily Commentary (weblog)

Well, there's a new Harry Potter film in production - The Prisoner of Azkaban.  One of my guilty pleasures is that I rather like these films.  And this one promises to be a bit different.


According to Sneak Peeks in the Los Angeles Times, this one will be radically different.  Yep, film industry news is what one gets out here in the local newspaper.

What's different? 


Warner Brothers has "handed off its billion-dollar family franchise" to director Alfonso Cuarón, whose last film was the "low-budget, sexually charged coming-of-age story" Y Tu Mamá También.  Wow.  Will Harry and Hermione get down and dirty? 


Well, probably not.


Alfonso Cuarón also directed, for Warner Brothers, a 1995 film A Little Princess.  This was an adaptation of Frances Burnett's novel about a young girl who, not unlike Harry Potter, ends up in an unusual boarding school.  But that film as rather dark, not like the Shirley temple film of the same name fifty years earlier.  Aside from the odd, chanting score, of William Blake poetry, this was a film a real depth and substance.  I rented it for a psychotherapist friend who thought it was wonderful.  Well, her clientele was Warner Brothers executives.  But that film is great.


So what did Warner Brothers have in mind?  The director from A Little Princess should do Harry Potter?


"That movie confirmed to me that he could live in the world of fantasy and children and not be treacly and also be a little bit dark," says Alan Horn, president of Warner Brothers.  "And in Y Tu Mamá he got such performances out of those two young boys.  Now our protagonists in 'Harry Potter' are thirteen, entering puberty, and he understands that. The question was: Could he handle something of this size? It can be daunting."

Well, Horn wasn't the only Little Princess fan.  The author of the Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling. had also loved the film and had ranked Cuarón among her preferences to direct the first film.  Warners decided to take a chance and offered Cuarón the job.




The Times notes that these decisions are not uncommon:


Hollywood has a successful tradition of giving different directors a chance to reinterpret established movie titles.  Fox selected Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet to make its "Alien" movies, and Paramount has enlisted Brian De Palma, John Woo and Joe Carnahan to direct its "Mission: Impossible" films.

Selecting Cuarón to take over "Harry Potter" seems both entirely reasonable and "provocatively daring," especially for a studio that has played conservatively with the young wizard at every step.  The stakes are arguably even higher with the third film, as it will be released amid the highly competitive summer (it opens June 4) rather than the shelter of November, when the first two movies debuted.

Out of caution, Warners nixed Rowling's personal petition to hire "Brazil's" Terry Gilliam to direct the first movie, 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."  The studio instead picked "Home Alone's" Chris Columbus, who also directed the first sequel, 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."


Yeah, this is a strange town.  Gilliam may have been a bad choice.


But consider this:


The studio contemplated several options to fill his spot in the director's chair: actor-director Kenneth Branagh, who played the self-important professor Gilderoy Lockhart in "The Chamber of Secrets"; Callie Khouri, who had just co-written and directed Warners' "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"; comedy director Ivan Reitman; and a 42-year-old from Mexico City whose last movie was so explicit that half the "Harry Potter" cast was too young to attend.


Yeah, well, this choice seems best, given the other options.


Still, how does this new director feel about the job?


"I have to confess, I was a bit ignorant about the Harry Potter thing," Cuarón says as a murder of trained crows swoops through the air, rehearsing for the director's next shot.  "Then they started to talk about it, and I was like, 'Yeah, well ... I don't know.' Then someone said, 'Please, look at the material, because I really want you to give an answer.' So I read [screenwriter] Steve Kloves' script. And it was great. And then I immediately read the book. And I was, frankly, amazed by the book and the script."

Cuarón also saw there were significant advantages to directing a film in a series already underway.  First, you inherit recognized characters and settings as well as actors familiar both with the roles and to the audience.

"Everything is established, so I don't need to do exposition," Cuarón says. "Chris crafted with [production designer] Stuart Craig a really eloquent universe.  And Chris already established all the rules, so pretty much I don't have to get into the matter of 'OK, Hogwarts is this.  And you're a Muggle.  And you're a wizard.'

"By not having to do all this exposition, I can concentrate on character and the psychology of the characters."


Well, that should be interesting.  These kids, the ones who play the parts of Harry and Hermione, are growing up fast.  They look so much older.


So the film's primises change:


In place of the good vs. evil clash pitting Harry against Lord Voldemort that is so prominent in the first two books, "The Prisoner of Azkaban" has at its center Harry's struggling to understand his place in the world, grappling with his parents' death, and trying to control his temper.

"Harry goes through a journey where he realizes that demons aren't just things that go bump in the night but also can be painful emotions, worries about family, friends, the future, the monsters that lie within. And that's a classic teenage issue," Cuarón says as his special effects team tries to repair the film's mechanized Buckbeak, a giant winged creature that has short-circuited in the rain.

"There's a lot of teenage angst in this one, probably more than the book," Radcliffe says by telephone a few weeks after filming is completed in December. "It's much more of an internal journey for the children, especially for Harry. And he's much more comfortable with confrontation, especially with [Professor Severus] Snape. He's a lot angrier. If you had all this stuff happening to you in real life, you'd be pretty angry too."

It's not just Harry who's acting out. "Hermione's becoming a rebel," Watson says. "She's had enough of being pushed around and she's not going to take it anymore. There's a lot more girl power in the film."


This I have to see.


But some things will not change.


Even if he wanted to, for example, Cuarón couldn't hire a new composer - he was obligated to use John Williams, who provided the score for the first two "Harry Potter" films.  Similarly, Cuarón couldn't redesign Hogwarts, overhaul Diagon Alley, or recast any lead roles (outside of replacing Richard Harris, who played Hogwarts' head of school, Albus Dumbledore, in the first two films but died in October 2002).  And finally, Columbus would be looking over Cuarón's shoulder, as he remained in London as one of the film's executive producers.

"I wanted to make sure that the film didn't stray too far from the world that the audience and the fans have sort of fallen in love with over the course of the first two movies," Columbus says at the Leavesden studios on the outskirts of London, where many of the film's sets were built and still reside. "If [the fans] have to adjust to too much change, they could have been turned off by the film."


Yep, I suppose.


But consider these two studio shots of the main characters.  Things are changing.  This is Harry and Hermione now.



Well, the next installment, Goblet of Fire, will be directed by "Mona Lisa Smile" filmmaker Mike Newell.

As Cuarón say - "The whole goal of taking a franchise in a new direction is what keeps them alive."   Yep.  Should be fun.