'Harry Potter': THR Critic Todd McCarthy Reflects on the Most Successful Movie Franchise Ever
From "Sorcerer's Stone" to the eighth and final installment "Deathly Hallows Part 2," THR's chief film reviewer (and a father) looks back on the impact the big-screen adaptations have had.
"My childhood is going to end on Thursday night," reported a 19-year-old over the weekend who had already bought her ticket to the midnight unveiling of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. She's one of millions -- the class of Harry Potter is about to graduate. With the release of this eighth installment in the series, the Potter saga will be finished, a sensation to be referred to in the past tense, one that, unlike Bond, Batman and, alas, Jack Sparrow, will sprout no further installments, no matter how lucrative they could be. The generation born in the vicinity of 1990 that discovered literary addiction with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.) beginning in June 1997 is now approaching 21; once they've seen the new and final film, at least some of its constituents will no doubt feel as my daughter's friend does and will be tempted to leave childhood behind.
One of the unique aspects of the Potter saga is how the phenomenon fed itself, with the films following at virtually consistent four-year intervals after the publication of each book but also dovetailing with the release of new books until 2007. The films have long since passed the Bonds to become the most successful franchise of all time, with $6.34 billion in worldwide gross before the release of Part 2, which will assuredly be one of the biggest of the eight; for now, Sorcerer's Stone remains the top earner of them all and is the ninth-highest grosser of all time. How many more actors would have to play Bond before that series could catch up is anyone's guess.
As an ostensibly grown-up critic not often tempted to read modern kid-lit, I could easily have lofted my nose to the air and let the whole Potter world orbit right past me, just as I did the Lord of the Rings cycle; I never cared about Tolkien's books, which were huge when I was a student, and had to drag myself to the films. My daughter, who's now 17, did the same with Potter.
My son, now nearly 14, is another matter. In 2003, he expressed an interest in Harry, so I, like many other parents, started reading the first book aloud to him every night at bedtime. Because of their vibrant characters and sometimes alarming incidents, the Potter books had the opposite of the soporific effect often intended by children's literature, but soon I was as caught up in the saga as he was. This recitation went on for years, of course, until early 2008. I truly mourned its end as I turned the final pages of Deathly Hallows.
I agree with most critics in rating The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Goblet of Fire, the third and fourth entries, as the peaks of the film series; indeed, Rotten Tomatoes tallies them with 91 and 87 percent approval, respectively, with the rest in the high 70s or low 80s. I entirely appreciate what Alfonso Cuaron did with Azkaban but still believe that Goblet is even better if only because the story is far more elaborate, involved and exciting, the Triwizard Tournament is spectacular and Voldemort decisively emerges once and for all. My son, Nick, agrees, adding that it's the pivotal film of the entire series because "it explains how the world works."
Oddly, the only dissenter I know on Azkaban is Nick. For him, who's seen them all multiple times, "There's no such thing as a bad Potter film. They're all good, in my opinion, and the movies are so faithful that it's really like reading the books." He likes Sorcerer's Stone because it "sets up a nice magical feel" and Chamber of Secrets, the other film directed by Chris Columbus, because it "made me aware of all the secrets and how ancient it all is." But Azkaban is his least favorite, partly because "it tipped you off so quickly with the lighting about how the series would get darker." From there, we agree that the series hit a high with Goblet of Fire, directed so well by Mike Newell, and has been uneven since then under the command of David Yates until Deathly Hallows, especially as he brings it home in Part 2.
Reading the whole series aloud to Nick remains one of the cherished memories of raising him, and there is no doubt that the experience fueled my enthusiasm for seeing the films. Variable as they may be, looking back on them now as a complete set, I am impressed by how many things the producers -- led by David Heyman and with J.K. Rowling as all-seeing watchdog -- got right. Despite the entreaties of powerful Hollywood interests who wanted American actors, it remained a thoroughly British series in feel and fact. Even detractors must admit how exceptional the casting has been throughout, and luck was on board in that Richard Harris was the only actor who died during the decade of production. While fidelity to the text was paramount, and screenwriter Steve Kloves did a generally outstanding job of compressing increasingly bulky tomes, there was a respectable amount of good filmmaking involved to balance out the obligatory kids' stuff and wizardly action.
The bottom line is that Potter has been far more a pleasure than a chore; even at their most prosaic, least inventive moments, the casts and superb physical productions made them at least watchable. I see that Rowling will be releasing Potter material online, but there can be little doubt that we've seen the last of Daniel Radcliffe's Harry. But, Hollywood being Hollywood, I fear that years from now, we could be confronted with the announcement of Potter remakes, along the lines of what is being done to The Wizard of Oz. Happily, as in that fabled case, the filmmakers behind Potter got it right the first time.