Keeping Harry magic a bit of a Houdini act

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The final chapters in the "Harry Potter" movie franchise won't be written until 2010, when Warner Bros. Pictures releases the film version of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the final volume in author J.K. Rowling's magical series that is being published July 21.

Judging by the record $44.23 million opening day posted Wednesday by the fifth film in the franchise, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the Potter movies are still enchanting a big chunk of the moviegoing public. Whether that will be the case for the final two films, in which Rowling reveals the ultimate fate of Harry and his Hogwarts cohorts, remains to be seen.

But already it is clear that Warners has accomplished something rare in its careful nurturing of the "Potter" franchise. Benefiting from a relatively stable management under company heads Barry Meyer and Alan Horn, it has steered a deft course in its care and handling of the property. Unlike its struggles finding the right approach to relaunching its Batman and Superman characters, it's had no trouble with Harry.

From the start, the studio made sure that it was on the same page with Rowling. By including the author in its plans, Warners avoided the sort of public relations kerfuffle that surrounded its 1994 "Interview With the Vampire," when a disenfranchised Anne Rice went public with her unhappiness about the casting of Tom Cruise as the vampire Lestat -- even if she ultimately recanted and applauded his performance.

Taking their cues from Rowling's stage directions, director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves established a strong template in both format and style for the movies, which has provided an underpinning for the subsequent directors who have visited Harry's world. So even though the movies have had to jettison a lot of the details of the increasingly lengthy books, fans haven't felt short-changed.

Producer David Heyman, who first brought the books to the studio's attention, also has performed a formidable feat. He's managed to keep a sprawling cast together for more than five films and appears on track to have everyone back for numbers six and seven.

As a result, moviegoers have watched as the principal young actors -- Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint -- have grown into their roles. Back in the late 1930s and early '40s, America experienced something similar as Mickey Rooney matured along with the "Andy Hardy" series, though Rooney already was in his late teens when those films began. French director Francois Truffaut found an onscreen alter ego in actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was just 14 when he appeared in the director's "The 400 Blows"; Leaud went on to play the character of Antoine Doinel in three more films during a 20-year period.

But Radcliffe, who was 11 when he was cast in the first "Potter" movie and who turns 18 this month, will have done them both one better: His entire adolescence has been captured on film through the growth of one character. Certainly, Warners had no way to ensure when the series began that its central actor would not turn into a rebellious teen, who at some point would insist on throwing off Harry's cloak of invisibility.

Radcliffe is starting to experiment with a more adult persona: Witness his turn onstage in "Equus" and the leather-boy poses he strikes in the current Details magazine. Still, as he's made the publicity rounds for the new film, the actor comes across as a politely accommodating young man who's committed to the remaining two films.

If all goes as planned, then, the "Potter" movies will have escaped the curse of most franchises, remaining true to their original inspiration without ever running off the tracks.
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