The beginning of Harry Potter

It’s amazing how fast time flies. This summer was the end of Harry Potter at the movies, and it was back on November 16, 2001 that the first film – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in the UK) – hit the theaters. 

The initial reviews felt the film followed the book too closely, but you really can’t blame screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus because of Potter’s huge built in following, and the very real concern that millions of fans would hold the film under major scrutiny.

At my former alma matter, Creative Screenwriting magazine, there was a best of the year issue, and I found the 2001 issue with a big article on Harry Potter, written by Peter N. Chumo II.

It was a definitely a trip to look back at the first film, and how Kloves got a great prestige gig right before Harry became a huge phenomenon.

“When I took it, I was told it was somewhat of a sensation in the UK,” Kloves told Creative Screenwriting. “If you were a parent of a child of a very specific age, you had  heard of Harry Potter. Within a couple of months, if you had children at all, you’d heard of Harry Potter. Within four months, he was on the cover of Time magazine.”

Kloves had previously written The Fabulous Baker Boys, starring Jeff and Beau Bridges, and The Wonder Boys, starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, and Robert Downey Jr., adapted from a novel by Michael Chabon (Kloves and Potter director David Yates are also both up to make a new big screen adaptation of The Stand).

As Kloves told Chumo, he was sent a package with seven potential movie projects from Warner Brothers. He passed on the first sixth, but Harry Potter was the seventh on the list. “I don’t know why I responded to it,” Kloves said. “But there was something about it that intrigued me.” Kloves read the book in a day, “and then really knew I wanted to do it.”

Kloves adapted Wonder Boys from a book, and felt he could tackle another adaptation again, especially with such good source material as the Potter book. “All the elements for a movie were there, and we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Kloves said. 

He knew that the best special effects technology would be at his disposal, but added, the movie was going to “live and die on these three kids. That has to always be the touchstone, that these three kids are going to carry this movie, and if you don’t become involved with these kids, then you’re not going to become involved with the movie… I think what makes the books work for people is that the human dynamics among the children and among their teachers are very recognizable and very real…”

J.K. Rowling was always available to Kloves to help, but she also realized the book was the book, and the movie would be the movie. Kloves said, “I think Jo always fully understood that, no matter what the movie became, the books would always exist as its own entity, and it wouldn’t reflect on the books in any adverse way.” Rowling also gave Kloves a scene she was writing for the book she never used, but was adapted into the film.

Although there were certain to be more movies to come, Kloves said, “From the beginning we consciously all worked as if it was a stand-alone movie. The idea was that you could be satisfied watching this movie and you don’t need a conventional cliffhanger.” 

Kloves loved that Harry Potter said at the end, “I’m not going home. Not really,” which kept the door open for the next one, “but it’s very subtle.”

Ultimately what appealed to Kloves about adapting Harry Potter before it became a phenomenon was it had “a lot of things I feel are important in movies,” which included its own world to create atmosphere, fun and thrills, and three great characters at the core.

Once it got big, he had a momentary panic attack, but he never wavered from the initial goal: “I just didn’t want to screw it up.”