This piece originally began with a bunch of facts about the best selling books of all
time, but as it turns out, we don't really know what the best selling books of all time
Could be the Bible.
Could be Don Quixote.
We don't know.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone- it might have sold like 107 million copies.
Again, we don't know.
It could be the fifth best selling book of all time.
And we might never understand fully the cultural significance the Harry Potter series brought
to the world.
CUZ WE’LL DIE.
Like always, I’m not really gonna talk about the books and the specificities of their adaptations
once we get going.
I love them.
When I started reading about these films, hearing stories I hadn’t even thought about
since the films were gearing up to happen in the first place.
Now brilliantly contextualized in the ambers of time.
I sat down and designed a three part documentary series telling the stories happening just
Because, here’s the thing: There are so, so many decision points where
the entire franchise could have exploded into a fiery ball of donkey sauce, but somehow
they made the right call every time.
It got better and stronger as it moved forward.
Because everyone stood on each other’s shoulders to establish a new quality bar for fantasy
and I wanna talk through those decisions, to appreciate it.
I wanna tell that story, a movie at a time.
There was practically an entire village of directors being considered to helm this franchise.
Lemme take you back to November 2001 the year Brendan Frasier wowed us with a second whip
around the ol’ mummy rock, Jurassic Park III is a thing that happened, and Julianne
Moore starred in a Hannibal film a lot of people elect not to remember.
Directed by Ridley Scott!
It’s pretty good just explosively weird.
Over here is where our story begins.
In 1997, producer David Heyman – notable for producing such films as Yes Man.
I Am Legend. and Paddington.
–set out thinking about a children’s book to adapt into a film, possibly a series.
His staff at his production company, HeyDay Films, told tale of a mythical Harry Potter
book that was currently enchanting the children of the world.
So, they called Warner Bros.
And the next thing you know, JK Rowling is accepting their offer to license the first
four books for roughly one million pounds, or translated for the Americans in the back,
twelve million, nine-hundred and twenty four thousand Doritos.
Though many directors were considered for the chair, it is important to remember that
when this was happening, they were expecting a single director to handle all seven films.
[Chris Columbus] "I remember hearing a story when I was being interviewed for the directing
job of the first Harry Potter film.
People were talking about combining two, three of the books together, because it would be
As a director I have to admit..."
It was an entirely different world, and one where JK Rowling thought it ought not be someone
safe and so set her heart on Terry Gilliam, and can we all take a moment to imagine the
far-flung reality where Terry Gilliam got to make seven Harry Potter films.
The studio believed someone like Chris Columbus with experience in children’s films: Home
Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, would make a lot of sense.
Which is why Warner Bros ultimately elected to go with Columbus.
I’ll take another moment here to underline the goal of this entire venture from its outset
was to set out and make children’s films that kids would like.
[Chris Columbus] "That may be a pipe dream.
That may not be possible but it would be, from a cinematic point of view, very exciting.
You would see, you would actually see Harry Potter grow from an 11 year old to a 17 year old."
And to underline it further, when the audience grows up with the kids, you can then start
imagining movies that age with the audience, and become more mature and more complex as
they go, something the books did equally beautifully, just in a different way..
Like when Ron’s all effin this and effin that in the last book because he’s like
This franchise was a bet larger than really any precedent set before it.
They were like “yeah, we’re gonna make seven movies with the same actors...
no big.” and Chris Columbus, Susie Figgis, Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins, and Karen
Lindsay-Stewart deserve a statue in the town square for casting these films with something
that huge in mind.
You don’t win Oscars when the depth of your genius is not revealed for an entire decade.
I guess to illustrate that point bluntly, you hire Alan Rickman because on one hand
he’s a kind, unbelievably talented soul who could play movie villains in a way that’s
both proper to a kid’s movie and then ultimately transform a character into someone with complex
morals, depth, nuance, and range.
That’s why you hire Alan Rickman.
Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt, Julia Walters,
John Cleese– look the films series have immense, immense cultural
value just taking into account the sheer number of superstar English actors of stage and screen
(I know Harris was Irish, lemme make the point,) each and every film managed to pull in to
this massive production that just always looked like a fun thing to work on.
There’s too many notable actors to list.
Because that would be doing a disservice the real find, I think, of these movies: Daniel
Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bonnie Wright, and Tom Felton.
Columbus built exactly what he was supposed to.
The children’s performances are over the top, people on the internet wrote articles
very critical of how a 9 year old pronounced leviosa..
"It's leviOsa, not levioSA."
...but I contend that they cast people
they knew could put in the work, literally as children, to grow into the actors and the
people they needed them to be.
Do you know how impossible that mission is to hit a bullseye on?
The casting choices made in this film to define the world of Harry Potter future’s past
is on a whole other level.
You don’t have to make every decision right in the first movie, you just have to get enough
right that people want to see more.
Sorcerer’s Stone, or Philosopher’s Stone if you’re hip, defines an astonishing number
of things about this franchise right on the first go.
That’s Columbus and his team, they deserve that credit.
The first book is filmed pretty much straight in this film.
It’s taken like a blueprint.
It feels a bit like a stage play because it’s pretty much the book, how it all kind of plays out.
Very sedentary, but still quite enjoyable.
And I’ll get to that in a minute, but Columbus noticed that.
Anyway, Sorcerer’s Stone made 974 million dollars worldwide and currently sits as the
37th highest grossing movie of all time.
It was nominated for three Oscars including best original score composed by John Williams.
Nominated against Lord of the Rings, Monster’s Inc, A Beautiful Mind, and AI Artificial Intelligence.
BUT DID YOU KNOW?
True Story: Steven Spielberg dropped out of contention to direct this movie so that he
could direct AI.
He seemed to believe AI would challenge him as a filmmaker more than the first movie in
a kid’s franchise that is intended for the youngest audience.
A lot about this franchise wasn’t totally figured out yet, but it was a simple start,
for, by design the youngest movie.
It’s like diet spooky.
It put the scaffolding in place.
Now, to begin to age it up.
[Chris Columbus] "We take what we learned from the first movie apply to the second film,
take the things we didn't like from the first one and change it."
I mean what do you do?
[Richard Harris] "I think the most amazing thing was my son was down, he's a movie maker.
He's a director, writer.
And he was down today on the set like 'I can't believe how relaxed everyone is.'"
In a 2007 AV Club interview, Frank Oz casually drops that WB asked him to direct the second
Harry Potter film – without any context.
It’s tough to tell when this conversation took place, or really what it meant at all.
After the success of the first film, I can’t imagine WB was frothing at the mouth to replace
their Columbus cash volcano, but while the first film was shooting, and even after, I
bet a lot of feelers were put out for different things.
The original plan was 7 years, 7 movies, which is why directors were coming in imagining
how to shorten it – which given that only the first four books were out when the first
movie came out, that schedule was reasonably going to slip a bit as JK Rowling had to write
three books in that timeframe, but the books finished publishing and they released not
7, but 8 films in less than ten years.
Those were the stakes.
And the first movie was fine.
You take the victory lap and change things in subtle ways so you don’t rock the boat.
Shooting on The Chamber of Secrets began just three days after the first film came out.
In a 2002 article in The Vindicar, Columbus reveals that the first change he made on a
technical level was to employ more handheld photography, to naturalize Hogwart’s and
to make it feel less stuffy.
You know, make it feel like you live there.
You’re not just visiting anymore.
[David Bradley] "I'll I've got to do is just pop these in and... it's an instant Filch.
You know, you feel.
Once you put these in and you know what this all looks like it all falls into place."
Chris Columbus shooting handheld.
I guess I have seen everything.
He went on to say he regretted some of the special effects in the first film
because they were done in 3 months.
And that he believes the first film feels a bit laborious because it has so much to
set up and a lot of it is just exposition for a film aimed at kids They were trying
to refine the formula from the second movie on, add more action in the script sense
and also in the flying car sense, but have people doing things.
Finding that simply shooting the books does not make for a great film, because everyone
just talks while standing perfectly straight the first go around.
That is challenging to an audience wider than the novel.
The climax or the first movie was two people standing perfectly straight in a room.
Columbus knew they needed to liven it up and now he’s fighting a snake in a bunch of
Columbus took the notes.
There’s also genuine appreciation for how much more comfortable the kids were in their
roles than the first time around.
[Harry] "After all that stuff you did in your books!?"
[Gilderoy Lockhart] "Books can be misleading!"
[Harry] "You wrote them!"
[Gilderoy Lockhart] "My dear boy, do use your common sense!"
The cast added Kenneth Branaugh as Gilderoy Lockhart and everything in this movie just
Not a lot of discussion is spent on just how much Columbus grew as a filmmaker and as a
director between the first and second films, but Chamber of Secrets is a marked improvement
on Sorcerer’s Stone in practically every way.
And when this film came out.
It was the third highest opening weekend of all time in the US and Canada.
88.4 million, second to Spiderman and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Number 1 of all time, in the UK.
In 2002, worldwide, it was number 2.
Second only to Two Towers, shows you were cinema was going in 2002.
The age of the franchise was upon us.
There’s more of a focus on magic, and what it means to be an adolescent wizard.
Book elements don’t often serve a movie plot the same way they serve a book plot.
They confront this issue head on in the next movie, but for now we’ll stay in the rainy
day blanket comfort zone of Chamber of Secrets.
I watch chamber when I’m sad and it’s rainy outside.
It makes me feel good because it charmingly does not want anything more than to make you
A movie that improved upon the first movie in nearly every way.
They were starting to realize the elements that needed to be in every film, and also
some of the elements they could do away with.
Columbus was the first filmmaker to start refining the formula, and he’s the one that
came up with it.
So, credit where due.
Because we’re about to suck your soul out through your pores and nostrils.
They took the victory lap.
They had fun this time.
Now, it was time to get real with it.
We come to this.
Back where we started.
The Prisoner of Azkaban.
I’m gonna get into the weeds on book adaptations now.
I knew I said I wouldn’t, but I have a little time as I’ve already done an entire piece
on this film.
I think this film illustrates the problem with adapting things quite wonderfully.
It’s impossible to talk about how to make this idea filmic without talking about the
contributions of Steve Kloves, who wrote every single Harry Potter film expect for Order
of the Phoenix. (We'll talk about that next episode)
He was growing as a Harry Potter writer and finding the best ways to adapt the books
He absolutely got better at it as he went.
This film I think defines that central problem better than the other films.
And by that I mean, In my original piece, I never got to talk about Time Travel because I spent
my entire episode talking about what Cuaron did for the franchise aesthetically.
Since that episode came out , it has come to my attention that a lot of Harry Potter
fans were quite cross with Azkaban as a film in particular, and I think a lot of it has
to do with how much of a diversion it was from the precedent set by the first two films,
that treated the first two books like screenplays, in a lot of ways.
So let’s talk about adapting things for the screen.
The book is like OH YEAH TIME TRAVEL as like a b-plot.
And in film, I don't really think time travel can be a b-plot.
So the entire film is structured around this third act time travel reveal.
I full understand the criticisms, and frankly, “why don’t they just use the time turner”
is something that both the books and the films had to deal with for literally the rest of
their lives, but the film is structured in such a way that you at least understand how
dumbledumb gave kids access to universe-destroying powers to save a Hippogriff.
[tripping over words] "Like, the time traveling, that is such an abstract thing.
An actually it's so difficult that even trying to explain it right now.
[Rowling] "Yeah, it is hard because you just go in circles."
The film focuses on the big three.
There is infinitely more character development in the books, especially considering the number
of characters they can focus on.
The movie focuses on Harry and his inner circle and is better for it.
The films got better at hinting at these storylines in the next film, but in Azkaban, it’s all
about Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
And I cannot say enough nice things about what Cuaron brought to the proceedings.
It’s darker without losing the fun and the wonder of magic, the characters are starting
to come to terms with the weight of: oh hey, this kid is fated to save the world, so let’s
lie to and coddle him.
Big statement time: Harry Potter, as a franchise (books and films) can be viewed through the
lens where adults consistently lie and manipulate children.
(how’s that for a harry potter take?!)
putting them into far greater danger than they would if they were just honest with
them in the first place.
Like, Dumbledore plays it so close to the vest, that he gives kids access to time travel
but never tells them fully what to use it for.
He’s consistently mysterious, leaving the kids to puzzle together to figure out what
his intent was.
And this is the film that Michael Gambon took over for Richard Harris after his unfortunate
Out the gate, Gambon plays with the dark side of the character and I applaud him for it.
For the first time, we kind of get that feeling of “whose side are you on, dude?”
Harry has to deal with the Dursleys in this film, but for once he has the upper hand.
And he snaps to
start this movie and greatly endangers his horrible aunt by turning her into a balloon
person and letting her float away.
She says this about his deceased mother, who was murdered saving him.
"It's all to do with the mother.
You see it all the time with dogs.
If there's something wrong with the bitch then there's something wrong with the pup."
I’d have bike pumped her too.
This is the first film where it wasn’t neat and tidy.
While also being a perfectly realized film that stands on its own, apart from the series.
Azkaban is where I fell in love with the films, apart from the books, because it was about
trying to find its own voice.
I understand a lot of book fans felt betrayed by that, and I’m sympathetic to that emotion.
But I think Azkaban is the film that started preaching to people that weren’t book fans
and say “there’s something special going on here, and I think you should come look
A bet that wasn’t paid off immediately.
The lowest grossing Harry Potter film domestically and worldwide was Azkaban, but before you
say SEE I TOLD YOU, the second lowest grossing film domestically and worldwide was Chamber
Cause they hadn’t found their audience yet. (Also they both made like 800 million dollars)
And it isn’t that much of a difference, a hundred million or so between like 6 movies,
excluding number one which is Deathly Hallows part 2, and it’s number one by almost 400
More on that in part 3.
BUT DID YOU KNOW: it is heavily implied in some making of materials that the THWA BAP
"I remember Tom telling her, if you want just hit me"
(Rowling laughs uncomfortably) "What a hero"
God, I hope she hit him for real.
This was also the last Potter film that John Williams did the music for and he went hard
in the paint on this one.
The score goes so many unexpected places but I still listen to this score when I write
all the time, hell, I’m literally listening to it right now as I write this sentence.
also Azkaban built sets in real world locations in Scotland extensively instead of building
sets in a studio.
Everything feels way more real and lived in, which was something that Columbus was starting
to explore in Chamber, but Cuaron brings it to a whole other level in this movie.
Standing on eachother's shoulders.
Which is how I wanna look to the future.
It’s not about how any one filmmaker did their own thing cause that's not what Harry Potter was.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know.
Chris Columbus, for the first time and last time, was a producer on this film.
On the first two he was executive producing and directing.
There’s this beautiful symphony you can feel them trying to create.
and Columbus is there
Rowling is there.
It is how they all looked at what came before them and found new ways to expand upon the
film franchise and stand on each other’s shoulders while collaborating on a massive
They evolve through fresh eyes which is something we’ll be talking about a lot more in Part 2
But until then, mischief managed.