That kind of audience anticipation has fueled expectations that the planned seven movies "Harry Potter" franchise ought to rake in several billion dollars at the box office. After all, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" fantasy novels, the first four of which have sold about 100 million copies in 47 languages, could become the first $2 billion-grossing book series.
Rowling's stories about wholesome young wizards and witches at the Hogwarts boarding school are exactly the kind of first-rate middlebrow books that make the best movies. (Witness "The Wizard of Oz" or "Gone with the Wind.")
Rowling may not quite be a great writer herself (although the lucidity of her prose style deserves high praise), but she knows to borrow from the best:
Rowling, whose initials hide her gender from miniature male chauvinists (my older boy was disturbed to discover his favorite author was a girl), wisely chose to make the hero and best friend boys. Little girls are more likely than little boys to accept their sex reduced to playing third banana.
Let's take a moment to empathize with the Warner Bros. executives who had to choose a director to make their crucial first installment. Naturally, they asked Steven Spielberg, but when he eventually walked away, they faced a quandary. So, they interviewed such creative and distinctive directors as Terry Gilliam ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail"), Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs"), Alan Parker ("Pink Floyd: The Wall"), and other artists who could stamp their personal vision on the film and, if all the constellations were aligned right, just might bring home something unique.
Then, the studio brass hired the uncreative and indistinctive Chris Columbus, director of such efforts as "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."
With $126 million to spend, Columbus must have felt a little like a general given an enormous army and told, "Just don't lose." Admiral J.R. Jellicoe, commander of Britain's Grand Fleet during World War I, had little opportunity to distinguish himself by winning a battle against long odds since he directed the most formidable fleet yet assembled. Instead, he had to bear the knowledge that "he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon."
Last week, while the pundits of America were suffering a case of the vapors over our "lack of progress" in the month-old Afghan war, a friend pointed out an old military saying, "Armchair warriors study strategy; lieutenants study tactics; and generals study logistics."
Something vaguely similar is true in movies: Critics write about a director's supposed philosophy; film students study camera angles; and big Hollywood directors worry about how in the world you organize a vast army of specialists without the whole project collapsing into a shambles.
Screenwriter William Goldman commented upon directors' workloads, "That they can survive the sandhog-like physical demands of the job fills me with awe and admiration."
Columbus and screenwriter Steven Kloves ("Wonder Boys") decided to emphasize craftsmanship over their own creativity. They kept the movie as faithful to its book as any film ever made, leading young William to shout out, "That's exactly what I expected the wand shop to be like."
The result: it works. Columbus not only avoids losing the war in one afternoon, but he wins a clear-cut victory. The kids at the screening were ecstatic. Peter, my 9 year old, who read all four books last April, called it, "The best movie I ever saw." The millions of adults who've read the book should be highly pleased, and the rest should be entertained without being baffled.
Do you remember the first the time you saw "Toy Story?" I was late, as usual, but before I'd even found a seat, I could tell it was something special. Well, Columbus' "Harry Potter" is not that kind of luminous and wholly original piece of cinematic art. The world, though, will still find it highly satisfying.
Rated PG for the H-word and scenes that will scare preschoolers.