Friday, July 15, 2011

800 Words: Harry Potter and the Magic of Money: Part 1

Imagine, purely as an exercise, that you’re J. K. Rowling. The clock’s been wound back to 1999. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has been an American best-seller for an entire year, even if the publishers insisted on changing its title because Americans won’t buy any book with ‘philosopher’ on the cover. Five years ago, you were supporting your daughter with welfare checks, yet by this year you’ve come into more money than anyone with whom you grew up ever dreamed of seeing. Movie studios are falling over themselves to buy the rights to your entire series and you realize that in ten years you might be richer than the Queen of England.

You, faithful Social Democrat which you are, make a vow to yourself that this money will not be hoarded. It will go to people like you who so direly needed a J K Rowling to champion their causes if they wanted a fighting chance in this world. So you become the spokesperson for causes you would have needed a few years ago. Since you were raising your daughter without a father, you become the ambassador for One Parent Families. Since you watched your mother slowly die of MS for a decade, you become the spokesperson for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. You make a point of becoming good friends with Sarah Brown, wife of Gordon, the power behind Tony Blair and soon to be the Labour Prime Minister who will restore England to its pre-Thatcher glory days. Sarah will key you into all sorts of other enormously important charitable work, and all sorts of enormously important people to help promote it. And in order to impress those enormously important people, you need an enormously important house and clothing and husband and schools for your children. And when all these enormously important people are enormously impressed with all the components of your enormously important life, it occurs to you that you may have been chosen for something still more important. You are becoming England’s spokeswoman for charity herself, chosen by God or destiny to fill the hole which Princess Diana left in people’s hearts for someone at the top who speaks for those on the bottom.

Still, there are those books to write, and those movies to make. Not that they’re a burden. They are a fun diversion from all the anxiety of the parties and the dinners. They are the only place where you can still be ‘Jo.’ But like everybody who wants their share in this world, you have to strike that perfect balance between quality and quantity. Shakespeare wrote for the money, and he can occasionally be a crashing bore, but the world still loves him. So if the books occasionally lag, that’s alright. Perhaps the new commercial appeal will focus your imagination that much more. And even if it doesn’t, you never set out to make ‘great art.’ You just wanted to write good books which your daughter could enjoy as much as you do, and you bloody well succeeded. Now if only those pesky superfans would stop telling you how to write your books.

But even if the fans will never stop telling you how to write, the editors have. They no longer want a breezy read with all the detail omitted. ‘This is unnecessary,’ is what the red-pencil used to say on every other paragraph; now it says ‘Elaborate. We want to know more!’ You’re your own brand now, and people will gobble every word. The longer the novel, the more the publisher can charge. And that means more money for the charities!

And then there are the movies. My god, movies out of your books! Someone at the BBC called to feel out an offer for a miniseries one day after the first book was released. But you knew that it would be an affair done on the cheap and that if the sales numbers were anything like what was anticipated, you’d have offers that would reach an audience well beyond those who pay a licencing fee.

And so you’re faced with the double challenge of writing ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ while Universal Pictures makes the first movie. The realization occurs to you that every book you write for the rest of your life will be made into a movie. Even if it’s just a million pounds for the rights to the first four books, the merchandizing from Harry Potter alone could rake in tens of millions for you by themselves. You picture the movies and the possibilities put tears in your eyes. All the greatest English actors can have hands in it. You’ll have Alan Rickman as Snape and Ian McKellen as Dumbledore; Maggie Smith as McGonnagal and Judi Dench as Sprout; Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and Colin Firth as Quirrell. You can feel the presence of these actors in the characters so vividly that you start to write the characters with them in mind. You begin to imagine stunning visual tableauxes which a visual imagination on the order of Terry Gilliam’s could feast upon. Or maybe even... dare you think...Steven Spielberg?

And so you go into those first meetings with Universal. True to the fairy tale your life’s become, they promise you everything you could possibly dream. Hundreds of millions in merchandise, the best production team in Hollywood and a competent screenwriter who will do precisely what you tell him. The best news of all comes last, Spielberg’s interested!

‘There’s one catch though. Remember Haley Joel Osment, that kid from the Sixth Sense? He has to play Harry.’

‘But he’s American.’

‘Steven is sure that Harry Potter’s appeal can be more universal. He thinks that people in some places might be put off by a British Harry Potter. If we want Harry Potter to appeal to people around the world, it would be better to make him American.’

‘Well,...I’d have to think about it.’

‘Please do. He’s eager to talk with you. Here’s his number.’

And for the first time since the fairy tale began, you’re overmatched. You dial the phone with a feeling of dread. You are about to have a conversation with the most influential cultural figure of your time, and he’s going to show you your proper place in the world.

“These books can be the cultural phenomenom of this generation the way Star Wars was for yours. People can look to the Harry Potter series and say that it did more to shape our kids’ lives than any other influence outside their homes. It really has that kind of potential and you shouldn’t settle for anything less.....”

Steven Spielberg doesn’t seem particularly interested in anything you have to say, but he certainly thinks highly of your work.

“So did they tell you about Haley? He really is the most gifted child actor I’ve ever seen. I’m working on this great new movie called A.I. It was supposed to be Stanley’s but he gave it to me before he passed away. He’s playing a kid robot and he plans everything from the number of steps he takes to the amount of time between every blink. He’d be exactly what you’re looking for.”

“I was actually hoping to talk to you about that Steven. I always saw Harry Potter as an English story with British characters and actors.”

“Haley can do a British accent no problem.”

“I’m sure he can. But I need to know he’ll have the guidance he needs through all the movies.”

“That’s no problem. Believe me, I know a bunch of great filmmakers who can guide the kids through the sequels.”

“You mean you wouldn’t be in charge of the whole project?”

“I’d be an Executive Producer. If you need anything, I’m just a phonecall away.”

“Who would you get then to direct the others.”

“That depends on who’s available. I’m sure that anybody from Bob Zemeckis to Rob Reiner would love to sink their teeth into this. But if I could choose anybody, I’d say Chris Columbus. He’s fantastic with kid actors, great with writers and he built the Gremlins franchise single-handedly. I’ll get you a meeting with him. You’ll love him. Anyhow, I’ve got principal photography at 6 tomorrow morning so I’ll have to leave. It’s great to finally talk to you and I’m sure we’ll talk again. Have a good one Jo.”

And just like that, Steven Spielberg spoke at you for nearly an hour. Telling you precisely who you are and what your movies are going to be.

Your next meeting at the studio starts out well enough. They’re talking about bringing Haley Joel Osment in for a screentest and saying that they have to find a time for Chris to come in to administer it.

“Chris? As in Chris Columbus?”

“Sure. You’ll love him.”

“So this means Chris Columbus is directing?..”

“Didn’t you and Steven agree that he’d be a great choice?”

“I...well....not really. Does this mean that Steven won’t be directing?”

“He’s going to be an executive producer. He’ll be just a phonecall away.”

“ you’ve cast Haley Harry Potter and Steven won’t be directing?”

“Wasn’t that what we all agreed on?”

“I’m fairly certain that the deal was that we’d take Haley Joel on so long as Steven’s directing. But if he isn’t, I’d like to look at other kids.”

“Are you sure about that? He’s really great. Steven says Haley’s the most gifted child actor he’s ever seen.”

“Well, if Haley is the star, can’t we look at other directors? What about Terry Gilliam or Peter Weir?”

“You’re gonna love Chris! Look, let’s set up a dinner date, the three of us. I know this great Italian place in Castellamare. They make all the ingrediants in-house and the chef is a personal friend. Just come with us as a favor to me, you’re gonna love everything about him.”

So you go to dinner. Chris Columbus shows you pictures of his daughter, whom he tells you is the “#1 Harry Potter fan.” He tells you how in love he is with the whole book. He says that he got the script already from Steve Cloves, and the moment he got the script he started re-writing it, free of charge....So they’ve already written the script, and the director’s already rewritten it....

Columbus starts mouthing off about other directors “Oh god. That guy’s so full of himself.” “I tried to have a phone conversation with this guy about a project we could do together, and he can’t bother to listen to me for two minutes.” “So many of these guys can be so pompous. They don’t know what it’s like to work their way into movies so they just take what they want. I was the son of two miners from Ohio. I worked for everything I ever had and that’s why I love Harry Potter. He seems like any kid I could have grown up with in Youngstown.”

And that last line is the moment when you relent. This movie may not be the Harry Potter you always wanted, but this director clearly understands what Harry Potter is.

First thing the next morning, the studio calls. “Isn’t he great?”

“I’ll be delighted to have him as a director. But on only one condition.”

“Whatever you want.”

“The entire franchise is done with all-British casts. Harry Potter is an English book, and it needs English actors for it to work. I’m sure Haley is a wonderful actor, but we need a British kid to play Harry.”

“Consider the twerp fired.”

“I have people in mind for the various parts too.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Well, about Ian McKellen as Dumbledore.”

“Can’t. He’s playing Gandalf for New Line’s Lord of the Rings.”

“Oh...Well,....Alan Rickman for Snape?”

“That’ll be good. But have you thought about Tim Roth?”

“I really like Alan Rickman.”

“He’s a little pricey but we’ll see what we can do to get him.”

“Robbie Coltrane for Hagrid.”

“We were going to suggest him too. Done and done.”

Conversations like this go on for a while, but at some point you realize that you’ve scored a major Hollywood victory. You’re a writer for a major Hollywood production who gets final approval on what you like. You may not get creative input, but you can veto anybody else’s. When is the last time the writer held this much power over the adaptation of the book? Out of curiosity, you take out some of Chris’s movies. You remember liking Home Alone. You rent Mrs. Doubtfire and like everybody else you think Robin Williams is really funny. But then you watch Nine Months and Bicentennial Man and you nearly have an anneurism. Did I just entrust my franchise to a guy who put Tom Arnold in a family film and made Robin Williams a robot?

Clearly, the movie won’t be what you’d hoped. Even if it’s good, it will be far lighter and more sentimental than anything you envisioned. There will be far more pandering to children than challenging them and you’ll have to make sure he consults you every day to ensure that he doesn’t decide to put in any American slang or rock’n roll montages. Still, you assure yourself; he’s done good work before. He’s committed to the project and everybody does seem to listen to you now.

And besides, even if Chris injects enough sugar for a diabetic, that can be a bone to the mainstream after what you’re planning next: 600 pages of The New Harry Potter; an adolescent full of angst and dark foreboding - suddenly awake to girls and called upon to perform tasks far more dangerous than stabbing a tooth through a book. The fourth book has more challenging material for a generation grown too old for beginner spells and Every-Flavored Beans.

And then Book IV is released. The fairy tale can’t any get more beautiful. The kids buy it by the millions. Toy companies are offering hundreds of millions for the rights to the movies. Critics begrudgingly admit that Harry Potter might be good entertainment for adults as well as children. It dawns on you. ‘I may or may not be the Princess Diana for my children’s generation. But I am certainly their George Lucas.’ You have created the mythology of a generation. For their entire lives long, your daughter and every peer she ever meets will turn to the stories you wrote as a source of entertainment and spiritual uplift. Harry Potter will affect the way they speak their language, the way they see images, the way they perceive the world around them and the way they treat one another.

But you saw the first two Star Wars prequels. You can see how much of a burden privilige and achievement can be, and how quickly it can burn out a great gift. You swear to yourself that George Lucas will not be me. Once Harry Potter is done, you will turn to something else and leave an extraordinary achievement be for whatever posterity wills.

So life continues, fairy dust intact. You’re beginning work on Book V. You get emails with updates every day from the set of the first movie and the responses sound like everybody’s genuinely considering your input. Chris privately screens a rough cut for you in Edinburgh. It’s certainly lighter and sugarier than you’d have liked. But it’s not as bad as you feared. Maybe Chris can do justice to these movies, in his own way.

The movie’s released. It’s the hit of the Christmas season. Critics praise it mildly, but the box-office numbers don’t lie. $33.3 million on its first day. $33.5 on the second. $90.3 million on the first weekend. 66.1 million pounds in England (a record). $317.6 million in America. $974.7 million worldwide! This is, finally, success on a level beyond your dreams.

Is it too much? Your mind starts to wander to pre-Potter life. You miss your Mum. You wish, more than anything, that she were here to see what you’ve become. And almost as much, for her guidance through the maize which your success has become. You never thought you could be nostalgic for pre-Potter life. Yet that’s precisely what you experience.

The darkness finds its place in your writing. This will be the most personal Potter book yet. It will be still longer. Harry will wander through the halls of Hogwarts a depressed outcast for hundreds of pages. His first kiss will be a tear-stained affair and the trust of even his closest friends and allies will be tried. At the end of the book, Harry will lose the closest thing to a father he ever knew.

Reports come in from the set of the second movie. Chris seems so bewitched by the flying car sequence that he wants to make it to be twenty minutes of the movie. ‘Think of that scene from American Graffiti with the Fonze and Harrison Ford crossed with the flying sequence in ET. You're gonna love it.’ Well, if this is what’s going to keep Chris passionate about the project... why not?

But doubts continue to linger. In your most insecure moments, you wonder to yourself if the second book is not still the best of the four. Far more full of terror than the first, without the digressions of the third or the elaborate set pieces of the fourth. This is the book where your gift shows itself best. It would be a shame if Chris....well, best not to think about it.

Chris comes to Edinburgh again with the rough cut. It’s exactly what you feared. The genuine terror is almost completely excised from the book in favor of kids flying a car and a house-elf that seems all too close on the screen to Jar-Jar Binks. The main plot of Tom Riddle’s diary is given a perfunctory short shrift in the running time and even with 2 and a half hours, the whole thing feels too rushed. God only knows how Chris will handle dementors and killing curses.

No comments:

Post a Comment