Harry Potter and the Film Franchise of Gold

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It’s the end of an era. As the final Harry Potter instalment is released in cinemas, Time Out’s film editor, Dave Calhoun, considers the cultural legacy of this very British franchise.

Anyone who hasn’t seen a Harry Potter film or read one of the seven books could be forgiven for shrugging their shoulders as the series finally comes to an end after ten years. No more child stars. No more hype. No more movies battling with each other to be longer than the last.  No more world-exclusive teaser trailers. No more endless red-carpet pictures of actors growing up in the dazzle of publicity. No more tabloid stories accusing poor, Peter Pan-like Daniel Radcliffe of smoking funny cigarettes at late-night parties (‘Harry Pothead’ ran a Sunday Mirror headline in 2009 – an allegation Radcliffe denied.) No more shots of Radcliffe, naked, rubbing himself against a white horse for look-I-can-do-more-than-Potter theatrical productions.

But no matter what anyone thinks of the films, no one can deny they’ve been a genuine cultural phenomenon. I’m not a fan especially, but I’ll confess to being an arm’s-length (sometimes several arms’) admirer of the entire project, not least because they could have been so much worse. Compare them to the shoddy and cynical ‘Twilight’ films and they come off well. If that buffed-up werewolf Taylor Lautner walked into the shot of a ‘Harry Potter’ film it would be like Tom Cruise wandering into the frame of Derek Jarman’s ‘Caravaggio’. There’s something fusty, old-fashioned and very British about the Potter films. They created their own look and pace without slotting into easy conventions about what children are assumed to want or need. Surely most parents would prefer their kids entered the world of Potter than the weirdo universe of the ‘Twilight’ movies, with their creepy teen emoting and dreadful acting and writing?

Yes, you could say that the whole Potter extravangaza is a deeply conservative project – boarding schools, archaic games, old men with white beards and barely any characters from ethnic minorities – and it’s hard to argue with that. The headmaster of Uppingham public school was even quoted in a newspaper recently saying that the films were great adverts for his way of schooling. But at least among all the wood-panelling, stripy scarves and woolly jumpers there are values in the stories with which it’s hard to disagree – the values of friendship, loyalty, learning and mentorship.

The sheer scale of the Potter undertaking is overwhelming too. As an industrial project, you must take your hat off to it , and many in the British film industry argue that the films have had a positive trickle-down effect on the business generally. There have been eight films in ten years, which amounts to just shy of 20 hours of cinema. Together, they cost more than a billion dollars to make and, not including the final film, which opens this Friday, have taken $5.5 billion (£3.4 billion) at the box office worldwide. Many pretenders have come and gone in their wake, films such as ‘Stormbreaker’ and ‘Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief’.  Everyone wants a piece of the kids’ film fantasy pie. In 2008, there was even a legal battle between Warner Brothers and the makers of a Bollywood children’s film called ‘Hari Puttar’. Warners lost, with the producers claiming that ‘Hari’ is a popular Indian name and ‘Puttar’ means ‘son’ in Punjabi.

We can argue about which Potter films are better than others (and my colleagues Tom Huddleston and David Jenkins do a great job of it on the next page), but in relative terms – relative to a world of blockbusters and sequels – the films have striven for quality and imagination. There has been an admirable lack of cynicism to the whole affair. They have celebrated reading. They have employed a whole generation of talented, older British actors. Shot in Britain, they have introduced children to a passion for the range of the filmmaking craft – not just acting, but also design, costumes, special effects and more.

The Harry Potter films could, in theory, provide a window on tougher, more challenging movies if their fans were to trace the careers of its adult stars to their various sources. Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn) and Gary Oldman (Sirius) would lead any inquisitive Potter fan to any one of a number of Mike Leigh films. The late Richard Harris, who preceded Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, would take them back to the early 1960s and Lindsay Anderson’s ‘This Sporting Life’. Tap Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley) into Google and any Potterhead will find ‘The History Boys’ and ‘Withnail and I’. Even Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) would lead you to ‘Cracker’.

Harry Potter.jpg

Somewhere in London or Los Angeles right now, there’s surely a film executive who hopes – prays, even – they’ve bought the rights to the next Potter. That’s what happened to producer David Heyman back in the late 1990s. He was just 37 when he bought the rights from J K Rowling for the first Harry Potter book. Heyman went on to produce all eight Potter films under the patronage of Warner Brothers, and the close relationship between him, Rowling and the studio has kept the films distinctive and rich over the years, in the way that Warners has given similar freedom to Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan for their Tolkien and Batman films.

Already the child actors have moved on, barely pausing to promote the eighth and final film in the series. Radcliffe, who turns 22 this month, has filmed a version of the stage play ‘The Woman in Black’. Emma Watson has been modelling for Burberry and Lancome and has a role in a new film about Marilyn Monroe. And Rupert Grint has shot a World War II action film and is slated to play Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards in an upcoming biopic – which at least suggests the boy has a sense of proportion and humour about what he has to offer the world of acting.

Will there be another ‘Potter’ film? Only a fool would rule it out. But so far there’s no new book in the works and Rowling has made it clear she’s not planning one – for now anyway. There’s one person, though, who has been categorical that he’s happy to see the back of the series, and that’s Radcliffe, who appears to be chomping at the bit to put the films behind him. ‘The idea of going back to something after ten or 20 years?’ Radcliffe recently told the LA Times. ‘At that point, I will have worked 20 years to establish a career outside of it, and to go back to it would feel a little self-defeating.’

It’s not over yet, though. There’s the small matter of the last film being released this week. Oh, and there’s the DVD. And maybe a T-shirt or two? And let’s not forget that, more than 30 years since they were first released, all the ‘Star Wars’ films are soon returning, first for Blu-ray and then in 3D versions next year. This one could run and run…

Read our review of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2'



Author: Dave Calhoun



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