The wizard behind `Harry'

November 15, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

He was never mentioned in the Katie Couric special, and in the press notes you won't find him until Page 7, when suddenly he turns up at a crucial juncture in the casting. But screenwriter Steve Kloves, a critical and cult favorite for writing and directing The Fabulous Baker Boys and adapting the "unadaptable" novel Wonder Boys (directed by Curtis Hanson), was part of the Harry Potter movie's creative team before the casting of a single star or of director Chris Columbus.

Kloves committed to a pair of key decisions early on. He hewed close to the narrative line of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first entry of J.K. Rowling's projected seven-volume saga, without fear of an unconventional running time. (The final print clocks in at 152 minutes.) And he made it his top priority to have the core emotional story come through, as he puts it, "even without special effects." These were crucial choices. Whatever its bumps and longueurs, the finished movie will please most of the book's die-hard fans and provide casual observers with a glimpse of their appeal.

"The whole thing was odd to begin with," Kloves said from his office in Pacific Palisades, Calif. "I was sent a packet of coverage" - studio readers' brief reports on acquired properties - "and I'm bad at even opening coverage. But out of seven pieces, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone [the novel's British title] jumped out at me.

"The coverage was a litany of things that occurred in the books: Harry faces off against Fluffy the three-headed Dog; then Harry encounters a centaur in the forest who tells him what's happening in Hogwarts School. But there was something about the human element in it that was singular. The person doing the coverage incorporated some of Jo Rowling's language and names and references to magic. There was no way of distilling a book like this in a page or a page-and-a-half, but it sounded interesting. I went to the bookstore and bought it - I was a little confused, because I was looking for Philosopher's Stone, not Sorcerer's Stone - and read it in one day."

A nervous studio

Warner Bros., Kloves says, "was simultaneously excited and terrified." Late in 1998, the book hadn't yet become the phenomenon in the United States that it was in the United Kingdom, and here was ace screenwriter Kloves telling them, "I don't think this is one of those 90-minute kid films. There's too much to express here. What you hope it will be is a rich experience, and that takes time - you don't want to rush it."

What also worried Warners was that along with Baker Boys and Wonder Boys, Kloves' previous credits included, as a writer-director, the Texas-set family tragedy Flesh and Bone and, as a writer, the gritty coming-of-age movie Racing With the Moon. There wasn't a fantasy film or kid's flick on his resume. Still, Kloves sees Harry Potter as a natural fit.

"The characters happen to be young witches and wizards, but the human dilemmas they face are akin to those in all my other movies."

Harry, orphaned as an infant, "comes literally and metaphorically from darkness," and, living with his Muggle [that is, non-magical] aunt, uncle and cousin, "has a difficult and abusive family situation. Most of my work has dealt with fractured families and has a male protagonist who is coming from darkness, or is still in darkness and trying to surface from it. Harry just happens to be a young boy. He's exiting the only world he's known - a world of horrible darkness, living in the cupboard under the stairs."

And when Harry enters the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he joins "a world which, while it has its perils, allows him to become who he is and in a sense to find a real family. Harry is the most elusive character in the book, but often my male protagonists have been reticent. When they do speak, you know it's important."

Kloves knew that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone didn't have climaxes that "detonated at convenient times for a Hollywood movie. But I've never been a three-act guy, as anyone who's seen my movies probably suspects."

And while Kloves was able to gain traction on Michael Chabon's sprawling novel Wonder Boys by dropping one big section, Harry Potter required "more of a sleight-of-hand, so you wouldn't feel things had been lost from the book, though of course they had. The goal was to do it subtly and with delicacy, so you'd feel it was absolutely faithful. Jo's books flat-out work, but bringing the experience of reading them to the screen is almost a magician's trick. My hope was that the people I'd collaborate with would feel the same way, and not feel impelled to impose a hoary three-act structure."


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