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Film Talk: Happy Birthday Harry Potter! Celebrating 20 years of movie magic

It was the dawn of a cinematic phenomenon that would become the film franchise of a generation and one of the most successful series of movies history has ever seen.

You're a wizard Harry... Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint starred in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone two decades ago
You're a wizard Harry... Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint starred in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone two decades ago

From the mind of a struggling single mother had been born a run of children’s books that had taken the world by storm, turning an age of young people on to reading and capturing the hearts of an adult audience in the process. The board was set for the adaptation from page to screen, and 20 years ago, with anticipation high, the world saw the beginning of something that would leave an impact beyond anybody’s wildest dreams – true cinematic sorcery, and genuine movie magic.

On November 16, 2001, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone across the pond) officially opened with the widest cinema release of all time in the UK and US. Breaking the record for the highest-opening weekend ever on both sides of the Atlantic, in the UK it made £9.6 million across two days, and in the US and Canada it brought in a phenomenal $90.3 million.

Unquestionably the world was caught in Pottermania, with the film’s three young leads Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson instantly propelled to stratospheric heights of fame. Even now, the impact of this first adaptation of J.K Rowling’s spellbinding series of novels – along with that of its seven direct sequels – remains strong, and so as today marks the official 20th anniversary of this phenomenal fantasy flick, here we’re taking a look at the incredible journey of The Boy Who Lived...

Whoever you are, whatever you do and wherever you’ve been, it will have been nigh-on impossible over the last two decades for the magic of Harry Potter to have passed you by. To avoid it, you’ll probably have needed an invisibility cloak of your own.

Having spawned eight direct film adaptations, two spin-off flicks (with a third in the making and two more in the pipeline), a studio tour experience, multiple themed attractions and a stage show, J.K Rowling’s series of books have been the genesis of one of the greatest pop culture phenomena in history. Having sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, the Harry Potter novels stand as the best-selling book series of all time, and have been translated into 80 languages.

Beginning with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the last four novels of the series consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, with the final instalment – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – selling roughly 2.7 million copies in the UK and 8.3 million copies in the States within 24 hours of its release.

It seems strange then to consider, that the road to publication for a woman who has become one of the wealthiest authors in the world was long and rather arduous.

In 1995, and while living on state benefits, J.K Rowling completed her manuscript for her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, using a manual typewriter. Set in an alternative world where witches and wizards lived in secret alongside non-magic folk, or ‘muggles’, Rowling’s book introduced her titular young wizard – an orphan who was about to begin his magical education at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and discover that his destiny was bigger than he could ever have imagined.

With the Fulham-based Christopher Little Literary Agency representing her, Rowling went on a quest for a publisher, and was turned down by the first 12 that were approached (we thought it must’ve been bad being the chap who turned down The Beatles... Ouch...).

A year later however, lucky number 13 was to prove fruitful. In 1996, Rowling’s tome was green-lit by Bloomsbury, a little-known publishing house in London, whose chairman had passed the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone to his daughter. Reportedly, her response having read it was to immediately demand the second.

Bloomsbury agreed to publish the novel, and it hit the shelves in 1997. The legend goes however that editor Barry Cunningham advised Rowling to get herself a day job, as the chance of making serious money in children’s books was slim.

Little did he, or indeed Rowling herself know, how colossal her incredible creation was to become.

Fast-forward to 1998, and with book number two – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – in the shops and two Smarties Prizes under Rowling’s belt, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to the first two novels for a princely seven-figure sum. When drafting Rowling’s contract, the studio made Rowling’s wishes with regards to the adaptations a priority, notably that the films be shot in Britain with a predominantly British cast. With a large chunk of the seven-novel series yet to be released by the time the first film went into production, Rowling worked very closely with screenwriter Steve Kloves to ensure that no details of the movie script would contradict future plot developments she had planned.

While Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg was approached to helm the first flick, the directorial powerhouse and architect of E.T and Jurassic Park dropped out, making room for Chris Columbus to take his seat in the director’s chair.

Then came time for casting, and in particular determining which three of the world’s children would have their fate changed forever with the opportunity of a lifetime.

Open casting calls were held for the three lead roles of Harry, Ron and Hermione, with – as insisted upon by Rowling – only British children being considered. Thousands of young hopefuls participated in a three-stage audition process as Columbus looked for the sparkle that would bring Rowling’s titular young wizard and his closest pals to life. In the meantime, a store of established home-grown acting talent was in discussion for the various adult roles, and by the end of August 2000, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith had been cast as Professors Dumbledore, Snape and McGonagall respectively, with Robbie Coltrane having also been confirmed as lovable half-giant, Hagrid. And on August 21, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson were finally selected to fill the robes of the three core protagonists, and were set on the path of what would be over a decade’s worth of global spotlight and movie stardom.

By the time the Philosopher’s Stone flick arrived in 2001 and broke box office records apart, J.K Rowling’s wizarding world was in full ascendancy and was taking over the globe.

Two further novels – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – had now been published to critical acclaim, and Rowling’s fanbase was sky-rocketing.

As the years rolled on, the movie adaptations continued, and though they were rocked by certain setbacks – including the sad death of Richard Harris in 2002 – they continued in their monumental success, with the result that the run of eight films (culminating in 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) stands today as the third highest-grossing film series of all time, having garnered a stonking $7.7 billion in worldwide receipts.

As for the novels, the Harry Potter series proceeded from strength to strength, breaking record after record, with the final result being that book seven sold roughly 2.7 million copies in the UK and 8.3 million copies in the US within one day of its release.

Since the culmination of both the film and book series, the magic of Harry Potter has continued to be enjoyed by millions around the world. In 2019 alone, such was the number of visitors to the London studio tour that the attraction generated almost £133 million in revenue.

Since its premiere in 2016, theatre audiences around the world have been consistently delighted by stage show and sequel to the book series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

And, in that same year, the fruits of Rowling’s wonderful imagination returned to the silver screen with the first in the Fantastic Beasts spin-off movie series, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. Though admittedly, this latest series of films has not so far captured audiences in quite the same manner as the originals, an opportunity to once again step into the wizarding world and see that world expand has been praised by fans and lapped up by the masses.

With the third in the series – Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets Of Dumbledore – due for release next year, we can be confident that the wonder of the wizarding world will once again be embraced by audiences in their millions. And with this being the first fresh bloom from Rowling’s extraordinary creation since the dawn of the Covid pandemic, a little magic will doubtlessly be enjoyed that little bit more.

For now, we bid the on-screen Potterverse a very happy birthday, and shout a big ‘three cheers’ to The Boy Who Lived.

Thank you for the magic, and long may it continue.

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