Isnt It About Time You Gave The Chris Columbus Harry Potter Films Another Chance?

As the final Potter movie comes out on DVD, Steven O’Brien urges us to remember a time when the series wasn’t all dark and moody

Prosecution: M’lud, now that the Harry Potter film series has reached its end, it’s time to reflect, to pull out that Potter boxset for a marathon watch of the young wizard’s school years. But after the bleak, emotionally gutting films of David Yates especially, it’s a hard thing to return to the woolly-headed simplicity of those first two Chris Columbus-directed films. At the time, they were fine, but having less Hollywood-schooled directors come in after him has just highlighted how uninspired and deeply conservative they are. So in the dock today, m’lud, is Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (that’s Sorcerer’s Stone , to any Americans in the jury) and Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets .

Defence: Of course the Chris Columbus films were simpler. The series grew up with its characters and its audience, and while Columbus’s talents may not have worked with the more complex, soap-opera-y material in The Half-Blood Prince or The Deathly Hallows , then David Yates might well have been flailing trying to translate the simple action adventure of the first books to the screen.

And besides, Chris Columbus established everything that Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell and David Yates would later run with. It was Chris Columbus who okayed the look of Hogwarts and of the magic world and cast Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, not to mention all the other regulars (except Michael Gambon, granted). Show some respect!

Prosecution: That’s all when and good, but how much more visually spectacular would the world of Harry Potter be if Warner Bros had had the courage to go with JK Rowling’s preferred choice, Terry Gilliam? That would be a truly great gift to bestow to the later directors. In fact, most of the possible directors for the first film sound more interesting - Jonathan Demme, Alan Parker, Wolfgang Petersen, Rob Reiner, M Night Shyamalan, Peter Weir... And Warner go for the safest, dullest choice out of all of them - the director of Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire . Whoop-de-flippin’-do.

Defence: Both of which are great films. So you’d have preferred the directors of North , The Happening , Evita , Poseidon and Green Card to have had a stab? Pah! And - really - when it was first announced that the director would not only be American, but the purveyor of such mainstream movie fare, it was thought the film would lose some of its quirky Britishness. But it didn’t. Can you really say you can detect a shared DNA between the Home Alone movies and the first two Harry Potters ? Columbus told the producers that he wanted the Muggle scenes “to be bleak and dreary”, and those set in the wizarding world, “to be steeped in colour, mood, and detail.” As mighty as David Yates is, he turned everything bleak and dreary and rain-soaked, blurring that distinction between the two worlds. Columbus’ vision was pure and cinematic. And it’s to the franchise’s cost that some of the later directors moved so far away from the style Columbus created. In a marathon-watch, the series doesn’t look half as uniform as it should do.

Prosecution: So, you’re saying that better directors should be hamstrung by a commitment to the decisions made by a director with less than half their talent or originality? Pish.

Defence: No, but I think they could have shown more fidelity. Hogwarts looks and feels very different under Newell and Yates particularly and the colour palette changes significantly for the films towards the end. They don’t feel like part of the same series.

Prosecution: So it should have stayed the same and stagnated? Nonsense. All long-running film series develop and change over time. Would you want Bond to still be about safari suits and double entendres like it was under Roger Moore?

Defence: Clearly not. But Bond has been running for nearly 50 years; it changes are dictated by changes in filmmaking storytelling techniques. All eight Potter films were released over a mere 10-year period.

Prosecution: The changes in the Potter films also reflected the deepening themes of the books.

Defence: But the books felt like a natural progression, as the child characters grew up. The films changed far more radically. But even if we leave that argument aside – and accept that the films would have to have “grown up” under any director, the point remains: the first two films accurate reflections of the first two books. They capture the joy and wonder of a boy entering a magical world. If another director had made them all dark and moody, it’s questionable whether they would have been successful enough to spawn the entire the entire series. Besides, Chamber does have its darker moments – the final scene between Harry and Lucius Malfoy in Dumbledore’s office show’s a harder edge developing in Radcliffe’s performance. Columbus was just easing us into the darkness to come.

Prosecution: The difference is that the other directors were making family films for demanding audiences, which is indeed the kind of child who reads the Harry Potter books. These are bright kids. And yet Chris Columbus made two films that offered little to anyone who owns a debit card. It needed someone to make a movie with all the brilliant oddness of Rowling’s world intact, but instead it was just played as a lark.

Defence: How can the whole final sequence of Philosopher’s – when Professor Quirrell unveils Voldemort’s head under the turban – be described as “a lark”. Columbus milks the drama and tension from some scenes and the humour from others. It just seems that the Prosecution thinks that darker and more serious always equals better. It doesn’t make you cooler to prefer The Prisoner Of Azkaban to The Chamber of Secrets . It doesn’t make you deeper to prefer The Order Of The Phoenix to The Philosopher’s Stone . In fact, humour is something the films lost a little too much of towards the end, which is another example of the tonal inconsistency maintained by Yates especially.

Prosecution: We will admit yes, there is an inconsistency, particularly in the acting. Take someone like Jason Isaacs, whose “boo-hiss” portrayal of Lucius Malfoy was established by Chris Columbus in The Chamber of Secrets . And he’s shackled to that performance thereafter. It sticks out a mile in The Deathly Hallows , where everything else is being played totally straight and in comes this panto bad guy from the Columbus school of villainy.

Defence: He’s one of the best things in the series. AND CHRIS COLUMBUS CAST HIM!

Prosecution: Yet we maintain that due to the rare ballooning of quality towards the end of the series, that the early ones suffer in retrospect. The series needed one director to oversee the entire run, and that person is really only Alfonso Cuarón or David Yates. Not Chris Columbus.

Defence: And we maintain that Columbus doesn’t get enough credit for establishing the look and feel of this world. The Harry Potter that you love would not be the same without Mr C Columbus. And at least in the first two films we could enjoy all the icons of the Potterverse that have largely been sidelined in subsequent films: moving staircases, the Hogwarts Express, Quidditch, teachers who turn up for more than cough and spit cameos, and actually teach .

Prosecution: And yet when he left the series, he tried to reinflate it with an American accent with Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief . And look what happened to that!

Defence: Yes, that really was truly horseshit. But that film’s not on trial. And just as Christopher Columbus discovered America, so Chris Columbus discovered the world of Harry Potter.

Prosecution: You rehearsed that bit, didn’t you?

Defence: Yes. Did it work?

Prosecution: Beautifully. I’m sold.

Steve O’Brien

Dave Golder
Freelance Writer

Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.