The Story Behind Harry Potter

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, the sixth Potter pic, arrives in cinemas this week.

What better time, then, to take a look back at the film franchise and the books that started it all...

1. A Delayed Train

Even if you have just a passing awareness of the Harry Potter series, you likely know how it came about – author Joanne Kathleen Rowling (the middle bit’s from her grandmother for use as her pseudonym – she doesn’t have a second name) says it just fell into her head in 1990 on a busy – and late – train.

"I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before.

“I simply sat and thought, for four hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard became more and more real to me."

It would be five tough years writing in cafes and struggling to make ends meet before Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone nabbed her an agent and, after eight rejections, a publisher in the shape of Bloomsbury.

Rowling fashioned a world focused on her young wizard, an orphan who survived the attack that killed his parents and left him scarred for life with a lightning bolt on his forehead.

Six more books would be published – The Chamber Of Secrets, The Prisoner Of Azkaban, The Goblet Of Fire, The Order Of The Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and the epic finale, The Deathly Hallows.

Each tome chronicles a year (or thereabouts – the later books tend to fudge the timing) in Harry’s life at wizarding school Hogwarts.

Initially unaware that he’s anything special, he’s brought to the magical seat of learning to discover that he is, in fact, a hero destined to defeat the evil that destroyed his mother and father – dastardly wizard Voldemort (or He Who Shall Not Be Named as scared wand-wavers prefer to refer to him).

As Harry grows into his destiny, his life gets ever more dangerous, but he also makes solid friendships with the likes of Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

Together the trio will have to solve riddles, battle magical beasts and, above all, stop Voldemort’s plan to return, achieve immortality and take over the world. The usual, then.

Even as she wrote the first book, Rowling also had the idea for the final epilogue, which has mutated into the scene found at the end of the seventh book, Deathly Hallows.

Why? A couple of unexpected character deaths and one other, who gets a reprieve from his creator.

The books became a massive publishing phenomenon, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.

Next: The Philosopher's Stone [Page-Break]

2. The Philosopher’s Stone… Or is it Sorcerer’s?

In 1999, JK Rowling sold the rights to the first four movies to Warners for around £1 million (given how much dosh the resulting films have made, that seems like a great deal these days).

With Potter mania at an all time high, the studio naturally tried to get the movie into production as soon as possible. But there were different ideas as to how to achieve it.

Early on in the process, Steven Spielberg threw his hat into the ring, negotiating to direct the first film, with the idea of making it animated, and casting Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Harry.

The bearded one eventually declined, citing the fact that the film would likely make money easily.

“It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. It's just a slam-dunk. It's just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There's no challenge."

Still, several directors put themselves up for the job, including Alan Parker, Brad Silberling, Rob Reiner, Tim Robbins, Peter Weir, Mike Newell and Terry Gilliam (Rowling’s favourite choice).

But when Warners announced that the pic needed to start in 2000 and be ready for a July 4 2001 stateside release, several pulled out.

On 28 March 2000, Home Alone director Chris Columbus was picked for the job.

"Harry Potter is the kind of timeless literary achievement that comes around once in a lifetime,” said producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura.

“Since the books have generated such a passionate following across the world, it was important to find a director who has an affinity for both children and magic. I can't think of anyone more ideally suited for this job than Chris."

Despite the appointment of an American director, the studio gave Rowling plenty of creative control, and allowed her to specify that the movie must be kept largely British, which opened up the cast to the likes of Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith and the late Richard Harris as the series’ first Dumbledore.

The film also needed to lock down the three leads to play Harry, Ron and Hermione and, after a long search and thousands of auditions, Daniel Radcliffe (11), Emma Watson (10) and Rupert Grint (12) were unveiled during a huge press conference.

With Steve Kloves (who won Rowling over by telling her his favourite character was Hermione) adapting the book, the film started shooting at Leavesden Film Studios in October 2000.

Not everything went smoothly – Canterbury Cathedral officials declined the film’s request to stand as the main setting for Hogwarts, citing worries about the plot’s “pagan” themes.

In the end, the movie shot around the UK, taking in the likes of Gloucester Cathedral, Alnwick Castle (for Hogwarts exteriors), Harrow school, Goathland railway station in Yorkshire and King’s Cross station (though not the actual platform 9, which is in a separate section).

For the American release, the team shot two versions of any scene featuring the titular stone, with Sorcerer’s replacing Philosopher’s in the footage.

Though the original plan was to put the film out over the July 4 holiday weekend, the punishing schedule pushed it back to November of that year.

Within days of its release, the studio knew Spielberg had been correct: with a box office record-breaking weekend (over $90m), it was clearly a licence to print money.

A new franchise had been born. Now they had to keep the cash cow mooing…

Next: The Chamber Of Secrets [Page-Break]

3. The Chamber Of Secrets

With the first film an instant, money-grabbing hit, the studio moved quickly to get a follow-up moving, kicking off production just three days after the original’s release.

Columbus returned to direct again and Steve Kloves once more wrote the adaptation, which stays even closer to the book than the first movie, with a few characters snipped out, some plotlines condensed and a change to how one critical element of the plot – the chameleonic Polyjuice potion – works.

The second pic finds Harry getting ready to start his second term at Hogwarts, much to the displeasure of his non-magical (or “muggle” to use the book’s term) aunt and uncle.

The early parts of the story involve Harry escaping from Privet Drive via the Weasley’s flying car (a Ford Anglia), which was created via a mixture of a practical unit and ILM’s visual effects.

We get to meet Dobby, the House-Elf (voiced by Toby Jones), one of several small creatures who largely act as servants (or slaves) to established and wealthy wizarding families.

Oh, and there’s also the introduction of yet another new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, this time in the shape of Gilderoy Lockhart.

The famed adventurer and magician (who turns out to be a big fraud) was a role originally offered to Hugh Grant. But when he dropped out due to scheduling issues, Kenneth Branagh took it over, complete with blond wig.

One other big addition was the casting of Jason Isaacs as the snidey, arrogant Lucius Malfoy, Voldemort supporter and father to Harry’s main antagonist, Draco.

Isaacs took the role for what he saw as “a chance to have fun playing dress-up and being the bad guy.”

In sadder casting news, the film would mark the last appearance on film of Richard Harris, who died between Chamber Of Secrets’ shoot and production on Azkaban.

Shooting this time took place around the Isle of Man, and the various locations and sets that had already been built for the original movie.

Once released on 15 November 2002, it was another instant smash, breaking some of The Philosopher’s Stones’ records.

The train had well and truly left the station, but a new driver would come aboard for the next movie…

Next: The Prisoner Of Azkaban [Page-Break]

4. The Prisoner Of Azkaban

For the third film, much like the second, the story begins to get darker as the kids start to grow up and Rowling’s themes of death and good/evil become more prominent.

Things would also change behind the camera as Columbus made the decision to merely produce, saying, “I haven’t seen my own kids for supper in the week for about two and a half years."

Led by Columbus and ever-present producer David Heyman, the hunt for a new director would encompass Guillermo del Toro (who turned down an offer claiming the series seemed too “bright and happy and full of light”.

Fresh off of Finding Neverland, Marc Foster brushed off an offer after realising that he didn’t want to direct child actors again.

In the end, the choice came down to three: Callie Khouri (Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood), Kenneth Branagh (who had just appeared as Lockhart) and Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess).

Eventually, though he initially professed nerves because he wasn’t familiar with the books, Cuaron got the job with Rowling’s seal of approval, since she was a big fan of his Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Ploughing through the available source material, Cuaron accepted after connecting with the story.

Several new cast members came aboard, most notably Gary Oldman as the titular escaped prisoner Sirius Black (originally thought to be a Voldemort supporter but revealed as a dear friend of Harry’s parents and his godfather).

David Thewlis took the role of Remus Lupin, the new Defence Against The Dark Arts tutor (with a wolfish secret) and Timothy Spall was cast as Peter Pettigrew, a Voldemort supporter who has been disguised for years as Ron’s rat, Scabbers.

With Richard Harris gone, Hogwarts needed a new Dumbledore, and Michael Gambon took on the role.

Finally, Emma Thompson agreed to play Sybill Trelawney, the bumbling yet occasionally accurate Divination teacher who correctly predicts the return of Voldemort.

Shooting from February to October 2003, with locations taking in the likes of Loch Ness (for Hogwarts’ lake, where Harry battles the Dementors), Glen Coe and Palmers Green, where scenes featuring the magical Knight Bus that takes Harry to learn his fate for using magic in front of muggles, were shot with a specially adapted vehicle.

Cuaron was pleased with the experience, calling it the “two sweetest years of my life” and put his name down to direct some of the sequels, though the pressure of production meant he never got the chance.

He’d wanted to push for more practical special effects, attempting to create the creepy Dementors using puppets, but that proved too expensive for all but a handful of shots.

The reaction to the film was positive, with critics praising Cuaron for trying – as much as possible – to break away from the cosy template established by Columbus.

Rolling Stone exclaimed, “Not only is this dazzler by far the best and most thrilling of the three Harry Potter movies to date, it's a film that can stand on its own even if you never heard of author J.K. Rowling and her young wizard hero."

And yes, once again, the film broke records.

Onwards to number four…

Next: The Goblet Of Fire [Page-Break]

5. The Goblet Of Fire

The fourth film finds Harry maturing further and starting to have real feelings about more than just his destiny as the chosen one...

Yes, we’re talking girls. But more importantly, Lord Voldemort is gaining strength and plans to retrieve his old form by stealing blood from Harry.

To do so, he arranges for the young spellcaster to enter the Triwizard tournament, a set of challenges which see candidates from three schools – Hogwarts, Durmstrang and Beauxbatons compete to see who will be magic champion.

Despite him being technically too young, the titular Goblet selects Harry as the second challenger from Hogwarts, alongside Cedric Diggory (a fresh-faced Robert Pattinson).

Harry eventually scores a draw with Cedric, before being transported to Voldemort’s graveyard hiding place, where a duel ensues.

Harry escapes – this time…

Despite Alfonso Cuaron announcing his interest, the accelerating schedule and exhausting demands of the Potter shoots meant Mike Newell – one of the original choices for the first film – took over directing chores. Steve Kloves returned to write the script and the leads took their roles again.

New faces included Ralph Fiennes, who played Lord Voldemort, Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter, an obnoxious, probing journalist and Dr Who himself, David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr, one of Voldy’s main henchmen.

There was also Brendan Gleeson, playing Alastor “Mad Eye” Moody, the one-eyed new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher, who in typical fashion only lasts one year (mostly because he’s revealed to be Barty Crouch Jr in disguise).

The task of making the fourth outing was not an easy one – Kloves and Newell were faced with compressing the biggest book yet into one film and ended up cutting most of the classroom scenes.

The house elves also got short shrift, with Hermione’s push to protect them snipped completely, with the lack of Dobby continuing into later films.

And in an attempt to up the action content, several of the competition segments were given a makeover, all with Rowling’s approval.

The biggest hiccup for the filmmakers was a seemingly trademark Warners blunder (see also Dukes Of Hazzard and Get Smart) over one element that was essentially a fun cameo.

Jarvis Cocker and several other musicians appeared as a band called Weird Sisters, which, uh, was a little too similar to a Canadian band named Wyrd Sisters.

The group’s first court case was thrown out, but thanks to the studio claiming that the name wouldn’t actually get used but ignoring the - ahem - use in the film and the soundtrack), the Sisters are still trying their luck.

That said, despite all the changes, the film was another, predictable success, grabbing solid reviews and another blockbuster opening. To date, it has earned more than $896 million.

Number five was where it really became a franchise factory…

Next: The Order Of The Phoenix [Page-Break]

Next: The Half-Blood Prince [Page-Break]

7. The Half-Blood Prince

And so we come to this week’s release, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.

The sixth film finds Harry and co preparing to battle the evil wizarding group known as the Death Eaters who are striking back thanks to Voldemort’s renewed power.

It also features one of the biggest plot twists in the series – though for the good of anyone who hasn’t read the book, we won’t talk about it here.

Half-Blood Prince finds the usual team – Radcliffe, Watson, Grint, Rickman, Gambon and co - all in place, with David Yates still behind the camera and Steve Kloves once more writing the script.

New arrivals this time? Jim Broadbent is finally getting his chance to join the cast, playing the blustery, tragic Professor Horace Slughorn, a man who holds an important memory that will help Harry figure out Voldemort’s past and his future plans.

Helen McCrory, who had been cast as Bellatrix Lestrange before her pregnancy forced her to abandon the role, finds her way into the Potter world by playing Narcissa Malfoy, wife of Lucius and mother to Draco.

Since Voldemort is getting fleshed out further, it only made sense for someone related to Ralph Fiennes to play him as a child during his Tom Riddle Days. The superbly named Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, Ralph's nephew, is Riddle at 11. (Yes, he did have to audition.)

There’s also Frank Dillaine, playing Tom as a teenager.

Jessie Cave also joins the cast as Lavender Brown, the obsessive new girlfriend who makes Ron’s life a living misery.

It’s this adolescent aspect that the film explores most thoroughly – even as the storm clouds of war gather, Harry and co will be dealing with their raging hormones and the burgeoning relationships between Harry and Ginny Weasley (much to Ron’s annoyance) and Ron and Hermione (well, eventually).

Rumours persisted that the new pic would be shot outside the UK to take advantage of tax credits, with suggestions ranging from New Zealand to Ireland.

It has remained home-grown, however, with scenes shot around Scotland and the rest of the UK, including return visits to Gloucester Cathedral and more use of virtual sets.

The biggest concern for the film has been its release date – it was originally scheduled for last November, but was bumped to this summer to give Warners more breathing room.

Reviews have been a little more mixed (though still very positive), and it’s expected to be another big earner for the franchise.

Which is a good thing, as there are still two movies to go…

Next: The Deathly Hallows I [Page-Break]

8. The Deathly Hallows I

It’s the book that wraps it all up – the final confrontation between Harry and the forces of good against Voldemort’s Death Eaters.

It’s also a rambling, widely focused story that takes our heroes away from Hogwarts for long periods and mostly ditches the academic year structure.

Enough with the classes – it’s time to grow up and fight.

In an unusual move (and despite the fact that it’s actually shorter than Goblet Of Fire), The Deathly Hallows will be released as two parts.

"Years ago, we briefly — and seriously — considered doing Goblet of Fire as two films,” says writer Steven Kloves. “So this concept is not altogether new.

“As for Deathly Hallows, I intuited — almost from the first moments I began reading it and certainly once I'd finished — that to realize the story in a single film was going to be a tall order.

“Others in 'the group' felt the same. So the idea of two films began to get kicked around as early as late summer of 2007. We didn't take it lightly. But ultimately everyone felt that despite the challenges it would present, it was the soundest creative decision.

"I'm sure some will think we're crazy. My wife looked at me cross-eyed when I first mentioned it. But I'm really excited about it because it should allow us to stretch a bit with the characters and give them a proper send-off.

“The story is highly emotional and those moments deserve time to breathe. And, personally, I feel we owe it to Jo — in order to preserve the integrity of the work — and the fans — for their loyalty all these years — to give them the best and most complete experience possible.”

"It'll be a big finish, won't it?" says Alan Rickman, who will see Snape's role extended further in the story.

"That's true, and appropriately. You can feel it now, the size of the undertaking. Watching Daniel (Radcliffe), I saw a trailer for him being on Inside the Actor's Studio, and you think, 'Wait a minute, he's 12! Oh. Perhaps he isn't.'"

Part One is scheduled for November 2010. Part Two will arrive in July 2011. Long wait, then...

Next: The Deathly Hallows 2 [Page-Break]

9. The Deathly Hallows II

The final two films, which will be shot as a single piece, began production this January, and shooting has been taking place in various locations, with studio time split between the franchise’s usual home in Leavesden and sets at Pinewood.

And though Yates was quick to sign on to direct, Guillermo del Toro expressed an interested in the pitch-dark Deathly Hallows, before realising his workload simply wouldn’t give him the time.

New casting this time around includes Rhys Ifans as Luna Lovegood’s father, Xenophilius, the recently announced Bill Nighy as Minister for Magic Rufus Scrimgeour and Ciaran Hinds as Dumbledore’s brother, Alberforth.

Plus, there are some returning faces, including Miriam Margoyles (last seen in Chamber Of Secrets) as Professor Sprout, Brendan Gleeson as Alastor Moody and one for fans of house elves everywhere, the Toby Jones-voiced Dobby.

The longer (double-movie) running time means that more of the book will appear on screen than in any of the other adaptations. And it’ll be different from the other stories, as Radcliffe explains: "This is a road movie, particularly in Part One of the film.

“People have been so used to seeing Harry Potter at Hogwarts and we're just not there for the first part of the film. That seems to have really freshened things up, and hopefully will get people seeing the films with fresh eyes again, because its just a totally different look when you're not just sat in the same room the whole time."

Part Two is more of the operatic epic, featuring major battles.

In fact, the final battle was omitted from Half-Blood Prince to make way for the big finish.

“We all know there’s a huge battle coming in 7," says Radcliffe. "We’re all looking forward to it. We’re designing and planning it at the moment. We wanted to keep our powder dry for that really. So wait until Part Two.”

The big finish to the books, of course, is – and this is a big spoiler if you’ve not yet cracked the seventh book!! – the epilogue with Harry, Ron and Hermione reuniting to send their own kids off to Hogwarts.

It takes place 19 years after the events of Deathly Hallows, and will require some trickery.

“You know, we’re still exploring how we’re going to deal with that,” Yates tells Can Mag. “It’s an absolutely beautiful part of the book and one of the most unique things of this franchise I guess is the fact that you’ve grown up with these characters.

“I think it’s what makes it special for the audience. So we’ll be delivering that at the end of Part Two but we’re looking at various options of how we do it. I still haven’t quite figured it out yet.

No, probably not Benjamin Button technology. We looked into that but we don’t think it’s the route we’re going to take.”

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.