Harry Potter, the young wizard who is the hero of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful series of children’s novels, has braved the evil archwizard Voldemort as well as lesser antagonists like the publicity-mad Professor Gilderoy Lockhart and a devious classmate named Draco Malfoy. But Harry may be facing a greater challenge to his magical powers: Chris Columbus, the director who will film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Columbus’ filmography includes “Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Stepmom” and the recent “Bicentennial Man,” a list that pretty much typifies processed mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Originally, Steven Spielberg was slated to direct the first attempt to bring Rowling’s charismatic orphan to the screen, but the director of “E.T.” bowed out (amid rumors that he had clashed with Rowling over his desire to set the film in America and to cast Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment as the lead), stating, “At this time, my directorial interests are taking me in another direction.” (Spielberg instead opted to direct a science-fiction film called “A.I.”)
While some Potter fans considered Spielberg a less than ideal choice, the news that Warner Bros. had picked Columbus was greeted with even less enthusiasm. “The blandification of good, cool pop-culture funkiness continues apace,” wrote Ty Burr for Entertainment Weekly Online. In the Harry Potter Usenet group alt.fan.harry_potter, one potterphiliac entitled her posting “Nooooooo” and suggested that the film ought to be called “‘Harry Potter and the Mainstream Inflate-a-Budget Crap.’ To quote Charlie Brown: AUUUUUUUUUUUUUGH!” In Salon’s own Table Talk, Columbus was denounced as “the worst kind of hack.”
A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, concurs. “There’s nothing in [Chris Columbus'] filmography that suggests to me that he has any understanding of the inner lives and imagination of children. And the great genius of J.K. Rowling is that she does.” For Scott, the prospect of a Columbus take on Harry’s adventures is a bleak one indeed. “There’s a thing that happens with movies where there’s an attempt to appeal to children and adults by being both crass and sentimental at the same time. J.K. Rowling does something really different. Adults love her novels because they’re so successfully aimed at the sensibilities of children, which, as opposed to being crass and sentimental, are sophisticated and earnest. There’s all kinds of fun and mischief and humor in her books, but there’s also this emotional honesty, and the humor is sophisticated, and the emotion is very forthright. With Chris Columbus movies, you have the opposite: crude humor and very fake amplified overdone emotions.”
Since Columbus has made two films with Robin Williams, the announcement of the director’s involvement with the project had some Potter fans shuddering over the prospect of Williams’ being cast as Professor Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and a benevolent, semi-paternal presence in the book. Other directors mentioned by the press as possible candidates included Rob Reiner (“Sleepless in Seattle”), Alan Parker (“Angela’s Ashes”) and Guillermo del Toro (“Mimic”), but the finalist who seems to appeal most to Potter buffs was Terry Gilliam (“Time Bandits,” “Twelve Monkeys”). “Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan and Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice”) were other favorites.
Of course, some of Columbus’ movies have been immensely (and dishearteningly) popular, and the film’s producers no doubt consider him to be “good with kids.” Harry Potter may have made a practice of triumphing over the prosaic “muggles” of this world (that’s Rowling’s term for people without wizardly powers), but surviving the Columbus treatment with some of his, well, magic, intact would be his greatest feat yet.