Harry Potter and the art of screenwriting

Michael Goldenberg talks about the pleasures and pitfalls of adapting "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" for the big screen.


Rebecca Traister
July 11, 2007 3:44PM (UTC)

In less than two weeks, midnight streets will crawl with young people (and, er, not-as-young people) in pointy hats and capes, out celebrating the release of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series. Offering some consolation to those sad about hoisting the butterbeer for the last time is the fact that the Warner Bros. filmed adaptations of the series lag several books behind. This week, as a warm-up to next Friday night, the studio is releasing the fifth film in the series, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

In "Phoenix," menacing clouds continue to build around Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With the whimsy of the castle's moving staircases and chatty portraits giving way to J.K. Rowling's increasingly dark plot twists, the film is less of an escapist fantasy and more like the sweaty nightmares that wake its teenage hero from sleep each night. This Harry is an angry young man, marinating not only in the hormonal stew of adolescence, but in the chilly isolation of being the only person to have witnessed the resurrection of the evil Lord Voldemort (as well as the murder of his school chum Cedric Diggory) in the last film. Meanwhile, a jaunty autocrat has taken control of Hogwarts, and the Ministry of Magic continues to wage a media war on Harry and his beloved -- though troublingly distant -- headmaster Dumbledore.

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There's no question: The teenage years are a bitch. For this installment, previous screenwriter Steven Kloves stepped aside, and filmmakers hired Michael Goldenberg to shepherd the series through its pubescence. Goldenberg, a playwright who also wrote 1997's "Contact," spoke to Salon by phone following "Phoenix's" London premiere, about the power of political allegory, Rowling's educational philosophy, and the stresses of adapting a beloved text for the screen.

How do you even begin transforming an 870-page book into a two-hour movie?

It's a translation process from one medium to a very different one. Ideally you want people, especially fans of the books, to walk out saying it was just like the book -- even if, when they think back on it later, they realize there were lots of differences. The challenge is in finding the best equivalent way to tell the story. My job was to stay true to the spirit of the book, rather than to the letter.

And was Rowling OK with that?

That was Jo's open request from the beginning: She just wanted to see a great movie, and gave us permission to take whatever liberties we felt we needed to take to translate the book into a movie she would love. It was clearly a big leap of faith on her part. I realize that sounds very goopy and like it's all spin, but it happens to be true.

So what did you feel you had to sacrifice in the translation process?

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As with any adaptation, the main problem is compression. With a 900-page book the basic amount of narrative material isn't actually much more than in the other books, but it's a lot of digressions and side journeys and detail. The solution got much clearer when I figured out that the organizing principle of the screenplay was to narrate Harry's emotional journey.

That journey didn't include Rowling's Quidditch plot. It was one of the first things you cut, and it somehow hit the fan press, sparking an outcry.

Yeah, I think that was intentionally made public, just as a kind of heads up. The truth is that any movie made of this book, whoever made it, that had included the Quidditch subplot would have been a lesser film. You have to be ruthless about what stays in. And while I'm sympathetic to the fact that everyone has his or her favorite scene and wants to see it up on screen, you have to adhere to the larger goal of making a unified, cohesive film that works for everybody.

So you weren't cowed by that initial howl of fan outrage?

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I couldn't imagine making any other creative choice.

In addition to trimming, you also added scenes and plot twists that didn't exist in the book, like a pretty profound conversation between Harry and his godfather, Sirius, in which Sirius gives him some very fatherly advice. In some ways, that seems an almost bolder move?

That particular scene is one I quite like. The impulse for that was a larger one, because the goal was to build up the connection between Harry and Sirius as much as possible. I culled through their scenes in the book and I thought it was important to focus on how much they have in common. Sirius was in many ways the one person who could understand what Harry goes through in Phoenix: Sirius has also been falsely accused of something, has felt isolated and like the victim of injustice. And he is the one family member Harry has left. And certainly in the film there is a very special chemistry between Dan [Radcliffe] and Gary [Oldman], and that's really important. Sirius was the one person Harry could make his darkest confessions to.

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In that scene, there is that one line of Sirius' that in many ways is the theme of this film, and it's also in the book [though in a different place]: that the world isn't divided into good people and Death Eaters. That is the lesson to me of this story: It's about Harry's journey from a more black-and-white worldview to shades of gray. It's something I wanted to dramatize.

That message, about the world not being simply good and evil, runs throughout the book, not simply in that scene between Harry and Sirius.

Yes, and actually, Dan Radcliffe, in our first meeting, asked me specifically about the scene in which Harry sees Snape's worst memory [in which he is bullied and mocked by Harry's late father James] in the pensieve. It was funny that he asked, since the moment I read that scene when I first read the book, I felt like I was the guy to write this movie. And it was one of Dan's first questions to me: Do you think that will be in the film?

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And it's there -- though abbreviated.

There was a much longer version of it at one point, but it's still in there at least as an idea -- the moment when you see the authority figure you've either idealized or demonized revealed as more complicated. It's an iconic moment when you realize your parents are normal, flawed human beings. That was a motif in the book, this revelation about James Potter being quite bullying and arrogant. And Snape was an outsider in the same way Harry was. It's a motif that also plays out in Dumbledore's last scene, where he finally shows his cards and goes from being the omniscient benevolent father figure he's been throughout the series, to somebody who's scared. He confesses to Harry that he's made a strategic mistake by ignoring Harry all year.

Things get trimmed out, but I kept the meat of that in there -- and that was what really gave me the coming-of-age story.

So you saw the stakes of the battle as being as much philosophical as about Harry vs. Voldemort?

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In my mind I saw it as an ideological battle. And while it was never the intent to make that explicit in the film, I do think it is in the book, that these are two very different ways of viewing the world. That's clear in the scenes where we contrast professors' teaching styles.

What does this movie say about teaching?

There was a lot Jo wanted to say about education, and the notion of what makes a good teacher. Harry [in his role as unofficial Defense Against the Dark Arts tutor] is naturally a good teacher because he's compassionate, because he's patient, because he cares about his friends, whereas Dolores Umbridge [who is installed at Hogwarts as a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and later as Headmaster by the Ministry of Magic] hates children, resents their messiness and lack of control.

In my own life, when I was most inspired by a teacher, it always involved a real dialogue, a looseness and a real caring and compassion. It was not without rigor, not without discipline, not without standards, but all that was done out of love. And that is how Harry reconnects to his friends. Harry is being pulled between the poles of isolation and community. To me, that is one of the more effective things about the film -- that you do feel his struggle, and that in the end it is because of his connection with Ron and Hermione and something bigger than himself -- that's what gives him the advantage over Voldemort.

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In the book, what saves Harry is love, and it's a very simple, short moment: Voldemort possesses him and he almost immediately pulls out because he feels Harry's love for Sirius. In the movie, we had the visual grammar to illustrate his emotional response. One of the most powerful things in the movie is seeing [Harry's] memories -- the actual footage of the kids as kids from earlier films. It brings the weight of the entire series to the finale of the film. I wanted to do that from the very beginning; I thought this was a unique opportunity here to draw back to the audience's love for these characters and the journey they've been on for the course of the last five films.

How did you approach the heavy political allegory of the book?

Certainly I care very much about the allegory because it is such an important and explosive element of the book. I had not only the opportunity but the responsibility to serve that aspect of the story. And this is where we were lucky we were making a Harry Potter movie. Because with a lesser-known quantity you could imagine a studio repressing the political allegory. But certainly the minute you're aware of any sort of allegory as allegory, it loses its power. So we wanted it subordinated to the rest of the story. But it's right there in the book.

Even subordinated, the parallels to the war and the role of the press and the role of the government -- the Bush administration or Blair administration -- are quite obvious. Have people cornered you about it?

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Certainly questions have come up. The way [director] David Yates describes it is as a political movie with a small "p." These stories are universal. They are about different kinds of power and ideological struggles. So while it's not difficult to find parallels, we didn't want it to be exclusively about any political situation. I can't speak to what Jo was inspired by.

Well, it's funny because before 9/11, I always felt she was writing pretty directly about the period between World Wars I and II.

That was always my image of the Grimmauld Place kitchen -- that this was the French resistance. There are a couple of places in the film where we've inserted things, like the wizard wireless, because it's like how listening to it on the radio felt, like a very 1940s war picture.

And yet it's very modern. The first scene is particularly contemporary, with Dudley Dursley in his gold chains...

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Something David and I spoke about was how to make the movie rooted in reality: how the more grounded and gritty it was, the more magical the magic would be, and the more frightening it would be.

There are a lot fewer cute wizarding tricks in this one.

We embraced the idea that the characters were growing up, the books were growing up, and the films should grow up as well. David and I are similar, and we wanted to work against our biases, which tend to be darker. We were both aware of that, and made an effort where we could to have some fun, but we also wanted to be true to Harry's experience, which is an adolescent experience -- which when you look back on it may seem embarrassingly morose or earnest or angry or over the top, but that's how it feels when you're inside it.

Certainly that's how we felt [as adolescents] and we felt that it was important to go to that place because that's where Harry is. It's a bit of a dangerous game because it's uncomfortable to remember that time in your life. We tend to want to deny or reject that, but you feel things with an intensity at that age that you never feel again.

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So what role does Snape play in the movie?

Snape is somebody who's very much in control. The most humiliating moment in his memory and in the film has to do with a moment at which he completely loses control. So he's pretty much the Hogwarts expert on control issues. I always like those moments where suddenly you realize that Snape is like Luna and Harry is like Snape. There's something terrifying in seeing your own blind spot revealed.

Are there any scenes you had to cut that you miss?

Nothing dramatic. One of first things I said to [producer] David Heyman when we were first talking about it was "We gotta keep St. Mungo's" [the wizarding hospital where Harry runs into schoolmate Neville and learns a sad secret about what happened to Neville's parents]. In early drafts it was there and you had the Neville scene, but it did slow things up, so we kept trying to compress it until it was basically a fly-through. Toward the end of shooting we had it in but it required a new set. And whatever people think about Harry Potter films, there are not unlimited budgets, and we didn't really need it to tell the story, so it got cut. But it was something we all held on to until the very end, and I would have liked to see it.

Did you ever feel nervous about losing your identity, since you were adapting the work of such a famous writer?

No, it was not something I thought about. It's a much more intuitive process than that. I wanted to feel my way through the story and tell the best possible screen version of it. As far as the pressure of it being such a public text, I actually relied on the power of denial: I felt very confident, and because of my connection to it, and because of the people who were hired to make it, I had a very strong instinct from the beginning that I knew how to do it.

You start with something that's intensely private, an image in your head that then gets translated as best you can. There's always something lost in translation. Then it gets passed on to your collaborators, and they add their input and ideas and then it gets made real: turned into sets and costumes and lights and then that gets put on film and then digitized and tweaked and then that gets projected onto a screen and ends up as a memory in somebody else's head. It goes from a very private place to the most public, and then finally ends again in the privacy of someone else's head. And then you meet one of those people and they have a look in their eye: They were moved, and they connected, and you see that and realize just how extraordinary a process this is and how fortunate we are to be able to do it. It's quite surreal, and it's about connecting with people in the same way that Harry connects at the end of this film.

It wasn't until the table read two weeks before shooting started that I had a little reality check. I was in a big room with the great lights of British stage and screen and the kids and probably a hundred more people to do this table read of the script that had until then been a very abstract idea -- me and my computer at home. And suddenly it became very tangible and very real and I had the thought: Gee, I could be the guy who really fucks this up. You know, who drops the ball and kills the franchise. I was very nervous, but the script played well and everyone was really happy with it. As a process it was sort of extraordinary. It was a lot of work, and all of us are perfectionists and we kept trying to kick the tires. It's always a bittersweet moment when the thing finally gets shot, because I know I'll never have to rewrite it again -- but at same time I know I'll never have a chance to make it better.

How was the premiere?

You could feel in Leicester Square this amazing energy, seeing the groups of kids from all over the world with signs saying, "We came from Brazil for extra potions lessons." It was pouring and these groups of kids were getting soaked with their handmade signs. London Harry Potter premieres are very special events: There is this sense of love and ownership and pride, and it's just palpable. It's a very different feel from an L.A. premiere. It's nice to be a part of something that's so positive.

Are you looking forward to reading Book 7?

Very much.


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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