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Rowling's spell, not a wizard, is behind the magic of 'Potter'

The Baltimore Sun

Pottermania reaches fever pitch when the film of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (novel No. 5) opens Wednesday and her final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (No. 7), comes out 10 days later.

The focus of this peak event is not tortured-adolescent wizard Harry or the appealing young actor playing him, Daniel Radcliffe, but J.K. Rowling herself - even with the Potter movies morphing into one of the most phenomenal film series in history.

I first "grokked" to the spellbinding quality of Rowling's mythology as a pair of 'tween-age girls prattled on charmingly behind me through the whole 142-minute big-screen extravaganza of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).

The experience convinced me that, just as Beatlemania enriched all branches of popular culture with fresh reservoirs of poetry and melody, Pottermania has roused new generations to the pleasures of engulfing storytelling, sculpted characters and inspired inventions - on celluloid as well as paper or computer screens.

The girls sitting behind me responded not just with the giddiness of friends out for a good time or fans getting a fix of their favorite series but also with the combination of ebullience, erudition and irritation you'd expect, say, from traditional theater critics watching a modern vision of a Shakespeare play.

They ooohed and aaahed over the perfection of witty casting coups such as cuttingly brilliant Emma Thompson playing foggy visionary Professor Trelawney, professor of divination. They loved when Trelawney said, "You, boy! Is your grandmother well? ... I wouldn't be so sure of that." They expressed perplexity over Harry and his pals, on their first night back at Hogwarts, scarfing down luscious snacks that pushed heat clouds out of one lad's ears and made another bellow like a big cat. "Was that in the book?" they wondered - but they did their wondering between laughs.

In short, they enjoyed pointed interpretations of the sacred text; original invention alternately annoyed and delighted them. But it was the film's core fidelity to the spirit and driving action of Rowling's book that left them sated.

As individual pictures, the Harry Potter films have been fair to great. (I think Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the best fantasy films of all time, precisely because the director, Alfonso Cuaron, and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, fused their own lyrical talents to Rowling's storytelling.) But as a franchise, they've been all of a piece. Chris Columbus, the director of the first two movies, and Kloves, who wrote the first four (and will return for the sixth), made the decision early on that they would cleave to the books' textures and tones as well as plotlines.

As a result, the Potter movie series is one of the few in which the films' auteur is the original author. Consider the competition. C.S. Lewis' writing is so spare and suggestive in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that when director Andrew Adamson fleshed it out, however faithfully, it became an imagistic outburst, epic and surging. Peter Jackson performed such bold surgery on The Lord of the Rings that he ended up sharing the celluloid trilogy's authorship with J.R.R. Tolkien.

When moviemakers take on Harry Potter, they accept the challenge of crafting movies that can hold an audience with their own powers of invention while advancing a seven-entry series and withstanding the scrutiny of die-hard fans. Only Cuaron has pulled off each prong of that triple-pointed feat. But staying close to Rowling has made every movie a fondly anticipated event for book fans and nonreaders alike.

Rowling chains her moviemakers to enormous expectations, yet also provides fecund characterizations and narrative and visual lucre worth the plundering. Even if you got itchy during Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), you may think back fondly on your first glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe's strong, sensitive Harry, Rupert Grint's cocky, yet goofy, Ron and Emma Watson's bright, spirited Hermione. It's difficult enough to fill crucial roles from a beloved best-seller with aptness and flair, but to do it with a group that would have to grow up before an audience required a master-caster's touch. Columbus had it.

Rowling's kaleidoscopes of outlandish incident, eccentric characters and extravagant locations provide such varied opportunities for directorial finesse, it's no wonder that even a Shakesperean director like Kenneth Branagh once vainly expressed interest in guiding a Potter novel to the screen. Rowling even allowed Columbus to succeed where Bernardo Bertolucci failed in The Last Emperor: shooting the enchanted cityscape of Diagon Alley for maximum supernal impact. The camera peered awestruck along with Harry as Robbie Coltrane's giant and hugely funny Hagrid stood up straight against the leaning storefronts.

Among the adult recurring characters, I'm still waiting for Maggie Smith to cut loose as McGonagall, but Alan Rickman has rarely been more engaging than as the ever-ominous, sneeringly cryptic Snape. Plus, the succession of unexpected witches and warlocks that Rowling carves into each new entry function as menacing or farcical wild cards. No one has bettered Branagh's depiction of celebrity insincerity as best-selling author Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (No. 2) - not even Branagh himself in Woody Allen's Celebrity (1998). Mike Newell's choppy, broad-stroke Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire brought us Brendan Gleeson's gusty, perfectly named Mad-Eye Moody, along with the emotional spectacle of Watson's Hermione and Radcliffe's hero negotiating the confusion of feelings that is adolescence.

The movie of Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix offers potentially galvanizing new cast members such as Imelda Staunton as despicable Professor Umbridge. It also brings a new director, David Yates, who has made acclaimed films for British television, including the BBC/HBO production The Girl in the Cafe. One of Yates' favorite pictures is David Lean's Oliver Twist - an excellent blueprint for Potter, both for Lean's bravura and Dickens' prolific powers of imagination. The Potter books contain elements of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations, along with The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

Still, as I recently rewatched bits and pieces of the Potter films, the images of Harry wilting in the British suburbs as he longs for an escape to Hogwarts School reminded me most of Steven Spielberg's alter ego Elliott yearning for transcendence from the sunbaked California suburbs of E.T.

Rowling has done something many of us wish Spielberg had accomplished: She has followed a troubled child hero into a more-troubled maturity without losing her own youthful elan. As an impresario and a role model, as well as a writer, she is the true heroine of the Harry Potter series.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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