On November 21, it was 20 years ago that the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, hit the screens in Belgium. At the time, no one could have imagined that that film would lead to one of the most successful film series ever. The beginning already set the tone, so it’s time to look back at that first film.
Around the year 1997 producer David Heyman was looking for his next project. He wanted to make a children’s film, but he couldn’t find anything that immediately clicked. Until his assistant Nisha recommended a manuscript that she had read in one fell swoop. He took it home and just like them couldn’t put it down. So Heyman decided to meet up with JK Rowling to present his take on the film. He wanted to stay as close as possible to the story and the atmosphere of the book, but Rowling even made him promise that only British actors would be cast. With that pitch they went to Warner Bros., where they bought the film rights for about a million pounds.
Then the search for a director began, with all the greats apparently on the shortlist. Spielberg was a really big candidate but ultimately declined. In addition, you also had Terry Giliam, Jonathan Demme and recently Ron Howard also told Graham Norton that he had just done The Grinch and did not want to spend a few more years in a fantasy world. In the end, Chris Columbus was chosen, mainly because of his successful family films such as Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire . He finally convinced Heyman and Rowling with a 130-page written vision of classic British films like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist .seen as influences.
The casting stories of the three main characters are now also legendary. The search for Harry was apparently the most difficult. Even casting director Susie Figgis became desperate at one point because they had already seen hundreds of auditions and she didn’t understand what Heyman and Columbus wanted. Columbus then saw the film David Copperfield in which Daniel Radcliffe participated and he immediately thought Radcliffe was perfect. But his parents had already made it clear that they didn’t like it. A few months later, Heyman and Columbus went to see a play, which was also attended by the Radcliffe family. The duo then approached them again and after some reflection time they let him audition and he got the part. By the way, he learned that while he was taking a bath.
Rupert Grint then sent in a self-written piece of rap via the Newsround program and was given the opportunity to audition. Emma Watson just entered the auditions through school and won the hearts of Heyman and Columbus. Especially when they put all three together and saw their mutual chemistry, they were sold.
It was still a guessing game how the public would react, because book adaptations sometimes remain difficult to crack. But the critics praised it and so did the public. From the opening scene you get the feeling that you are in a world that is completely finished and you immerse yourself in the specific Harry Potter atmosphere. I was 8 at the time and hadn’t read the books yet so I never had a particular image in my head, but after all these years I still can’t imagine others playing those roles.
The central 3 were actually very young and so acted a bit stiff at times, but that also had something disarming and they eventually really grew with their characters. You had the feeling from that first film that their friendship was good and that they already knew their characters well. The best example of this was the scene with the Wizard’s Chess, which was punished for such young actors. Daniel Radcliffe also held up really well against all those star actors. The first film could immediately count on a who’s who of the British acting world.
Robbie Coltrane was then best known as a Bond villain, but suddenly he was everyone’s best friend. He really adds something cute to Hagrid with his performance and especially that great accent. I can’t be the only one who still says some sentences in an attempt to imitate it as best I can. Maggie Smith was already a legend, but McGonagall immediately became one for me as well. She looked like your least favorite math teacher at first sight as she “welcomed” the students at the top of the stairs. But you soon saw that she also had another side, like when Harry and Ron defeated the troll and they expected punishment from her but she instead gave them points for “sheer, dumb luck”.
Dumbledore always seemed to me the hardest to cast. For the film, they went for Richard Harris, another legend, but he was a little older and his health was actually deteriorating. That’s why Dumbledore in Philosopher’s Stone is different from the books. Harris’s Dumbledore was especially mysterious and almost regal because of the graceful way in which he moved and spoke. This interpretation suited the tone of that first film much better to also give the director some more weight and authority. Especially the scene in which Dumbledore asks Harry not to look for the Mirror of Erised anymore, is the perfect example for me.
A special mention for Ian Hart as the bumbling professor Quirrell who suddenly turned out to be the big bad guy and thus for many children the first cinematic experience with a traitor. The fact that he also had Voldemort growing out of the back of his head and that he also drank the blood of a unicorn, must have given some children nightmares. Even I still get shivers when he floats through the forest so creepy. And just watch poor Daniel Radcliffe’s face when Hart suddenly starts screaming.
I could cite many other actors here (like John Hurt or Matthew Lewis or Richard Griffiths), but the most iconic casting was Alan Rickman as Snape. Rickman was then best known for his villainous roles as the Sheriff of Nottingham and of course Hans Gruber. But Snape almost seemed made for him: His signature voice and acting along with the hair and fabulous costume made the character iconic even then. The scene where Snape asks the kids what they are doing walking in on such a beautiful day could only be made so memorable because of him. Now that the cast reunion is finally coming, it’s all the more painful to think that he won’t be there.