HBO Max’s Harry Potter reunion special overlooked two key figures in the franchise’s success – screenwriters Steve Kloves and Michael Goldenberg.
While the Harry Potter Return To Hogwarts special did much the same as last year’s Friends reunion in bringing the core cast back together along with various special guests, it also brought in all four directors – Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates – to reflect upon their respective visions.
Additionally, despite early rumblings that the special would not mention author J K Rowling at all, it wound up featuring archive interviews recorded for Studio Tour promotions in 2019. What it didn’t have was any mention of Steve Kloves, who wrote all the scripts but one, and Michael Goldenberg, who wrote the screenplay for 2007’s Order Of The Phoenix.
Indeed, Kloves and Goldenberg have had detractors on both extremes. Years later, the hardcore Potterheads still bristle over omissions of certain scenes and plot details from the books, despite the films more or less working for people who haven’t done the reading as well as the faithful.
And by the same token, we’re talking about the franchise that Steven Spielberg once said posed no challenge because the books’ popularity made it a pre-ordained blockbuster, and so the screenwriters have also come in for flak for simply adapting Rowling’s stories too faithfully.
Neither view does much justice to the herculean task of turning the Potter books into practical screenplays. Budget was obviously no object and original stories may be harder to come up with than adaptations, but it’s not for nothing that Kloves adapted these particular books, with their increasingly unwieldy page count and darker elements, within a suitable timeframe for the cast to grow up on screen – still the best visual effect the series has to offer.
The books are always there for those who prefer them, but as anyone who’s seen the Fantastic Beasts spin-offs must have come to appreciate, screenwriting is still hard. Happily, both screenwriters on the series brought different things to the movie versions…
When producer David Heyman optioned the Harry Potter books in 2000, there were some contractual stipulations entailed, chief among which was that only the planned seven novels could be adapted, rather than characters and other cherry-picked bits. Thereafter, Warner Bros picked up the project and fully intended to bring all seven stories to the screen from the beginning.
After completing his adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, screenwriter Steve Kloves was sent a list of novels that Warner wanted to adapt, and Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, as it was renamed in the States) was on it. Kloves was drawn to the material and has stated that his favourite character is Hermione, a fact that endeared him to Rowling.
It’s unclear whether or not he intended to write all seven movies at the time he signed up for Philosopher’s Stone. In any case, he was already working on part one of an as-yet incomplete series, whose author didn’t tell him too much information about where the story was going to end up.
Enjoying an open and fruitful collaboration with Columbus on the script, Kloves turned the well-regarded first book into a relatively tight, relatively faithful screenplay. Structurally, it’s an unusual script, whose central mystery story only really gets going from the midpoint onwards. The first half of the story establishes the setting and the second sets the “whodunnit” formula that proliferates throughout the series.
Thanks to various other canny choices and even in spite of a rush to complete the film for a November 2001 release date, Philosopher’s Stone puts the wizarding world across impressively – if somehow this had bombed at the box office, the first film could still be a fixture of bank-holiday TV scheduling.
Realistically, it was never going to stand alone – principal photography on Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets got going three days after the first film opened in cinemas worldwide, with a release date set one year later. Kloves returned to write the sequel, as well as the next two films, The Prisoner Of Azkaban and The Goblet Of Fire, which widened the production cycle to 18 months between new releases.
Although Rowling would nudge the writer and producers if they were on the verge of cutting something that might be important later on, Kloves’ early adaptations are reverent without being slavish. Chamber Of Secrets is probably the least economical of the bunch, resulting in the longest film from one of the shortest books.
Columbus was understandably exhausted after making two of these in two years and stepped down as director for the third film. And so, Alfonso Cuarón goes quite far in the other direction to Chamber Of Secrets. Some book fans bristle about the trivial details omitted, but between Cuarón’s shake-up in the style of the films and Kloves’ pared-down but broadly faithful adaptation, the third instalment is rightly held up as a high point in the series.
(A brief interlude here – I’ve always said that fans of the Potter books don’t know they’re born when it comes to Hollywood-backed adaptations of their favourite books. If you don’t like the zippy, adventurous version of Prisoner Of Azkaban that we got, remember it could always have gone like 2017’s The Dark Tower. Do you wish it had been like The Dark Tower instead? No? Hush then.)
Other than the first film, the most impressive of Kloves’ adaptations is probably Goblet Of Fire. The fourth novel is not only significantly longer than the previous instalments, but also gives us a whodunnit where a lot of the suspects and main movers in the mystery are characters unique to this one story. A faithful adaptation has to contend with a lot of new concepts and characters, and Kloves spent the better part of two years getting this one right.
It’s his most impressive and economical Potter script, even if the finished film sometimes trips over its tonal leaps – director Mike Newell rightly stages it as an action-thriller, but his stated views about English boarding schools (which are covered amply in Return To Hogwarts) don’t gel with either the fantastical tone of previous films or the darker storylines introduced herein.
After the experience of writing Goblet Of Fire, any screenwriter would be daunted by adapting the even-longer Order Of The Phoenix, and Kloves decided a sabbatical from Hogwarts was in order.
In a 2009 interview with The Los Angeles Times, he reflected: “This will sound glib, but it’s somewhat true: They asked me on the wrong day. They asked me for the last time on the wrong day. Had they asked me the next day, I probably would have said yes.
“There’s always stuff that goes on around these movies and I felt an urge — and I still feel an urge — to do other things. To go back to making movies nobody wants to see, and I’ll do so. But I think I was feeling that urge particularly keenly at that time.”
Kloves’ exit from the series came at a tumultuous time, with actors’ contracts being renegotiated and various directors being courted to take over, even before the screenplay was set. Enter Michael Goldenberg, who co-wrote 1997’s Contact and had more recently written the 2003 version of Peter Pan (hello to Jason Isaacs).
The first instalment to be published after the Potter movies had begun, Order Of The Phoenix could fairly be described as the weakest of the seven books. Overlong and under-edited, it’s bigger than Goblet Of Fire but nowhere near as rich or focused in its story. It’s impressive then, that Goldenberg aced the assignment – the film comes in at a relatively spritely 130-minute running time.
He explained his process in a 2007 interview with Salon, saying: “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.”
In that spirit, while various subplots and characters are trimmed, Goldenberg has an impressive knack for referring to a lot of extraneous bits and bobs as if they could be happening just out of view. For instance, the script is generous to Matthew Lewis’ Neville Longbottom, who now gets to open up about his past trauma to his friend Harry, rather than be unceremoniously found out through one of the chance meetings that happen so often in the books.
There were concessions too. Goldenberg reinstated Kreacher the house elf after Rowling advised he’d be important in the seventh book (which was finally published just two weeks after this film hit cinemas) but otherwise, his Order Of The Phoenix script improves upon the source material.
The adaptation enables director David Yates to make a film that moves apace and keeps things playful even as the story darkens. It brings forward the unexpected pleasure Harry finds in teaching and expanding his circle of friends out of the necessity of training them up to fight Voldemort. Most of all, it finds the fun in the story at around the point in the franchise where it would henceforth be in short supply.
Steve Kloves again
This one’s arguable, but we submit that Order Of The Phoenix is also the last Harry Potter film that a casual viewer could watch without having seen any of the previous instalments. Granted, it’s not nearly as standalone as Philosopher’s Stone through Prisoner Of Azkaban, but at a push, you could walk into the fourth or fifth film and follow along. From Half-Blood Prince onwards, it’s a different story, and a more inter-connected one at that.
Kloves returned to adapt the final two books, and even in the sixth film, it definitely shows that he now knows where the story is going. Though occasionally injected with a bit of contrived spectacle like the opening bridge attack or the destruction of the Weasleys’ home at Christmas, there are some more characterful original moments in this adaptation.
Paring down the Voldemort family history that doesn’t come up in the densely plotted finale anyway, Kloves adds in grace notes like a monologue for Jim Broadbent’s Professor Slughorn about Lily Potter, or a silent but crucial exchange between Harry and Snape before the series’ biggest twist plays out.
Like Order Of The Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince is looser in its structure than earlier outings, but Kloves homes in on both the horror and the comedy of Harry’s difficult sixth year. Most importantly, it’s not making any concessions to newcomers.
It assumes a knowledge of the previous films, and while we take that kind of intertextuality for granted nowadays, it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that the audience were broadly along for the ride at this point. The framework for interconnected storytelling may have been in the source material for DC and Marvel, but the decade-long Potter experiment was very much a test balloon for the big-screen narrative arcs we have now.
Splitting a book into two films was a move first suggested by Columbus about Goblet Of Fire back in the day, but it finally came to pass with Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2, and the two scripts are distinctive even as they approach the same story. The first is a plot-heavy road movie that largely dispenses with the familiar ensemble, while the second is a near-relentless action movie.
What’s consistent in both is Kloves’ affinity with these characters. His privileging of Hermione over Ron notwithstanding, (just saying, Rupert Grint’s final line in the theatrical cut of Half-Blood Prince is a full 45 minutes before the credits roll) it’s hard to begrudge him some more of those grace notes. The poignant opening that dramatizes Hermione wiping all memory of herself from her parents’ home and leaving for what she thinks will be the last time is a particular highlight, and it’s only mentioned in passing in the book.
In the end, it’s a decade’s worth of writing that sets up the finale’s stakes for the wider filmgoing audience. It’s telling that Kloves, who has a producing credit on the troubled Fantastic Beasts movies, has been brought back to co-write the upcoming third instalment, The Secrets Of Dumbledore. There’s a fair bit riding on that threequel’s fortunes, as we’ve covered on the site before:
Ultimately, Return To Hogwarts repeats a lot of behind-the-scenes bits about the Harry Potter films, but for all of its 90-minute runtime, it unfortunately overlooks the screenwriters’ contributions. As Spielberg says, making the movies was “a slam-dunk”, but writing them is a less enviable proposition, because it’s about knowing what to keep and what to cut, as well as keeping an as-yet incomplete story on track.
Across the series, the eight screenplays are neither too ruthless nor too indulgent in their adaptation of the source material. And given the number of eyes on both the books and the films and the sheer weight of anticipation for both between 2001 and 2011, that’s no small feat.
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