At last it can be told: despite the $900 million his movie made at the global box office, despite its ranking as the highest-grossing film of 2001, director Chris Columbus was not entirely happy with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. "I always thought we could have gotten the visual effects better," he says. "But we only had a few months to work on them." The pacing of the film, he now admits, was also a bit sluggish at times. "The first 40 minutes of the first Harry Potter film were introductions."
Now that his Harry has made a good first impression, Columbus doesn't have to be so careful and polite. And on Nov. 15, when the titular wizard returns in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, based on the second novel in J.K. Rowling's blockbuster series, fans will see a bolder, faster-paced movie and, to put it bluntly, a much better one. "The most important thing to tell everyone is that it's more of everything," says Daniel Radcliffe, 13, who once again plays Harry with brainy subtlety (but whose voice has now dropped a good octave). "The first film was funny; this is even funnier. The first film had action. This has even more."
It is also much scarier. Like Rowling's books, the movies are becoming darker and more intense as they progress. (After several delays, Rowling, who says there will be seven Potter books in all, will deliver the fifth novel next year.) Running against the Hollywood tradition of sugar-coating every pill, Columbus is eager to let you know that your children may be very afraid. A presumably dead cat is hung in a Hogwarts hallway; Hogwarts students are frozen stiff ("petrified") by a monster; Harry and his sidekick Ron Weasley are attacked with surprising violence by a giant Whomping Willow after they crash-land a flying car in its gnarled branches. Later, they are chased through the Forbidden Forest by an army of giant spiders. The Mandrake plants whose deadly screams require Herbology students to wear earmuffs have roots resembling ugly, sharp-toothed fetuses. It's a disturbing image, but one that creature designer Nick Dudman calls necessary: "They mustn't have any element of sympathy about them," he says, "because they get chopped up."
The U.K. ratings board has slapped Chamber of Secrets with this warning: "Contains mild language and horror, and fantasy spiders." And Warner Bros. even worried that the new film would receive a PG-13 rating in the U.S. a dangerous proposition since the core consumers for Potter toys, which generated about half a billion dollars in sales last time around, range in age from seven to 11. The studio was relieved when Chamber of Secrets got a PG rating (like Philosopher's Stone) but Columbus is in danger of becoming his own parental advisory label: "I would strongly caution parents, anyone who has a seven-year-old or younger, to make sure they know what they're getting into," he says.
He's telling the truth, but shrewdly his warning is a not entirely unintentional come-on to older teens and young adults who thought the last Potter film skewed too young. In the posters for Chamber of Secrets, Harry looks intense, and he's holding a sword. It's an image designed to appeal to older audiences the same moviegoers who embraced that other fantasy franchise launched a year ago, Lord of the Rings.
The competition between Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter the sibling rivals of the AOL Time Warner corporate family is intense. Last year's Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three J.R.R. Tolkien-based movies released by the company's New Line division, came in second at the box office behind Harry Potter. Unlike Potter, however, it ended up on numerous critics' best-of-the-year lists and received 13 Oscar nominations. This time it's widely assumed in Hollywood that Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, set for release on Dec. 18, will outgross Chamber of Secrets. Potter-mania seems to have quieted, partially because there hasn't been a Potter novel in two years. While Philosopher's Stone pulled in $318 million in the U.S., the sequel is expected to make closer to $250 million still an impressive number, and Potter will undoubtedly win the merchandising race. According to Jim Silver, co-publisher of Toy Wishes magazine, Potter toys are already selling briskly, and stores have even reported shortages of Lego's Chamber of Secrets tie-ins.
While filming Philosopher's Stone, Columbus often had to step into the scene, just off camera, and coach his inexperienced young actors line by line, movement by movement. He would then painstakingly remove his own voice from the soundtrack. "I do a little of that now," says Columbus, "but they can literally get through entire sequences without me interrupting them." The child actors who appeared somewhat dazed in the first film seem more alive and relaxed now especially 12-year-old Emma Watson as the know-it-all little witch Hermione Granger.
In Chamber of Secrets, the romance between Hermione and Ron begins to blossom but just slightly. The set itself was more randy, and hormones sometimes raged among the large cast of pubescent actors and extras. Columbus says, "The problem I had in the Great Hall on one of the days was, a lot of notes were being passed back and forth he likes her, she likes him. Finally, I said, 'Guys, this is not a romance school.'"
The kids may be getting older, but plenty of other things in Harry's world haven't changed. The original cast is intact, including grownups Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and Richard Harris who died last week as Dumbledore. Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his nasty pals are still hatching nefarious plots. Production designer Stuart Craig's Diagon Alley a teetering jumble of Tudor and Georgian magic shops is still standing. Hogwarts Castle's mile-high central staircase continues to twist and turn according to its own whims. Columbus has included all of the book's greatest moments: Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint, 14, in whose voice you can hear the raspy effects of puberty) receives a "howler" telegram from his mother, which screams almost as loudly as the Mandrakes. He also coughs up a nifty series of giant slugs. Moaning Myrtle haunts the girls' restroom and dives through toilets, making a mess.
It all adds up to a two-hour-and-42-minute movie, which is nine minutes longer than Philosopher's Stone. Although Chamber of Secrets' pacing is more lively than the first film's, it still drags at times. Columbus is intent on getting as much of the book on screen as possible, and the movie inevitably creaks under the weight of Rowling's imagination. Columbus, in fact, was accused of being too slavishly faithful to Rowling's first book. This time, he also lets his own imagination run riot from time to time. In the new film, Quidditch the ballgame played by witches and wizards on broomsticks seems more like a thrilling car chase than an intramural sport. And Harry's showdown with a monstrous serpent in the bowels of Hogwarts should equal the most excitable readers' expectations.
Making their Potter debut in Chamber of Secrets are Dobby, a funny, forlorn, computer-animated elf, Miriam Margolyes as Professor Sprout and Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, the vain Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher a role that was much sought after by British actors last year. "It's rather winning," says Branagh of the character, "his combination of total confidence with an absolute absence of talent." Designing his wardrobe, costume designer Lindy Hemming departed from the book, which described Lockhart as wearing pastel colors. "None of us thought that would work," she says. "The film is quite dark, rich and glowing, and to put in modern sharp colors would be horrible."
During production of Chamber of Secrets, Rowling mostly left the filmmakers to their own devices. Screenwriter Steve Kloves sought her guidance when writing the script, but she did not visit the set. "I think she was busy writing the fifth novel," says Columbus. "She's there if we need her, but she trusts us now. One of the misperceptions of the movies is, she's coming in and ripping down the wallpaper." Now she'll have to trust someone else, since Columbus will not direct the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. "I really thought halfway through the second one, it's been almost two years since I've had dinner with my family during the week," says Columbus, who'll serve as executive producer on the next movie. His replacement: Alfonso Cuarón, a surprising choice since his last film was Y tu mamátambién, the racy, critically hailed Mexican road movie about two teenage boys and an older woman in a love triangle. But Cuarón has also had experience adapting the works of some other esteemed British authors Frances Hodgson Burnett (1995's A Little Princess) and Charles Dickens (1998's Great Expectations).
The change in directors means that there probably won't be a new Potter film next year. Azkaban won't begin shooting until March. This will give Cuarón more pre-production time, and will allow Radcliffe to spend some time in a normal school, rather than with tutors on the set. Though Harry Potter has made him famous, and the world is watching him grow up, he insists that "not much has changed. I do get recognized sometimes. But I don't mind, because everybody is so enthusiastic about the film apart from one person who thought I was Haley Joel Osment." The confusion is understandable. Both young fellows see dead people.