Harry Potter and the Film Adaptation Process


“You ever talk about a movie with someone that read the book? They’re always so condescending. ‘Ah, the book was much better than the movie.’ Oh really? What I enjoyed about the movie: no reading.” -Jim Gaffigan


Every time a film adaptation of a novel is released, it is almost instinctively criticised as not being “as good as the book!” by fans of the original work. This is the laziest criticism to level at any movie, especially with so many modern films being adapted works. The complaint that “they ruined it!” typically follows the first argument. The important question to ask, which is rarely answered, is “who is ‘they?’” The filmmakers? Okay, which filmmakers? The director, the actors, the screenwriters? Or is it the author’s fault? Did he or she sell out, give the filmmakers too much freedom over the text, or was the publisher to blame? In reality, the process isn’t this simple. The art and business surrounding filmmaking is complex and–unlike a self-published novel–a single person almost never has total creative control. The Harry Potter movies were made by filmmakers who were dedicated to translating the novel faithfully into a movie and they were made with the input of the author. Even so, the change in medium makes certain decisions necessary. These changes can only be understood by explaining and dissecting exactly what does into a film adaptation.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the most important difference between book and film comes before the first shot of the movie. It’s the giant Warner Bros logo plastered across the opening. The Warner Bros studio, a divison of Time Warner, “is home to one of the most successful collections of brands in the world and stands at the forefront of every aspect of the entertainment industry” (Company Overview). Those aren’t exactly the words of an auteur, and the Warner Bros brand is so ubiquitous that its logo alone at the beginning of a movie screams “big money.” How, then, does a studio go about picking what novels to turn into their next big budget feature? In the case of Harry Potter, it turns out, it isn’t very scientific. According to a 2001 article in Entertainment Weekly, the novel was chosen by producer David Heyman while looking for a children’s book to adapt into a family film. “After failing to set up his first choice—The Ogre Downstairs, by Diana Wynne Jones—his staff at Heyday Films found him another: a critically lauded best-seller titled, in the U.K.,Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. His assistant read the book and pushed it. ”’It’s a cool idea,”’ Heyman recalls her saying. ”’It’s about a boy in wizarding school”’ (Entertainment Weekly). By the time Warner Bros finalized buying the film rights from Rowling in 1999, the first three novels in the series had been released and Rowling had grossed 37 million dollars (Bagwell). In a 1999 interview with WBUR Radio in Boston, Rowling expressed her nervousness about the film, saying “I can’t lie to you, I am nervous about it. I think every writer who feels as I feel about their characters is going to be nervous.” (WBUR). She also said of director Chris Columbus that he “is the person who’ll be taking my baby.” (Brehm).

After having purchased the film rights, Warner Bros began adapting the text into a screenplay. Steve Kloves, who had previously adapted the 1995 Michael Chabon novel Wonder Boys, chose the book out of many possible projects Warner Bros had sent to him. In a Feb 2000 article with Salon, just over a year before the first film’s release, Kloves described why he chose the project: “the first thing I said to Warner Bros. was that I loved the characters—and that is the whole movie.  It was the only thing I was even remotely interested in. It stunned them. But I responded to it. I liked the feeling of the book—there is genuine edge and genuine darkness to it. One reason it’s so popular with children is that there’s no pandering whatsoever.” (Sragow). Kloves’s dedication to the novel stemmed from his own experience seeing his work adapted.  He had written the screenplay for the 1984 film Racing With the Moon, and when he watched it being produced, he said “Once you see a work brought to the screen, even when it is done with real passion and respect, you see things that you would like to see done differently. The painting looks different than what you had in your head, so you’d like to see if you could handle the brush.” (Sragow).

This interview humanizes Kloves. For a cynical fan of the novel, it’s easy to see the screenwriter as the first step of the Hollywood machine that is crushing the source text. One interview with Kloves mentions a Facebook page started by a Utah women titled “I blame Steve Kloves for everything wrong with the world.” (Boucher). However, screenwriters typically not only care about their writing, but they also have little input into how it is used in the actual movie. In a 2015 interview with RedLetterMedia, screenwriter Max Landis, son of Animal House and Blues Brothers director John Landis, describes his frustration with the studio system. When asked how much a script can change between when he hands it in and when the movie is completed, he says, “up to 70 percent, and without a rewrite. A script can change in a multitude of ways arbitrarily.” He describes the changes that editing can make. He gives the example of a movie that appears to have no character development, “and then you find out there were character development scenes but they cut them. Maybe they sucked, or maybe they were great but a test audience said they were slow. It becomes this blur.” (RedLetterMedia). Compare that use of test audiences to JK Rowling’s 1999 answer to the question of who she writes for: “I never really wrote with anyone in mind. I still don’t write with an imaginary focus group in mind… I don’t want to decide that there’s a formula.” (C-Span2).

Even while still at the screenplay level, the differences between a novel and a movie are striking. Kloves, unlike Rowling, had a deadline and a boss. Because of this, the differences between novel and movie are already adding up, before the visual element of the movie has even begun.

Once the visual aspects of the film start being produced, the collaborative nature of filmmaking really takes hold. To create a production like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, artists from diverse disciplines are required to create the sets, costumes, special effects, etc. needed for film production.

Costumes in particular are an aspect of filmmaking that can cause controversy for an adapted work because they directly affect how a character is viewed. Even if a character’s appearance isn’t described in detail, readers create their own visions of them. A character not matching with an audience’s perception of them from the book can cause an audience to feel like the character is being misrepresented. For instance, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid is introduced as “almost twice as tall as a normal man and at least five times as wide.” He is described as having “long tangles of bushy black hair and beard hid most of his face, he had hands the size of trash can lids, and his feet in their leather boots were like baby dolphins.” (Rowling 11). His clothing is described as a “black overcoat” (Rowling 36). Compare this to the conception of Hagrid used at conventions promoting the novels prior to movie’s release, in which an actor plays a red-haired Hagrid wearing a pink tunic and carrying a purple sorting hat with gold stars and moons. If this depiction of the character had somehow made its way into the movie rather than Robbie Coltrane’s more accurate version with his dark brown hair and beard and brown overcoat, it is likely that audience reaction would have been overwhelmingly negative. Other costumes based on art made prior to the movies were also discarded. In an article for Time, costume designer Judianna Makovsky described how she initially based the Quidditch uniforms for the film on the Scholastic cover art from the original American release of the novel. “It looked a mess… it wasn’t very elegant,” she describes thinking before scrapping the idea and designing the Quidditch robes used in the film (Cagle).

Costuming goes hand in hand with casting, another area of contention in adapted works. The actor, combined with their direction, can fundamentally change an audience’s perception of a character. Rowling addresses this in a 2010 promotional discussion with Daniel Radcliffe. She says to Radcliffe that “to be honest, you and Rupert and Emma are all too good looking frankly… It was really lucky I spoke to Emma first on the phone before I met her. Because I fell absolutely in love with her… And then when I met her and she was this very beautiful girl, I just kind of had to go ‘Oh, okay.’ It’s film, you know, deal with it.” (Brehm) To an audience, the casting process is totally nebulous. There’s a vague understanding of the auditions involved but apart from that, the way actors are chosen isn’t well known.  In the case of Harry Potter, again, it wasn’t particularly scientific. In his discussion with J.K. Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe describes how he was cast: “David Heyman knew my dad because my dad had been a literary agent and my dad had worked with David’s mum. And so David sort of asked my dad if I would audition… the final straw was the fact that I went to the theater to see a production of Stones in His Pockets and David Heyman and Steve Kloves happened to be sitting in the row in front. and I was sat there for the whole time thinking ‘why is that man keep looking around at me.’” A few days later his dad agreed to allow him to be cast in the part (Brehm).

In the DVD interviews for The Prisoner of Azkaban, several other actors discuss how they were chosen.  Jamie and Oliver Phelps, who play Fred and George Weasley, along with Matthew Lewis, who plays Neville Longbottom, were all chosen from an open audition in Leeds. (Vaughn). Devon Murray, who plays Seamus Finnigan, found the role through his agent, who originally had him read for Neville Longbottom. These interviews also discuss whether or not the actors were at all familiar with the source material. All of the child actors were, but neither Gary Oldman or David Thewlis, who played Sirius Black and Remus Lupin respectively, had any knowledge of the books before being cast.

Casting of the first Harry Potter film was done by Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, who went on to write a 2007 book titled A Star is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies. In the book, they discuss the casting process for the three main children: “We had to hire kids who looked pretty much the way their fans pictured them. If a character in the book was described as green-eyed, we couldn’t get away with hiring a brown-eyed child.” (Hirshenson 234).

Hirshenson and Jenkins also describe something that has been a key part of almost all of the interviews with those involved in the adaptation: that the movie be produced entirely in Britain. Hirshenson and Jenkins speak about how they refused to allow american children to even audition for roles because they knew Chris Columbus wouldn’t approve. They mention a British tabloid article that read “American usurper come to steal Harry for the yanks!” (Hirshenson 231). In the conversation between J.K. Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe, Radcliffe says “the original deal that we’d heard was going to be to do six films and it was gonna be done in America,” to which Rowling angrily responds “It was gonna be done in America!? Nobody told me that.” Radcliffe agrees, saying “Maybe that’s why it changed because you obviously put your foot down at some point or they just went ‘Jo wouldn’t agree to that’ which was good to be honest because that would… that would have not been good.” (Brehms). This dedication to keeping Harry Potter British carries over into another important aspect of adaptation: set design. In addition to shooting on-location at Kings Cross railway station and various locations around Oxford, British influence was a primary focus throughout the set design (Experience Oxfordshire).

In a 2001 Time article, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone production designer Stuart Craig describes how he went about designing the sets used in the film. The Great Hall was modeled after Christchurch College’s dining hall. Craig describes the idea behind the set as “The architecture is real, but pushed as much as we can, expanded as illogically huge as we can possibly make it.” (Cagle). Diagon Alley was originally intended to be built around an “existing old English street,” but a set was eventually built instead. The set was inspired directly by a line in the book that reads “Harry wished he had about eight more eyes.” (Cagle).

A discussion about a film would not be complete without discussing the director. Originally, Stephen Spielberg had been slated to direct the first movie, but he dropped out of the project and the role eventually went to Chris Columbus, best known for his family movies from the 80s and 90s, including Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. Columbus told Katie Couric in 2001 that he believes that producer David Heyman gave him the role as director because “they really wanted to know I would be faithful to the material. I was pretty passionate about it.” (Couric). He says his first meeting with Rowling ended with her saying “you get the books and I feel so good about that.”

It is rare for a film adaptation to be so dedicated to the source text. Every person who worked on the films every step of the way was working under the idea that the remain faithful to the novel and yet fans still found aspects to be outraged about and the “it’s not as good as the book” argument still goes on. The argument, then, isn’t really about either the book or the movie. And, with a few notable exceptions, it’s rarely an argument about whether books or movies are a better medium. It’s an argument about expectations vs. reality. No matter how hard the filmmakers try, it is impossible to recreate the experience of reading a novel on film and there is no real reason why they should try because films are not books. The medium has its own set of qualities and drawbacks which should be embraced instead of downplayed in an attempt to please everybody.


Works Cited

Bauman, Jay, and Mike Stoklasa. “A Conversation with Max Landis.” YouTube. RedLetterMedia, 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Boucher, Geoff. “‘Harry Potter’ Countdown: Steve Kloves speaks.” Hero Complex. LA Times, 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Boucher, Geoff. “‘Harry Potter’ Countdown: Steve Kloves speaks.” Hero Complex. LA Times, 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Brehm, Richard. “A Conversation between JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Cagle, Jess. “The First Look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Time. Time Inc., 01 Nov. 2001. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

“Company Overview.” – WarnerBros.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.

“Harry Potter: Behind the Magic.” Interview by Katie Couric. Dateline. NBC. New York, NY, 2001. Television.

“Harry Potter Comes Alive.” Entertainment Weekly, 14 Sept. 2001. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

“Harry Potter.” Experience Oxfordshire. Visit Britain, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Hirshenson, Janet, and Jane Jenkins. A Star Is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.

“J.K. Rowling Interview Transcript.” Interview. The Connection WBUR Radio. Sugarhill.net Transcription Project. AccioQuote.Org. 12 Oct. 1999. Radio. Transcript.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic, 1998. Print.

Rowling, J.K. “J. K. Rowling on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the Writing Process.” New York Is Book Country Fair. New York. CSpan2. Web.

Sragow, Michael. “A Wizard of Hollywood.” Salon, 24 Feb. 2000. Web. 12 Dec. 2015.

Vaughn, Johnny. Interview with Jamie and Oliver Phelps, Matthew Lewis, and Devon Murray. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Warner Bros. DVD.

“WiGBPd About Harry.” Interview by Sheryle Bagwell. Australian Financial Review 19 July 2000: n. pag. Accio-Quote.org. Web.


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