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Directions to Potterville

How four different filmmakers redefined the way we see Harry and his world

By Tom Russo
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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For all the countless ways that J.K. Rowling’s evocative writing has determined the look and tone of the “Harry Potter’’ films, the directors who’ve adapted the books have certainly also significantly influenced the screen franchise’s development. Some of their choices have been made very deliberately, and reflect each filmmaker’s sensibility and vision. Other choices seem to have involved leaps of faith that simply worked out. And still others have been dictated by, as ever, budgets, or scheduling constraints, or the effects technology of the moment. (Ever notice how much more elaborately iconic the gothic sprawl of Hogwarts has grown over the span of a decade? So has the films’ production designer, Stuart Craig, who’s still sort of bugged by having had to go with the starter-home version on “Sorcerer’s Stone.’’)

Following is a look at the series’ four directors, and the brand of magic each worked in bringing “Harry Potter’’ to life.

Chris Columbus, “Sorcerer’s Stone’’ and “Chamber of Secrets’’ Columbus’s signature credit coming in was “Home Alone,’’ and his knack for casting kids and bringing out their youthful best is evident all through these installments, particularly in the bright storybook wonder of the series opener. He also set the tone for how closely the movies would follow the books - sacred text to fans. Just as notably, Columbus and designer Craig had to establish the physical template for the entire “Harry Potter’’ landscape, from junior wizards’ dorms to magic wands. “We were essentially creating, somewhat in stone, the look and the feel of the next [seven] films,’’ Columbus says in “Creating the World of Harry Potter: Evolution.’’ (The hourlong documentary is included on a recent “Ultimate Edition’’ reissue of “Order of the Phoenix.’’) “If I thought about that too much,’’ he adds with a laugh, “I probably never would have left the house.’’ The grind of helming such high-stakes productions back-to-back led Columbus to bow out after “Chamber of Secrets.’’ Still, for an idea of how he might have handled the older-skewing books, see his most recent movie, the YA adaptation “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.’’

Alfonso Cuarón, “Prisoner of Azkaban’’ Cuarón’s most relevant prior work was his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s boarding school tale “A Little Princess,’’ but he’s more familiar to audiences for his sexy Mexican road comedy “Y Tu Mamá También’’ and the dystopian “Children of Men.’’ No accident, then, that he’s the director who began steering the films in a more mature direction, delivering chillier scares (Dementors, anyone?) and drastically darkening the palette (even the opening title morphed from shiny gold to muted silver). He also conjured some of the series’ funkiest visual elements: the stoner-surreal Knight Bus and Sirius Black’s wanted posters, with Gary Oldman holographically raging in a paper cage. Next to desaturating the color, Cuarón’s most lasting contribution may have been to physically ground the movies’ action and interplay in the real world, establishing a geography for Hogwarts and beyond. “Part of the thing was trying to bring a certain naturalism,’’ he says in “Evolution,’’ recalling a three-week shoot in the Scottish Highlands to capture backgrounds for the school. “So it was not just a set, it was a place that actually exists.’’

Mike Newell, “Goblet of Fire’’ Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral’’) seemed to be more about straddling the line between arthouse story sense and mainstream accessibility than he was about marquee fantasy, yet he was arguably handed more big set pieces for one film than any of the other directors. (In DVD featurettes, when he professes a degree of cluelessness about visual effects to start, you might be inclined to agree.) His final marks for the visuals range from fair (Voldemort’s intro and the Quidditch World Cup) to good (the Triwizard Tournament’s underwater sequence) to great (the Hogwarts de-shingling dragon chase). Tonally, Newell efficiently handled one of the greatest dramatic responsibilities of the “Harry Potter’’ franchise: the death of Robert Pattinson’s Cedric Diggory, and the series’ watershed shift from popcorn peril to PG-13-edgy mortal danger.

David Yates, “Order of the Phoenix,’’ “Half-Blood Prince,’’ and “Deathly Hallows’’ parts 1 & 2 On paper, British TV director Yates’s hiring sounds like a case of producers with all the power wanting a filmmaker to be not so much an architect as a contractor - shades of George Lucas delegating “The Empire Strikes Back’’ and “Return of the Jedi’’ to other directors. “I’m still befuddled why they asked me in the first place, frankly,’’ the soft-spoken Yates admits in “Evolution,’’ in a moment of amusing honesty. “I had just finished a thing called ‘Sex Traffic’; a really intense, gritty, emotional drama. And they said, ‘Come to Hogwarts.’ ’’ But “Harry Potter’’ producer David Heyman, who’s overseen all eight films, rightly credits Yates with making the series feel more political, more contemporary, starting with the Orwellian Ministry of Magic story line in “Order of the Phoenix.’’ (American viewers might be familiar with Yates’s “State of Play,’’ the BBC political thriller later Hollywoodized with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck.) He’s also proven adept at light comedy, hormonally angsty coming-of-age drama, and especially effects work, making the crystal-ball-filled Hall of Prophecy a “Phoenix’’ (and franchise) standout. And he’s made that continuously darkening color scheme more foreboding than ever.

AMC Boston Common and the chain’s Danvers multiplex are both running a weeklong “Harry Potter’’ marathon that kicks off tomorrow with Columbus’s movies and wraps with Yates’s “Deathly Hallows’’ installments late Thursday night. What might be an even bigger kick, though, would be to screen the first and last films back-to-back. The honey-toned Oxbridgian grandeur of Hogwarts in “Sorcerer’s Stone’’ contrasted with the Voldemort-ravaged vistas of the finale. Wide-eyed schoolboy Harry morphed into steely-eyed warrior Harry. One film might feel like a cartoon and the other as bad as can be - in each case, in the best possible sense.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.

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