Harry Potter: My biggest all-time rave

With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them about to hit theaters, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Harry Potter franchise.  It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when the world did not yet know “The Boy Who Lived.”

In the summer of 1998, I covered a bound galley of a novel called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by a first-time author named J.K. Rowling, and I did something exceedingly rare. I raved about it.  Some excerpts:

A wonderful, creative children’s fantasy that is bursting with imagination and big screen potential. It has the appeal of a classic fairytale combined with an eye-popping visual environment. A slam dunk for younger moviegoers, the wry, tongue-in-cheek quality of the narrative also makes the piece engaging for adults.

Ultimately, all of these elements [the characters, setting, and plot] work together to create an incredibly engaging narrative with strong prospects as the kind of children’s fantasy that ends up captivating a much broader audience. There is solid storytelling, a readily adaptable through-line, and countless opportunities for stunning visual effects.

I keep a tight filter when it comes to submissions, and I vividly remember gushing over this one.  But the problem at the time was finding good comps.  Keep in mind that fantasy, though popular now, was a hard sell in 1998.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy wouldn’t launch until 2001, and the biggest films of 1998 would be Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan.  Where do Hogwarts and Quidditch fit into that calculus?  I tried to highlight the rich characters and incredible world-building in the novel, and the opportunity’s for stunning visual effects.  But would they listen?

Fortunately, I had a good reputation with the company I was freelancing for at the time.  My boss read my coverage, shot out of her chair, and rattled cages all the way to the top.  Lunches were canceled so senior execs could dive into the world of Harry Potter.  Some wanted to make a move, but alas, the President of Production, despite being a very smart person, didn’t connect with the material, dismissing it thusly: “I don’t know…wizard school?”  And so “The Boy Who Lived” became the one that got away…

 

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Stuff to know: Nick & Nora

True story: A young writer was in a meet-and-greet with a very smart, very talented junior exec.  (Yes, they exist.)  The subject of pets came up.  The exec had two cats, named Nick and Nora.  The writer had absolutely no idea how significant those names were.  Hardly a deal-breaker, but it would have been a great opportunity to show off some knowledge of studio film history.

Do you know Nick & Nora?  You should.  They’re the star couple behind The Thin Man franchise, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.  Nick Charles is a cocktail-loving ex-Pinkerton.  (Some credit the Pinkerton logo and their ominous motto, “We Never Sleep,” as the basis for the moniker “private eye,” but this is up for debate…)  Nick’s got a slew of underworld contacts and is still close to his cop pals.  But as the story opens, he’s retired from all that, and married to Nora, an heiress.  Naturally, a case comes up that only Nick can solve, and only with help from Nora, who is far more excited about the prospect of some excitement and danger than her husband.

The initial adaptation was a monster hit for Warners in 1934, and spawned a hugely popular series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose chemistry together is a big part of what drives the narrative.  The first movie is a must-see, and the sequel, After the Thin Man–which features a very young Jimmy Stewart–is worth watching, as well.

Up to this point, the crime genre was mostly of the hardboiled variety, as in famous gangster films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy.  By contrast, The Thin Man films were fun and charming, with artful banter between the leads, a bit of action to keep the story rolling, and a peek at Nick’s new upper-crust lifestyle.

Keep in mind that these movies came out during the Great Depression, and showed a reverse Cinderella story: a streetwise tough guy landing a rich wife and living it up.  They got a lot of mileage from trotting out Nick’s underworld cohorts and dropping them into high society.  These are great lessons to keep in mind.  Not only is there the opposites-attract principal as applied to the leads, but it then reverberates across most everyone in the story.  It makes for memorable characters and memorable moments.  The formula was so successful that it was revived for radio, television, and remakes.

We should all be so lucky…

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Sergeant Sargent and your military characters

Does your project have military characters in it? If so, then I strongly recommend you know how to spell their ranks. I lost count long ago of the number of scripts that misspelled sergeant, colonel, and more. Some of those misspellings are truly inventive, but unfortunately, this is not the kind of creativity that you want to showcase.

You should also take a minute or two to familiarize yourself with how ranks work. Does it make sense to have a 58-year-old captain, or a 22-year-old Lt. Col.? Your character’s age and rank can be used to say a lot, whether it’s a rapid rise due to excellence or nepotism, or being passed over for promotion and consigned to a hellhole as punishment. Exploit this opportunity.

Do you know the difference between officers and NCOs? I read a military sci-fi piece where a senior officer got demoted to private. Now, in sci-fi, I suppose anything can happen, but in every universe your readers are familiar with, officers are officers and NCOs are NCOs. And for officers, as the old saying goes: there is nothing lower than a second lieutenant. While NCOs can be busted down in rank, officers get passed over for promotion or pushed out of the service.

Why does this matter? It’s about removing obstacles. If you’re writing a contemporary or historical military story and you get your ranks wrong, you run the risk of damaging your credibility. Even if your characters are cruising the stars to fight the intergalactic nemesis, why reinvent the ranking system? It takes time to explain, and is counterintuitive. You’re just creating speed bumps for your audience.

As always, do everything you can to smooth the road for your readers. Errors that take them out of the story you’re telling–whether it takes place at West Point or in a galaxy far, far away–needlessly undermine your work.

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Thank you!

I want to shout out a big “Thank You!” to two people:

bakadesuyo – You, sir, are quite simply the best.

ALSWK – Without you, what’s the point? Lerve!

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