With each film in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series earning less than the last, it seems that Warner Bros. has managed to squander the potential of the Wizarding World, previously one of their
most successful properties. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore’s $400 million gross is nothing to sniff at, though far from the consistent $800 million+ grosses of the Harry Potter films which proceeded it. Audiences aren’t really warming up to Newt and the gang, and supplementing with legacy characters like Dumbledore in the latest instalment hasn’t done the trick either, so it may be worth revisiting what about director Chris Columbus’ priorities during early work on the series laid the foundation for its massive success.
The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are made to appeal more directly to children than later entries in the series, which often gives viewers ammunition for derision, but perhaps Columbus doesn’t get the credit he’s due for bringing to life a world and characters that had enchanted millions of people, all the more impressive as we see Warner’s floundering despite having a previously realised and beloved fantasy setting at their disposal.
The massive popularity of the Harry Potter books meant that the director’s chair for the first film of the series, The Philosopher’s Stone, was thoroughly sought-after, with as many as 25 filmmakers in conversation, pressing Columbus to make good on his skills as a writer to communicate his vision for the tone of the film. Before his meeting with executives, Columbus rewrote the screenplay as a 130-page ‘director’s version’, annotated and delivered with an accompanying 45-minute talk. This rewrite demonstrated not only his passion for the material, but how carefully he had come to envision the world of the film, and his belief in what it was about the book that spoke to young readers. His intention was to zero in on the feeling of being whisked away from your dreary surrounding, like a child who’d been
accepted into Hogwarts, a promise of hope that carried through to the final film.
Columbus has described reading the first Harry Potter novel as reigniting a sort of writer’s hunger after completing a number of projects that had left him feeling artistically stale. The book teemed with potential, demanding an involvement and vision that Chris was eager to revive in his work. That “intense hunger” is a remnant of Columbus’ early career as a writer, an impulse he has kept alive by writing, when possible, every day.
Criticisms of the director’s lack of a characteristic style may stand, but Columbus’ desire to prioritize story above all else makes him especially attuned to the clarity required when piecing together a children’s film, doubly so for a setting as original and intricate as the Wizarding World. His knack may be for narrative, but Columbus also discusses broader directorial duties (the importance of casting, his methods for working with young actors, adjusting shooting schedules for the sake of visual effects, etc.) in the video above.