20 years ago today, Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone premiered here in Australia; directed by Chris Columbus, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. Establishing a fixture of 2000s cinema which would generate an astonishing US$7.77 billion / AU$10.87 billion worth of box office revenue across an entire decade, multiples of that outside of theatres (i.e. merchandise, video games, theme parks), as well as defining the childhoods of millions – the impact of Harry Potter on screens needn’t any further elaboration.
But like any iconic movie franchise, the Harry Potter story’s most fascinating elements aren’t limited to what we witnessed within the confines of Hogwarts or even whatever transpired in the fictional Wizarding World. As difficult as it is to imagine a single component straying from what we’ve come to know – not even so much as a fraction – there was a time when Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone almost ventured down a drastically different path (potentially affecting every subsequent adaptation).
Steven Spielberg, Terry Gilliam, & M. Night Shyamalan were all in talks to direct Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone
Yes, the very same Steven Spielberg behind Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, and Jurassic Park. The legendary director had initially signed on to helm the first Harry Potter film. Even back then, Spielberg knew this would be a major success.
“It’s like shooting ducks in a barrel. It’s just a slam dunk,” he told Hollywood.com.
“It’s just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There’s no challenge.”
Eventually, his vision (which we’ll explore in greater detail below) proved too different from both the producers and JK Rowling’s. Years after the fact, the man would also explain how his own waning professional desire to make The Philosopher’s Stone was a factor.
“I developed it for about five or six months with [screenwriter] Steve Kloves, and then I dropped out,” Steven Spielberg revealed to Digital Spy during a 2012 interview.
“I just felt that I wasn’t ready to make an all-kids movie and my kids thought I was crazy. And the books were by that time popular, so when I dropped out, I knew it was going to be a phenomenon.”
Negotiations later involved the likes of Monty Python alum and alleged;y JK Rowling’s favoured choice Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas), Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men), Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters I & II, Kindergarten Cop, Junior), as well as M N. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Happening).
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone was going to be an animated film
Not only did Steven Spielberg want to give Harry Potter the animated treatment… he also wanted it to be a pastiche of elements from the later books, all jumbled together in a single film. So who would’ve played – or rather, voiced – The Boy Who Lived / Chosen One himself? American actor and child star of The Sixth Sense: Haley Joel Osment. Suffice it to say, we’re glad this version never saw the light of day, and we’re glad the series was given sufficient time to develop at its own pace.
Robin Williams wanted to play Hagrid
Some things just make perfect sense the moment you hear about them. For example: an incredibly affable, charming, and most importantly, sincere talent like Robin Williams in the role of an equally affable, charming, and sincere character like Hogwarts’ half-giant groundskeeper, Rubeus Hagrid. Think about it. Williams would’ve blended the best parts of Mrs Doubtfire, Genie, and just himself all into one role. Sadly, when the producers began enforcing a strict British and Irish casting rule, his hopes were dashed.
“Robin [Williams] had called because he really wanted to be in the movie,” casting director Janet Hirshenson explains to the Huffington Post.
“But it was a British-only edict, and once he said ‘no’ to Robin, he wasn’t going to say ‘yes’ to anybody else, that’s for sure. It couldn’t be.”
Richard Harris turned down the role of Albus Dumbledore three times
While he would later be replaced by Michael Gambon post-Harry Potter & The Chamber of Secrets due to his untimely passing, Richard Harris was an integral player in the first two films, effectively setting the entire franchise’s tone with his turn as Hogwarts Headmaster and revered wizard, Albus Dumbledore. Prior to his contribution, however, Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone was at risk of missing out on some classic Harris magic altogether. The veteran of drama actually turned down the gig three times.
“All I knew is that they kept offering me the part and raising the salary every time they called – I kept turning it down,” said Richard Harris.
“Anyone involved has to agree to be in the sequels, all of them, and that’s not how I wanted to spend the last years of my life, so I said no over and over again.”
Christoper Lee of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars fame was asked to play Dumbledore but declined due to scheduling conflicts (almost certainly imposed by the former of the mentioned franchises). It wasn’t until Harris’ own granddaughter Ella convinced him otherwise.
“She said, ‘Papa… I hear you’re not going to be in the Harry Potter movie,’ and she said, ‘If you don’t play Dumbledore then I will never speak to you again.'”
At one stage, they were planning on renaming it Harry Potter & The School of Magic for American markets (and The Philosopher’s Stone everywhere else)
We all know Yanks aren’t the most subtle bunch. And the marketing folks over at Warner Bros feared Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone would be a little too esoteric for US audiences. The most ham-fisted American solution possible? Dumb it down and call it exactly what it is: Harry Potter & The School of Magic. Thankfully, JK Rowling vetoed the shit out of that ill-advised decision.
“No, that doesn’t feel right to me… What if we called it the Sorcerer’s Stone?”
Which is why international audiences know the film as Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone while Americans know it as Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone. Incidentally, the French edition of the book is titled Harry Potter a L’ecole Des Sorciers, or translated, Harry Potter at Wizarding School. Everything just sounds better in French, I suppose…
Bonus Fact: JK Rowling only received £1 million for the first four Harry Potter books’ screen rights. For reference, Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s alone made over a billion dollars worldwide, while the first four films in total racked up well over $3 billion.