Considering the enourmous popularity of the Harry Potter books, a series of blockbuster movies was pretty much inevitable. There were a lot of directors who were looked at to bring the the magical world to life on film, but in the end the job went to an unlikely candidate. Chris Columbus had done well with Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire and was probably a good choice in terms of dealing with child actors. His other directorial abilities were more questionable and, as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets would prove, it was a creative gamble that didn’t quite pay off. Columbus delivered two films that made boatloads of money and that ably translated the stories from the first two books to the screen, but he did so without any sort of creative flash. But is that such a bad thing?
A lot of people bag on Columbus for his handling of the Harry Potter films—he’s an easy target, I know—but in retrospect his extremely basic direction was exactly what the franchise needed in the beginning. Sure, it would be nice to get in a time machine and have David Yates just go ahead and direct all the films, but as things played out Columbus actually managed to put together two films that are very watchable and aren’t too dark or weird. Could you imagine if Alfonso Cauron had been able to direct the first film and set up the entire series through his own weird lens? The result might have been something the critical community would adore, but audiences might have been turned off and the series might have floundered over time.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone might be a fairly middle of the road fantasy film in terms of style, but it’s also a fairly good film. It’s not great by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a great adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s novel. But the first film in the long-running franchise is good, and that’s what counts. Columbus shot his films quite simply, but he got the story across and he did so reasonably well. And his good hand with young actors really was a godsend. Say what you will about the young trio’s acting abilities, but they aren’t that bad at all for untrained kid actors in those first couple of movies. In fact, I would argue that, other than a couple outlying performances, the kids actually got worse in the third and fourth films before getting it back together for films five and six.
Columbus also did a good job of letting the older actors on set shine. Granted, the acting talent he had to work with was immense, but he did the right thing by letting them shine when they needed to and actually pick up the slack from the kids. And beyond directing actors, Columbus actually knew how to handle humour quite well. His films don’t have the great comedic qualities of the Yates films, but they are leagues better than the failed humour in Prisoner of Azkaban or Goblet of Fire. Those films simply could not find the right balance of Dahl-style humour Rowling had in her novels, but Columbus actually managed to make it work quite well. Harry Potter’s world is a magical one with odd locations and characters and events, and Columbus made them come alive with lightness and humour.
There is no doubt that the films Columbus made could have been better. And had a better director been at the helm, we might have gotten truly extraordinary films. But the risk on a more wild director would have been huge, and sinking such a potentially massive franchise right at the start would have been bad. Instead we got an okay director who made one very good film and one decent film that led to greater films and a series that might actually be looked upon with some respect in years down the road. The way I see it, sure it would have been nice for all seven books to become masterpieces, but it was never going to happen, and I’m glad that Chris Columbus actually turned out two good movies in series that I can call great, rather than a terrible film in a franchise that had to be aborted after one or two movies.
So what I really want to say is thank you, Chris Columbus, and be proud of what you contributed to this wonderful series.