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I’m sitting in the Warner Bros. screening room trying to arrange my 3D glasses comfortably while I wait to see the eighth and final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. The room is packed, a few journalists even sitting on the theater’s steps. Everyone was afforded the perk of bringing one guest and it appears as if that was taken full advantage of. The air hums with excitement, a thoroughly uncommon phenomenon at such events, where thinly disguised cynicism is usually the norm. “I’m doing Smurfs after this,” one journalist says with a groan, “and last week I did Zookeeper.” He shakes his head; the experience was clearly memorable for all the wrong reasons. “But this,” he says as his eyes light up with a twinkle, “this I’m looking forward to.” As the lights dim and the lightning-edged Harry Potter title treatment comes up on screen for what will be the last time, you can practically taste the anticipation in the room.
The following day that same electric anticipation bounces off the wall at the press conference while we wait for the filmmakers and stars that brought Harry Potter to life to appear. One journalist has even brought her 10-year-old son with her. He proudly wears a LEGO Harry Potter t-shirt and grips a well-loved copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows that he’s hoping to have signed by the cast and crew. “It’s pretty cool,” he says, an obvious understatement. Another journalist, giddy over the chance to talk with Emma Watson, tells me that she’s a beauty editor for US Weekly. “I’m a HUGE nerd,” she says in response to the quizzical expression on my face, “and really wanted to come for this.” The line between professionalism and fandom wavers back and forth and, other than physical size, it’s difficult to tell the wide-eyed children apart from the professional entertainment writers.
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That magical appeal which has transfixed hundreds of millions regardless of age is why the Harry Potter series has become such a history-making worldwide phenomenon: 450 million copies of the books in 67 different languages; 11 million copies of the final book sold in the first 24 hours; over $2 billion in domestic box-office alone, making it the most commercially successful film franchise of all time. “One of the things I love about the books, and hopefully the films, is that they didn’t patronize,” says producer David Heyman, who discovered the first manuscript, almost by accident, before it was even published. “They were books that parents could share with their children but could enjoy too, and I think therein lies one of their great pleasures.” Criticized at times for the increasingly dark tone that the latter books developed, author J.K. Rowling’s decision to “grow the books up” as her young fanbase aged undoubtedly contributed to their widespread appeal. “It comes down to one simple thing,” director Chris Columbus (who helmed the first two films) said in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, “Seven brilliantly written books.”
PHOTO BY JAAP BUITENDIJK
“I never wanted any of you to die for me,” says Harry to his friends, his face caked with dirt and rubble from the devastated Hogwarts castle. The final film hits the ground running, starting where Part 1 left off, and it doesn’t let up for a second. With treasure heists at Gringotts bank, fire breathing dragons, more horcruxes than you can shake an Elder Wand at, and screen shattering good-versus-evil duels, there is enough spectacle to sate even the most demanding summer moviegoer. But director David Yates has wisely chosen to spend most of his attention on the tender moments of romance and moving displays of sacrifice that have made Harry Potter such an inspiring tale. Unlikely hero Neville Longbottom’s stirring battlefield speech at the end of the film, in the face of almost certain destruction, is a perfect example of this. In spite of the achy feeling behind my ears from wearing the 3D glasses, I’m transfixed, lost in the magic of a good story, well told.
At the press conference the next day Matthew Lewis, who stars as Neville, is telling us about that scene and what it was like to act opposite Ralph Fiennes, who plays Lord Voldemort with a chilling viciousness that is breathtaking. “Ralph is a very, very frightening man, especially when he looks like that” Lewis says as he glances over his shoulder at an enormous cardboard stand featuring Voldemort. Fiennes, head bald with snake-like slits where his nose should be, looks like evil incarnate. “[During rehearsal], Ralph had hair and a nose and yet he was still terrifying. And he did this thing – to this day I have no idea whether he did it on purpose, whether he’s even aware of it – but he just stared at me. The whole time. Even when other people were speaking his eyes never left my face. And I just went to pieces. I suddenly felt like I was in the hardest exam of my entire life. And it was frightening.” The scene in question is one of the highlights of film; it elicited cheers from the press during the screening. “I loved every single minute of it, and being able to work one on one with Ralph, despite the pressure, despite the nerves, was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I will never forget it.”