Potter interruptus in a Twilight era

Arriving eight months late, with a vampire in pursuit, can Harry still seduce his aging fans?

Potter interruptus in a Twilight eraFor the fans, it was like having a magic carpet pulled out from under them. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth instalment of the most successful franchise in film history, was due to hit theatres last November, unleashing a perfect storm of Potter-mania. The fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, had come out the previous summer, the same month author J.K. Rowling published the seventh and final book of her blockbuster saga. After waiting more than a year for a fresh fix, the fans were primed. And toy stores had ordered a glut of movie-related Christmas merchandise. But then Warner Bros. pulled the plug. Because of the screenwriters’ strike, studio executives fretted they wouldn’t have a 2009 summer blockbuster, so they postponed the movie’s release for eight months—to July 15.

The fans felt blindsided. That kind of bald commercial manoeuvre seemed to violate basic notions of trust and loyalty that are embedded in the Potter property. It also upset the tempo by which the movies were being churned out to keep up with the books—which becomes an issue when the actors, and the audience, are aging faster than Rowling’s characters. And during Potter interruptus, some of Harry’s fans (mostly girls) fell under the spell of a sexier, less bookish hero—Edward, the vampire dreamboat in Twilight. The first movie based on Stephenie Meyer’s novels grossed almost US$382 million worldwide, less than half what the last Potter movie made, but it cost a quarter as much. And its star, Robert Pattinson, has become the world’s reigning teenage heartthrob.

British filmmaker David Yates, who directed the fifth and sixth Potter movies, says he was as crushed as the fans by the decision to delay Half-Blood Prince. “It was a huge disappointment,” he told Maclean’s last week, on the phone from London. “When you’re finishing a film, you’re working to a very specific deadline, and you’re adrenalized and very focused on meeting that deadline. But the studio was very sweet, and my producers just bowed to what they sensed was best for the film in the marketplace.”

The Brits can be so civil—that may be the first time a Hollywood studio has been described as “sweet.” But as Potter’s default auteur, Yates has to be gracious. While he used the delay to tinker with Half-Blood Prince, he was already preparing to shoot the last two films back to back—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I and II, which are due in 2010 and 2011. “I was wrestling with three movies all at the same time,” he says.

As the custodian of the final four films in the saga, Yates is presiding over Harry’s coming of age. With each book, the material becomes more mature, the tone darker, the drama more intense. In the new movie, “it’s a romantic time at Hogwarts,” the director explains. “Teenage hormones are flying. These young people are discovering their sexuality. And Harry gets to snog again.” Yates has gone so far as to say Half-Blood Prince is “all about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” The drugs are magic potions, including one that makes you super-tactile and amorous—like ecstasy without the hangover. “The potions,” says Yates, “are a metaphor for experimentation with drugs when you’re growing up.”

But Harry is still a wholesome schoolboy compared to Twilight’s vampire hero—or its heroine, Bella Swan, who longs to consummate their narcotic romance with a deadly embrace. And the rivalry between the franchises has inflamed the Web. If you google “Potter vs. Twilight,” 32 million results come up. The consensus is there’s no contest between Rowling’s intricate literary fantasy and Meyer’s shallow pulp romance. But while Twilight’s glam cast is no match for Potter’s army of Brit thespians, they are sexier. Of course, Twilight is aimed at teenage girls, who can turn a hit into a Titanic phenomenon. But Yates says the core audience for the new Potter movies “are into their 20s and 30s now.”

A nerdy sophisticate amid the jocks, Half-Blood Prince is vying for attention in a crowded field of summer blockbusters, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will muscle it off IMAX screens until the end of July. It’s still bound be huge, even if doesn’t quite make a billion dollars. Yet, despite the scale of the Potter movies, “I never see them as big popcorn experiences,” says Yates. “To me they’re little films—they’re character-driven.” They’re also driven by the ardour of young fans, who tend to grow up and grow fickle.

With Patricia Treble

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