Steven Spielberg first acquired the rights to make a Tintin movie in 1983. He commissioned screenwriter Melissa Mathison, with whom Spielberg had had sensational success on E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial, to write a script. Jack Nicholson was even approached about playing Captain Haddock. But that film didn’t get made. Spielberg was not satisfied with the script or that he could realise his vision for the film. What a sign of respect and love for the subject matter that one of the world’s greatest directors waited twenty five years before he thought he could make the movie the franchise deserved. The British public have hailed The Secret of the Unicorn as just that, spending 6.7 million pounds to see it since it opened last Wednesday. Innovative motion capture technology, a clever amalgamation of original stories and a stellar cast have led to a fun-filled romp that looks to be the best family film of the year.
This forms a stark comparison with another well known children’s character who has been committed to film over the last decade. The most interestingly filmed passage of the Harry Potter series appeared late in the octalogy; a stylised animation sequence that explained the legend of the Deathly Hallows. It was creative storytelling at its very best. Practically Spielbergian. Unfortunately, this was the exception rather than the rule for the series.
It is easy to see how such conservative films were made; legions of excited fans with equally large expectations, big business providing financial pressures, JK Rowling closely involved. Few people were surprised when they left the cinema having watched a narrowed version of their imagined literary world on screen. Did anyone actually prefer the films to the books? Independent of Harry’s written adventures, the films don’t stand up to great scrutiny. However, this is not surprising when what is supposed to be an overarching storyline is undertaken without a single auteur who knows how the story ends.
Making middle of the road family films is not a heinous crime. The logistical considerations involved make producing any film a great achievement. But when any film with the boy wizard involved is a sure-fire, hundred-million dollar hit, able to attract leading acting talent shouldn’t the audience expect more? These ‘open goals’ could be viewed as opportunities to really further cinema. Take risks, tell stories in creative ways, innovate! Recent book adaptations have provided breathtaking, cinematic films; We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drive and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy have all been great successes that function as films in their own right. Do not think that the feat is impossible with children’s characters either. Think of the countless Roald Dahl stories that have been inventively told on screen, most notably the recent Fantastic Mr Fox, Where the Wild Things Are and the timeless classic The BFG. During production on TTSS John Le Carré said to Tomas Alfredson not to do the book on screen. The book already exists. Make cinema. Just as Tintin was told through the eyes of Snowy so too could a Harry Potter film be told from a different point of view or in a more ingenious, cinematic way. Imagine films with Hagrid at their centre or that chart the rise and fall of Tom Riddle.
The Harry Potter film franchise has had many positive repercussions; practically singlehandedly creating a special effects industry in this country, putting familiar British faces on the global stage and giving John Williams an excuse to compose another sumptuous score. But it seems a shame that the films were made at a time when the hysteria and commercial pressures hurried the films into production; a shame that a director with a love and respect for the franchise wasn’t allowed to sit on the rights for twenty five years and bring a much loved children’s book to a subsequent generation; a shame that this opportunity to film a cohesive creative story wasn’t taken.