Poppy Montgomery casts spell in J.K. Rowling biopic

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J.K. Rowling is magical.

How many other writers inspire frenzies? Children and adults around the world queued up when a new volume of Harry Potter was released.

Whatever riches and accolades she earns pale when considering that the wand she waved makes people want to read. Just how she came to do so is gently examined in Lifetime's "Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story" Monday, July 18.

The biopic is unauthorized, which isn't surprising given Rowling is famously private. Yet it would be difficult to find argument with the movie's intent.Poppy Montgomery ("Without a Trace") plays Rowling. As a die-hard Harry Potter fan, she would not have done this were it a hit piece.

"When I read the script, it was such a love letter, not tabloidish," Montgomery says. "Before reading the script, unless it has her blessing I don't feel it is fair. It is beautiful and an inspiring story, and you can actually come from really hard times and make your dreams come true, and triumphing through sheer will and determination."

The film shows Rowling as a girl in Tutshill, England, dressing up like a witch and playing in a forest. It shows her as a smart girl in school, daydreaming about becoming a writer.

Her father, worried that she would starve, wanted her to become a secretary, saying she could write as a hobby. Her mother, though, told her to follow her dream.

Her mom had multiple sclerosis and died relatively young. Though Rowling was grown when her mom died, she imbued Harry with the ache of an orphan.

The film shows Rowling as a young woman, armed with her degree. Talented and determined to write but needing to support herself, she taught English in Portugal. There she roomed with a couple of other teachers and married a handsome Portuguese man.

Rowling confronted him when he came home drunk and wasn't working. He hit her -- while she was holding the baby -- and she grabbed the only two things that mattered and fled.

She held her daughter and a box. In this box, Rowling had stored outlines of seven books, all handwritten on pads. She turned these pages into the world of Hogwarts.

Hunched over cafe tables, baby at her feet, she scribbled the intricate stories eager fans would reread multiple times.

Sure, Voldemort is the villain everyone knows, but consider how deeply frightening Dementors are as they suck the joyful memories from your soul. Rowling gave us the most horrid villains and a magnificent hero in Harry, a boy wizard who becomes a young man over the seven years spread over seven books. Harry is flawed, of course, rendering him that much more lovable, and a truly honorable person.

One can tell a lot about people when they reveal their favorite Harry Potter characters. Montgomery first cites Dumbledore, the grand wizard who ran Hogwarts and was Harry's mentor.

"Dumbledore is the person you want in your life to advise you," Montgomery says. "I love Hermione because she's smart and sassy and bright. They all represent different aspects of everybody I know. They are very identifiable, and I like that the underdog always wins in the end; good trumps evil. That's the universal."

"I remember seeing the first edition in hardback," she says. "I remember thinking the cover was so pretty. I read all of them obsessively and saw all of the movies about 200 times. My 3-year-old is obsessed."

The film begins and ends with brief clips of Rowling, showing how fans wait in the rain just for a glimpse of their favorite writer. To gauge how popular Rowling is, consider the recent cyberfrenzy she began with her upcoming website, Pottermore.com, an interactive e-book series.

"She accomplished something almost no children's book writers have done -- she made books for children and adults at the same time," Montgomery says.

In the movie, Rowling finally shows the drafts and outlines of her books to her sister, who recognizes their magnificence. Still, it took some rejections before an agent would sign her.

During that time, Rowling was poor and on welfare in Scotland. She had an incredibly hard time finding a place to live with her daughter. She finally bought a secondhand typewriter and eventually went on to become the most successful writer ever.

"I hope it gives some insight into an extraordinary woman who everyone is curious about," Montgomery says. "As long as you get that, you can bounce back and achieve your dreams with hard work and determination and pushing through a lot of hard work and pulling herself up by bootstraps, and will not fail, will not give in. That's the major message of the movie.

"I just think what I really want to be clear about is," she continues, "it is not in any way an exploitive, tabloidy thing. It is a love letter to J.K. Rowling, and we tried really hard to make it about an inspiring journey and not try to expose somebody successful. I want to show this is to show an incredible woman's journey."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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