Casting a Spell--and a Film

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the news that Chris Columbus has been selected to direct the first "Harry Potter" film, many of the books' countless fans made a collective grimace. Children may have loved "Home Alone" or "Mrs. Doubtfire" but they can't see the connection between the boy wizard who springs from pages laced with subtle humor and the "silly, slapstick" movies the director is known for.

Ouch.

Adult fans--and there are many--also tend to greet the choice of Columbus with a raised eyebrow.

"He's certainly experienced at portraying mischievous tykes, isn't he?" asks Ashley Milne-Tyte, 29. "But a glance at his credits convinces me he has a predilection for the schmaltzy, the all-tied-up-with-blue-ribbon ending. And the thing about the Harry Potter books is that there's a darkness running through them that shouldn't be eradicated on film by cuteness."

While Columbus has had a few days to officially ponder the casting of the movie, it seems an entire community of book lovers has been casting the movie for months--and they have definite ideas about the creation of "Harry Potter: The Movie Franchise."

"I am passionate about the roles going to British actors," says Milne-Tyte, who grew up in England but lives in New York. "It will be anathema to the books' British fans--not to mention the author--to hear Harry or one of his companions come out with an American accent."

Score one for Columbus, who plans to cast a Brit as Harry.

Equally apprehensive are librarians and booksellers, who have witnessed a renaissance in reading they credit Harry with bringing about.

The children's staff at the downtown Central Library "feels very strongly that the children should be played by unknown English actors," says Anne Connor, the library's children's service's coordinator.

Ditto at Children's Book World, one of the Los Angeles stops on author J.K. Rowling's book tour last fall.

"They shouldn't even be people who could duplicate British accents," says Linda Dimitroff, co-manager of the bookstore.

So how British will the film be? Warner Bros. is "sensitive" to the wishes of the books' huge fan base and hopes to shoot the movie in London, says Nancy Kirkpatrick, a studio spokeswoman.

"We are working very closely with the author," Kirkpatrick says. (Score two for Columbus, who met with Rowling last week in Scotland.)

But Kirkpatrick stopped short of saying the movie would have an all-British cast. "Obviously, a lot is up to the director and what actors he chooses to work with," she says. "But we have every intention of pursuing a British Harry and British kids."

Before Columbus was given the magic wand, one Potter devotee theorized that Harry's story is so magnificent, it might require two directors.

"Spielberg for the parts that kids would really enjoy. ['Sleepy Hollow' director Tim] Burton for any part that would involve Snape, or a part that has excessive weirdness to it," read one posting on the Harry Potter Movie Board, found at http://www.InsideTheWeb.com, and considered one of the better unauthorized Harry Potter Internet sites.

Professor Snape, the mean, crooked-nosed teacher of potions, should be played by Alan Rickman, proffered this same posting by TheHumanBludger (bludgers are balls used in a wizard's sport in the books.) "He's the perfect bad guy, ever see 'Die Hard'?"

Plus, he already has the requisite accent, several other enthusiasts point out. For plain old creepiness, Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken could be seen donning the dark wizard's cloak.

School Just Wild About Harry

At Edith Bowen, a grade school on the Utah State University campus, an informal poll of the kids revealed a "lack of excitement" over Columbus and concern over his perceived lack of subtlety. The school takes all things Harry seriously; on Halloween, it virtually turned into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with every staff member becoming a character in the books, says Lynnette Harris, mother of two devoted Potter fans at the school.

"Many have said they hope things move along quickly so Hatty Jones, who played the title character in the film 'Madeline' a couple of years ago, won't be too old to play Hermione. She was charming in that film, and seems perfectly able to play tough, brainy Hermione," she says. That would be one of Harry's best friends, a know-it-all whose name is pronounced "Her-my-uh-nee," the subject of its own ferocious debate.

"Maybe, just maybe, the girl who played the twins in the movie 'The Parent Trap' would be a good Hermione,' " read a Movie Board posting that referred to Lindsay Lohan. (She's not British, but she effectively flung about California and British accents in the 1998 remake.)

Harry's other loyal best friend, Ron Weasley, a fellow first-year student at Hogwarts, fell into the cast-an-unknown-Brit category, but suggestions abound for who should play the members of his family with seven children, many of whom have red hair.

Rosie O'Donnell, known to revel in pop culture, told Rowling she wanted to be Mrs. Weasley, Ron's pudgy and loving mother, when the author appeared on her show last fall. The kids at Edith Bowen are convinced she's already been cast and won't hear of anyone else playing the part.

Reba McEntire would make a good Mrs. Weasley, says Julie Lass, an adult Potter admirer from Austin, Texas, who picked up the books on the recommendation of her father and friends.

"Admittedly, the accent could be hard to master, but she's got the look and personality down," she says. "And you could round out the family by adding several of the kids from '7th Heaven,' " the series that airs on the WB network.

One of the more vivid characters in the trio of books is Hagrid, the lovable giant with a mysterious past who speaks with a thick Scottish brogue. The gamekeeper at Hogwarts is prone to such pithy statements as, "Ah, go boil yer heads, both of yeh."

If the librarians wanted to compromise their principles and cast a non-Brit, they'd go with Robin Williams, "because he's so hairy." But this larger-than-life role cries out for someone big, Gerard Depardieu, for instance.

"It could be tricky for him to replace his French accent with Hagrid's brogue, but physically he's very well-suited and could be great playing a caring man with a history of getting into a bit of trouble," Harris says.

Peter Mayhew, Chewbacca of "Star Wars," would be "absolutely perfect for the role, since he's so huge in the first place, and has a deep voice," wrote one fan on a science-fiction Internet site.

"If Andre the Giant were still alive, he'd be a great Hagrid," offers another fan. "I'm sure there's another wrestler who could fit the bill." (Perhaps Hulk Hogan with his hair dyed black?)

Billy Connolly, a comedian well-known in the United Kingdom, kept popping up on the Movie Board for the role of Hagrid, partly because he's tall (6-feet-7, according to one posting), has long hair, a shaggy beard and the necessary Scottish brogue.

"Billy's very appearance would be enough to scare the Dursleys, as Hagrid does in 'Sorcerer's Stone,' " wrote one fan.

Ah, the Dursleys, Harry's disgusting relatives who are so frightfully mean to the orphan wizard, turning his every summer vacation into a living nightmare.

The teachers and staff at Edith Bowen worry that Columbus might allow the Dursleys to become caricatures. "It would be easy for the Dursleys to become too, too much--like the bad guys in 'Home Alone,' " Harris says.

"The Dursleys are going to be trickier to cast because they are so abominable and abusive to Harry," says Maureen Smullen, a licensing and branding specialist in Pasadena. "They are so hard to imagine being real."

Others had no such qualms coming up with flesh-and-blood ideas to play Harry's loathsome aunt and uncle.

The crass Bundy family from "Married . . . With Children," the TV series that last aired on Fox in 1997, could easily segue into the parts, suggests a subscriber to an Internet-based Harry Potter newsletter. Or how about Shelley Duvall as wretched Aunt Petunia Dursley?

On the serious side, the librarians proposed Jim Broadbent ("Topsy-Turvy") and Brenda Blethyn ("Secrets & Lies") for the Dursley parents.

The antithesis of the Dursleys is Professor Dumbledore, the all-knowing headmaster of Hogwarts.

The part demands someone "John Gielgud-y," Connor says. Or maybe Peter O'Toole or Ian McKellen. Others speculate that Peter Ustinov or Sean Connery might make a splendid grand wizard.

At Edith Bowen, "everyone has strong opinions" about this one, Harris says. Their top choices for Dumbledore, an Old English word for "bumblebee," are Patrick Stewart, Connery and especially Patrick Godfrey, because the kids loved him as Leonardo Da Vinci in "Ever After."

He-who-must-not-be-named, the story's main villain, is Voldemort, a murky presence in the first book, as scary as say, Jack Nicholson in "The Shining."

But the real villain of the story could be Hollywood if it doesn't get the movie just right to please the opinionated Potter-ites.

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