Harry Potter 20th Anniversary:
Return to Hogwarts is a Return to Childhood
by Juliette Boland
“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers…” to watch Harry Potter movies. Since the release of the first book in 1997, JK Rowling’s whimsical world of witches, wizards, and misfits has acted as a place of escapism for millions of Harry Potter fans, cleverly named “Potterheads,” from across the globe. If you grew up, as I did, with a childlike fascination with the otherworldly and an all-consuming passion for the books and films, I have a sneaky feeling that you too fantasized being told by a friendly half-giant, “Yer a wizard!” You too identified with Hermione’s nerdy love for learning or Ron’s endearing obsession with food. You too yearned for the friendships one may find at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a home for those who are different and where weird is normal. Such themes are appealing to any child who does not feel they belong. Our generation is living proof that writing and cinema have the power to guide a lost soul to finding their place in the world. These stories are the foundation of who we bunch of misfits have grown to be. HBO Max’s mystical reunion special Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts allows every adult who grew up besotted with the series to grab their time turners, return to childhood, and remember what it was like to believe in magic.
Not only does the spell-binding special track one’s magical journey through youth; it shows the original cast members and directors reconnecting with one another twenty years following the premiere of Sorcerer’s Stone and reflecting upon their experiences making the beloved films. Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort), Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), and Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood) all joined together for the reunion, alongside a plethora of costars and each director from the franchise, Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates. Each Harry Potter actor and director was interviewed individually and were subsequently given time to discuss the magic behind the filmmaking process with one another.
Return to Hogwarts extracts enough behind-the-scenes facts out of its Chamber of Secrets to leave Potterheads “stupified.” A veritaserum potion, as Professor Snape would devilishly hiss, was not needed to draw the truth from these interviewees. Every person took this special as an opportunity to speak candidly and wholeheartedly about their memories, both the good and the not-so-good, whilst working on the Harry Potter movies.
OPENING THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
Director of the first two films Chris Columbus was skeptical about reading the books, after having been approached three times. However, Potter-loving muggles have his daughter Eleanor to thank, since she was the one who convinced him to read the books after the release of Prisoner of Azkaban in 1999 and, hence, to take on the project. To echo Daniel Radcliffe, “Thank you, Eleanor!”
For the past decade, fans have melted over Emma Watson’s admitted childhood crush on Harry Potter rival and “foul, loathsome, evil, little cockroach” Tom Felton. Interviewed separately, both opened up about their close bond that has since evolved into a sibling-like love. Watson shared that the moment she fell for the dashing Slytherin boy was during one tutoring session when they were assigned to draw what they imagined God would look like, and “Tom had drawn a girl with a backward cap on a skateboard.” Due to their three-year age gap, Felton always saw her as a little sister and felt “very protective of her,” as he fondly described, and “that continues to the day.” And the love was reciprocated, as Watson stated, “Tom was the one I could often be more vulnerable with.” Cue sobbing from Dramione shippers.
Sparks were also flying around the Chosen One himself and not for Cho Chang or Ginny Weasley. In a sit-down interview between Daniel Radcliffe and ex death-eater Helena Bonham Carter, it was revealed that The Boy Who Lived wrote a flirty note to her when filming wrapped for Order of the Phoenix. Amidst childish giggling between them, Radcliffe read the decades-old love letter aloud, “I do love you and I just wish I had been born 10 years earlier. I might have had a chance.” Even though she was a Voldemort follower and the killer of Harry’s godfather Sirius Black, this might be the best example of “no hard feelings.”
Ironically, sparks could have landed on the cast of Harry Potter in a potentially serious fire hazard. What would have been CGI today, the floating candles in the Great Hall were real. Commenting on the hilarious absurdity of this production decision, Watson revealed that “hundreds of real candles that were really lit, on fishing lines, from the ceiling,” with Radcliffe joking that one of his favorite moments on set was “the moment when all the floated candles started burning through the ropes that tied them to the ceiling and just started falling through the Great Hall.”
A possibly more dangerous moment on the Harry Potter set was when director of Goblet of Fire Mike Newell injured himself staging the fight scene between the Weasley twins, Oliver (George) and James Phelps (Fred). When the brothers weren’t fighting the way Newell envisioned, he demonstrated by tackling Oliver and saying, “Like this.” The then hyper-energetic 60-year-old man cracked a few ribs that couldn’t be mended with a quick-and-easy Skele-Gro. What did you expect? Pumpkin Juice?
Many renowned actors have turned down Harry Potter roles, from Robin Williams passing on Hagrid to Hugh Grant almost portraying Gilderoy Lockhart. Jason Isaacs, who one could not picture as any character other than the conniving Lucius Malfoy, originally auditioned for Lockhart. After reading some scenes as the memory charm expert, he was requested by Columbus to audition for Malfoy. “I was about to play Captain Hook in Peter Pan and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to play two children’s villains,’” admitted Isaacs. Through “gritted teeth” and a “deeply bitter” disposition he gave a performance that would turn out to be perfect for the evil wizard.
Felton even expressed his initial fear of the actor while working with him as a kid. He was an intimidating “Jekyll and Hyde” type, assuming the persona of a frightening father at one moment and returning to his normal state in the other. (It’s okay, Tom. We were all scared of him, too.) In their first scene, which was cut from Chamber of Secrets, Isaacs accidentally pierced Felton’s hand with his cane, which, unbeknownst to both of them, was sharp at the tip. Nonetheless, any Potter fan knows that Lucius would not be nearly as spine-chilling if not played by the talented Isaacs.
Watch our interview with Isaacs here:
The most exciting revelation for those who weren’t already aware was that Alan Rickman was the only cast member who had the inside track on his storyline the entire time. Discussing Prisoner of Azkaban with Radcliffe, Gary Oldman notes that he wishes to have known “the whole picture” of his character’s arc when filming. To that, Radcliffe added that the late Alan Rickman was the only actor to have been told Snape’s backstory, “He very very early said to Jo, ‘I think I need to know what happens here.” This resulted in directors questioning his acting choices, to whom he would say, “I’ll tell you later.” Of course, Radcliffe delivered this line in a Rickman-esque impression which made Oldman bend over laughing.
Although disclosed to the media years ago, Emma Watson shared in the special that she almost left the franchise around the time Order of the Phoenix began production. “The fame thing had finally hit home in a big way,” Watson said, at a time when there was no other fictional female character as idolized or adored as Hermione Granger, the brightest witch of her age, which comes with a lot of pressure for a teenager. Felton added that “People definitely forget what she took on and how gracefully she did it.” Watson has taken control of her own narrative, becoming incredibly successful in acting and activism. She is still a role model for us all.
GROWING UP WITH THE GOLDEN TRIO
One of the most prominent features of the special is diving deep into the actors’ personal growth over time and holding the Mirror of Erised to life. It is presumptuous to think that because the Golden Trio have been global celebrities since the age of ten they were saved from life’s challenges. Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint had meaningful conversations about handling fame at such a young age, including the responsibility of carrying a film franchise and the feeling of having the world watch you grow up before their very eyes. As Columbus pointed out, it is a phenomenon unlike anything ever seen in cinema or ever will again.
The movies simultaneously capture both the characters’ and the actors’ life milestones, beginning with the first two years at Hogwarts, when the children must adapt to a new home. The advent of the Harry Potter series is childhood, when the movies were painted with gold and warm tones, welcoming the audience into the world of magic. This storybook environment was also felt behind the scenes, crafted by Columbus, who is often praised for being kind and patient with child actors.
“We were very much kids being kids on a set,” recalled Radcliffe, constantly playing Slap and oblivious to what the future would bring for the film’s three young stars. Columbus, who took on the role of a father figure, explained that the kids didn’t comprehend the stature of the legends they were acting alongside, such as Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dursley), Kenneth Branagh (Gilderoy Lockhart), and John Hurt (Ollivander), “the British royalty of the acting world.” Felton confessed to Alfred Enoch (Dean Thomas) and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom) that when he first saw Gary Oldman he naively thought that he was a janitor. Well, Oldman is a man of many talents.
Watch our previous interview with Kenneth Branagh here:
The optimism surrounding Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets slowly faded away as the film series shifted into a new and darker era. Columbus passed the reins to Cuarón who interpreted the Prisoner of Azkaban book as Harry, Ron, and Hermione “passing the threshold between childhood and their teenage years.” A cloud overshadows Harry, which Cuarón conveyed stylistically as a representation of how dementors suck the souls out of their victims.
Cuarón was the first director to assign Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint homework and truly treated them as teenagers. The three were to write essays in character and turn them in. Watson wrote twelve pages, beautifully written quite characteristically, Radcliffe wrote one solid page that he felt was sufficient, and Grint wrote nothing. Cuarón says that the excuse Grint gave him was, “I thought that Ron wouldn’t do it.”
Prisoner of Azkaban was a turning point for the teenagers’ development as actors, due to the fact that they were provided the task to film a pivotal scene in the Shrieking Shack opposite acting giants Alan Rickman, David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), and Gary Oldman. Radcliffe talked to Watson and Grint about being in awe of Oldman when he joined the cast, and Watson vividly remembered Radcliffe telling her, “Listen, Emma, you need to be cool.”
Cuarón and David Yates look back on how Oldman generously embraced Radcliffe and included him in the acting process. The way in which Harry and Sirius’s relationship unfolds paralleled Radcliffe and Oldman’s connection. Oldman can appear to be a daunting person at first glance, when, in reality, he is as agreeable and charming as Sirius Black. He had a natural paternal energy towards Radcliffe. As Cuarón says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Goblet of Fire, when magic was in the air. Mike Newell’s film introduced romance to the Harry Potter universe, and it was dealt with realistically, not shying away from the awkward phase every teenager faces. Radcliffe found that channeling his inherent awkwardness wasn’t necessarily an acting challenge to surmount. Grint recollected those years as “a lot of hormones flying around,” particularly with the two massive groups of purposefully good-looking people entering Hogwarts, the Beauxbatons girls and Durmstrang boys.
It was comforting for fellow self-conscious teenagers who felt out of place to watch the film’s three heroes struggle with self confidence and undergo emotional change. Lewis stated further that the actors themselves were crushing on and dating one another. “We were literally having the same experiences.”
The anxieties and insecurities that are born from a high school setting circulate the students at Hogwarts when they must ask one another to their first school dance, the Yule Ball. From Radcliffe’s rigid dancing with Katie Cheung to Emma Watson learning how to gracefully walk down stairs, without falling, in her Cinderella, “duckling becomes a swan” moment, Goblet of Fire illustrates the innocence of young love.
Soon, this romanticized reality comes to a crashing halt. Mike Newell concludes this section with, “The moment of Cedric Diggory’s death is the moment the series comes of age. The children have left childhood and must face the perils of adulthood.” This was an eye-opening experience for any kid who watched this scene. For many, it was the first time seeing someone so young greet death. It is a tragically powerful image one never forgets.
Order and the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince required an even darker mood, for the world of Harry Potter evolved into a divided political environment where Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s actions had the power to influence major events. One may argue that this is the most emotionally exhausting story for Harry, who shows signs of trauma after having witnessed the murder of a peer his own age, caused by his sworn enemy Lord Voldemort. It’s when he feels the most alone and distant from everyone in the entire series, despite his friends being at his side and offering their support. Interestingly, at that time, Radcliffe himself was dealing with his own problems, as were Grint and Watson.
Watson rediscovered a diary she kept during production and said, “I could see at times I was lonely.” Responding to Watson’s feelings during this period, he noted that while Radcliffe and Grint had each other to depend on, and Felton himself had his “cronies.” Watson was younger and all by herself. Nobody fully understood everything she was burdened with as a young female icon and star.
Radcliffe explained that because they were so young, it never occurred to them to ask one another how they were doing amid the success: “As a 14-year-old boy, I was never going to turn around to another 14-year-old and be like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Is everything ok?’”
At times, Grint himself wondered what his life would look like if he “called it a day” and said, “I feel like I lost track of who I was and who the character was. I didn’t really know where they ended or began. Even my name didn’t feel like my name. I felt I only knew how to do one thing. I knew how to play Ron.”
At the heart of Harry Potter is an alliance of friends, offering as Carter describes, “a great relief of loneliness.” This can be seen in Evanna Lynch’s unique path to Luna Lovegood. As someone who saw herself an outsider, Lynch appreciated Rowling’s “secret world of oddballs,” so she wrote the acclaimed author a letter saying, “I would find life a bit hopeless without Harry Potter.” Years later, she took a chance at a cattle call audition and won the part with her uncanny performance as the spacey and lovable Ravenclaw.
The special is full of overwhelming waves of nostalgia that will surely make every Potterhead tear up. The most moving section is when the cast pays tribute to the main actors who have sadly passed on, Richard Harris, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Helen McCrory, and Alan Rickman. With his voice breaking, Felton reflected on his wonderful bond with McCrory, who played his mother, and how much she meant to him. Radcliffe and Columbus laughed over having tricked Richard Harris into believing that Fawkes was a real phoenix. Emma Watson shared how the late Alan Rickman never treated her as a child, and Fiennes named him a “magician” when acting.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” – Albus Dumbledore
The actors and crew members who have left us too soon left an indelible mark on our hearts, and the special honors their contributions to the franchise by beautifully listing their names across The Great Hall’s bewitched night sky. Raise your wands.
As the Harry Potter series came to a close, the franchise transformed into an earthier and more visceral version of the magical world, an aesthetic that suited this sad farewell. Whether it be Hermione and Ron’s first kiss, a long-awaited moment for Potterheads – mostly for Radcliffe whose mischief was assuredly not managed on set – Snape’s backstory finally unveiled, revealing he was a hero all along, or underdog Neville Longbottom saving the day by destroying a horcrux, resembling Lewis’s own route to self-confidence, the Deathly Hallows movies were wholly satisfactory for the fans and the actors, who had to bid adieu to characters they had been playing for ten years. The Harry Potter movies were a cinematic accomplishment, but the goodbye was bittersweet.
This powerful, collective emotion is expressed in the final interviews. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint sat down together in what may be the most touching part of the special. Watson, without trying to get emotional, said, “You are like a pillar in my life.” Rupert responded, “I’ve watched you grow up. We’ve watched each other grow up. We grew up together. We’re a family. I love you.” Is there a spell to reverse tears? No? Bring out the tissues. “As a friend.” Rupert assured. Classic Ron.
In her own interview, Watson completely broke down, saying, “It’s just the best, most amazing experience. I can’t really explain to you, like they’re such good people. They’re so kind. They both took their responsibilities really seriously. I appreciated that so much.”
Radcliffe, visibly emotional, concluded, “The crew on these films were unbelievable. There are people on these films that are… are foundation to who I am, as a person and an actor. I feel so lucky to be where I am and to have the life that I have and be able to work with the people I work with now. But none of it is possible without this… It was a very good ten years.”
If you were ever a Potter fan or a child who believed in a world where witches and wizards could find camaraderie and love, you were crying along with them. Anyone could tell that twenty years later our Golden Trio is still inseparable, forever intrinsically linked by Harry Potter.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
Reaching my twentieth birthday this year, I see that Harry Potter has always been a part of my life and always will be. From the age of nine, I completely redesigned my room to appear as if it were taken right out of a Harry Potter novel. My parents, or shall I say Santa Claus, constructed a wooden castle as my bed. The top floor is where I slept, and below I created my very own Gryffindor Common Room. I attained every piece of Harry Potter merchandise you could imagine, thanks to Whimsic Alley, a store akin to Diagon Alley that I frequented many a time. My room exploded with Potterhead geekdom.
My mother would throw spectacular Harry Potter parties for Halloween. Our living room transformed into The Great Hall, complete with candles hanging from the ceiling and house flags flying. Long tables were covered in confections, chicken legs, and corn for each Hogwarts house. My dad would dress as Professor Snape, and being the amazing impressionist he is, spooked the kids with his eerily accurate Alan Rickman impression. My mother would dress up as Professor McGonnagall or Professor Trelawney and place the students into their houses with our very own Sorting Hat. (If I remember correctly, I dressed up as Hermione three years in a row.)
Ever since kindergarten, I awaited the highly-anticipated school event that every fifth grader has the privilege of enjoying which was… Harry Potter Day. Of course, most of the decorations utilized for the event were from my own collection, acquired over the ten years of my early life. I was placed into Gryffindor – fate, right? I won the Potter quiz and was assigned the Gryffindor prefect. Slytherin may have won the House Cup, which was actually the TriWizard Cup, I might add, but that was probably the best day of elementary school.
As I grew older and aspired to be a journalist, I began to see in person, meet, and sometimes interview some of my Harry Potter idols on red carpets, like Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, Kenneth Branagh, Alfred Enoch, Tom Felton and Emma Watson. I also covered different Harry Potter events, like the opening of The Fantastic Beasts exhibit or The Universal Studios Hollywood Christmas at Hogwarts event.
Harry Potter has brought magic into all of our lives. I believe it is so loved because of its compassion and relatability. When we had school principals, Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint had directors. When we had teachers, they had acting legends teaching them the ropes of acting. At our core, we are all the same. We all go through the different stages of life. We all encounter grief. We all feel happiness. As someone who often struggled to find my place, I found friendship with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I knew that Hogwarts would be a home for me. Always.
Watch Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts now streaming on HBO Max.
Juliette Boland is Harvard Prize recipient, a four-time National Arts & Entertainment Journalism and Southern California Journalism Award winner and a proud member of Los Angeles Press Club. Juliette is a sophomore at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.