Fourteen years ago the question of which director would be responsible for bringing the 'Harry Potter' franchise to the big screen was one of the most debated film topics. Chris Columbus got the job, but Terry Gilliam wanted it and the director expressed his annoyance at not be given the role at the time. Now with the benefit of hindsight who really would have been better at taking on the unenviable task of directing 'Harry Potter'.
Could Terry Gilliam have done a better job than Chris Columbus?
Who ever was given the task of bringing ‘Harry Potter’ to life onscreen for the first time was going to be carrying the hopes and expectations of millions children all over the world. This meant that the task of picking the first director would not be easy. Among the names talked about early on, were Steven Spielberg, (who wished to animate the films), Tim Robbins and M. Night Shyamalan. However Rowling’s personal pick was Terry Gilliam, whom the author was a fan of. Gilliam said in 2006 that he was the ‘perfect guy’ to direct ‘Harry Potter’, but the gig went to Chris Columbus.
Gilliam definitely had an impressive back catalogue, especially in the fantasy genre. Looking at ‘Time Bandits’ and his later works ‘Brothers Grimm’ and ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’, it’s clear Gilliam would have had the imagination to bring the ‘Harry Potter’ books to life on screen. Columbus’s previous work was less impressive. Yes ‘Home Alone’, ‘Home Alone 2’ and ‘Mrs Doubtfire.’ were box office hits aimed at a younger audience, but they were a far cry from a story with as much depth and imagination as 'Harry Potter'. What was in Columbus’s favour though was that he had written two eighties cult classics, ‘Gremlins’ and ‘The Goonies’.
What went against Gilliam was more his reputation especially when it came to budgetary matters.
Gilliam had a reputation of making movies with extremely inflated budgets, for example ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, which cost around $46 million to make and earned only about $8 million at the box office. This meant it was incredibly unlikely that Wanner Brothers would take a risk with Gilliam, especially as they were lining up the ‘Harry Potter’ movies to be a huge money making franchise.
The cast of Harry Potter, all grown up
After the release of Columbus’s two ‘Harry Potter’ movies, Gilliam, who may still have been bitter, labeled them “shite”, saying, “the first two I thought were just shite. They missed the whole point of it; they missed the magic of it” in a 2006 interview. Some did agree, feeling that Columbus was too safe a choice to take on the ‘Harry Potter’ magic and made it too simplistic and aimed too much at the younger audience. Gilliam later told the BBC One Show, he “knew the studio would never hire me because they wanted a safe pair of hands, ones that would do what they wanted”.
Granted Columbus may have been a ‘safe choice’ for ‘Harry Potter’ and may have not delivered the massive ‘wow’ factor some were looking for in the first movies, its not to say he didn’t do a very good job. The first two movies, set up the franchise and allowed for future movies to grow and develop. Columbus laid out the ‘Harry Potter; story in the simplistic way and allowed viewers to get to know the characters they’d be following for the next eight years of their lives. Gilliam may have had a bigger imagination but he could have ended up making the films too ‘Gilliam’ and not enough ‘Harry Potter’.
Gilliam has since expressed his relief that he didn't get the ‘Harry Potter’ gig in the end. Speaking to The Guardian in 2009, the director said not getting the job was one of his lucky moments, adding That was one of my lucky moments," he told Total Film magazine. "I would have gone crazy. It's a fucking factory, working on Harry Potter. It is. The studios are staking everything on the success of those movies.” He would go on to explain that the major financial expectations of the movies would have stifled his creativity.
Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter films
It’s hard to say if Chris Columbus really was the best choice to direct ‘Harry Potter’, who knows what someone like Tim Robbins or M. Night Shyamalan would have done. However it is probably better that Terry Gilliam didn't get chance to start off the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise. With so much riding on these movies he didn't exactly have the best track record to be able to handle the financial implications. It’s also worth remembering that the ‘Harry Potter’ was always going to be an eight part series and different directors would have been involved and having such an individualistic director right at the beginning may not have been the best idea.