Steven Spielberg Nearly Directed an Animated Version
Feb 15, 2023
Today, it’s hard to imagine physical versions of the Harry Potter characters that aren’t inhabited by actors like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, or Rupert Grint. Over eight movies, these performers and so many others have been cemented as the de facto image of iconic figures from this series. But long before the Horcruxes and the Sorting Hat graced the silver screen, there was a point in time when Harry Potter was just one of an infinite number of popular children’s books hankering for a feature film adaptation. This is where a prospective animated take on the material from director Steven Spielberg comes into play. A bizarre yet intriguing idea for a Harry Potter adaptation that never came to pass, this proposed project can’t help but capture the fascination of both Potter fans and skeptics alike.
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Spielberg’s potential participation in the very first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, dates back to 1999 shortly after Warner Bros. secured the film rights to the original book series. The New York Post reported that Steven Spielberg was a top name in consideration for the project, while a spokesperson for the filmmaker noted that, while the director was indeed interested in helming Sorcerer’s Stone, “so are a lot of other guys.”
RELATED: It’s Time to Acknowledge the True Hero of ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’
Steven Spielberg Wasn’t the Only Director Who Wanted to Adapt ‘Harry Potter’
It’s obvious why any studio would be interested in having Spielberg directing any movie but seeing his name alongside the likes of Jonathan Demme and Rob Reiner indicated that Warner Bros. was interested in attaching a big name to adapt such a beloved property. This initial collection of prospective directors, including Spielberg, was also comprised exclusively of American filmmakers, a contrast to how the cast for the Harry Potter films was mandated to be British. Spielberg fit within all the norms established for a potential Sorcerer’s Stone director while his experience on the likes of Jaws and Jurassic Park showed he had extensive experience helming lucrative film adaptations of books.
Despite seeming like a top-notch candidate for the gig, Spielberg would eventually pass on the opportunity to helm the first Harry Potter movie in February 2000. At the time, Spielberg merely said that his decision to turn down Sorcerer’s Stone simply came down to him wanting to pursue other projects. He would later expand on this decision by saying that this directorial gig offered no real challenges for him.
Image Via Warner Bros.
Why Did Spielberg Turn Down ‘Harry Potter’?
In the years that followed, more details came out about what led to Spielberg and Harry Potter parting ways. For one thing, former Warner Bros. president Alan Horn would reveal in 2011 that Spielberg was keen on wanting to make this project in animation. Inspired by the then-breakthrough projects at Pixar and the prospect of translating a fantastical world into live-action, Spielberg apparently was interested in making Sorcerer’s Stone his first fully animated directorial effort.
Steven Spielberg Wanted to Make ‘Harry Potter’ an Animated Movie
It’s understandable why anyone circa. 1999 would believe that the magical stories of The Boy Who Lived could be only properly realized through animation given the limitations of visual effects in this era. This inclination towards animated filmmaking could also be a reflection of Spielberg’s creative pursuits in the preceding decades. Between founding the short-lived animation studio Amblimation and being an executive producer on a wave of Warner Bros. cartoon TV shows like Animaniacs, Spielberg was deeply immersed in the world of animation at this point in his career. It would make sense for him to want to take this artform and apply it to this pre-established world.
Additionally, his approach to the production would’ve incorporated multiple books rather than just focusing on Sorcerer’s Stone. This tactic reflects how different Sorcerer’s Stone was from the other book adaptations Spielberg had helmed in the past. When they were originally published, the Jaws and Jurassic Park novels had no sequels. Neither project had a slew of further movies to set up, they could function as standalone projects. This meant that Spielberg could pick and choose what material he wanted to include and exclude from the source material without worrying about jeopardizing potential sequels. Even many of Spielberg’s post-Sorcerer’s Stone book adaptations, such as War of the Worlds or The BFG, are standalone works that allow the filmmaker more flexibility in his creative process.
Warner Bros. DId Not Agree With Spielberg’s Vision
Mixing together Harry Potter books into one feature would’ve proven divisive to fans, but it’s easy to see how such an approach would fit into Spielberg’s wheelhouse as a filmmaker. This inclination may speak loudest as to why Spielberg never got the Sorcerer’s Stone directing gig. As pointed out by an unnamed Warner Bros. executive in an Entertainment Weekly article from March 2000, the fact that Spielberg would’ve had to be so slavishly devoted to the source material meant “it wasn’t going to be his vision.” Plus, Spielberg further set himself against the creative aspirations of Warner Bros. by his reported desire to cast Haley Joel Osment as Harry Potter, which ran against the hopes of the producers to have someone from Britain play the part.
Spielberg Was Tied to DreamWorks SKG
Another external detail that doubtlessly played a role in Spielberg departing Sorcerer’s Stone was who was producing the movie. This adaptation would be done at Warner Bros., a studio that Spielberg had a lengthy history with (and was even making A.I.: Artificial Intelligence for them while he was being considered for this prestigious gig). However, in 2001, Spielberg’s new movie studio DreamWorks SKG was in its nascent years and, though far from devoid of hits, still needed as many Spielberg movies as possible. Save for The Lost World: Jurassic Park, each Spielberg directorial effort from 1997 to 2007 was made with DreamWorks SKG in some capacity.
The Harry Potter movies, meanwhile, were firmly rooted at Warner Bros, a studio that wasn’t about to split the potential profits of this adaptation with another company. If DreamWorks had scored the Harry Potter film rights, Spielberg probably would’ve considered taking on a less risky directing assignment just to ensure his new studio a big hit. But without the extra incentive of getting to give DreamWorks a big boost, Spielberg had one less reason to pursue the Sorcerer’s Stone directing job. This was just one of many reasons Spielberg was at the wrong place and the wrong time in his career to tackle The Boy Who Lived.
Chris Columbus Stayed (Too) Close to the Source Material
Once Spielberg left Sorcerer’s Stone, the directing hunt for this project went on, with Chris Columbus eventually securing the gig in March 2000. Interestingly, Columbus was a key creative voice on iconic projects from Spielberg’s Amblin Productions, as he had penned the screenplays for Gremlins and The Goonies. Harry Potter and friends wouldn’t be helmed by Spielberg, but they would at least be getting someone who had worked extensively with that iconic filmmaker.
Columbus’s eventual work on Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets reflected much of the intended creative aim of this series, particularly the slavish devotion to the source material. In fact, Chamber of Secrets sparked criticism from some corners for being too dedicated to the text at the expense of delivering a properly paced motion picture. While Spielberg was willing to tweak these books when translating them to the screen, Columbus, for better and for worse, was much more interested in preserving everything.
Image Via Paramount Pictures
Steven Spielberg’s Forray Into Animation
As for Spielberg, his filmmaking career continued to flourish even after his chance to direct Sorcerer’s Stone went up in smoke. Interestingly, some of his subsequent projects seemed to use bits and pieces of his creative ambitions for this original Harry Potter title. For one thing, Spielberg and Osment would join forces for A.I.: Artificial Intelligence in 2001. Meanwhile, Spielberg’s ambitions to direct a fully animated film adaptation of a famous European literary character that mixes and matches multiple installments of one series would come to pass…but on The Adventures of Tintin.
Though certainly not as popular as a prospective Spielberg-directed Sorcerer’s Stone adaptation would be, Tintin did show off the kind of visual imagination and stylized sensibility that made it apparent why this filmmaker was so entranced by this medium of storytelling. Interestingly, Spielberg would make another spiritual successor to his unmade Harry Potter film in 2016 with The BFG, which was also drawn from European literature aimed at youngsters. While a live-action human would serve as the film’s protagonist, The BFG was largely an entirely CGI affair, which allowed the film to feature as many enormous and intimidating giants as Spielberg could imagine.
The BFG and Tintin suggest that Spielberg never eschewed his notion that extremely over-the-top children’s literature is best-realized within either an entirely animated or larger animated space. It’s anyone’s guess why this is, though Spielberg’s experiences on Hook may provide some explanation. In a 2011 retrospective interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg noted that one of his greatest regrets on that take on the Peter Pan mythos was the look of Neverland. Spielberg wished he could’ve made the film decades later when he had digital technology to make this fantastical domain seem expansive, with the underwhelming limited environments in Hook’s final cut still haunting Spielberg years later.
We Can’t Help But Wonder
Considering this experience, some key elements of Spielberg’s vision for Harry Potter begin to fall into place. Namely, he saw making a fully-animated version of Hogwarts as an easy way to overcome the struggles he’d endured realizing Hook in the realm of live-action storytelling. That makes it clear why Spielberg was so enamored with animation on this prospective feature as well as his 2010s works like The BFG. Ruminating on Hook also had to play some part in Spielberg’s decision to pass on Sorcerer’s Stone. His negative experience working on that fantasy children’s film, which also starred a beloved fictional character that everyone has preconceived expectations for, no doubt made the idea of working on other standalone motion pictures all the more alluring.
Still, even considering the countless logical reasons Spielberg turned down this blockbuster movie, it’s impossible not to wonder how Spielberg’s storytelling sensibilities would’ve translated in this fictional world. Maybe it would’ve been an odd fit, or perhaps this would’ve ended up being another slam-dunk Spielberg movie based on a popular piece of literature. It also makes one wonder what his Sorcerer’s Stone could’ve looked like, though, admittedly, Spielberg’s approach would’ve robbed the world of genuinely great Harry Potter sequels like Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban. Fans of this franchise didn’t do so badly when it comes to the original eight Harry Potter titles, though the prospect of an unmade Spielberg adaptation can’t help but occupy one’s imagination nonetheless.
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