McNamara, Mary. "When Steve Met Harry: If the magic works, Steve Kloves writes happily ever-after as Harry Potter's sorcerer and J.K. Rowlings' collaborator." Written By, November 2001.

It was the seventh item in the package, the last book synopsis in a stack Warner Bros. had sent to Steve Kloves on the unlikely chance that he would like one. Having just taken Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys to the screen, Kloves wasn't really looking for another novel to adapt. He wanted his next project to be an original work, something he had written, something he could direct. So it was a bit of a miracle that he even opened the package (he often didn't), and it was certainly remarkable that he actually read what was inside.

"I don't have a great history of reading coverage," Kloves says. "I have a tendency to throw them away." And indeed, as he flicked through the pile he thought, No, no, no, sigh, no.

But seven is an odd number, a charmed number, and when he came to the last little write-up, a British book he had never heard of, he was, in fact, oddly charmed. He called his agent, who was delighted. The book was apparently a bit of a thing in the UK, was becoming quite popular in the United States, although the title here was different. Philosopher had been replaced by Sorcerer, but everything else was essentially the same. He would certainly send Kloves a copy. Don't bother, Kloves said, he'd pick one up at the bookstore. And within an hour or so, he had.

And this is how Steve Kloves met Harry Potter.

Harry Potter, he of the lightning-bolt scar, who, with the aid of friends and fellow wizardry students Hermione and Ron, has repeatedly saved the world from the dastardly Lord Voldemort. Harry Potter, Quidditch-seeker supreme, who has sold more books and tie-in accoutrement--spectacles! candy! magic journals! Hogwarts sweatshirts!--than any character this side of Oz.

That Harry Potter.

"When I first read the book, if you had a child of a certain age, you probably knew who Harry Potter was," Kloves says. His two children, at the time six and three, were a bit too young. "Then if you had a child of any age, you knew who Harry Potter was. And a few months later, if you were alive on the planet, you knew who Harry Potter was. It was a bizarre thing to watch unfold, but it was good that I read the book when I did. I got a clean read."

Sometime between "child of a certain age" and "a child of any age," Kloves agreed to write the screenplay for Warner Bros.' production of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. At the time, he didn't realize the epic proportions of his decision. He did not realize he would be responsible for bringing to cinematic life the biggest thing to hit children's literature since E. Nesbit. He did not realize that Harry Potter was not so much a character as an alternate universe, that the Sorcerer's Stone was not so much a book as the beginning of an oeuvre.

"I thought at the time this would be a wonderful world to live in for a few months," he says, laughing. "That was two-and-a-half years ago."

And he's not even close to being done. Because somewhere between "a child of any age" and "alive on the planet," the studio decided to get moving on J.K. Rowling's next two books: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Akzaban. Kloves was asked to adapt them as well. The script for number two, he says, is in pretty good shape, and he's about to start on number three. He has said publicly that he would kill to do number four. At this rate, he should be done with Harry sometime before his oldest child enters high school. Of course, if the movies are as popular as the books are, well, we're back at that odd magical number again. Rowling has promised seven books, one for each year required before graduation from Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft; she's at work on number five now.

"It's the only time I've ever been involved in a story without an ending," he says. "I don't know how the whole story ends yet, and that's a very strange thing."

A Boy's Life

Not quite as strange, perhaps, as his being involved at all. There is little in Kloves' career to suggest a Harry Potter predilection, save his seeming affection for movies about "boys." Nothing, certainly, to foreshadow a years-long commitment to the story of an 11-year-old who discovers that magic, of the flying-broomsticks-bubbling-caldron variety, is very real. Kloves belongs to the "small but critically acclaimed" category--Shoot the Moon, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Flesh and Bone--movies about adults, vividly real and often quite flawed adults, with no magic allowed save that of love and self-revelation. Wonder Boys was his first shot at adaptation and earned him an Oscar nomination, but the only mysterious thing about the film was its low box-office numbers, the only mystical aspect, the almost constant presence of marijuana. Yes, much of the story took place in an academic setting, but a small liberal arts college is nothing like Hogwarts--no annoying poltergeists of any type, no talking paintings, no dragons or unicorns lurking on the grounds, no three-headed dogs guarding the elixir of life, and certainly no Quidditch.

Steve Kloves
Photo by JIlly Wendell

(For the three people in the universe who remain unfamiliar with Rowling's work, Quidditch is the official game of magic academia. It is a bit like rugby, a bit like lacrosse, and it is played on broomsticks. It is one of the main reasons Rowlings has longed for the film version of the work; she too can hardly wait to see what a Quidditch match really looks like.)

The idea of otherwise ordinary kids attending a school for witches and wizards is rife for really nifty things--photographs that move, letters that scream, spells that go embarrassingly awry--but it wasn't anything whimsical that moved Kloves to accept the assignment. He did not nurse a secret lifelong love of fantasy, or even science fiction. Certainly, he believes in the existence of alternate universes--he had wanted to be a filmmaker since he was a watchful young thing in the growing suburban sprawl of what is now Silicon Valley--but his concept of "alternate" has been driven more by the psyche, less by a magical train. And that, he says, is where the book got him.

The most difficult thing about fantasy of any sort is to make the alternate world believable enough, the characters real enough, for the audience to connect with them, and through that connect to form a bridge between this world and that. The extraordinary success of the Harry Potter series is proof that Rowlings has done just that--her characters are realistic even in the most outlandish settings, her tone matter-of-fact whether describing Harry's reaction to learning about the death of his parents, his curriculum that includes levitation, or the developmental stages of a dragon. Rowlings' descriptions are never lavish; even her sentence structure is simple and to the point. It's just that what she is writing about happens to be fantastic. And the character of Harry is experiencing the unfolding of the fantasy just as the reader is, just as Kloves did--with no prior knowledge.

"I confessed to Jo right away that I wasn't a fan of fantasy," he says. "She said, 'Relax, neither am I.' I just really responded to it instantly, the same way everyone has. It is just such an imaginative world and so recognizable emotionally. Jo is so skilled at finding the exact proper detail to evoke a place or a feeling. The kids feel like real kids, who just happen to be witches and wizards. I was just blown away."

In hindsight, it would seem that adapting Harry Potter was simply a task no screenwriter in his right mind could turn down. As well-regarded as Kloves is as a filmmaker (and he is, enormously), it might seem to some that he was looking to crash out of the "good reviews, small numbers" box. Yet, as he began to work, the rest of the country fell to its knees in front of the character whose mind he was trying to decipher. Suggestions for casting and scenery, plot points and character shifts, filled the press and the Internet. It was as unsettling as it was satisfying. Certainly, Kloves is thrilled to be working on a project for which there is a built-in audience filled with anticipation, and the project's unbelievable marketing doesn't hurt either.

"Billboards," he says. "Imagine. No other film of mine has ever had billboards. And merchandising . . ." He shakes his head, looks at the ground. It seems a characteristic gesture. With a sideway glance that often as not drops to the floor, Kloves does not exactly exude toothy Hollywood self-promotion. He doesn't call you by your first name 700 times from the moment he meets you, nor does he seem to carry cell phone, beeper, global satellite system, or any other electronic accoutrement designed to make his connectedness instantly clear. He waits until a question has been asked before answering it and thinks for moment before he speaks. Even his smile is charmingly right-sized, a sly hitch of lip that's gone almost before it's there.

It isn't difficult to see the watchful boy in the man, even now. But it's hard to think of Kloves being part of Potter-mania.

But it's not called -mania for nothing, and with the hype has come hysteria, speculation over what the film may have left out, or added, or just mucked about with. People feel very strongly about Harry Potter, and not just people: children. With their infamous unwavering gaze and ability to spot the insincere, the imitation. It is the hardest audience to please. Kids don't put up with a dumb plot because it's nice to see Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in just about anything or because the cinematography is breathtaking. A movie is either great, or it stinks. Just ask the folks with Atlantis jeans jackets tucked in their closets. And if Harry Potter stinks, forget the Warner Bros. suits. The kids are going to demand a head or two, and not just from John Cleese's character, the ghost Nearly Headless Nick.

This is one of the reasons Kloves' script has a security clearance somewhere between that of classified and for god's eyes only. No, he can't share it today, not even in the haven of the Writers Guild, where he is settling between a turkey sandwich and rolling tape recorder. No, not even a few pages. Maybe later, maybe the really unimportant ones. But for now, no script pages allowed.

"I'm sorry," he explains. "I know it's very weird, but it's very weird. There's so much expectation. People are obsessed. We don't want people making up their minds about it before they see it." That said, he hopes that everyone realizes that to include every single thing that made the book special would make the movie unbearable, and about 15 hours long. "It's always the hardest part: figuring out what to leave out."

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Certainly Wonder Boys proved Kloves' ability to make fairly significant alterations to a narrative while remaining true-blue loyal to both characters and story. His admiration for novelist Michael Chabon seems limitless--"He's one of the best dialogue writers I've ever read, one of the best writers alive"--and Chabon was reportedly very happy with Kloves' script. Chabon has, however, chosen to adapt his own Pulitzer Prize­winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay. Chabon learned the craft, he has said, by watching Kloves, a compliment that, like many compliments, Kloves has a hard time accepting. "Michael can do anything as a writer. He is just incredibly gifted. I'm just pissed off [by his decision] because I would love to adapt Michael's stuff forever."

Harry is, of course, the most difficult character to write. Although completely believable, he is an enigmatic young boy, hard to read, harder still to give voice to. The Sorcerer's Stone is almost completely his story, moving from the audience's discovery of this unusual orphaned boy who lives with his most objectionably "normal" aunt, uncle, and cousin, through his discovery that nothing, not even he, is what it seems.
The Wonder Boys script taught Kloves a lot about nature versus nurture, as it applies to a writer's feelings about characters. Although in an original script one conjures the characters from nothing, taking someone else's apparitions and making them live cinematically turns out to be not all that different, emotionally. "The loyalty is very much the same," he says. "Jo Rowling created these characters, this world, but I've been carrying Hogwarts in my head for the past two years, and I love [these kids] as much as if they were mine."

Like any love, this is both a gift and an Achille's heel. Pruning someone else's work, shifting plot or dialogue to suit the differing needs of a screenplay, turned out to be harder than dealing with creatures of his own invention. "You're killing someone's little darlings, someone else's little darlings," he says, "and that was harder somehow."

Not because he was afraid of Rowling's disapproval, but of his own. Rowling was his biggest asset, he says, available for any question, no matter how small, willing to read a draft, a page, a snip of dialogue. Not every screenwriter wants input from the author of the original book, especially when the author is still smack-dab in the middle of the creative process, still working with the characters and the themes, watching carefully their past as she propels them through their future, to their destiny. The only time Rowling said words like "don't" or "can't," Kloves says, is when he would tweak references made in book one to characters who would, or would not, appear in later stories.

"I would get these intuitions," he says, "about certain conversations between the characters, about things that might turn out to be very important. And sometimes I would drop things into the script. I had added one reference about the character Sirius Black; Jo said 'No, you can't do that because something's going to happen that will show that's not possible.' But she was always very helpful and her knowledge of her characters, of this world, is just amazing. I'd ask her any question, and she'd never miss a beat--she knows about the development of the broom over the centuries, or of Quidditch, and this is before she put out those little books for fun. What she knows goes to the center of the Earth. The books are just the surface."

As much as Rowlings would share, there is plenty she would not. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how many angles he approached it from, Kloves could not pry one hint, one breath of a hint about what's in store for the characters he has come to love so much.

"Oh, she knows," he says, laughing, "she knows already what's going to happen. Who's going to be left. After Goblet of Fire [in which a character dies] came out, she said, 'They've not seen anything yet.' And you would think she would tell me something, since I am writing it. But she won't. Nothing. And I've tried. I've been on the phone with her for hours talking about all sorts of things, and then I'll slip a question in about the future, and she'll say, 'Sorry, can't tell you that.' Very pleasant. With a smile. But maddening all the same."

Not maddening enough to make him turn down the adaptations for two and three, or make it clear he's up for four, however. "The first film was such a collaborative experience it seemed quite natural to continue on," he says. "And I loved the world so much that I didn't want to say goodbye. Of course," he adds, "now I'm so deep into it that someone at a party will ask me a question about Harry and I'm talking for 12 minutes while they're blinking and saying something like, 'Wow, you're really into this.'"

Character Possession

Harry is, of course, the most difficult character to write. Although completely believable, he is an enigmatic young boy, hard to read, harder still to give voice to. The Sorcerer's Stone is almost completely his story, moving from the audience's discovery of this unusual orphaned boy who lives with his most objectionably "normal" aunt, uncle, and cousin, through his discovery that nothing, not even he, is what it seems. His parents did not die in a car crash; they were a witch and wizard who were killed by an evil wizard-gone-bad, who died in his attempt to kill the infant Harry. Harry himself is a nascent wizard and now that he is 11 must begin his course of study at the internationally acclaimed Hogwarts.

"Harry goes from this essentially monochromatic world to one of such dazzling brilliance," says Kloves. "And Harry is difficult to know. He is a watcher. He doesn't speak all that much, but when he does, it's important. Maybe that's why I identify with him. Because as a writer, I am also a watcher."

Writing for children, he says, has been an extraordinary experience. "I don't know why, but there is something really wonderful about hearing lines you have written said by children. It was very liberating in that children don't edit themselves like adults. With my adult characters, particularly with the men, you have to think so much about what they don't say. Children edit themselves, but differently."

The success of the movie, he says, rests not on how well they have reproduced the sorting hat or even the Quidditch match, but on whether the audience identifies with Harry and his best friends, Hermione and Ron, characters as complicated and multilayered as any adult he's ever met.

"Children in general are just as deep and interesting as adults," he says. "I remember when I wrote Baker Boys, I was concerned that I had made the little girl too clever. Then I had children of my own, and I realized I hadn't made her clever enough. And these three are different in that they have a calling. They have been told what they are going to be. Even in these days of hyperconcerned parents, most kids are just being kids. And these kids are on a path. They're very serious."

That, more than Harry's watchfulness and reticence, might be the ultimate connection between the author of Flesh and Bone and the main character in Harry Potter: an early-born sense of purpose. Kloves dropped out of college in his sophomore year to pursue a screenwriting career--at 19, he already had a screenplay circulating through all the right hands. The story of a suburban housewife who is going slightly mad took the industry by surprise, not so much because of its topic but because of its author.

"They all expected it was written by some middle-aged woman," Kloves says. "So I think the hottest thing about it was it was written by a 19-year-old boy."

That script never made it into production, but it led to the highly acclaimed Race With the Moon, which made Kloves, who was 23 at the time of its release, a veritable wunderkind. Although he saw nothing but glowing reviews and open doors after the movie's release, he didn't exactly rush into the next project. No one thought of denying him the chance to write and direct his next two movies, and if it was six years between projects, then so be it.

And that is how he came to see himself, as a writer-director, whose projects required at least a three-year gestation period. This vision, he says now, kept him from recovering faster from the toll of the production and the disappointing reception of Flesh and Bone. "I needed a break, but I kept trying to develop something. If I had just consciously taken a break, it probably wouldn't have taken so long. I looked up and three, four years had slipped by. Then Wonder Boys landed on my desk, and it made me interested in writing again. But I told them I was only signing up for the writing."

Kloves toyed with the idea of directing as well, but it was not a good time, he says. His daughter was starting kindergarten, and he didn't feel compelled to direct. At the same time, he was loath to see the wrong person direct it, so he held onto the script a bit longer than he might have. When he finally met with Wonder Boys director Curtis Hanson, he knew he had made the right decision. And he felt the same way when he met with Chris Columbus, although he had never imagined himself directing Harry Potter.

"I've been lucky both times," he says, "because both [directors Curtis Hanson and Chris Columbus] are writers themselves, so they know how to talk to a writer. Chris has been willing to listen to any idea, and he doesn't think it's right until we both agree it's right, which is great. Even if we've both signed off on something, I can always call Chris and say, 'Wait,' and he'll listen."

So when changes had to be made during production, Kloves, who was not on the set of Harry Potter, says he felt completely comfortable with the idea that Columbus was making them. Still, he has definitely had the urge to direct again. "If it hadn't been for Harry, I probably would have, in the past year or two. I have always thought of myself directing an original work--the idea of writing an original work and having someone else direct it . . ." His voice trails off. "But I don't want to imprison myself. I always said I wouldn't do adaptation either."

Watching the movie grow from the ground up has expanded his idea of the type of film he could direct. "I am still drawn to the character film, which this town curiously calls 'small.' And my wife will tell you, I only write about places no one wants to go to--lounges in Holiday Inns and hot, dry towns in West Texas."

With Harry, at least he got to take his family to London, and his kids were able to poke around on the set before shooting began. But they are less than impressed by their father's involvement in what potentially could be the children's movie of the decade.

"We try to downplay the whole movie thing," he says. "And for a while, when I was in London a lot, my daughter just saw it as the thing that took Daddy away."

He was greatly encouraged, however, by his daughter's response the first time she saw the trailer for the film. "She really perked up. She turned to me and said, 'Hey, Dad, this could be pretty good.' Best thing I could have heard."