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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: This Potter is darker, scarier

EVERYBODY KNOWS Harry Potter. Sounds a trifle exaggerated. But America and Hollywood thrive on such overstatements, pushed and peddled by big bucks and overwhelming publicity crusades. And such an allure is created, in effect only a mirage, that one tends to get sucked into a bottomless illusionary hole.

Well, everybody knows Harry Potter, perhaps much in the same way that everybody went to Rick's in the immortal wartime classic, "Casablanca." Or, so we were told, and we believed, deliriously drunk that we were with Humphrey Bogart's seductively suave style and Ingrid Bergman's legendary beauty and magnificent performance. But, "Casablanca" was undoubtedly one of celluloid's marvels.

Not quite Chris Columbus's second film on J. K. Rowling's series on the boy magician and his adventures at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets".

Yet, huge campaigns have ensured that Rowling (once a single mother, but now married) and the latest screen adaptation are kept under the constant glare of floodlights. The result, many urban kids the world over have read all that Rowling has written, and there was at least one 11-year-old boy at last week's Press screening in Chennai who said that he had already seen the "....Chamber of Secrets" a few months ago on cable television at his Kolkata home ! ``One of my friends has even read Rowling's yet to be published work on the net," he added.

The screening was about to begin when this writer got around talking to the little chap. Once the last of the frames had flashed past, one felt a little apprehensive about this Potter fare, which is darker, scarier and more violent than the first, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone".

Essentially meant for children or very young adults, the Columbus creation appears, at some level, unsuited for an impressionable mind.

A young colleague agreed , but she put a rider on this observation. ``Maybe people like us who have grown up with the Enid Blyton kind of images find it difficult to accept Rowling's or Columbus's idea of what should be written for or shown to teens. Besides, we live in violent times, when television beams right into our homes acts of barbaric brutality,'' she averred.

Columbus was saying merely this when he reacted to criticism against the movie's explicit content: ``But people who have read the book have a pretty graphic view of the action Rowling describes already in their minds. It was why we were not particularly concerned about the possibility of frightening kids. It is they who read the book who want to see the film and they know exactly what is coming''.

Thirteen-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Potter, said in reference to a scene in the movie when he picks up a sword and spears the serpent through the mouth ``if you take away the darkness, you have not done the tome justice. For me it was great to show Harry's dark side''.

This debate can go on endlessly, but the question one must ask oneself writers and helmers in particular is how wise would it be to try and further desensitise a child in a world where sadism and sorrow have become hot scripts for adult television and cinema. Which, incidentally, youngsters too watch.

This apart, the Potter screen series is facing other kinds of dilemma. Columbus will not direct the third movie. He might come back for the fourth, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" in 2004. He has gone back to his home in San Francisco he has been living in London with his wife and four children for three years and wants to refresh his creative juices and spend more time with his family before he attempts the fourth.

The young actors themselves may want to leave after the fourth episode, although Radcliffe said that ``it is quite a long way before we have to come to that decision''. Rupert Grint (also 13), who plays Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson (12, and as extraordinarily delightful Hermione Granger) seem less inclined to go beyond the fourth edition.

Disposition apart, there can be some very practical reasons why producers Warner Brothers may have to seek fresh faces. The death of Richard Harris, who was cast as Hogwarts' kind headmaster, has led to a frantic search for a replacement. Peter O'Toole, Richard Attenborough and Ian McKellen (from the "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers") are possible candidates.

Death is as inevitable as growing up. There was a delay in starting the filming of the third Rowling installment, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban", because the parents of Radcliffe asked for a break so that he could attend the first term at his new school. Watson's parents also wanted their daughter to study in a real classroom after two years in which the main child characters had been tutored on the set.

This interruption meant that the young stars would no longer be aging along with the characters. In fact, Radcliffe grew taller by eight inches, and his voice broke when the "... Chamber of Secrets" was being shot.

This is one of the first things one notices in the movie. Given the physical changes, one also does not miss the three-second hug between Harry and Hermione at almost the end. Will this become something bigger?

With the Mexican auteur, Alfonso Cuaron best known for his erotic coming-of-age film , "Y Tu Mama Tambien" wielding the megaphone for the third Potter fantasy, one never knows how the embrace will develop.

Finally, Warner Brothers must also understand that the seven films they are planning could get annoyingly repetitive. Even the latest, "... Chamber of Secrets", appears a little less exciting than the first.

Despite the boisterous clowning at the beginning where Harry's Muggle (people without magical qualities) guardians are ritualistically humiliated and the 'flying' car (remember Walt Disney's 1961 "The Absent Minded Professor" and his invention, `blubber' which fuels his vehicle to soar high above the ground) which Ron uses to rescue Potter, the "... Chamber of Secrets" is often heavy and plodding. The digital `induced' shots of an angry tree, a swarm of spiders and the slimy basilisk along with a rubber-computer animated elf and, of course, some great moments by Kenneth Branagh as a self-adoring teacher of defence against the dark arts, do render thrills, but somehow they seem rather routine.

What certainly needs to be corrected is the impression that Grint and most certainly Watson steal the attention away from Radcliffe, as he goes about unearthing a mystery, which lies in a chamber deep under his boarding school.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 25 2003)

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