In H’w’d, nothing’s hotter than ‘Potter’

Helmers chomping at script bit

A full month before the script version of this year’s hottest lit property has been delivered to WB, heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus, Jonathan Demme, Rob Reiner and Brad Silberling are jockeying to direct.

With three books leading the New York Times Best Seller List and almost 5 million copies in print, Harry Potter has become the biggest lit phenom in years and the most powerful kid in Hollywood.

Consider the numbers:

The initial volume, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by Joanne K. Rowling, has 1.6 million copies in print in the U.S. and is currently No. 3 on the New York Times list; sequel “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is at No. 2, with 1.8 million copies, and new arrival “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” will debut Sept. 26 at No. 1, already sporting 1.5 million copies after only two weeks in release, according to reps at Scholastic Press.

Pundits describe this as an unprecedented run for a children’s book.

Spielberg is reported to have “expressed very great interest in the piece,” according to insiders, though everyone’s very clear nobody has been tapped yet to be the creative guardian for Harry’s film adventure. “Flesh and Bone” scribe Steve Kloves is adapting.

The studio would not comment on those names, but insiders said they have already expressed interest.

‘Harry’ vs. ‘Hannibal’

Sources said Spielberg initially had been wooed by outgoing co-chairman-CEO Terry Semel to direct the Kloves script a few months ago once it became apparent the bespectacled Harry was steamrolling even Thomas Harris’ “Hannibal” on the best seller lists and was shaping up to be a one-kid Brit lit wave not seen here since J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” (However, that project took years to reach the screen.)

Producer David Heyman, whose London-based Heyday Films has a first-look deal with Warner Bros., acquired rights to the “Harry” books two years ago before the tyke magician phenomenon became full-blown in Old Blighty, and brought it to the studio’s VP Lionel Wigram. In the process, Heyman has also developed a close relationship with Edinburgh-based “Harry” scribe Rowling.

Though Brit and U.S. kids alike have come under the “Harry” spell, some traditionalist lit pundits in England have complained that the upstart has dominated bestseller lists to the point of excluding other, more adult, titles. The London Times reportedly has given in to the pressure and pulled the “Harry” books from its adult bestseller list. Reps from the paper were unavailable for comment.

Some stateside literary types have also complained that “Harry” is crowding the New York Times’ bestseller list and really belongs with the children’s books. But at that paper, the titles will remain exactly where the sales dictate, even if “Harry” is criticized for not fitting neatly into either the adult or the children’s categories.

‘Dangerous territory’

“The notion that therefore you should take these things off verges on very dangerous territory; then you could do that with lots of books,” said New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath, who agrees the Potter books have irked authors hopeful to land a coveted fall slot on the List.

“I’ve been hearing from people I know who have young kids (ages) 8, 9 and 10, and it is a struggle to get them to read and now they’re becoming passionate,” McGrath concludes, adding that “there is strong evidence that grownups read these books.”

While Rowling, who plans to pen at least seven installments featuring the diminutive schoolboy magician, has said she plans to make the tone of the books darker and scarier as Harry and his friends grow older, this is exactly what makes the film adaptation so delicate a task.

It is a challenge evidenced by the prospective helmers mentioned, all of whom have directed films straddling the fantastical and the dark.

“One of the great strengths of the books is that they don’t write down to the reader, and we will not shy away from making the films scary,” Heyman has said earlier (Variety, July 25).