When Harry Met James

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Mon, 11/18/2002 - 00:42

If an old-age-pensioner were menaced in the street by a teenage boy, the police might well be summoned. It seems it is fair enough in the cinema however for Harry Potter to take on James Bond head-to-head.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, opened nationwide on Friday five days ahead of James Bond’s 20th "official" outing, as if the ageing secret agent can no longer quite keep up. That does not take into account extensive Harry Potter "previews" last weekend, which gave the lad an £8 million start.

The two British heroes both began life on the printed page, were picked up by Hollywood and now provide hundreds of jobs for the UK film industry. Comparisons are inevitable, beginning with their creators, Old Etonian Ian Fleming, who died shortly after the Bond film series began, and JK Rowling, who is still alive, with a personal fortune to rival that of any Bond villain, and still writing. 

It is almost half a century since Bond first appeared in print, 40 years since Sean Connery introduced himself as "Bond, James Bond" in Dr No. The writers had struggled with the adaptation and even considered making Dr No a monkey. Fortunately they resisted. 

Dr No came out on 5 October 1962, the same day as the first Beatles single. Fleming’s Bond may have represented the out-dated ideals the Beatles were undermining, but Connery’s incarnation came from outwith the crumbling English class system and was perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times. The Beatles and Bond shaped, and reflected, the Sixties.

But Connery is 72 now, Bond himself is 84, if we go on the basis of his age in the novel Moonraker, and two of the Fab Four are dead, yet there is no irony intended in the title of the latest Bond film, Die Another Day. Connery, Lazenby, Connery again, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan - the face may change, but the act remains much the same, give or take the raise of an eyebrow and the odd double entendre; just like Dr Who, except even Dr Who bowed out eventually. 

Harry Potter’s literary roots stretch back beyond Rowling’s novels to Tom Brown’s School Days. It may be a rather anachronistic celebration of public school life, but the book must have had something going for it to have retained its popularity for so long after its original publication in 1857.

Rowling’s genius was to breathe new life into that basic idea by turning Rugby public school into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (co-ed of course). Simple. The best ideas often are.

The Harry Potter films reproduce the book on the screen, with impressive special effects and some fine actors in adult roles. It is all that is needed to tap a worldwide fan base. And the biggest difference between Potter and Bond is that we are currently on Harry Potter 2, not No 20. 

There has been a huge amount of coverage celebrating Bond’s 40 years on the big screen, but interestingly in the American Premiere magazine director Lee Tamahori talks frankly about behind-the-scenes conflicts. The New Zealander, who made the Maori drama Once Were Warriors, was a slightly curious choice for a Bond movie, but he was not exactly getting a free hand. 

In the same article, Pierce Brosnan said he knew John Woo, Ang Lee and Die Hard’s John McTiernan all wanted to direct Bond. Quentin Tarantino had been suggested as a writer. But the producers would have none of it apparently. Did Brosnan feel frustrated? "Terribly," he said, "because it’s not wanting to push the envelope." This time round there will be fencing, icy landscapes and Madonna singing the theme song and appearing in a cameo role. But the formula remains the same, articulated by Tamahori as "girls, gadgets and big action". And it is not just Harry Potter who is challenging Bond’s supremacy.

XXX is a reluctant secret agent, the cool product of skateboard culture. His film has a skiing sequence to match anything in Bond and pokes fun at 007 with an opening in which the professional agent, complete with tux, is quickly bested by the villains. 

Nobody does it better, sang Carly Simon in The Spy Who Loved Me. But that was then, this is now. The Fleming novels and Connery films were landmarks in entertainment. But the Cold War is over, Bond’s world is history. Live and Let Die, You Only Live Twice, Die Another Day, Goldfinger, The Man with the Golden Gun, GoldenEye - the titles reflect how little Bond has travelled in 40 years. Maybe they should have considered Retire Today. But that is not going to happen.

Bond is not art, but business, a franchise, cinema’s equivalent of McDonalds. Harry Potter will outgross him, but there is no way Bond is going to trade that licence to kill for a bus pass just yet.