For the Birds Radio Program: First Harry Potter movie
My family has been looking forward to November 16, 2001 ever since that was set as the release date for Harry Potter. We devoured the four Harry Potter books, and are eagerly awaiting publication of the fifth one next year. There is something to be said for books nurturing the imagination, but we deeply love movies, too, and all wondered how Harry Potter would translate to film. I especially looked forward to the owl scenes.
Katie and Tommy had to perform in the Duluth East High School Band in the Christmas City of the North Parade first. Russ and I waited for the parade to begin amid a huge crowd on Superior Street, and the moment we could hear the first sirens a little owl-either a Boreal or a Saw-whet-suddenly flew overhead and circled a couple of times right over the street-an auspicious start to the night.
We got to the theater an hour before the 9:30 showtime and waited in line among a cheerful crowd. Finally, the movie started. It’s extraordinarily faithful to the books, which is what the author and most readers wanted. What I wanted was a magical yet accurate representation of the owls. And that’s what I got. I did spot some computer graphic owls in the background, but there were enough real owls flying in and perching to give the scenes magic and power. Some of the owls carried letters in their talons, but a few used their beaks, in keeping with what I’ve observed with my own little Archimedes–he usually carries his mouse in his talons, but occasionally uses his beak, too.
The movie opens with an owl perched on Privet Street-a Great Homed Owl, which is not found in England in normal life, but is the quintessential owl–the right species to start a movie about magic. The assortment of owls who descended en masse in Harry’s neighborhood to deliver his invitation to Hogwarts and then flew in to Hogwarts carrying letters to the students was wonderful. There were a few Barn Owls and one or two Great Gray Owls. I also noticed at least one Eagle Owl (the Eurasian counterpart to our Great Homed Owl), a Tawny Owl (brown-eyed owls that were nice and close, and Ural and Scops Owls–the movie was an excellent way to brush up on my European species.
But the movie belonged to the Snowy Owl who played Harry’s Hedwig. This bird was actually the very first character cast for the movie, and was perfect. Owls are easy for knowledgeable animal trainers to work with, because their natural habit of preening family members makes them very agreeable to petting, and they make eye contact in much the way we humans do.
There was one scene where Hedwig flew off into the sky that was apparently filmed somewhere else, and the image superimposed into the movie scene-that was lovely and dramatic, but a bit irritating to me and a few other purists I talked to who could see that it somehow didn’t feel quite right. But overall, I can’t think of another movie that used real birds so accurately or so well.
Owls were well-chosen by J.K. Rowlings as the magical message carriers. Physically, owls are fully capable of carrying letters, and a snowy owl could even probably handle a Nimbus 2000 broomstick with no trouble. Owl faces, especially their eyes, have a magical, mystical quality that has made them feature in folklore, mythology, and art, sometimes as benevolent creatures of the night, sometimes as dark harbingers of evil. In Harry Potter’s world, owls are beautiful, quiet, fascinating, and capable of carrying things from one place to another-the same as owls in the real world. If Harry Potter’s owls also have a magical, spooky presence and a propensity for special delivery, well, so much the better.