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  • Writer's pictureNick Cook

Harry Potter – A Masterclass in World Building

(Article Originally Published 10/4/2016)

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?"

- Albus Dumbledore (In the Deathly Hallows)

This week, at long last, and having heard so many glowing reviews from friends, especially other authors, I finally got to experience the Harry Potter studio tour in London, for myself. I’m delighted to report back that it really did exceed all my expectations. However, afterward, I also found myself reflecting on the books themselves and the magnitude of what J.K. Rowling succeeded in creating…

I came to the Harry Potter phenomena relatively early on, just after the second book had just been launched. A good friend of mine told me I’d love the Philosopher’s Stone, so I dived into that first story and was instantly charmed and captivated by the world that J.K. Rowling had created.

Like many have already said, to this day I still find it incredible that so many publishers had turned down this first book. What seems blindingly obvious is that this story was something genuinely special. How it could have been somehow missed by so many, seems incredible to us today. Thankfully, Barry Cunningham’s discovery of the manuscript via his son, who read and adored it, has turned into something of a publishing legend.

My personal view is that the Harry Potter books draw upon the best traditions of storytelling, including in the creation of Hogwarts, hints of Malory Towers. However, Rowling created something genuinely unique by weaving together a boarding school with magic.

I devoured her second book, The Chamber of Secrets, and was soon reading the books aloud to my young son as his bedtime story. And when the third book was released I had to resist the urge to wait in line at midnight for that and the subsequent books. My son grew up with those stories, and then the films, and they will always be part of our family’s DNA, and are one of the many reasons that those books will always be special to me.

But it was only this week when I was walking around the studio, where much of the Harry Potter films had been shot, that the true brilliance of J.K. Rowling’s work hit me, specifically her world-building skills.

On the tour I saw prop after prop, character after character, setting after setting, idea after idea, all condensed together into one place. And it was then, confronted with the sheer scope of Rowling’s imagination, that I began, maybe for the first time, to truly appreciate what she achieved with the Harry Potter books.

J.K. Rowling was famously struck by an idea for a boy wizard on a train journey. By the end of that journey, that idea had started to take on a life of its own. She began to develop that concept, to build the world of Harry Potter with all its rich details. And it was only after extensive world-building, that she rolled up her sleeves and started to carve a story from them. Maybe that’s part of the enduring attraction of the stories, that the world she created isn’t paper-thin, but has been thought through in incredible detail. It’s certainly easy to see that she poured her heart and soul into those stories.

And here I must pay homage to the skill and the passion of the film team that took on the considerable challenge of creating films worthy of the books.

Before my own career took a sideways step into computer games, inspired by films like the original Star Wars, and having done a sculpture degree, I had planned to work as a special effects artist in films. That wasn't to be, but I’ve seen plenty of film props that have often been disappointing in real life. Of course, these props, often seen fleetingly in the background on set, fulfilled their design briefs. After all, there’s little point in doing more than the bare minimum for something that might be on screen for a few seconds. But it’s here that the Harry Potter films are truly remarkable. The attention to detail in all the props, the craftsmanship, and the obvious love of the people working on the Potter films, is incredible. Without a doubt, the films are a work of passion, created by a team of people who effectively became an extended family during the many years of filming. You can see all of this in the extraordinary work they produced, from costume design to the individual designs of all the wands. But there was one prop for me, where this attention to detail really stood out. On closer examination of the door that leads to the Chamber of Secrets, individual scales adorn the serpent, details that you probably wouldn't notice in the films, but are there nonetheless. And right there is the evidence of the passion behind all this work, not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

In many ways, this has to be the ultimate form of world-building, where others have run with the ideas from the pages from a book and have created something tangible, and frequently beautiful. I can certainly imagine that for J.K. Rowling to see her words come to life in such a wonderful way, must have filled her with joy whenever she was on set. I know if my work was ever brought to life in this way, I would be grinning ear to ear.

Potion class anyone?Of course, none of these incredible flights of fantasy would never have happened if a certain woman hadn’t been daydreaming on a train one day, and who allowed her imagination to soar. Maybe, right there, is a lesson to us all about daring to dream. And for everyone who has ever loved her books, or the subsequent films, we will always owe J.K. Rowling’s passion for wonderful world-building, a debt of thanks.

Images copyright: Nick Cook

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