Young Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Potter: If Chris Columbus doesn’t bring claims against JK Rowling, No One Should

Yes, this should ease JK Rowling’s mind and set a new standard for anyone pursuing copyright claims against her.  If they can’t get as close as the Barry Levinson directed, Steven Spielberg produced, Chris Columbus penned, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), then they have absolutely no case.  If Chris hasn’t pursued a claim, no one should.

Young Sherlock Holmes was a fantastic movie for its time.  But it could never have been made AFTER Harry Potter.  Let’s look at it through Post Potter eyes.

Taking place in a boarding school, it involves two boys and a girl who uncover magic mystery that involves the duplicity of one of their teachers.  A beloved, befuddled mentor figure dies.  One of the boys is short and has glasses, looking very Harry Potter.  A lot of running to the library to figure out what teachers and detectives won’t tell them, and Holmes is the most famous kid in class, whose rival is the rich, pompous Dudley, every bit the Malfoy look alike.  His hair is even died ice blond as Holmes’ revenge.  The young Watson, who looks too much like Potter, is called a Weasel at one point, and his character works like that of Ron Weasley, comic relief, loyal buddy, and always trying to get out of adventure.  The girl, Elizabeth, is no Hermoine, but then Rowling admitted that Hermoine is herself in the Harry Potter series.  The kids spend most of their time with a retired schoolteacher, WaxFlatter who serves as both Dumbledore and Hagrid.  The kids are threatened with expulsion for all their snooping around.  A cult is the culprit and the villain is their own professor.  Magic, in the form of hallucinations, is the staple of the film.  Many of the scenes are set as they would be on Harry Potter–including an identical Great Hall scene, though cramped, and a Professor of Chemistry that reminds me of any of the professors from Potter, especially the Potions room (though I imagine many are typical boarding school sets).  There is a Diagon Alley full of shops and crowds of consumers. Even a shopkeeper who closely examines their blowpipe reminds one of the wand seller.  The set up in this movie is that Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty will continue to plague him, even as the Potter/Voldemort must occupy the series.

This is NOT to say that Rowling copies anything or even saw this movie, but that Chris Columbus, her first director knew this kind of film intimately.  Though Wikipedia claims that he was selected based on Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone, no one can miss the Harry Potterness of Young Sherlock Holmes.  Spielberg, who was in negotiations, it is said, to direct Potter 1 ultimately wanted to make it animated–according to this source.  Why would he say that?  Young Sherlock Holmes does everything that Harry Potter did–except the story and casting are weaker–he could have just rinsed and repeated.  Rowling had a better story, but the sets and the structure would have been very familiar to Columbus and Spielberg.

If you see the film, you’ll realize this could not have been made post Harry Potter–too many elements are the same.  Columbus wrote the script for Holmes, so it was conceived as a movie first, which means that it was built to be filmed not read.

My biggest question is that when Potter came out as a book, then a film, people asked themselves–why did this strike such a chord?  And my question is why didn’t Young Sherlock Holmes grab that same audience in a film first.

It could be that Holmes and Watson were already established characters–they had no freshness to them.  But a boarding school mystery with magic and the occult—with two boys and a girl.  It’s the formula that wins in Potter.  One can’t merely say that it was that combination that finally became a hit with audiences and children.  ONe has to look at the execution of that kind of story.

Inevitably a huge nod in Rowling’s direction must be given for taking a combination that had been seen before and making it fresh and more complex.  Whereas Columbus was restricted by Doyle, to a certain extent, on the way he could craft the characters of Watson and Holmes, Rowling’s development of the main three characters, as well as a believable world is to her credit.  Columbus was good in his writing of Young Sherlock Holmes, but Rowling was amazing with the same elements in Harry Potter.

So when I hear of silly people who think Rowling copied them–one can point back to an earlier model for all of them–and say that it’s not the material you have, it’s not the little elements that add up because no one beats Columbus for more elements.  It’s what you do with it that’s important.

Rowling is not in the set pieces; Rowling is in the writing.

Writing Advice from J.K. Rowling

I came across this nugget of writing advice from JK Rowling in an article from the Toronto Star. It’s simple, but important.

Of the “universal appeal” of her books, Rowling said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. I’ve always found it very difficult to answer. I feel there’s an expectation that I should know what the magical formula was, but in truth I wrote what I liked reading.

“I wrote about characters I was deeply interested in.”

And that is probably the most profound writing advice you’ll get–the part we forget sometimes. Have you ever been writing along on some short story for a contest, a journal, even working on a novel, but you don’t really care about the characters? In fact, you would find them boring if you met them in real life? Or tiresome, or annoying, or bland, or one-sided, or pitiful.

It matters to your readers if you care about your characters. Sometimes, like scribbling gods, we are interested in our Plots–how we can mess up the quiet lives of our characters, or how interesting we can make their situations—but the characters may not matter as much because they are being propelled by the plot. They are riding shotgun to the plot that’s really driving. They can react, white-knuckle the door, scream, maybe even fling the door wide, but they don’t get to drive, and partly because they just aren’t as interesting as the cool plot we’ve given the keys to.

I read that article and interview with Rowling and I left thinking about my own stories, and how many of those characters–on the stories I was working on–were those I wasn’t “deeply interested” in? You could say that for short stories you only have to be mildly attracted to them–it’s a 10 page affair after all. But a novel, you might say–or even a Potter series–you’d have to be interested in the character. Yet, I think we all want memorable characters to follow as we read. As we write. In short stories and in long ones, and in series. Because if we’re interested, then readers will be too.

Time to revamp some of my characters–the ones I’m not currently deeply interested in–and find out how I make them more interesting on the page–so that even in a small story, the characters linger in a big way.