Wild About Harry: The Magic Behind the Magic
If you haven't heard of Harry Potter, perhaps you've been involved in a very long and intense game of Quidditch (something like field hockey only it's played on flying broomsticks). Likewise, author J.K. Rowling has become a household word. But who's the magic behind the Harry Potter audiobooks? Listening Library producer Tim Ditlow has overseen the production of all three unabridged audiobooks. And British actor Jim Dale gives voice to the hundreds of characters and creatures in the series. Tim and Jim spoke with AudioFile shortly after being nominated for a Grammy Award for HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE.
AF: Gentlemen, what does the audiobook format bring to Harry and Company?
Jim: J.K. herself has said that one of the most-asked questions when she tours is how do you pronounce the character Hermione. One young girl in an autograph line said her favorite character is "Hermee One." Even Rosie O'Donnell manages to mispronounce the characters or other words in the book every time J.K. appears on the show. So, for one, every child who listens to the tape learns the correct way to pronounce the characters. Imagine the child on the playground who knows the right way to say "Quidditch" when it comes time to pretend play the game.
Tim: Also, a very important point is the little-known fact that children can listen at least two grade levels above their reading level. With all the hoopla over Harry, there were so many younger siblings who were feeling left out of the "in thing" who, by listening, can fully enjoy the story and keep up with their older brothers and sisters. Of course, I hope many parents are also reading the books to these younger children. The last point is that J.K. has basically written a novel which, like so many other classic children's novels, is just perfect for reading aloud. These kinds of fantasy novels make for great audiobooks. Listen to the BBC's version of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA or THE GOLDEN COMPASS to hear why fantasy is perfect for the audio medium. So many people tell me that Jim Dale's interpretation of the voice of Hagrid is what makes the tape for them.
Dumbledore lowered his hands and surveyed Harry through his half-moon glasses. It is time, he said for me to tell you what I should have told you five years ago, Harry. Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything.
AF: Jim, who is your favorite character?
Jim: Speaking of Hagrid, he nearly caused an acute problem for me after talking in his voice for two hours. He had so many lines in the beginning of the first book, and by the end of the morning, I had lost most of my voice. He is one of the lovely gentle giants of fiction, uncomplicated, a true friend, someone we all wish were part of our own lives.
AF: Tim, why did you choose a single voice for the Harry Potter series, rather than a full-cast production?
Tim: I originally planned on working with Cover to Cover in the UK on a co-production, but due to the numerous text changes in the U.S. edition, this was not possible. At that point, I was already thinking along the lines of a single-voiced production because our unabridged full-cast recordings feature the author as narrator, but I knew that J.K. Rowling would be unavailable for two weeks in the studio. The real struggle was finding a British-born actor living here in New York who didn't sound so British that American children wouldn't be able to understand him and who had the "chops" to be able to carry off, not only the dozens of voices in the first book, but also the hundreds of character voices coming in the next six books. Thankfully, a good friend at HBO reminded me of Jim Dale's wonderful work in "Barnum."
AF: Jim, how do you "create" a new character?
Jim: The first consideration must be to the audience, who should hear the voice clearly and distinctly and be able to understand every word. Therefore, the character's accent or dialect should not be too broad. Even when the voice has to project mumbled or muttered words, our listeners should know exactly what is being said. With that criteria established, I search for a voice that relates to the character from the description that the author has given me in the book. I once met a very fat country gentleman who was rather partial to more than a few drinks every night. I remembered his voice when it came to introducing Aunt Marge in the third Harry Potter book. When I was recording her lines, I kept visualizing this awful man who burped and belched his way through every sentence. Katherine Hale, my producer, had to continually stop the tape because I was falling off my stool with laughter.
AF: What's it like doing readings of Harry Potter to children?
Jim: I was asked to read half an hour of the first book to a group of five hundred children in a church here in New York. Knowing the short attention span of today's kids, I was expecting a very noisy and uninterested crowd. The last thing I expected was a group of children so tired that they all fell asleep after the first minute or two. I was standing in the pulpit reading, and I couldn't help noticing the utter silence in the place. I looked up, and my entire audience was asleep, all of them with their heads sunk onto their chests. What an insult! I stopped reading and just looked at the tops of their heads. One by one they woke and stared up at me. It was only then I realized they all had the Harry Potter book in front of them and had been reading silently along with my words. I burst out laughing and carried on to the end of the chapter, which was greeted with the most hysterical applause and cheers from the children.
AF: Any final comments?
Tim: Yes, a very important point. When I hear from major booksellers and distributors like Amazon and Ingram that the Harry Potter audiobooks are #1 in sales and that the first two productions have garnered an estimated million listeners and, for the first time, made the Publishers Weekly Audio Bestseller list, all I can say is that it is my fond hope that the children's audiobook industry may finally get the respect it deserves. Perhaps for the first time, parents who until now have only purchased audiobooks for their own pleasure may finally experience the joys of listening together as a family in the car or at home. Wasn't there a time where the whole family listened to the radio?
I sincerely hope that the phenomenal success of these recordings will continue to broaden the audience for children's audiobooks and lead more people to a lifetime of listening. After all, what other industry in this country does so little to promote its product line to children? The tobacco people used a camel, the beer people used some frogs, and well, if it takes a boy wizard to get people hooked on a children's audiobook, then so be it.
There is a working title for the fourth book and, although it is supposed to be hush-hush, it seems every child in the world already knows it: HARRY POTTER AND THE DOOMSPELL TOURNAMENT. The mystery is, when will it come out? July 8 is the traditional publication date in London, and this year Scholastic is coming out on the same day as the UK edition, so stay tuned. I can promise listeners that the same day the book hits the
And one last tidbit: Harry Potter was the most banned book in America last year, but so far I haven't received any hate mail about being aligned with the dark forces.
stands, so will the audiobook! Also, Spielberg will be directing the film.
Photo © Matthew Baumgardner
© 2003 AudioFile Publications, Inc.