The final book hits the scene

August 13, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Room of Requirement is on fire. On a soundstage outside London last August, Daniel Radcliffe serpentines around searing gas flames and between 30-foot-tall piles of furniture studded with treasures from previous Harry Potter movies: giant chess pieces from The Sorcerer’s Stone, Chinese lanterns from The Half-Blood Prince, Professor Trelawney’s teacups, Filch’s gramophone, Quidditch banners and bag-pipes and birdcages, potion jars for ”Essence of Murtlap” and ”Bouncing Spider Juice.” All of it — on screen at least — will be ablaze when computer-generated fire is added. Radcliffe, sweating, sprints toward the camera in terror and then stops, realizing that he botched his steps. ”Damn,” he says, jogging back into the mountain range of memories to shoot the scene again. ”I forgot a major part of that.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — the seventh and final Potter novel — sold more than 11 million copies in just 24 hours when it debuted in July 2007, making it the fastest-selling book in history. It’s probably the fastest-read one, too. While there are no statistics to prove it, millions of readers raced through J.K. Rowling’s 759 pages at a Snitch-like pace that summer, desperate to discover the ultimate fate of the Boy Who Lived. Speeding through the film adaptation, though, won’t be an option. The Deathly Hallows, as most Potter fans already know, has been split into two films. Warner Bros. will release Part 1 on Nov. 19. Part 2 will arrive next summer, on July 15.

As Part 1 begins, Harry (Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) have left Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and are on the run from Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) and the Death Eaters, who have taken over England’s Ministry of Magic. The trio needs to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes — objects that contain bits of Voldemort’s soul — as well as battle dark forces (including the huge snake Nagini) and their own doubts and demons to do it. ”Part 1 is quite vérité, quite real,” says director David Yates, who also helmed The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince. ”You feel that these three kids are refugees. They’re almost homeless, and it feels interesting seeing them removed from the haven of Hogwarts.”

Part 2 will lead to a massive battle at the school, the death of several main characters, and Harry’s final confrontation with the Dark Lord. ”I didn’t want the two films to feel similar in tone,” Yates says. ”So Part 2 is much more operatic and colorful and fantasy-oriented. What gives you the through-line between the films are these characters and the real relationship the audience has developed with them.”

It’s such a real relationship, in fact, that some fans were peeved when Warner Bros. (which, like EW, is part of Time Warner) announced that the final book would be halved for the screen. Potterites didn’t want to wait an extra eight months for closure and were suspicious that the studio was just being greedy. (Part 1, by the way, will end at about Chapter 24 of the book, with Voldemort gaining possession of the Elder Wand, one of the three Deathly Hallows that allow the bearer to conquer death.) Despite the filmmakers’ insistence that the choice to split the films was made for creative reasons — to be as faithful to the books as possible — some skeptical fans still believe the decision was made for purely commercial reasons. ”The key word there is purely,” says Warner Bros. Entertainment president Alan Horn. ”I don’t want to be disingenuous or dishonest about this. There’s no question that Warner Bros. will make more money with two films than they would have with one. But we also never, ever would have done this if Jo [Rowling] had not endorsed it, and if we didn’t feel that we were providing a better finale, with a more full sense of closure. We just respect and love the books too much for that.”

They should. The six Potter movies have earned more than $5.4 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing global franchise in film history. (Star Wars still beats it domestically, but just barely.) More important to fans, though, the movies to date have maintained a consistent quality — and a faithfulness to Rowling’s books — despite having four different directors. Even more miraculous, the central cast has remained almost entirely intact. (Richard Harris, the original Dumbledore, died in 2002 and was replaced by Michael Gambon.) And although they’ve come of age in the fishbowl of fame, all three young stars have emerged from their decade at Hogwarts unscathed by scandal or adolescent self-destruction.

Nevertheless, the trio all seem afflicted with varying degrees of senioritis on the set at Leavesden Studios. ”I’m ready to kind of move on now, I think,” Grint says between takes. ”This film is a great way to finish the whole era, and it’s going to be sad, because obviously all my friends are here, but 10 years is enough.” The three of them are shooting a scene in the Room of Requirement in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione are searching for a horcrux — in this case, the tiara-like Ravenclaw diadem. Watson and Grint are both sopping wet. (In the film, Ron and Hermione have recently destroyed another horcrux in water and were pursued by a Voldemort-shaped tsunami.) Grint and Watson are kept soaked by crew members, who spray the pair down every few minutes. It’s not making Watson happy. ”It’s been this way for weeks,” she says, shivering next to a space heater. ”I hate to sound whiny, but it’s horrible. It’s miserable being wet all the time.” She shrugs and adds flatly: ”But, you know, I was told it will look very dramatic when you see the films, so it will be worth it.”

Radcliffe, meanwhile, seems to be in a tug-of-war with himself about finishing his run as Harry Potter. ”This film has been hard to make, and I’ve had some of the most trying moments, both physically and mentally, than ever before,” he says during a break. ”I wasn’t entirely thrilled with my performance in Half-Blood — I found it quite same-y, and didn’t think there was enough variation in it — so I’ve worked hard to make sure that if the seventh film comes out and I’m still unhappy with it, I’ll know it won’t be from lack of trying.” He pauses. ”We’ve got a long way to go, but to be honest, I don’t mind. I love being here. There is no place else I’d rather be.”

The three Potter stars have always been unfailingly polite to visitors over the years, and they’ve never seemed anything less than grateful for the extraordinary experiences they’ve been given. Still, they are also young people moving into their 20s — Radcliffe and Grint are 21, and Watson is 20. And so while the adults around them may be waxing nostalgic about the long Potter journey, by and large Grint, Watson, and Radcliffe are looking forward. ”We shot for a very long time, by any standards,” Yates says of the final two films. ”Dan and Rupert were on set for a year — and there were phases, periods, where they all felt like, ‘God, we just gotta get to the end of it. We need closure.’ But from my point of view, they were also very committed to giving their best because this was their last opportunity to be these characters.”

As production on the two films wound down this summer, the three stars faced the prospect of having to film their final scene together. ”It was bizarre,” Watson said last week by phone. ”Walking onto set that day, there was this incredibly thick atmosphere. It felt like a moment in history. It felt really big.” In the scene, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have broken into the Ministry of Magic. They jinx a woman and drag her into a tiny storage area. So the final frame ever shot of all three actors together takes place in a cramped little room. ”These three characters have been in the most fantastical situations at Hogwarts — they’ve been in the Dark Forest, all these extraordinary places,” says Yates. ”It was an odd way to finish, really.” But poetic, perhaps, considering that the whole series began with a boy who lived in a tiny room under the stairs of a house on Privet Drive. ”In a way,” says Yates, ”the series started with a cupboard and ended with one.”

Harry Potter meets America’s First Family

On June 10, 2009, the Harry Potter cast got a visit from U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters, Malia and Sasha — who happened to be in London for Sasha’s 8th birthday. ”It was mad,” says Daniel Radcliffe, who admits he didn’t recognize Mrs. Obama at first. ”I started talking to her like I would to anybody else,” he says. ”After two minutes I was like, ‘Christ, you’re Michelle Obama! I watched you for months every day!”’ The First Lady was just as impressive in person, he says. ”She was totally charming. The moment the conversation lulled she would fill the gap with a question or an observation about the set.”

Radcliffe and costar Rupert Grint delivered Sasha’s birthday cake. (”It was bloody heavy; I think they made her a lead cake,” Radcliffe jokes.) And when one of the First Daughters said she missed the campaign trail, Radcliffe recalls, ”I said, ‘I bet your parents don’t feel that way.”’

The new Emma Watson

Get ready to say goodbye to Hermione. In the first week of August, Emma Watson, 20, walked into Cutler Salon in New York City and chopped off the last decade of her life. ”It was the most liberating thing!” she says. ”The stylist just grabbed the back of my hair and took a whole ponytail out. It felt amazing.” A new ‘do may not be, by nature, breaking news. But Watson has had to maintain essentially the same hairstyle for 10 years while she played Harry Potter’s studious pal. ”I missed all that experimentation that most teenagers go through,” says the actress, who’s about to enter her sophomore year at Brown University. ”I’ve wanted to do this since I was about 16, so as soon as I had the chance, I was like, ‘Right. This is it.”’ Fan reaction has been largely positive; in fact, her harshest review may have come from home. ”My dad said, ‘You’re not Audrey Hepburn yet, darling.”’ She laughs. ”He’s like that. When people ask me how I keep myself grounded, there’s the answer.”

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