Ellen Gray: Lifetime's sputtering pass at the J.K. Rowling Story

Poppy Montgomery stars in Lifetime's dull story about the "Harry Potter" writer's life.
Poppy Montgomery stars in Lifetime's dull story about the "Harry Potter" writer's life.
Posted: July 18, 2011

MAGIC BEYOND WORDS: THE J.K. ROWLING STORY. 8 tonight, Lifetime.

EVERYONE'S wild about Harry.

Including Lifetime, which puts its own spin on Pottermania tonight in the not-so-wild "Magic Beyond Words: The J.K. Rowling Story."

Even if Rowling weren't famously private, it's unlikely she'd ever have authorized this particular treatment of her life. Not because it's gossipy or disrespectful - as unauthorized biopics go, it's the equivalent of a Mother's Day card - but because, well, it's dull.

Dull beyond words.

Dull beyond magic.

Dull beyond the power of even a mammoth opening weekend for the final "Harry Potter" film to render interesting.

Dull isn't necessarily a bad thing in writers. Norman Mailer notwithstanding, they're probably better off letting their characters hog the spotlight.

But it has to be galling for Rowling, who peopled Harry's world with such rich and unexpected beings, to be reduced to a stick figure in a series of cliched vignettes meant to illustrate where she got her ideas.

Because we all know, don't we, that the only thing that separates fabulously successful writers from the rest of us is the accidental acquisition of best-selling ideas?

Not having read the Sean Smith biography on which the movie's based, I can't say how accurately it's reflected here, but anyone who's seen or read interviews with Rowling is unlikely to be surprised by the points on the timeline. Yet I saw only hints of the woman who's written that she so admired the extremely colorful writer Jessica Mitford when she was growing up that she later named her first child after her.

We see young "Jo" dressed as a witch and carrying a broomstick as she and her sister play in the woods near their home and their encounter with a boy named Potter.

We see her as a bright, bored child whose school experiences might have inspired certain things about Hogwarts, from the sorting hat to the more acerbic members of the teaching staff.

We see her, briefly, as a mildly wild girl in a leather jacket, telling the red-haired friend who suggests that she include him as a character in the stories she refuses to let anyone see, "You're such a weaselly guy."

In case, you know, anyone missed the point.

And eventually we see our Muggle-born heroine played by Poppy Montgomery ("Without a Trace") as a university graduate and still-aspiring writer who can't seem to hold a job, falls in love with Mr. Wrong and ends up as a single mom on welfare.

At which point a dream she had on a train about a little boy with glasses and a scar on his forehead turns her - OK, not exactly overnight - into a billionaire.

Anyone who's read Rowling's books knows she's not about the easy happy endings and her own probably didn't come nearly as easily as it seems to have here, where the suicidal depression she's said she suffered takes a back seat to fanciful scenes where chess pieces come to life as she scribbles away or candles suspend themselves in mid-air as she pounds out a chapter on a typewriter.

With distractions like that, it's a wonder she ever finished the first book, much less the series.

It doesn't help that "Magic Beyond Words" can't resist getting ahead of itself.

When Rowling's father suggests, not entirely unreasonably, that his ambitious daughter might want to study something in school beyond writing, she asks him if he sees her only as "a secretary."

"Better that than on the dole, begging for relief from the government," he replies, for all the world like a man with a crystal ball.

Jo's mother, who died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis before Rowling finished the first "Harry Potter," is the supportive one, at one point telling her daughter, who's still making excuses about not having found the right story, "When the time comes, the words will be there. Trust me, I have total faith in you."

If she really said that, or anything close to it, good for her.

Though that kind of prescient faith isn't much help to "Magic Beyond Words," which so reveres its subject that it never finds her mojo, much less her magic. *

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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