NEWS FLASH: On August 14, the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was moved to summer 2009. But here's the early word. For more on the postponement, see Hollywood Insider.
The tears have dried. The goose bumps have faded. The books, a complete set now, are lined on the shelf, gathering dust. In our imagination, Harry Potter lives happily ever after, his work as a global pop icon and publishing profit center now finished.
At Leavesden Film Studios outside London, under a leaky roof dripping rain from an April downpour, Daniel Radcliffe stands on a crumbling stairwell that descends into a derelict corner of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, thumbing out a text message on his cell phone. At the call to ''Action!'' the young star slips the phone into his trousers and spirals down the stairs to find costar Emma Watson sitting on a step, stifling tears. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, adapted from J.K. Rowling's penultimate Potter novel, Harry's pal Hermione Granger (Watson) is realizing that her heart belongs to Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). The problem: Ron has just hooked up with Lavender Brown (newcomer Jessie Cave). In this scene, Harry tries to console his friend, but the job becomes infinitely harder when Ron and Lavender come bumbling into this dark corner of Hogwarts looking for a place to snog. Hermione shoos them away with a magical gust of wind, then weeps harder. Even after ''Cut!'' Watson continues to tear up, and Radcliffe offers comfort with a lingering side hug and whispered praise. ''Bloody f---ing brilliant, Emma. Just top-notch.''
Don't let this snippet of young love fool you, though: Half-Blood Prince continues to push Harry deeper into adult territory. Against the backdrop of terrorist attacks by Voldemort's Death Eaters, Harry madly preps for his fated doomsday face-off against the Dark Lord, and studies Voldemort's sordid past via private Pensieve lessons with an increasingly enigmatic Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). He seeks a series of enchanted objects called Horcruxes that contain fragments of Voldy's soul, and flushes out a secret held by new Potions teacher Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). As for the identity of the titular royal...oh, go read the book already, will you? ''Until now, there's been all sorts of talk about finding and fighting Voldemort,'' Radcliffe says. ''In this film, Harry starts taking steps towards actually doing that.''
Of course, we know we won't get to witness Harry's high-noon wand-off with the snaky-snouted villain (Ralph Fiennes) until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows plays out over the course of two more films. And because we all know this, Prince raises an unprecedented question about the biggest film franchise in history: Will moviegoers still be wild about Harry? ''I'm not going to lie to you,'' says Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steve Kloves, returning to his role as official franchise scribe after taking the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, off. ''I do have some concern that because the books are over, the anticipation for the movies won't be the same.'' Yes, the films have surged in popularity since Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban set them on an edgier course. And yes, there are those who follow the saga only through the movies which is why we'll refrain from discussing Prince's monumental 90-hanky death. Yet even within the top ranks of a moviemaking operation as bloody well run as Harry Potter, there is, well, mild freaking out. Kloves allows himself an improbable thought, then laughs. ''It would be a complete car crash if no one showed up.''
NEXT PAGE: ''You've got the biggest train set in the world here,'' he says. ''If you can think it, you can do it.''