Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)Rated PG for some scary moments and mild language.
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, John Cleese.
Photo ©Warner Bros. All rights reserved.
Marvelous Show, but Lacking a Bit of Soul
Sometimes, I think about "Harry Potter" and I could kick myself. Really, how easy was it to create this world? And just how intuitive was it to write it in a way so universal that it would generate interest and income with the strength of a phenomenon? The first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, is mainly a patchwork of all of children's fantasy and spooklore. All the elements are borrowed: witches, wizards, giants, goblins, dragons, unicorns, spells, magic wands, flying brooms, familiars, dark forests, giant castles, etc. It's all packed into the most universal of stories -- that of a lonely boy sent off to a wonderful but unfamiliar place, trying to find his place in a school among friends and rivals, trying to figure out what makes him special, but ultimately wanting to fit in. New boy in a magic school -- it's so simple that it's beautiful. I think many of us could've put together a story like that; I'll just bet that many of us didn't think such a concept would become this big.
It became big enough to spawn one of the most anticipated movies in recent history. I must admit, I feel for the producers of this film. First of all, it should be a kid's movie, so that means it should be short. But how in the world do you squeeze in the truckload of elements from the book into something less than two hours? How do you cut away portions of the original story without angering the die-hard Potter fans or impairing the spirit of the story? The answer is: you don't. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone runs a full two-and-a-half hours, and it still wasn't enough to get everything in the story. And much of the spirit appears to have been lost in the process.
What director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves put together is an admirable spectacle, a real thriller for the kids and the kid in all of us, but in such a straightforward and workmanlike way that its hero's soul seemed to have been deemed unnecessary for the journey. Consider that a big part of Harry Potter (played in the movie by Daniel Radcliffe) is his discovery and evaluation of his self-worth. This growth is tracked in the book, where we have the advantage of an author being able to convey to the reader the inner-most thoughts and fears of its protagonist. For instance, some of the parts that really had me interested in the book were the chapters where Hagrid slowly introduces the world of Hogwarts to Harry by first showing up, telling him the stories, and then taking him to Diagon Alley. Harry's voices of doubt and excitement is heard all throughout these scenes, wondering why me? What if I don't prove worthy? But, wow, all this stuff is amazing! In the movie, these scenes are quick and perfunctory, and not once do we get the idea that Harry is questioning his place in all this. Indeed, he seems quite eager to accept the circumstances and can't wait to get started. Another example of the weakness in not being able to convey a character's anxious thoughts is in the movie's "Sorting Hat" scene. Here, Harry says, "not Slytherin!" instead of thinking it, and the Hat replies, "Not Slytherin, eh?" -- out loud. Its effectiveness in the book as a scene mirroring a most common childhood fear -- that of not being picked for the desired team -- is translated awkwardly and unnaturally.
Like Harry, the movie also can't wait to get started, and so the beginning set-up scenes fly by in an instant in order for the movie to concentrate on the big money -- Hogwarts and all its glory. Here is where the movie shines. Using Rowland's borrowed elements, Columbus and crew create a fantasy world that is everything we think of when we, children and adults alike, imagine such a world. It was hard not to smile or gape at the floating candles in the banquet room, the shifting staircases, the moving portraits, the castle classrooms, the night sky over the green grounds. Darkness lurks in forbidden corridors, rooms, and forests. There are fun creatures to marvel at, from the numerous owls to the troll, the three-headed guard dog, the centaur, and the baby dragon. The quidditch match, a brutal school sport best described as rugby on flying broomsticks, is perhaps the most triumphant set piece of the movie, rivaling the thrilling podrace in The Phantom Menace. All the characters are as well-acted and portrayed as they should be: Dumbledore (Richard Harris) with his beard and sorcerer's outfit; McGonagall (Maggie Smith) with her pointy hat; Snape (Alan Rickman) and his menacing glare; Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), the gentle, bearded giant; Malfoy (Tom Felton) and his snotty smirk; Ron (Rupert Grint), red-headed, loyal, and lovable; and Hermione (Emma Watson), that know-it-all girl that everyone knows. Everything about the production is at once wondrous and familiar, perhaps just the way Potter fans dreamed it.
I guess that the filmmakers really had two ways to go: concentrate on the hero's story, or concentrate on faithfully recreating the world he enters. They went with the latter and succeeded with it, but it is somewhat of a pity. The former would have been memorable, and something we, as the audience, could have hung on to in the weeks after seeing the movie. Who could forget the strong feelings of Luke Skywalker as he longed for an exciting life, or of Dorothy as she discovered surely and truly that there was no place like home? As it is, the Harry Potter of the movie is somewhat of a forgettable character (think about it, could you describe his personality based on the movie?); his sidekicks Ron and Hermione were more interesting to me. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has enough show in it to make it a wondrous experience each time you experience it. If only it had room for stronger character development, if only the filmmakers felt safe in cutting some more of the book out just to give it that room instead of just making sure it depicted event after event, this movie could have been perfection, with all of our childhood fears and fantasies rolled up in to one.
©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 18, 2001