Review No. 404
The Bottom Line: Captivating, despite its flaws.
Directed by: Chris Columbus
Screenplay by: Steve Kloves
Based on: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Rubeus Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane
Albus Dumbledore: Richard Harris
Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Draco Malfoy: Tom Felton
Minerva McGonagall: Maggie Smith
Professor Quirrell: Ian Hart
Also Starring: Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, John Hurt, Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths, Warwick Davis
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures on November 16, 2001. Produced in English by the United Kingdom and the United States. Runs 152 mins. Rated PG by the MPAA for some scary moments and mild language.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was watched on January 27, 2013.
“Holy cricket, you’re Harry Potter.” –Hermione Granger (Emma Watson)
I’ve been a huge “Potterhead” ever since around the first grade, when I was introduced to the first movie. My mother told me that in order to watch the rest, I would have to read the books beforehand. The fandom-bordering-on-obsession feels like yesterday for me. My plot was to plow through as much of the series as was written, and then to relive the magic in cinematic form. I even remember my mother purchasing a copy of book six (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) upon its release the following summer, skimming to a chapter near the end, and spoiling it for myself more than for her.
I have found many people who just don’t care for the series, though. I’ve seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone countless times since the age of seven; I’ve somehow memorized half the dialogue, too. But I believe that if I had seen the film for the first time at an age of, say, twelve, perhaps thirteen or older, I wouldn’t have put the rest of the saga so high on my reading/watching list. (I’m just as surprised that after so many viewings, I can watch it with the skepticism of a series first-timer.)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone begins with a man walking down Privet Drive, in an English neighborhood. He is wearing a purple cloak, small glasses, a hat, and a long, flowing white beard. His first action in the scene is removing all light from the lampposts…without even touching them. Then a cat approaches. Through the shape of a shadow, we notice that she is not an ordinary cat when she slowly takes the shape of a similarly dressed woman (her cloak is green, though, and she doesn’t wear glasses). Next, a gigantic, scruffy figure with a black beard comes down on a motorbike from the sky. He greets the man and woman by his side. “Professor Dumbledore, sir,” he says in a gruff tone. “Professor McGonagall.”
The scene takes only three minutes and only three speaking roles to explain everything the first chapter of the written source did in an entire chapter’s length, with far more characters. In a realistic way, we have already learned some huge information: The man in purple is named Professor Dumbledore; the woman in green is named Professor McGonagall; the man on the motorbike (we learn a little later) is named Rubeus Hagrid. On top of that, they are all most likely wizards. Much of Steve Kloves’s screenplay either leaves out or changes events that may not work as well onscreen. Although often times the common technique doesn’t work too well, as far as storytelling, it’s sufficient here: In the book, as I remember, we open with an ordinary (“Muggle”) neighborhood man finding Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid in a hardware store.
The tale continues as we find that Hagrid has flown from the sky with a baby bundled up in his arms. Not just any baby, though. This is Harry Potter, “the Boy Who Lived.” Hagrid places him on the front step of his piggish aunt and uncle’s house, where he will live until a few days before his eleventh birthday, when the house will implode with summonses to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is the alma mater of Harry’s deceased parents, and his aunt and uncle, in their envy, have done a damn fine job of keeping every notion of it a bona fide secret for as long as he has lived.
Harry attends Hogwarts, where he explores his dreams, makes one…two best friends, and even snoops around a bit of covert “Hogwarts business” (per the title) in the hopes of becoming a hero beyond fame. Notice the title says merely “the Sorcerer’s Stone,” not “the Case of the Sorcerer’s Stone.” There’s not much depth in what goes into finding this artifact, a mystical one that can make one immortal. Harry and his posse speculate so much when trying to find answers for how to get to the stone, it’s amazing they do reach their final destination. Oh, wait, they do have some help: Hagrid. At least three times throughout the film, he gives away classified information ever so impulsively, then comes to his senses and begins repetitively mumbling, “I shoul’ not have said tha’.” It’s meant to be funny, and it truly is. But it’s also a giant step toward reaching the Stone. If only Steve Kloves knew that a true Potterhead would take the information to heart with an entire scene, not just a sentence and an “I shoul’ not have said tha’.”
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is as luminescent as J.K. Rowling had written it to be. Of course, Rowling’s story fits the term like a shoe. For those who don’t know, Rowling was as poor as anything when she sprung the idea for the saga. She was on a train at the time, but she outlined it all (the entire series!) on scraps of paper in a coffee shop. Ever since the publication of part one in 1997, Rowling knew how she was going to end the series ten years later (even if she didn’t know she would end up the wealthiest woman alive). She gave a few people pointers to make the exquisite story more profound in its adaptation, especially when furthering into the latter half of the series.
Just as astounding, however, is the technical realm. John Williams’s score is unforgettable, and absolutely nothing less. Let’s say “Hedwig’s Theme” is just as career-defining as the theme from Jaws, way back in 1975. As far as visuals, the special effects are spellbinding (no pun intended), John Seale’s cinematography spectacular—even if we’re used to him capturing fully plausible dramas like Rain Man and Dead Poets Society. The film works its technical aspect at the most opportune times. During the Christmas scene, there is a joyous representation of the holiday as we, of course, recognize it. During the scene in which Harry is at risk of being caught after hours in the restricted section of the library, it’s difficult not to be on the edge of one’s seat, or at least tensed up.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone may not be perfect. It may be strongly inferior to the book version. Sometimes, the tone is unsteady as well. During the flashback scene in which Harry’s parents are murdered by a dark sorcerer named Voldemort, there is a sudden additive of despair in the foreground; I couldn’t help but believe the scene was a fantastical take on the Manson murders, among an otherwise wholesome movie (see footnote). The movie does have its flaws, but those are likely to come with its director: Chris Columbus. In other ways, however, there is no better man or woman to launch the saga to life. The man knows families and children like John Hughes knew teens.
Footnote: As I write this addendum on 2/6/2013, it has been two days since I watched Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the saga. I’m beginning to think that J.K. Rowling has a knack at literary allusions – among several other devices. Either that, or Steve Kloves read a quasi-children’s book and interpreted her “Voldemort” in the likes of Charles Manson, and her “Death Eaters” (later in the saga) in the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh yeah, and “Azkaban”–the most brutal wizarding prison, first mentioned in book three–DOES look/sound a bit like “Alcatraz,” does it not?