Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Screenplay : Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon Dursley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell), John Hurt (Mr. Ollivander), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy)
Chris Columbus' big-screen version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the first novel in J.K Rowling's wildly popular series about a burgeoning boy wizard, is a beautifully mounted adventure movie that adheres almost fetishistically to its source material.
No doubt paralyzed by the fear of offending or disappointing the legions of fans, screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) has not so much adapted the book as he has simply transferred it into the format of a screenplay, with only the slightest of adjustments. This allows for the inclusion of virtually every character and scenario in Rowling's book, but it also weighs the movie down a bit, making it longer than it probably needed to be and removing any possibility for innovation beyond the act of simple visual translation. There is something constantly reassuring about the movie, but it lacks that sense of enlivening danger that accompanies risky creativity. That complaint aside, it should be said that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is an entertaining and sometimes poignant fantasy, and it will surely be to the delight of readers and nonreaders alike.
For those who don't know (and I can't believe there are many of you out there), Harry Potter is an 11-year-old English orphan who finds out that he is actually a born wizard (as opposed to being a "muggle," which is the wizard term for "nonmagical folk"). Taken away from his cruel aunt and uncle, he is enrolled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, he finds that he is a bonafide celebrity, as he is known for having repelled the attack of an evil dark wizard named Voldemort (who is most often referred to as "You Know Who" or "He Who Shall Not Be Named") as an infant, thus resulting in a scar on his forehead that resembles a lightning bolt.
As I see it, one of the reasons Harry Potter is so popular is that it is a perfect distillation of the childhood fantasy that deep inside we are really special in a way that no one else is. It's the Cinderella dream of every kid who has ever felt ordinary or mistreated, the one where you imagine that you're really a princess or that your real father is a millionaire who will suddenly show up on the doorstep one day to claim you. Harry Potter himself is in the worst of situations—forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs while his aunt and uncle lavish praise and gifts on their bratty son—until he learns of his true fate, one that will lead him to a world previously unknown to him, but one in which he is somebody.
Creating that world on screen was a challenge, to be sure, and the production team led by production designer Stuart Craig (The English Patient) should congratulate themselves on bringing it life with vivacity and grandeur. Rather than just looking like huge sets, the world of Harry Potter—from Diagon Alley, the secret London location where wizards buy much-needed supplies, to the enormous Hogwarts dining hall, with its long tables and hundreds of candles floating magically in the air—have a comfortable familiarity and lived-in quality. It's as if they are real places.
The movie is also packed with elaborate special effects, not all of which come off quite as well as others. There is a baby dragon, a giant three-headed dog, a monster with two faces, and a woman who transforms herself into a cat, among other fantastical creatures. The most challenging no doubt was the game of Quidditch, a sort of wizard version of rugby played high in the air on broomsticks. The game is so fast and hectic as described on page that its visual translation on screen was almost doomed from the start. Relying heavily on computer-generated imagery, the Quidditch match in Harry Potter is appropriately thrilling, but it is too cartoonish-looking; it is all too obvious when computer-generated bodies, with their slightly unnatural movements, replace those of flesh and blood.
Considering how ingrained the characters in the world of Harry Potter have become (Rowling has published four books so far in the series), casting the movie was crucial. Fortunately, almost every role is filled perfectly, starting with the three unknown child actors—Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson—who play, respectively, Harry Potter and his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermoine Granger. Radcliffe is a real find, as he pulls off the role of Harry without once being cloying or cutsey. He gives the character an appropriately keen intellect while still suggesting Harry's basic vulnerability. Despite being the most powerful character in the movie, he is still a child who is not well versed in his own skills or potentials and, like most kids, constantly feels out place. Part of the joy of the Harry Potter series is seeing how Harry grows into his vast gifts, and Radcliffe fills the bill perfectly.
The other roles are also well filled, mostly with well-established British stars buried deep in their costumes. Richard Harris makes an appropriately noble and stout headmaster Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith is stern but caring as the shrill Professor Minerva McGonagall, while Alan Rickman is delightfully snide and cunning as the mysterious Professor Severus Snape, the potions master. The enormous Robbie Coltrane brings a good deal of affection and comic relief to his role as the beloved and shaggy Rubeus Hagrid, the giant groundskeeper.
The only real case of miscasting is Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy, Harry's arch-nemesis and fellow student. Felton is not a bad actor, but he simply doesn't look the part: He's too cute. Draco needed to be the child equivalent of Rickman's Snape, and Felton, with his slick blonde hair and bright eyes, doesn't cut that figure, no matter how much he sneers. Part of this is also due to the fact that Draco's worst quality—his snobbish adherence to rigid class distinctions, something he taunts poor Ron with constantly—is almost completely lost in the movie, thus depriving it of a social dimension that adds surprising depth to the books.
Yet, even with that misstep, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone comes tantalizingly close to living up to all the unfulfillable expectations set for it. Chris Columbus may not have seemed like the best choice to direct the film, especially when Steven Spielberg's name was dangled out there for so long, but he steps up to the plate nicely. His previous work with child actors in films such as Home Alone (1990) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) was, no doubt, important in helming a movie centered on 11-year-olds, and he wisely doesn't go soft and cut corners in the movie's darker moments, especially a nocturnal journey through the Dark Forest that is as creepy as anything you're likely to find in a PG-rated movie.
For those who have read the book(s), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will be a rewarding visualization of people and places that have existed entirely in their heads. For those who have never cracked one of Rowling's books, it will be a good introduction to Harry's memorable world. But, more importantly (especially to the executives at Warner Bros. who have already sunk millions into the production of the sequel), for all of us, readers and nonreaders alike, the world of Harry Potter is a place we will want to return to again.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick