Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Chris Columbus, USA/UK, 2001
Adapting a novel for the big screen is no easy task. The expectations of
those who know the story by heart, and demand a faithful translation, run
contrary to the idea of making a film that stands on its own merits.
Executives at Warner Brothers probably didn't lose too much sleep over the idea
of remaining to-the-letter faithful to J.K. Rowling's phenomenally popular book
series. Thus, it's to the credit of director Chris Columbus (Home Alone,
Mrs. Doubtfire) and screenwriter Steven Kloves (Wonder Boys, The Fabulous Baker Boys)
that they have done a fairly admirable job of balancing Rowling's words with the
task of creating a self-contained world that doesn't require Cliffsnotes to
The basic setup is an intriguing one: An orphaned boy wizard, upon reaching
his eleventh birthday, is accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and
Wizardry, which he will attend, profits-willing, for another six movies.
The cast, a diverse blend of neophytes and veterans, works surprisingly well.
The trio of young leads (Daniel Radcliffe as the titular hero, Rupert Grint as
his right hand boy-wizard, Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as the insufferably
disciplined and dedicated Hermione Granger) admirably hold their own against a
veritable who's who from the British stage, led by Richard Harris as head wizard Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith, playing the prudish, but concerned, Professor
McGonagall, and Alan Rickman, who deserves singular praise for his particularly
incisive portrayal of the brooding, ever suspicious, Professor Severus Snape.
Rickman chews scenery as if it were a last meal.
The effects, however, while quite dazzling at times (especially the flying
broomsticks and large-scale chessboard sequence), project a queer artificiality
about them that dampens the fantastic hyper-reality the film's striving so
earnestly to project.
Fluffy, the three-headed guardian dog, fails to evince the menace necessary
to dissuade snooping students from investigating the treasure it's guarding, and
the climactic showdown between young Harry and the vile wizard (He Who Shall Not
Be Named) who killed the boy's parents is devoid of the dramatic tension it all
but demands by coming across as more silly than genuinely sinister. Having
Harry’s arch-enemy appear as a computer-generated, writhing face stuck to the
back of a servile wizard’s head, barking commands like the severed Siamese twin
brother Belial from the film Basket Case, completely negates any impact
the showdown could have had.
Fundamentally, what holds the film back, though, is a tangible sense of
threat. Not once is there any doubt Harry and his friends will escape the
treacherous situations before them. What made the works of insightful and
imaginative children's fantasists like Roald Dahl -- and the respective cinematic
adaptations of those works -- so visceral was the underlying principle that
childhood is an inherently scary place, populated by the machines, desires and
oversized toys of adults, where the lone security blanket comes in the form of
Harry, being an orphan, has had his security blanket ripped violently away
from him. Psychologically, there are serious issues to be dealt with. The terror
of an 11-year-old child forced to confront the murderer of his parents should
make for a dynamic, emotionally volatile scene that resonates long after it is
over. Instead, Harry (perhaps knowing he's got at least six sequels left in him)
trumps his greatest foe with embarrassing ease. So easily, in fact, that Harry
is initially stumped as to how he even managed to do it.
There are no consequences to the boy wizard's actions, no great lessons to be
learned. Consider Charlie Bucket in the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate
Factory. Having violated the rules of the establishment he is denied the
grand prize at movie's end. Yet, despite his disappointment, and perhaps because
of it, he performs an apparently simple, yet no less powerful act by returning
the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Wonka. Charlie is duly is rewarded for his
actions, but, most importantly, has learned an invaluable lesson in the process,
as has the audience.
By contrast, Harry has a canned sense of invincibility about him, something
to be envied more than admired. It's not character traits, so much as smug
artifice and gilded predestination that carry him through his various trials.
Lacking threat and an overarching comment on the human condition, Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, while undeniably fun and entertaining,
shall be remembered more for the boatloads of cash it generates, rather than any
enlightening sense of wonder it sadly fumbles the opportunity to convey.
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