Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (3.5)
Film adaptations must strike a tricky balance between dual demands: fidelity to the source material and obligations of the new medium. If you steer too far from the core ideas of the original story, then you betray those who loved the story long before it was green lit by a studio. But if you chain your film to the source material, then the end product might end up being a rote matter of connecting plot points. Sometimes those who love the original book or story tend to think that all a director needs to do is paste pages up on the big screen, but this ignores that different mediums, by necessity, must tell a story in different ways. Long exposition might be effective in a novel, but ideally a film communicates more concisely through visuals. In fact, one of my favorite adaptations, Blade Runner, not only departs wildly from the original book, but also seems to be arguing against it.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first film in a very long series of adaptations, never manages to strike an appropriate balance between the book and its new home in cinemas. From the beginning it becomes clear that this film is not for the uninitiated. It starts with several wizards arriving at an English suburb to drop off a young baby. We don’t know who these people are or why they need to drop off this youngster off at someone’s front door. The scene has a nice ambience to it and leaves enough questions to drive the film forward, but for someone who has not read the book, the question of the relationship between the baby in the basket and the family he is being left with becomes somewhat troubling. There is a long tradition in books and films of random babies being dropped off at someone’s door, so we cannot assume there is some relationship between the baby and those he is left with. It turns out they are his aunt and his uncle, but we don’t discover this until almost a half-hour into the film, shortly before Harry leaves for Hogwarts. This is a minor problem but it is indicative of an inability for the film to break from the novels and establish itself as a piece of art that can stand on its own two feet.
We may not know who this family is, but it becomes clear early on that they are not the ideal family for an orphan. They force Harry to live in a small closet under the stairs, and they clearly favor their biological son over the one left on their doorstep. Not only is Harry’s cousin spoiled beyond what is appropriate for a young child, but he also appears to be well on his way to contracting type-2 diabetes. Luckily, when Harry reaches an appropriate age, he is recruited into Hogwarts, a school for young wizards. This is something his aunt and uncle apparently dread, going so far as to move to the middle of nowhere to avoid the onslaught of acceptance letters from Hogwart’s. But this is to no avail, and Harry is recruited by Hagrid, a friendly, if slightly bumbling wizard, who has a difficult time keeping secrets when the plot requires a little more information in order to move forward. Soon Harry learns that both his parents were wizards, but that they were murdered when he was very young, requiring the cadre of wizards from the beginning to deposit Harry at his aunt’s and uncle’s.
Anyone who has read Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, or at least has seen Star Wars, can recognize the hero’s journey in this setup. The hero’s journey is when a seemingly provincial protagonist is plucked from the mundane world in order to cross over into the world of magic and adventure. Normally there is a guide who accompanies the hero as he traverses his way from the mundane to the magical. In Star Wars this guide was Ben Kenobi, and here it’s Hagrid. The appeal of this setup is instantly recognizable. Even if you were from the most well adjusted family, every child has felt persecuted by the seemingly arbitrary rules of adults. And who hasn’t felt as a child that you weren’t destined for some grand adventure in your lifetime?
Along the way to Hogwarts, Harry encounters the sociable Ron and the slightly uptight A-student Hermione. Upon arriving to Hogwarts, all three wind up in the Griffindor House, which means they will be competing against students from other houses for top prize at the end of the year. Hogwarts certainly owes more than a little something to the British private school system, and I would imagine a similar system of competition could feasibly exist in the childhood of many British subjects. Even the villainous student Draco, of the Slytherin House, has a haughty air of aristocracy straight out of George Orwell’s memoir “Such, Such Were the Joys.” (I’m giving little away when I tell you that Griffindor House wins the prize at the end of the year, but not before the headmaster, Dumbledor, lets Slytherin House think they have won. This was a rather cruel move on Dumbledor’s part and I half expected him to say “psych” before revealing that Griffindor won).
In addition to midterms, social cliques and getting to class on time, Harry and the gang must also worry about a mysterious object that is being housed within the deep recesses of Hogwarts. They learn that this magical object has the ability to free the villainous Voldemort (much like Dickens, Rowling likes to twist names so her audience is absolutely certain who is good and who is bad). The students are up against a teacher, Severus Snape, who they believe is planning on stealing the object in order to smuggle it to Voldemort.
There’s much to enjoy about this first installment in the Harry Potter franchise, not the least of which is the filmmaker’s intention of employing just about every great British actor imaginable (in addition to Robbie Coltrane and Hagrid, there’s Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, John Cleese and John Hurt). While the child actors aren’t always on the same level as their elders, within the spectrum of child acting from bad (Anakin from Phantom Menace) to good (Elliot from E.T.) they’re firmly within the middle. Of the three main characters, however, it’s Hermione who gets the most thankless role. She’s the student at the front of the class with her hand constantly in the air. It’s much easier to role your eyes at the A-student than to empathize.
But the real appeal of a film like this is being able to see the world of J.K. Rowling on film. Since I’ve never read the book, I can only compare this fantasy world to others. Rowling deftly cobbles together time honored fantasy creatures and concepts, but assembles them in such a way that they manage to be both familiar and new. The film paints Hogwarts as an ancient castle, but imbues it with a sense of kinetic energy. It is a place where ghosts roam the halls as leisurely as students, where paintings come to life and where staircases never stay in the same place twiece. Hogwarts, like an M.C. Escher drawing, appears to contain more space within its confines than is physically possible. Rowling has also created a fun, if slightly confusing, game called Quidditch, which is similar to rugby but on flying broomsticks.
Unfortunately, what really holds the film back is the direction. At two and a half hours Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a lengthy film, which by itself isn’t a problem. I’ve seen enough David Lean films to enjoy immersing myself in a story. And besides, part of the fun of a fantasy film is watching the filmmakers construct an entirely new world brick by brick. The length wouldn’t be a problem if the director was better skilled at creating atmosphere and urgency. The director is Chris Columbus who showed promise in the 80s by directing films like Adventures in Babysitting and writing Goonies and Gremlins. But since then he has become a third rate Spielberg with a higher tolerance for sentimentality. Columbus draws his character with big bright crayons so no one can forget for one second who we are supposed to root against. Harry’s uncle is grossly obese, Draco’s hair is slicked back like Gordon Geco from Wall Street, and even an opposing Quidditch player is given a mouthful of ungainly teeth.
It’s Columbus’s cumbersome direction, which stumbles from one scene in the book to another, that ultimately stifles the film. Instead of bringing the underlining mystery to the forefront of the movie, we are left to sight see in Rowlings world, which isn’t an entirely unpleasant experience, throughout most of the movie. This first installment in the Harry Potter series likely offers more for fans of the book to enjoy than for the uninitiated who wish for nothing more than a new fantasy classic.