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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Richard Harris, John Cleese, Warwick Davis & Alan Rickman

by joseph    Nov 19, 2001

A friend of mine spent the better part of this most recent summer reading, over and over again, the four existing Harry Potter books, one after the other. She went through this cycle probably a half-dozen to ten times. I imagine that she could probably create a movie version of the entire book in her head, without any textual cues, at any point she wanted.

So I thought of her while watching Harry Potter and the Sorcereris Stone, and came to the conclusion that after watching the Chris Columbus film, she would say, iYeah, that was pretty much what I saw, but . . . not quite as interesting.i

This is pretty much what I was thinking as I sat through the film. I liked it, but it simply reminded me of the book. The film never aroused in me a single tingle of excitement through its own devices, but rather made me recall the way the book had when a certain scene was played out. I was watching it, remembering lying on my futon couch in the late afternoon western Oregon evening summer light slanting through the pine trees and reading the Sorting Hat scene or the Diagon Alley scene. And it was odd that a movie should kick me so frequently back to my memory of reading the book. Iive always felt that one of the joys of reading is context--curled up at night by a dim bulb or candlelight, lounging on a Saturday afternoon on the couch, sitting on a train. Movies, on the other hand, strive to be more immersive. With the dimming of the houselights and the surround sound (tangential question: does the announcement of the audio technology used in the film really need to take so damn long?), a movie tries to draw you in as completely as possible. The first Harry Potter installment failed to do that completely, and in the end I realized that it was because I had a better time reading the book.

Which is no real knock to the movie; itis worth your eight bucks, but I had resisted the Harry Potter phenomenon for a good long while. And then only after Goblet of Fire was released did I seek out and read the first one. Thereis no other word for it: it was delightful, a real page-turner. It was the kind of book I would have loved to have found at the age of 11. I would have been a complete Harry Potter freak; I would have been the kid at the theatre with me who had his Halloween Harry Potter costume on. This struck me as early as page 5 when I was reading the book. It captures the essence of two genres popular at that age--the fantasy novel and the high school novel.

And itis that later part of the equation that Chris Columbus and Steven Kloves forgot when they created this film. The film is a solid fantasy film, up there with Willow, Dragonslayer and Legend as being top-notch in its genre. The problem is, the Harry Potter books are not just fantasies--theyire also reminiscent of the high school society novels of which romances like Sweet Valley High are the most cloyingly popular. But just wander over into the Young Adult section of your local B. Daltonis and youill see the other half of the equation that Rowling pulls in. And the fact of the matter is, this is where her best work lies.

Itis the sad fact that Rowling is not much of a fantasy writer. Her magic is predictable, her monsters are humdrum, her descriptive ability for the otherworldly is solid but not brilliant. Her real strength, and itis a formidable one, is in showing us the social network of Hogwarts, of showing us the classes, the conflicts between the students that occur behind the teacheris back, or the conflicts that occur between teachers just to one side of the students. I could always imagine, reading the books, that I was there, and I was happy to be transported to that place. If only I had gone to Hogwarts instead of my ho-hum Great Plains class B school!

But I keep reminding myself that the books are for a different audience than my aged form. I can enjoy in them the careful dissection of subtle classmate politics, but itis true that the straight-forward plot machinations may be what captivates younger audiences more, but I found that the children in the audience when I saw the movie were interested but not captivated. They were certainly drawn in, but the length made it difficult for many of them.

As for me, I found myself in perhaps the same boat. The movie handles the pre-Hogwarts scenes perfectly, but once they arrive at Hogwarts I found my mind drifting quite a bit. There are gems, but the movie has certain holes that are left unanswered (for instance, at one point when Harry has botched his attempt to get into the restricted section of the library, Snape and Quirrell run off to see which students are out of bed; Harry, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that he is about to be caught, moves on to find the dream mirror). The ending is also hokey and contains lines like: iJoin me and we will rule together!i iNever!!!!i (Am I imagining it, or does this remind me of some other pop culture phenomenon?)

There is also less visual flash in the movie than I had expected. There is one point near the end when you find that one of the paintings on the wall is moving without your being alerted to the fact (earlier, a student needlessly says iThe paintings are movingi). I kept waiting for an interesting camera angle or something truly dazzling, but it never came. The scene approaching Hogwarts was what I imagined, but not more than that, and perhaps thatis where my greatest disappointment lay.

Donit get me wrong, there are wonderful moments in the film, a few added jokes that work very well, and a few visual sequences that are dazzling. I canit speak for what kids will most enjoy about it (but I hope to God theyire not reading this site anyway). For adults who know the books and even those who donit, I think the best part of the movie, and the part worth your money, is the performances. I mean, put Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in a movie together and tell me itis not going to be good. They are all excellent, most of all the superb Alan Rickman, one of the few actors who could go from Die Hard to Truly, Madly, Deeply to Harry Potter without blinking. His Severus Snape was even better than the imaginary actor playing him in my head. John Cleese barely even registers as Nearly Headless Nick, but he plays a more prominent role in books to come, so we can hope that Cleese will be in future installments in this role. The same goes for David Bradley as Caretaker Filch, who enjoys the hell out of his role and makes me look forward to his increased presence in Prisoner of Azkaban.

As for the students, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Ron Wealsey and Hermione Granger, respectively, are top-notch and capture the nuances of their characters superbly. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter is more problematic. Truth is, he never made an impression on me one way or the other, and when he did, it was usually in a negative way, as in iThat was a bizarre line reading.i He looks the part, to be sure. Heis equal parts cute and nebbish, which is how Iive always seen Harry, but he just never quite took on a character of his own. I suspect that in the series he will become what Mark Hamill was to Star Wars--a presence we tolerate but never really celebrate. Like Han and Leia, though, the thought that Grint and Watson will continue with their roles for the foreseeable future is welcome news for Harry Potter fans. With the exception of some faculty members, a perfect-looking Draco Malfoy and a capably played Neville Longbottom, the other characters in the book are pretty much nonexistent. Fans of the book will enjoy going iOh, thatis so-and-so,i but look quickly--youill never see that character again, at least not in this installment.

You wonit regret seeing this movie, whether you are already a Harry Potter fan or not. Itis worth seeing in the theatre for the Quidditch match sequence and the long shots of Hogwarts alone, and the scene with the Dursleys at the zoo is worth the price of admission right there. The movie will undoubtedly be a smashing success; perhaps there will be room and allowance for exploring other aspects of Harryis world as the movies, just as the books, move forward through the completion of Harryis life at Hogwarts.

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