Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE

5/10

aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone : USA/UK 2001
director : Chris Columbus
script : Steve Kloves (based on novel by J K Rowling)
cinematography : John Seale
cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman
also : Ian Hart, Leslie Phillips, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Zoe Wanamaker
156 minutes

Harry Potter doesn’t actually feel like a marathon, but that two-and-a-half-hour running time sets a bad precedent – not just because the forthcoming Lord of the Rings ups the ante by sprawling beyond three hours. How long is the house-brick-sized volume four Goblet of Fire going to be, presuming we get that far (remember Star Wars) and presuming Columbus persists with trying to cram every last thing from the books onto the screen? He’s asking for trouble by taking this oh-so-respectful approach – even kids who appreciate the hyper-fidelity are then baffled and irritated by the minor deviations, such as absence of Peeves the Poltergeist.

And wouldn’t it have been better to re-imagine the Potter books, and thus make children realise that films and books aren’t the same thing? Using the novel as starting-point rather than blueprint would have made the film more accessible to non-fans, and also to adults: most newcomers over 15 will find Potter falling short of Shrek and Emperor’s New Groove. The Iron Giant, remains the best children’s movie of recent years despite (or rather, because of) the fact that it didn’t obsessively reproduce its revered literary source.

As for this story. let’s just say that Columbus covered similar turf with his script for Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear back in 1985. This time it’s a straight Roald Dahl / Jedi combo, with foundling Harry (Radcliffe) learning wizardry at the legendary Hogwarts School under head warlock Dumbledore (Harris) and Miss McGonagall (Smith). While the Skywalkers made their light-sabres jump into their hands, Harry and pals Ron (Grint) and Hermione (Watson) do likewise brooms and wands. Anakin had his pod-race, Harry has an aerial game of ‘Quidditch’, full of baffling rules and gratingly whimsical bits of terminology – the pod-race was, for all its faults, straightforwardly first-past-the-post. And while the young Jedi were warned of the ‘Dark Side’ and its hooded Dark Lords, the Potter kids tremble in fear of the ‘Dark Side’, represented by a hooded Lord Voldemort.

A more troubling Star Wars parallel is the central business of Harry, like Anakin, being somehow ‘born’ to do certain amazing things. Ron and Hermione are talented, resourceful, brave and loyal, but Harry is special:. “It’s in your blood!” Hermione tells him. Heroes, apparently, are born, not made – a marvellous lesson for all those millions of young readers at the start of a new century, who are invited to escape into an idealised past: Harry buys his paraphernalia from a ‘hidden’ London street that’s straight out of the 18th century, before taking a 19th century steam-train to a very old-school type of old school.

Thankfully, we’re spared Anakin’s virgin-birth nonsense, but at least there was a sense that the brat was losing something by being sent away, Citizen Kane style, by his mother. Here, Harry’s aunt and uncle are so Dahl-horrid that you wonder why he didn’t use his amazing powers to escape them, thus saving us from a ‘real world’ prologue that’s at least as fantastical as anything at Hogwarts.

But nitpicking is a pointless task with something like Potter which is, of course a fantasy, and can be enjoyed as such, especially given the remarkable all-British gallery of character acting talent involved: Alan Rickman nearly makes the whole enterprise worthwhile as the refreshingly lugubrious Professor Snape, his every word a dank, sinister sigh. And there are some genuinely delightful little CGI touches – a lively chocolate frog, a communicative zoo snake, a purring baby dragon and, best of all, a talking witches’ hat voiced by Leslie Phillips.

These little squibs are almost enough to distract us from the forced airlessness elsewhere: there’s a nice moment when Harry is standing in a wintry courtyard with his trained owl flying around which is kind-of-magical until you remember Kes, which showed what magic really is without recourse to trolls and wizards. And Radcliffe doesn’t seem to be having very much fun as the slightly humourless Harry, though it’s hard to imagine even the most talented child actors injecting much life into Dickensian non-dialogue like “How am I to pay for all this? I haven’t any money!” The weight of expectation seems to be weighing heavily on the lad’s slender shoulders, but he shouldn’t worry. While Potter isn’t by any means the classic some hype-victims are so eager to acclaim, it OK. As far as it goes.


rewrite 23rd November, 2001
(seen Nov-12-01, Warner Village, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

now check these out
1 Suspiria (adults-only equivalent of Harry Potter)
2 The Princess and the Warrior (a modern-day fairytale)
3 Harry, He’s Here To Help (best film ever made with ‘Harry’ in the title)

by Neil Young
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