Jun 14 2011 1:24pm

Rewatching the Potter Films: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone

I’m going to be re-viewing (and reviewing) the Harry Potter movies. Two necessary prefaces, before we go any further:

  1. I’ve read each Harry Potter book multiple times and like them all very, very much.
  2. I’ve seen each movie adaptation, but only once each.

In each case, with 2), I saw the movie either opening weekend in the theater or shortly thereafter, and in each case thoroughly enjoyed myself and didn’t obsess overmuch on detail, changes in adaptation, or any wonky cinema theory or any such eggheadedness. In many ways, but for being a bit older, I was the ideal audience for the movies: a huge fan of the books who was approaching the movies as spectacle and entertainment, rather than looking to slice and dice critically and use lots of big words while adjusting my monocle.

But that, as all else must, ends now. Onward to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone! (Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S. and India; to avoid confusion I’ll use the U.K. title because it came first.)

The first movie in the series is a very faithful adaptation of its source novel, to the point where the isolated new lines of dialogue—Draco Malfoy saying “arse,” Severus Snape dropping by Harry’s table in the cafeteria to briefly, awkwardly talk trash about an upcoming Quidditch match—stick out very prominently. Pretty much everything else except the opening chapter and a couple of the obstacles in Harry and retinue’s way during the climax are faithfully, dutifully presented onscreen.

What this means for Philosopher’s Stone as a movie is that it tells the engrossing and genuinely enchanting story of orphaned wizard Harry Potter, sent to live with his nearest living relations, who hate the abnormal in general and magic in particular, denying its existence whenever possible. On Harry’s 11th birthday, a giant named Hagrid arrives, informs him of his true identity and that his parents were murdered by the evil wizard Voldemort, who vanished, presumed dead, when his killing curse inexplicably rebounded on him when he attempted to murder Harry as well. Harry is enrolled in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he makes two lifelong friends in the above-mentioned Ron and Hermione, and stumbles upon a plot to steal a legendary stone that grants immortality... could it be Voldemort trying to steal it? And does Voldemort have an agent among the Hogwarts faculty?

The story is, by this point, legend, but unfortunately the screen version unfolds in a structurally unwieldy fashion. It’s tempting to assume that narrative is narrative and that what works beautifully in a book will ipso facto work in a cinematic adaptation, but a book and a movie are two different things. The fact that Harry doesn’t meet Ron—his best friend for the remainder of the series—until 35 minutes in, by itself, makes the first half of the picture drag a bit. They don’t even rescue Hermione from the troll, completing the friend triad, until over an hour in, and the mystery of the titular stone isn’t even really introduced until after that. Again, this worked fine in the book. The sweep of J.K. Rowling’s occasionally-maligned but undeniably bewitching prose drove the plot with the forward momentum of the Hogwarts Express locomotive.

The fault of the movie’s occasional pacing stumbles, despite having a script that essentially is the book, is director Chris Columbus’. The overlength is entirely the fault of the weird, non-rhythmic way the picture is edited—and seemingly every single shot in the whole movie is a medium close-up that gives no sense of the characters’ spatial relationship to each other—and also a peculiarly insecure need to dwell for a second or two too long on every special effects shot. Still, these details don’t necessarily jump to the foreground unless one is actively looking for them. As a recitation, no matter how poorly shot and edited, of the novel’s plot, Philosopher’s Stone works perfectly well, and the production design is quite handsome, if shoved in the audience’s face a bit much by the “hey, look at THIS” cinematography.

One element of Philosopher’s Stone that holds up quite well is the acting. Of course, people like Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman (oh, Alan Rickman), Richard Griffiths, and Fiona Shaw (and all the luminaries who’d join the series in subsequent installments) are going to be great. But the kids—Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione)—all give excellent performances, much better than I’d remembered. Grint is given a few too many wisecracks than really necessary, but he handles them well, and performs a genuinely moving (though of course non-fatal) act of self-sacrifice in the climax.

As a start to the series, Philosopher’s Stone, despite its cinematic creakiness, delivered the goods as an act of good faith to fans of the novels. It isn’t so much an adaptation of the novel as it is a transcription, which as an opening gesture to the passionately loyal Harry Potter fan base was a wise move. As a movie, Philosopher’s Stone has its downside, but as the start to a franchise it succeeds brilliantly.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

1. Edgewalker
I thought this movie was great.

Until I saw Fellowship of the Ring a month later.

Being too faithful to the book ruins the movies and this one is slow paced and boring in my view.
Noneo Yourbusiness
2. Longtimefan
I really did find this movie very engaging when I first saw it and still watch the Blue Ray once a year or so.

The only thing I find distracting about the movie is poor Herminone's hair. Seriously, the girl would have a brush somewhere since she was so precise. Thank goodness in later movies she has better hairstyling.

I hope that is not too much of a spoiler. :)
3. Lisamarie N
I have to disagree about the hair - take it from a fellow frizzy haired girl. It doesn't matter how precice you are, hair like that is going to be frizzy no matter what (brushes don't help!). Plus, I don't think she would really care about that kind of thing. I actually couldn't stand it that they went the stereotypical Hollywood route and made Hermione a great beauty in the future books - it's supposed to be a big shock when she goes through all the trouble to glam up for the Yule Ball - after which she says it's not worth the trouble to do it every day and goes back to her old self.
4. dav
I agree completely that the major fault of this movie is Chris Columbus. After the first two movies I was convinced we were going to be forced to slog through 7 unimaginative cash grabs that didn't take advantage of the amazing world that had been built through the books. Thankfully, Alfonso Cuaron changed that perception and it's been humming along ever since.
Chris Palmer
5. cmpalmer
I don't want to pick on Chris Columbus, but I do agree. I think he is, in some ways, a victim of his freak success. He directed Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, two fairly pedestrian (to be kind) movies that made insane amounts of money and so, to the studios, I'm sure he looked like the perfect fit for Harry Potter. His writing credits, particularly for youth oriented films, are more impressive with Gremlins, The Goonies, and Little Nemo and I don't have a problem with his screenplays for the films. But, overall, he's a very lackluster director.

I think they also made a mistake giving him the Percy Jackson film thinking that attaching his name to it would make it as big as Harry Potter.
6. Ellynne
One thing I have to say for Mr. Columbus, however. I think he deserves some of the credit for how well the Potter child stars have turned out so far. Possibly because of how things went with some child stars, especially Macaulay Culkin, the star of Home Alone, Columbus interviewed the parents as well as the children, making sure they had a good grasp of all the difficulties the kids might deal with because of the films. He made the parents promise that, if the kids ever said they wanted to stop doing the films, that was it, the parents would let them stop.
Joel Cunningham
7. jec81
Columbus didn't write the script -- Steve Kloves did.

It is a shock to see the epic previews for the final film and realize how clunky the first one is. Even as an effects extravaganza, it has always looked cheap to me.
Chris Palmer
8. cmpalmer
Oops, you're right. I thought he had a screenwriting credit, but he didn't...
j p
9. sps49
I thought this was an excellent opening movie that avoided a lot of the common Hollywood change-for-no-reason shit that is forced into adaptations (Cuaron succumbed to this- putting the kids in jeans and swaetshirts? rearranging Hogwarts?), and I have no problem with Columbus' work here. Shifting and shortening parts of the story would not have worked out well.
Bruce Meyer
10. dominsions
For Harry Potter enthusiasts who have already read the book, I thought the first movie was fine. But if in some parallel universe the movie had come out on its own without J.K. Rowling and without the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerors Stone, I don't think the movie would have worked very well. It would have been difficult to follow the plot and capture the viewers.

Movies and books are two distinctly different artistic mediums, and what works in one usually doesn't work in the other. The producers have a choice: either to stay faithful to the book and put out a substandard artistic work but satisfy the fans, or redo everything and produce a great movie but anger the fans. In this case because of the popularity of the Harry Potter fanchise I think they did the right thing.

john mullen
11. johntheirishmongol
Although I find the Potter books pretty boring and mundane, I agree that in this case the movie fit the expectations of the audience. Perhaps it was a little clunky, but it is like a checklist that must be followed or the fans of the series will be disappointed and kill the possibilities for sequels. Since there are few enough franchises that actually make money, you can't take any chances with a product like that.
12. TimmyTwoStep
Let's be clear on one thing, the three child actors were good here relative to some other child actors (Lloyd, Jake). In an unfair comparison to the actors guild as a whole, they are not good.

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