Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has, at long last, finally arrived. Few other films in recent memory have been as eagerly anticipated, both by the millions of Potter fans desperate to see how the filmmakers’ vision matches (or fails to) their own imaginings of Harry’s fantasy world, as well as for those of us interested in whether the film could ever live up to its international hype. Harry Potter‘s most recent kin, in terms of widespread buzz (and storyline), was Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and the film is both as good and as bad as that Star Wars prequel. This is to say that even if the film may not be all that “great,” for reasons I will get into below, its success is guaranteed and its cinematic shortcomings won’t matter a whit to the die-hard Potter fans who have been chewing their nails off since the project was announced.

For those of you who might have been living under a rock for the past few years, a bit of Potter history is in order. And for those of you all too familiar with Pottermania, a few of the craze’s factoids might bear recalling. The film is based on Book One of J.K. Rowling’s runaway young-adult fiction series. The Harry Potter books have outsold any other book or series in publishing history. Book Four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, had the single largest initial printing in history. The books have been translated into 46 languages and published in over 200 countries worldwide. And, as reported on Katie Couric’s special, “Harry Potter: Behind the Magic,” an estimated two-thirds of the children in America have read at least one Potter book. Moreover, the film, which cost roughly $150 million, has already taken in more than that amount in franchising rights: Coca-Cola alone shelled out $100 million for the right to use Harry Potter images to shill its soda pop, Hi-C, and Minute Maid fruit drinks.

The fact that millions of children worldwide (and, admittedly, adults — I for one have read all four books) are so taken in and fascinated by the travails of Harry at the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry has cultural commentators, politicians, and celebrities of all sorts across the United States (and presumably elsewhere in the world) officiously applauding the fact that the books have “gotten children interested in reading again.”

Two things have annoyed me about this celebration of Pottermania’s returning kids to reading. First, it privileges only one certain type of reading and one type of reading material. Apparently, “reading” only counts (and for what is never explained) when one is reading “literary” texts. Never mind that visual texts demand complex interpretations, analyses, and reading abilities. Nor that kids read all sorts of texts that make sense of the world around them and their place in it, like comic books, magazines, and cartoons. We only ever look to these largely visual media and declare that they are limiting children’s imaginations and stultifying their minds.

The second problem is that this return to reading presumes that before reading the Potter books, children were stupid. Or rather, “we” have presumed children were stupid because they wouldn’t or couldn’t read “properly.” Still, we fear that our children’s newfound interest is imminently fragile. Katie Couric expressed collective adult misgivings about the film when she asked director Chris Columbus, in effect, “Why did you make this movie? We just got kids reading again and you come along to ruin it all.”

This slavish dedication to literature as the only “true” site of reading, and to the text and only the text as the locus of creativity and imagination has been largely detrimental for the film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling has retained an amazing amount of control over the franchise and exerted great influence over the film’s production. She rejected several directors, including Steven Spielberg, for fear that they would take too many liberties with the story. She refused to allow American child actors (like Haley Joel Osment) to be cast, favoring instead “real” British kids.

Neither of these is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is surely better without either Spielberg or Osment. What is unfortunate is that this attempt to stay so close to the original book leaves the film feeling as if it is desperately trying to get in all the requisite moments, characters, and scenes, even if some could have been easily, and beneficially, left out.

One of the nice things about Rowling’s books is that they are rather sprawling affairs. Not a one is under 300 pages, Book Four stretching beyond 700. This gives Rowling plenty of time to craft relatively complex stories, to develop characters who will help Harry and his pals solve their various mysteries, and to take little sidetracks into things like the history of her magical school, interracial relations (in this case, the racial politics of Wizard-House Elf relations), and the strategies of Quidditch. This doesn’t translate well to the temporal limits of major release films, especially those made for children. To do the justice to the text that Rowling seems to have demanded would take far longer than a mere two and half hours.

And so, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone moves along rather herkily-jerkily, bouncing from one special effect to another, from one character or scene to another, with seemingly little connection between them. This is most obvious with the character Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese), a ghost who haunts the Hogwarts school. In the books, he is a returning character, and over the course of the series, we come to know a great deal about his life and death, and his place in ghostly hierarchies. In the film, we see him for about twenty seconds: Nick has nothing to do here, other than occasion Cleese’s cameo. The film is filled with such clutter, and unless you have read the book, it probably won’t make a whole heck of a lot of sense to you. Then again, the filmmakers are banking on the fact that so very many people have read the books, so that the confusion of those Luddites who haven’t read them matters very little.

The other problem with trying to shove so many details from the book into the film is that some aspects are left woefully underdeveloped. This is most disappointing in the character of Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), one of Harry’s classmates. In the books, Hermione suffers because she is smarter than everyone else is. She’s unpopular and just a little bit physically awkward, not the most positive characteristics for a pre-pubescent girl. Granted, she sometimes flaunts her knowledge, but it is her resourcefulness and intellect that invariably save the day, and Harry and Ron’s butts, to boot. In the film, however, she is reduced to an insufferable know-it-all. It’s unfortunate, because for me, Hermione is by far the most enjoyable part of the books, and even more so as the series progresses and Hermione, Ron and Harry start to do things like go to school dances and develop crushes. She’s brainy, independent, and she saves the day. Go on girls, don’t be afraid to outsmart the boys! That’s one of the best “lessons” in Rowling’s books. And I have to wonder how jettisoning this is in any way “staying true” to the original story?