Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Directed by Chris Columbus
With Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and others
Harry’s magical world has finally conquered the screen – to the joy of some and the disdain of others who regard this as a sell-out of the apprentice wizard that (supposedly) kills the imagination of the readers. Whatever was written about the movie before it came out, whether it be true or not, shouldn’t stop anybody from forming their own opinion. When I left the movie theater I was more than surprised in a positive way, I was impressed. Book adaptations are tricky: If you know the book you see the movie with certain expectation that may or may not be fulfilled, if you don’t know the book you may be disappointed for other reasons, e. g. because you feel that important elements are missing and you weren’t able to follow the plot at all times.
It’s especially difficult to adapt a book to the screen that is read and loved by so many people of all ages, but HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE sticks to the book like few movies do. The author was a consultant to the movie makers and her positive influence is visible. The movie is first of all a visual feast, fitted out lovingly down to the smallest details. To catch everything you’d have to see it more than just once. Beautiful pictures and special effects support the story and don’t have to make up for the lack of it. Most people who watch the movie will already know everything about young orphan Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) who learns that he is a wizard on his 11th birthday and leaves the house of his aunt and uncle where he spent ten years as some kind of male Cinderella to attend the renowned Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
But even two and a half hours running time are too short to include everything from the books, especially the things going on in the background that explain the special appeal of the story. You can stay on the surface or go deeper. Unfortunately the "deeper" things are missing from the movie, just as J. K. Rowling’s occasionally rather black humor. Instead somebody had the idea to put in some slapstick like a student who keeps exploding things with his wand – as if we hadn’t seen that a million times. There’s no room in the script either for Professor Dumbledore’s buoyant sense of humor, which isn’t the fault of actor Richard Harris.
The casting of child and grown up actors alike was inspired although many of the lesser parts don’t get much screen time. I would have liked to see more of Alan Rickman as grim Potions teacher Snape and hope that he will continue in the part. All I can say about Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) is that they lived up to my expectations in every way.
All in all HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE will please most fans and maybe even kindle some curiosity in those who haven’t yet read the books. A movie event not to be missed.
I contracted the Harry Potter virus a while ago and although I don’t count myself among the most rampant fans I read the books several times and watched the movie because I was curious how the story was adapted to the screen. That’s what this review is about. I won’t even try to see the movie as a work of its own merit and assume that the plot is known as well. If you want to be surprised you better stop reading now.
On his 11th birthday orphaned Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is freed from his sad life with his awful aunt and uncle, the Dursleys. Giant but gentle Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) explains to him that his dead parents whom Harry doesn’t remember were wizards and that now the time has come for him to go to Hogwarts school of magic to learn everything a wizard needs to know. Harry discovers a new world where for the first time in his life he has friends and success. Among wizards Harry is a celebrity because the reign of terror of evil wizard Voldemort came to an end when he tried to kill baby Harry. Only Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) who teaches Potions at Hogwarts doesn’t seem to like Harry. Harry and his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are convinced that Snape plans to steal the famed Philosopher’s Stone, hidden somewhere in the school castle, for his own evil purposes.
It’s impossible to satisfy millions of Harry Potter fans around the world. I certainly didn’t expect Chris Columbus, maker of over-the-top slapstick movies like MRS. DOUBTFIRE or HOME ALONE, to be up to the task. But he gave me a pleasant surprise.
You can’t just turn a book into a movie by filming it page by page, whether it’s Harry Potter or something else. Columbus and scriptwriter Steven Kloves (WONDER BOYS) could have been a bit more daring. Many things were expertly shortened and adapted to the different medium, like Harry’s life with the Dursleys or the episode about Hagrid’s pet dragon Norbert. One of the reasons why it’s difficult to view the movie on its own is that it’s only the beginning of the Potter saga and a lot of groundwork had to be laid. A large number of characters had to be introduced that were allowed to shine for about half a second each and were not given any depth. The makers should have paid more attention to the flow of the story than to try and please the readers with their favorite moments and characters.
The grown up actors mostly were cast according to J. K. Rowling’s wishes and in my eyes were as perfect as can be. I hope that especially Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Alan Rickman as Professor Snape and Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid stay with the series as long as it lasts. The three young leads showed that they not only look just like their characters are described in the books. Daniel Radcliffe’s subdued Harry is almost eclipsed by Rupert Grint’s likeable Ron and Emma Watson’s snotty know-it-all Hermione, but all three do justice to their parts. The development of their friendship unfortunately got lost between the depiction of Hogwarts day-to-day life and the adventures they have. The same is true for other Hogwarts students. Some are introduced for no purpose at all while other aspects more important for the overall development of the story where left out, like the meaning behind Neville Longbottom’s (Matthew Lewis) act of bravery or the bitter rivalry between Harry and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and their respective houses, Gryffindor and Slytherin. Humor and satire from the book didn’t make it to the movie, either. Especially Harry’s mentor Dumbledore (Richard Harris) was reduced to a rather boring wise man in the background. Only in one scene the movie character resembled the lovable eccentric wizard from the books.
More than anything else the movie is a feast for the eyes. Hogwarts was created almost exactly like I pictured it. The same goes for the Dursley home, the wizard shopping arcade Diagon Alley and the Goblin bank Gringotts. I would watch the movie over and over again to take in every last detail of the set Stephanie McMillan designed under the watchful eyes of J. K. Rowling.
A movie like that of course can’t do without computer animation. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE among other things boasts a scary troll and a formidable three-headed dog named Fluffy. I was disappointed by the flashy Quidditch game, though, and Neville’s accidental ride on a broomstick was too obviously stretched for effect and didn’t even look good. But still the makers resisted the temptation to just jump from special effect to special effect.
Another aspect of the story that was neglected was the underlying presence of evil overlord Voldemort who after all is more than cool F/X. In the books the memory of his reign of terror and his threatening return are the focus of the story. Although a flashback was added depicting the night Voldemort killed Harry’s parents Harry’s special meaning doesn’t become clear enough. Neither does Harry’s fear not to live up to what is expected from him and be expelled from this new world he is just about to discover.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE is more than just the movie that goes with the action figure, but not more than a companion piece to the book. Did it have to be made? I don’t know. But I enjoyed it and am waiting for the sequel.
Last changes: 12/06/04