Science Fiction and Fantasy Reviews

Genre Index


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), Directed by Chris Columbus. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, John Hurt, Ian Hart, Emma Watson, Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Zoe Wannamaker
Synopsis: Orphan Harry Potter is in dire straits. His aunt's family, with whom he lives, clearly despise him. He is made to live under the stairs in a closet while his aunt and uncle lavish their affection on his obnoxious brat of a cousin. One day, a piece of mail arrives for Harry, one that his guardians refuse to allow to be delivered into his hands. Despite their attempts to block it, as squadron of owls continue to deliver mail to Harry until, at last, his aunt and uncle remove the family to an island in the north sea. Even this isn't enough to stop the mail, though. One stormy night, the door of their new residence is battered down by a huge man with wild beard and hair. This is Hagrid, who has been charged with delivering Harry's invitation to join the incoming class at Hogwart's School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry's parents, it seems, were both wizards and his uncles family are jealous and vindictive "muggles." Soon enough Harry is taken on a shopping trip for school supplies as Hagrid relates the story of the death of Harry's parents and the origin of the lightning-bolt scar on Harry's forehead. Harry's parents were killed by an evil wizard named Voldermort. How Harry survived is a mystery, but his survival has lent him a certain amount of celebrity in the world of magic. Off to school he goes, celebrity clinging to him. On the train to Hogwart's, located somewhere in the wilds of Scotland, Harry meets Roy Weasly and Hermione Granger, two other students on the way to the school. Roy and Harry instantly become pals, while Hermione lords her knowledge of magic over the two boys as a way of ingratiating herself to them. Once at the school, they are sorted into their respective houses, all three of our young heroes wind up in House Gryffindorr. Their arch-rivals for the "House Cup," awarded at the end of the year, is house Slytherin, sponsored by the mysterious Professor Snape, the master of potions. Harry is suspicious of Snape--when he is introduced to him, the scar on his head throbs in pain. During the course of the school year, it becomes apparent that someone is attempting to steal one of the school's greatest treasures--The Philosopher's Stone of alchemical legend, rumored to turn lead to gold and to hold the secret of immortality--and that someone appears to be working on behalf of Voldermort. Meanwhile, Harry attempts to fit in to his new surroundings. Snape's class is a nightmare for him, but he excels at the game of Quidditch--a sort of polo played on flying broomsticks. As the school year wears one, a number of incidents draw Harry and his friends deeper and deeper into the machinations of Voldermort and his opposite number, the school's headmaster, Dumbledore, until one night, just before the semester ends...

A Classic?: I hadn't intended to see Harry Potter on the big screen. I think very little of director Chris Columbus and the prospect of sitting through a two and a half hour fantasy epic from him did not appeal to me, particularly at current multiplex ticket prices. I assumed that this is a film that will metriculate through the culture through sheer repetition and that I would simply absorb the film through osmosis. The thing that swayed me to the theater was the four star review the film received from the sometimes-reliable Roger Ebert. This review included the statement: "I had an idea that I was watching a classic." "A classic, huh?" said I. Well, we'll just have to see about that , won't we? So off to the theater I went, dragged in tow by my girlfriend, who has none of the lofty expectations of movies that I carry around like the chains that Marley's Ghost totes around the afterlife.

Sea Change: In spite of the fact that Hollywood (and Scholastic Books, Harry's publishers) seem to think Americans are illiterate dolts, I can't bring myself to use the phrase "Sorcerer's Stone" to describe The Philosopher's Stone. I've left the title intact in the lawyery credits at the head of the review, but that's a concession to readers who might mistakenly think I'm a Brit if I use the film's "proper" title. This is something I was grousing about before I even saw the movie. Mind you, I haven't read the book, nor any of its sequels, but I know what The Philosopher's Stone is and the British title is well known. After I saw the movie, this trifling change was the least of my problems.

The act of filming a book performs another kind of sea change, too. The great spy novelist, John Le Carre ceased to write about his spymaster, George Smiley, after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People were filmed in the early 1980s. The reason he gave was that Alec Guiness had "stolen the character" from him. He was no longer able to write the character without visualizing Guiness in the role. The role of Harry Potter was originally offered to Haley Joel Osment, perhaps the best (and undoubtedly the smartest) child actor in a generation. He turned it down and claimed that he didn't think the books should be filmed at all (naive, wonderful child that he is!). He knew that if he took the part, he would forever be linked to the role and, further, generations of readers to come would no longer be able to read the books without seeing him in the role of Harry. It will be interesting to see if this is the case with the current cast of British worthies that populate the film. Certainly, the film's box office argues persuasively that this will in fact become a fait acompli. Will this film freeze the faces of its young cast in the minds of readers yet unborn? I wonder about this, because the film leaves little real impression. In fact, Daniel Radcliffe's Harry is kind of anonymous. My reaction to him was (first) that he was too tall for the role and that, "gee, he looks kind of like the illustrations on the cover of the books." We shall see.

The Magic Lantern: When I was a kid, the last vestige of the the old magic lantern shows still existed in the form of the Viewmaster filmstrip viewer. The film wasn't really on strips, but was rather arranged around a disc that you inserted into the Viewmaster Viewer and rotated with a lever. The thing took advantage of stereo vision and showed its little slide show in 3-d. The last time I saw one of these things in use was in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ("The River of Life! Captain Walker! Never-never Land!"). Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone gave me a strange flashback to this device, in so far as the film is very good at setting up enjoyable tableux for the Magic Lantern show, but fails utterly in linking these tableux into a story. There has obviously been a lot of care taken to make this film letter-perfect faithful to the book (lest a horde of Harry's fans descend on Warner Brothers and vent their righteous fury), but the end product winds up looking like a series of illustrations. The film has no narrative thrust. It doesn't grab you by the nads and pull you along in the way a fantasy adventure should. Part of this can be laid on director Chris Columbus--Warner's lapdog director in this matter. He's obviously in awe of the material, so much so that he doesn't make the hard choices. He doesn't have the balls to cut what needs to be cut to make Harry Potter work as a film. Because of this, you have a movie that has a bare 45 minutes of plot, but that pads out its running time to 156 minutes--in part by spending its first 50 minutes or so cramming a "sense of wonder" down the audience's throat, complete with swelling John Williams score, whether they like it or not. By the time the film got anywhere near a plot, I was already getting fidgety in my seat. I can't even imagine how I would have reacted to this when I was twelve. By avoiding these hard decisions, Columbus hasn't made a film of a book per se, but has rather made a "book on film." There is nothing in the movie that takes advantage of the language of film in any but the most rudimentary and utilitarian of ways. I can't help but fantasize about what this might have looked like in the hands of Terry Gilliam, J. K. Rowling's first choice as director.

But Columbus's handling of the material is only half the story.

Misplaced Affections: In spite of the things I say in previous paragraphs, there are a lot of things to admire in Harry Potter. The cast is first rate, the production design is elaborate and evocative, and some of the individual scenes laid out for the view to gawp at are pretty interesting. Certainly the supporting performers are a joy to watch, particularly Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, functioning as both Greek chorus and mouthpiece for the author, doling out exposition with a reluctant, "I shouldn't have told you that." Alan Rickman as Snape is marvellously sinister. Rickman has set himself up as the heir-apparent to Basil Rathbone in the sneering villain department. Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Fiona Shaw, and John Cleese all have interesting faces and deliver their lines with melifuous English diction. The fun in LOOKING at the film almost rescues it.

The best thing in the movie is the scene where Harry comes upon the wraithlike shade of Voldermort drinking blood from the neck of a dead unicorn in The Dark Forest. This scene alone throws into stark relief what the film as a whole is lacking: a sense of menace and a sense that what plot there is means something. This lack flows from a disconnectedness between the film and the audience that cannot be laid solely at the feet of Chris Columbus. After all, this may very well be his most accomplished film (what that says about his body of work I will leave for you, gentle reader, to decide).

The culprit here is the character of Harry Potter himself. Not, mind you, in the performance of Daniel Radcliffe--he's just fine in the role--but in the character as written and in the function of the character within the story. Harry is a cipher. He has practically no dialog. Watch carefully: all of his supporting characters have more to say than he does. This is built into the design of the movie. Harry is intended as a stand-in for the audience, one presumes, and his function is to react to the impossible, magical things around him as the audience would react. Because of this, Harry himself DOESN'T DO ANYTHING. Rather, things happen TO him, even unto the end of the movie. Moreover, his magical gifts don't stem from the virtues of the character himself, but flow from the deus behind the machine of the movie itself. This is a problem, because if Harry is a blank slate about whom we know nothing, why should we care what happens to him? The movie tells us that we should care because he is the "good guy" and that Voldermort and his lieutenants are "bad guys," and that their battle has meaning as a classic struggle of good versus evil, but so what? What is really at stake? What is Voldermort's grand plan once he gets the Philosopher's Stone? The movie does not see fit to tell us. More to the point, why should we care that only Harry can stop it? What does it mean to Harry? Revenge for his parents death? The movie hints at this, but there is no sense of sadness or melancholia in Harry, even when he is looking at a mirror that reveals his fondest desires. Once again, the movie doesn't tell us why the plot is meaningful. Worse still, in the last forty minutes of the movie, I began to wonder why the story wasn't about Harry's friend, Hermione. She is bright, but lonely because she is bright; she is courageous; and, most importantly, she has initiative: all things that elude Harry Potter himself.

Deus Ex Machina: (note, this is the part of the review in which I reveal salient plot points at the end of the story, so read no further if you don't want me to give away the movie to you). I mentioned above that Harry's magical gifts are handed down from on high. I want to elaborate on this a bit, because it plays into the part of the movie that most sours me on the experience. At the end of the film, Harry overcomes the various traps set to guard the Philosopher's Stone and confronts Voldermort and his human host for possession of the prize. It turns out that there is virtually nothing Voldermort can do to coerce Harry into surrendering The Stone, because Harry's touch is lethal to Voldermort. He crumbles to sand as they grapple. Now, I am told that Harry survived the attack that killed his parents for this very reason and that this is laid out explicitly in the book, but in the context of the movie, this is NOT made clear, and Harry's sudden invincibility to his arch-enemy seems to me to be pulled out of the air. In fact, it smacks of cheating.

Writing in Danse Macabre, Harry Potter-admirer Stephen King once noted that good fantasy is about power: about how the powerless find power within themselves, about how the powerful lose their power, or about how power that has been lost is regained. He notes that bad fantasy is also about power, but it is about how the powerful wield their power. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone SEEMS to be about the powerless finding power inside themselves (and, in print, this may well be the case), but the climactic scenes at the end of the film got me to wondering. All of the students at Hogwarts have an inate magical power--it's what sets them apart from the "muggles." Isn't Hogwarts, then, a training ground for a powerful elite in how to use their power? This thought troubles me and makes me rather reluctant to revisit this particular world when the inevitable sequel arrives. In fact, it makes me reluctant to pick up the books themselves. Yes, yes, I know that these books have done the world a great service by getting young people interested in reading and all that, but we all know where a road paved with good intentions leads....