September 2022

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

DIRECTOR: Chris Columbus

CAST: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Sir Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, Warwick Davis, Zoe Wanamaker, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Tom Felton, John Hurt, John Cleese


J.K. Rowling’s seven-book Harry Potter series is unquestionably the most popular fantasy series of its time, and beyond its genre it is a cultural phenomenon approaching the level of the Star Wars saga. And while some dismiss (in my opinion, underestimate) it as kids’ stuff, its appeal transcends age. While many adults discover the books or go see the movies with their children, just as many read or watch it on their own. Any essay I or anyone else could write psychoanalyzing the cultural appeal of Harry Potter is pointless. All one has to do is read a couple pages of any Harry Potter novel to see how it became so infectiously popular. Borrowing a page from the likes of Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and even J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling writes with a breezy, page-turning writing style, sucking the reader into a richly detailed, vividly imagined magical world, throws in plenty of wryly offhand comments, populates her world with a large collection of colorful characters led by an eminently likable, sympathetic hero, and fashions each book as telling its own self-contained plot with a beginning and a climax while furthering events in the overall storyline. It’s not the stuff of Shakespeare, or The Lord of the Rings, but it’s addictive. And despite the cries of religious fundamentalists, none of whom have probably ever read a word of Harry Potter, who prefer to throw it on the bonfire rather than actually gain an understanding of what they’re talking about, there’s nothing dark and sinister at work. Yes, the Harry Potter books involve witchcraft, magic, and spells, and that makes some readers and viewers uncomfortable. But anyone who reads and appreciates Harry Potter knows that its core theme is a worthy one- friendship, loyalty, and love. Magic and spells might be part of the story, but they’re not its point. And there’s something refreshing about such an explosively popular cultural event originating not from a video game, movie, or TV, but a medium some feared was being left behind and abandoned. Aside from simply creating an entertaining story, J.K. Rowling should receive some gratitude just for getting millions of young people away from the video games and television and actually reading.

Of course, any book with a massive following will almost inevitably be made into film sooner or later, and it didn’t take long for Harry Potter (Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book, was released in July 2007). Initially, reports were swirling that Steven Spielberg had his eye on Sorcerer’s Stone, but that ultimately came to nothing, and Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) ended up in the director’s chair for both Sorcerer’s Stone and the second installment Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets .

The title character is, of course, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who lives on Privet Drive in suburban England with his horrid, James and the Giant Peach-esque relatives, the Dursleys (Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Henry Melling) until one day, on his 11th birthday, he is visited by a huge bearded man called Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who informs him that he is a wizard and the time has come for him to go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry also learns some troubling information about his past, such as his parents’ murder at the hands of an infamous evil wizard named Voldemort (the Dursleys told him they died in a car accident). Voldemort also tried to kill baby Harry, but for some reason was unable to and disappeared, leaving Harry with a lightning-shaped scar and making him universally famous among the wizarding world as The Boy Who Lived. After a trip with Hagrid to pick up some needed supplies (including a wand and an owl), Harry starts his first year at Hogwarts. There he meets Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who will become his best friends, and others who will be long-standing enemies such as the arrogant Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). He also meets the Hogwarts staff, including ancient Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Professor Minerva McGonogall (Maggie Smith), Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), Professor Flitwick (Warwick Davis), and the unfriendly Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). But Harry’s first year will involve more than studying, when he and his friends become convinced one of the teachers is trying to steal a mysterious item hidden in one of the school’s secret chambers.

Anyone who enjoys the book should likewise approve of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves adhere with almost rigid strictness to Rowling’s book (Rowling herself enthusiastically supports the films, praising how faithfully they match her vision). Except for minor details (a few relatively insignificant scenes and a prankster ghost named Peeves), everything in the book is retained in the movie. For those unfamiliar with the source, Sorcerer’s Stone fulfills its purpose as the introductory episode of Harry Potter, but as a film (and a cinematic entity separate from the books), it has obvious flaws as well as virtues. One thing Columbus does is to introduce and immerse the audience into the world Rowling has created, displaying Rowling’s vivid imagination and clearly setting up the significant characters and information we need. Columbus also mostly maintains Rowling’s tone, often light and whimsical, with a few more serious moments scattered around (both the books and films grow substantially darker as the series progresses). Unfortunately, apart from transferring Rowling’s active imagination from page to screen, Columbus doesn’t display much of his own. Sorcerer’s Stone fulfills its purpose, but it doesn’t go beyond the way it could have. There’s something workmanlike and Point A to Point B about the way the movie is structured, as though Columbus was so intent on simply lifting everything up off the page and throwing it up on the screen that he was afraid to take any initiative of his own. As a result, Sorcerer’s Stone may be entertaining, but lacks a sense of energy and vitality; the inventiveness is all J.K. Rowling’s, not the filmmakers’. Sorcerer’s Stone is probably as faithful a translation from book to film as you are likely to find, but as a movie, it lacks a certain life of its own.

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are typical of fresh-faced young acting newcomers who make up for what they lack in polish with earnestness and enthusiasm. Of the three, only Radcliffe had a previous resume (he was a young David Copperfield in a 1999 BBC version, which also featured Maggie Smith, and Geoffrey Rush’s son in 2001’s The Tailor of Panama, which was released only a few months before he debuted in his plum, ongoing role of Harry). Radcliffe makes Harry endearing with his earnest, serious demeanor and expression of wide-eyed wonderment at the magical world around him, and makes Harry a feisty, resolute young protagonist. While the three leads are new faces, the supporting cast includes a lot of familiar British actors- Sir Richard Harris, bringing grace and wisdom to Dumbledore, Maggie Smith, whose McGonogall isn’t quite as stiff as she first seems, Robbie Coltrane as the bumbling Hagrid, Ian Hart as the stuttering, tic-ridden Quirrelll, and Alan Rickman as the dour Snape. There are also recognizable faces in small roles- John Hurt as a wand salesman, and John Cleese as a ghost.

Sorcerer’s Stone has a few standout sequences, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s encounter with a mountain troll and a huge three-headed dog, and a climactic confrontation. The revelation of the villain isn’t a big surprise, but it’s not the most obvious candidate. The movie’s most effective and affecting scene, in which Harry has a reunion- of sorts- with his parents, provides a genuine dose of poignancy and a needed touch of substance. Unfortunately, there is also a protracted, unintentionally corny sequence involving the trio navigating a life-size, dangerous chessboard, that almost brings the movie to a halt. This may be an example of something working better on the page than on the screen. The special effects aren’t flawless, but they’re good enough to get the job done (an actual British castle stands in for Hogwarts). The movie has a light charm, and in spite of all its obvious flaws, its appeal isn’t hard to see. It’s hard to deny that Sorcerer’s Stone is fairly juvenile-oriented. There’s plenty to dazzle the kids, while later installments would have more to offer for adults.

Sorcerer’s Stone really serves as set-up and introduction, and it mostly meets its modest, unambitious goals satisfactorily, if not exceedingly. Its biggest drawback is Columbus’ contentment to be merely adequate instead of going above and beyond the call of duty. As a result, Sorcerer’s Stone is adequate and entertainning instead of enthralling fantasy, but there’s still magic here, albeit not as much as there could have been.