Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

D: Chris Columbus
S: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint

Charming, entertaining transcription of the hugely popular novel by J.K. Rowling, miraculously faithful to its source and clocking in at an incredible two and a half hours. Even more incredibly, the film holds attention throughout and never flags in pace in spite of the fact that it is essentially a collection of incidents from the novel accurately reconstructed on film. The basic story, for those from planet Venus who don't know it, concerns the adventures of a young man who belatedly realises that he is a wizard and attends a special school for the magical arts. In the course of his first year there he learns about the hidden kingdom of magic and becomes involved in a mystery revolving around the elusive Philosopher's Stone, a gem with the legendary power to transform base metals into gold. The movie is vintage Hollywood entertainment: beautifully produced, expertly cast, successfully marketed to near hysteria, and generally very enjoyable. But is it a film? If such distinctions matter to you (and I admit that this particular one is a hackneyed cinema studies one, useful as it is for the moment), then you may give pause before embracing it wholeheartedly, much as I hope anyone would enjoy it.

Cinema has fought a century long battle with literature and other representational forms in which stories are related by text. In its earliest days the medium seemed incapable of communicating with the audience without recourse to printed notes, foreknowledge of the story, or, eventually, intertitles explaining where large chunks of narrative or motivation needed to be conveyed but where the filmmakers lacked the skill to deliver them in purely visual terms. Arguably the medium as a whole is still locked in mortal combat with its predecessors. It has found ways to peacefully co-exist with it though.

After D.W. Griffith essentially borrowed the structuring principles of the Dickensian novel to help him organise his mammoth spectacles, it seemed that the battle had reached a peculiar resolution. Literature had won in that its forms and conventions were adopted, but it had lost in that audiences would now prefer the pleasures of a two hour cinematic narrative over reading an actual novel. Yet the symbiosis of forms continued insofar as adaptation of novels, plays, and stories remained and remains a staple of the cinematic palette. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is the first in an eagerly anticipated series, and it hits theatres one month before The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in the equally eagerly awaited Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Adaptation has thrown up some unusual hybrids over the years nonetheless, not least of all in the children's film. Perhaps among the most beloved would be The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, both magical, both based on novels, both quite liberally adapted from their sources. In the case of The Wizard of Oz, some judicious Hollywood rewriting and some technical experimentation both improved upon and greatly enhanced the experience of Frank L. Baum's story. In the case of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, few could resist the enigmatic charms of Gene Wilder's performance but none could defend it as an accurate reading of Roald Dahl's story.

J.K. Rowling has accomplished marvels with the Harry Potter series. She is a good writer who has created an imaginative environment which virtually lives and breathes. Adaptation was inevitable and she has secured a remarkable deal to protect what she has wrought. Steve Kloves' screenplay bears her seal of approval, even to the extent that the only original scene was one discarded from the final draft of the novel. The film really is an adaptation of the book, but only insofar as the term can mean simply moving it from one form to the other through the use of materials not available in its original form.

On one level, this is itself a notable watershed in the relationship between the media. It is possibly the most literal and faithful adaptation of a children's novel ever seen. It may represent a triumph of the word given that fans of the book will, for once, not be disappointed by the film, and should find in it most of what they loved about the story in print. All of the major and minor characters are there. The latter have been cast from a mind-boggling list of major actors including Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Ian Hart, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt, Zoe Wannamaker, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Julie Walters, John Cleese, and Warick Davis. All of them appear to be having a good time with it: certainly they are all good (though Cleese is barely on screen before he's gone). In the leading roles of Harry, his pal Ron and female friend Hermione young Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson look the part. Radcliffe is perhaps a bit too wide-eyed for his own good though, as if overwhelmed by the fact that he is Harry Potter as much as Harry is meant to be overwhelmed by his newfound fame and heritage. Grint fares rather better as the more down-to-earth sidekick, with Watson hitting the right note of frustrating arrogance as Hermione. The story is also there more or less as readers will remember it, though there have been omissions: and there is the rub.

In a sense, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, like Moulin Rouge before it, hearkens back to an earlier moment in the evolution of cinema. It provides a momentary glimpse of a cinema that did not evolve with the same force as its counterparts in the mainstream. Like those early films which required narrators or programme notes to fill in the incidental details, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a film which plays like excerpts from a story rather than a complete narrative. The broad strokes of the plot are certainly present, and yes there is a requisite amount of character development in the course of the story. All of the major scenes from the novel are there and the story is both comprehensible and coherent. Yet it is difficult to escape the sense that it has been assembled in large blocks rather than woven and crafted into a visual narrative.

What is missing is the sense of subtlety in characterisation and sub-plot which Rowling managed so skilfully in the novel. The freedom to move in time and mental space evident in good writing does not have a cinematic equivalent in this film. There are no truly 'cinematic' flourishes during which director Chris Columbus demonstrates anything more than solid Hollywood workmanship, no uneasy seams over which a delicate membrane of visual art has been used in adaptation. The dialogue more or less tells us everything we need, the images merely underline it. The story has been edited carefully (some omission was inevitable) and it has been stretched over (or perhaps cut down to) two and and a half hours very successfully, but readers will miss some of the insight into character they will have and the film does not.

As a piece of cinematic craft, the film has been assembled well though. The selection of camera angles, close-ups, and CGI inserts has been judicious, and though nothing is hugely impressive, nothing is hugely clumsy either. It provides the entertainments it promises. This alone makes it worthwhile. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is one of the best children's films since The Indian in the Cupboard (another adaptation), an unpatronising and generally engaging tale which stimulates imagination and establishes a strong moral basis for its action. It is perhaps not as thematically articulate as it might be, but this is because those fractures in the story are not filled with the kinds of psychological and emotional detail needed to deepen and refine it. There simply isn't time, what with so many major scenes to mount and so many expectations to fulfil.

In another sense though, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone represents a more ambiguous juncture in the history of the relationship between print and film. After a few years, will the film continue to stimulate interest in the books or will it have supplanted them? It is destined to become a Christmas TV standard until movies are no longer popular, and it is more than likely destined to topple Titanic and Jurassic Park from the all-time box office, but will it become more a Star Wars than a Lord of the Rings? Will Harry Potter be thought of as the publishing phenomenon which swept early twenty-first century cinema, or will the books be viewed merely as the precursor to the movies and merchandising which came to dominate our lives? An interesting thought.

Perhaps such ruminations are for other times and other people. Most people will only want to know one thing: is it any good? Yes. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is good. It is good entertainment and it is good filmmaking insofar as we think of this as an artisanal pursuit. Great cinema it is not, and The Wizard of Oz it is not in terms of its ability to transcend mundanity and draw the viewer into a truly unique (and visual) environment. It doesn't inspire awe and wonder so much as cheerful admiration. Only John Williams' lovely score makes your hair stand on end in recognition of something truly elusive and magical. The movie is filled with highlights, and yet sometimes there seem to be so many that it is difficult to know when it has taken the time to ensure the groundwork is entirely solid. Like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, there is a mild sense that some of the fissures in the story have been left for subsequent episodes to fill (the 'new' scene near the beginning is a prime example), adding to that nagging sense that this movie is not so much a movie as it is part of a much larger cultural phenomenon. As such it has 'gaps' which need to be filled with things outside and beyond what we see on the screen.

Should you go and see it? Yes. Should you book your DVD now? Yes. Will it change your life? No. Should it? No. Does this make it any less worthy my your attention than, say Three Colours: Blue? No. Go and see it. Twice. Why not? Resistance is futile and there are a lot worse movies, films, and works of cinema out there which have less respect for the human need for entertainment and diversion.

Note: This film (and the book) goes under the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S. It was felt that the term 'philosopher' was too metaphysical and esoteric for American readers when the book was picked up for distribution there. The term 'sorcerer' was deemed to be more neutral, and it was familiar in children's entertainment from Fantasia's staging of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" with Mickey Mouse. This is ironic given that The Philosopher's Stone itself was a well known and much sought after object at one point in actual human history (during the years in which alchemy was considered a science).

Note: The Region 1 and Region 2 DVDs are pretty much the same, offering a special features disc which is designed for actual children rather than big kids. The features are relatively few, a short production documentary with promo comments on Part II, a couple of deleted scenes and some miscellaneous production design sketches. These are buried under a mount of interactive menu screens which kids will enjoy navigating because they take the form of a virtual tour of the world of the film, but which adults will find frustrating in the extreme. There is no director's commentary on the Region 2 disc.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.