May the fantasy be with you
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (she plans to publish seven of the boy-wizard yarns) have arguably ignited the biggest boost in collective public page turning (more than 100 million copies sold in 200 countries) since the advent of the checkout counter magazine rack. The original United Kingdom title of the inaugural 1997 bestseller of the series is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Its title was changed to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when readied for American consumption, with “Sorcerer” apparently perceived to be more palatable to readers who prefer happy hour to tea time.
This year’s most eagerly awaited film has been the adaptation of Stone by director Chris Columbus (Stepmom, Bicentennial Man) and writer Steven Kloves (who penned the excellent Wonder Boys, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Racing With the Moon). The production is a reverent but rather unremarkable condensation of a very remarkable book. The filmmakers, working closely with Rowling, have captured the letter of the manuscript but not quite its spirit. The book is witty, feels organic and oozes imaginative detail. The film is not as comical, is driven by special effects and gets more bang per buck from costume, set and art design than characterization.
The story begins shortly after the powerful Lord Voldemort, a Darth Vader-like sorcerer from the Dark Side, has murdered the wizard and witch parents of baby Harry Potter. Voldemort wanted to kill Harry, too, but mysteriously disappeared in a sudden burst of green light that left Harry with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Friends of Harry’s folks abandon him on the doorstep of his “nonmagical” uncle, aunt and cousin. He is mistreated (including forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs) and grows up until invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
At Hogwarts, Harry (played capably by Daniel Radcliffe) learns about the power and dangers of spells, potions and All Things Mystical. He makes friends and enemies, becomes a Quidditch star (a soccer-like game involving flying broomsticks and enchanted balls) and learns that Voldemort may be returning to complete his interrupted execution.
I loved the book and blasted through the adventure in two sittings. The film isn’t as breezy or as savory, and the 140-minute run time feels 30 minutes too long. The film shifts Harry’s trademark scar from the center of his forehead to the side a bit, and straightens his bushy hair. The front of the film feels stunted and rushed, and doesn’t capitalize on the fear and loathing that even the name of Voldemort alone should generate. The role of the ghost Peeves has been eliminated and other characters, such as John Cleese as Nearly Headless Nick, are mere cameos.
In relevance to the PG rating, some of the material is intense and frightening. The attack by a roving, club-slinging troll and a chess game in which gigantic board pieces are destroyed upon capture are harrowing. The appearance of a drooling three-headed guard dog includes hair-raising sound editing and the scene involving a centaur and an injured unicorn is so dark it feels like it’s from another movie. On the lighter, fantastic side are the sight of hundreds of owls delivering mail at Hogwarts, an exhilarating seven-minute Quidditch game and use of an invisibility cloak.
The acting is competent, with Rupert Grint as Potter’s red-headed best friend Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as the know-it-all, self-empowered wizard-in-training Hermione Granger. Players also include Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as the loose-lipped giant groundskeeper Hagrid, Alan Rickman in Emo Philips pageboy haircut as Professor Snape and Richard Harris as the gray-beard headmaster Albus Dumbledore.
Potter has scattered, enthralling, entertaining individual moments. It just needs more of the attributes of a Professor Snape potion (“the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses”) to become the New Millennium’s equivalent of Star Wars.