Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such frenzy for a series of books. Kids who hate reading are devouring these, as are their parents, who enjoy them as much. And then there’s even tons of people my age who’ve shed their young adult cynicism and cool and allowed themselves to get lost in J.K. Rowling‘s writing. It actually took me forever to get around to reading “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. So many people were hammering me about it (“Oh you HAVE to read this!”) that I was sick of it before I even cracked it open. Plus, I didn’t get why grown-ups were reading these kiddie books. What interest would I have in the adventures of a little brat on a broomstick? Still, I eventually gave in last month and read the first Potter book. What can I say: Harry Potter is one heck of an enjoyable read. It’s not “Catcher in the Rye” or anything, but you do get hooked on it. Rowling knows just how to involve you and it’s easy to identify with the characters, have fun with them and get caught up in the suspense. Then there’s the way magic is almost an aside. This is really a nice book about this little geek who arrives in a new school, makes some friends, studies for exams, confronts bullies, gets on a sport team… Except that the story also involves magic wands, messenger owls, flying broomsticks, centaurs, a troll and a baby dragon!

Many felt Steven Spielberg would have been perfect for bringing the world of Hogwarts to life, but the movie ended up being directed by Chris Columbus. Ok, so he’s no Spielberg, but he does know how to direct kids (ain’t Macaulay Culkin priceless in “Home Alone”?). And I have to say, though I wasn’t as impressed by the film as some others who can’t wait for seconds, Columbus has done a very good job, if only at putting into images Rowling’s vision without sugar coating it or making it crass. This is a classy, imaginative kiddie flick.

I won’t spend too much time on a synopsis, as you probably know all about Harry Potter already. So he’s this legendary young dude whose parents are murdered by the evil Voldermort, who tries to kill the then infant too but, mysteriously, he’s the one who is nearly annihilated. Harry is marked with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead but lives on, unaware of his history, in the care of his Muggle (non-wizard) uncle and aunt Dursley, who are contemptuous of magic in general and of him in particular. Then one day, on his 11th birthday, a jolly giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) takes him away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he’ll discover that he has amazing hidden skills…

In the book, this takes a fairly long time, but the movie wisely rushes to get to Hogwarts, avoiding to spend too much time with the obnoxious Dursleys. In any case, things only really get interesting at Hogwarts. The film has some problems, as I’ll get into later, but I have to give it to Chris Columbus: his crew and him have crafted a rich, visually overwhelming world. From the liveliness of Diagon Alley to the train station’s Platform 3/4 to the tall halls of the Hogwarts castle to the scary, fantastic Dark Forest, “Philosopher’s Stone” presents us with many intriguing locations, which are filled with all these quirky details like Goblin bankers, floating candles, and paintings with lives of their own. Columbus must also be applauded for the solid, natural performances he got from his young leads. Daniel Radcliffe conveys an irresistible wide-eyed, naive enthusiasm as Harry, who he portrays just like we imagined him. Redhead Rupert Grint has a smirky charm of his own as the wisecracking Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson is a treat as Hermione, their know-it-all classmate.

So the film is well directed enough, but I was a bit disappointed by the screenplay by Steven Kloves, who had previously adapted Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” into the best movie of last year. There’s no clear plot, which makes for a film that just meanders from set piece to set piece with little sense of purpose. This approach worked better on the page, because books are fitted to chapter-by-chapter storytelling, as you read them little by little, but with movies, you expect a smoother flow. Here, it’s like Kloves tried to include everything from the source material, but obviously he couldn’t put everything on screen unless he was to make a 6-hour movie. Hence, a lot of time is wasted on introducing elements only to then shove them aside, which can be frustrating.

Eventually, the film does get into its main dramatic arc, Harry’s long overdue rematch with Voldemort. Through the film, everything made it clear that it was Professor Snape (played with devilish glee by Alan Rickman), but **** SPOILER **** in the end they pull a bait-and-switch on us and try to tell us that ah! ha!, the bad guy is really the stuttering Professor Quirrell, who we’ve seen maybe two minutes previously. I thought this was a cheap trick in the book, and it comes off even worse in the film, as does the trite, forced happy ending. All of the sudden, the film is dragged down by exposition on top of exposition on top of exposition, as Quirell and Harry and Dumbledore (the wise old headmaster played by Richard Harris) try to talk any and all fun out of the movie. Fortunately, this is followed by a nicely touching goodbye scene between Harry and Hagrid, so the film ends on a good note. **** END OF SPOILER ****

Don’t think I’m panning the film. I just have to set things straight – despite what some critics have proclaimed, it doesn’t hold up to classics like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Star Wars” or “E.T.”. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to enjoy, from the fun interaction between the kids to such special FX thrills as confrontations with a troll and a three-headed dog to a deadly game of wizard’s chess and, of course, Quidditch, a kind of flying broomstick basketball. I don’t quite get how it’s played or, more precisely, why the players bother with all the passing, aiming, blocking and scoring when the only thing that can get them victory is catching the stupid “snitch”, but it does make for an exciting sequence on a purely sensory level. Overall, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a well crafted blockbuster for the whole family, but it’s nowhere near as extraordinary as the hype surrounding it.