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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Book that Lived

By Amandeep Loomba


Directed by Chris Columbus

Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, and Alan Rickman

Rated PG

Let’s be up front with ourselves here: books and movies do not compare. Many of us have long anticipated the new Harry Potter movie for differing reasons. There are those who will disparage it (for it is by no means an outstandingly perfect specimen of movie), and those who will love it simply because it is Harry Potter, and that says something. It had one of the most profitable openings ever for a children’s film, and that is simply a testament to the greatness of J.K. Rowling’s prodigiously imaginative novels.

Some are afraid that a motion picture will cast the likenesses of Harry and his friends and his whimsical world in stone, leaving our imaginations useless when we go back to these cherished books or pick them up for the first time. This may be the case, but you will find that the filmmakers here have as much imagination as the readers, and bring characters and sets to life with great skill and authority. Perhaps Madam Hooch (ZoË Wanamaker) is cheekier than you may have expected, but her yellow hawk eyes and short gray hair are drawn perfectly from the original stories.

Others are afraid that the film will simply demolish the oeuvre that is Harry Potter. These folks believe there is no way to turn a book into a film without first tearing the book to pieces, setting it aflame, and tossing the flaming mess onto the smoking embers of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, How the Grinch Stole Christmas or, say, Shrek (a movie that has little or nothing to do with the book of the same name).

Still others fear the endlessly belched output of the tireless merchandising machine that fires up with the release of any children’s movie. It is true that turning a character or a story into an industry can result in massive amounts of disposable culture goods being instantly injected into society. However, after seeing the film, I want to go out and buy everything from the Hermione Granger 36-color homework-helper highlighter set to the Rubeus Hagrid hair-and-beard home care kit. This movie does that to you.

What else does the movie do to you? Well, it made me clap, cheer, snicker, yelp, smirk, gasp and double over with laughter because of the opening titles, the Quidditch match, Draco Malfoy, the mountain troll, Professor Snape, the forest scene and Gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid, respectively. Could this be the movie that destroys Harry Potter?

To say that the movie is faithful to the book is an understatement. Director Chris Columbus and a talented group of set-designers, artists and visual effects mavens have tried as hard as they can to accurately recreate the world described in such detail by J.K. Rowling. If the movie has a single outstanding flaw, it is this attempt to be so faithful to the books. In portraying a world so rich in specifics, Columbus finds little time to dwell on those magical moments that are filled with such importance in the book. The pace is breakneck, and the screen changes from one wondrous scene to the next hastily. Even at a running time of two and a half hours, the movie cannot possibly give full attention to all of the novel’s rich detail (left out of the film to my chagrin were further events relating to Harry’s life at 4 Privet Drive before going to wizardry school and most of the extended action involving Hagrid’s pet dragon Norbert).

Nevertheless, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a film that not only manages to tell the vast majority of the tale set forth in the novel, but does so brilliantly in most cases. The most exceptional aspect of the film by far is the casting. Virtually every character from the book is played by an actor who either embodies Rowling’s descriptions perfectly (Daniel Radcliffe, for example, is perfectly Potter) or brings something unique and stunning to the role. Professor Snape, played by Alan Rickman (whom you will remember best as the terrorist leader facing down Bruce Willis in Die Hard), is the most outstanding ambiguous character ever to grace celluloid with his presence. From the greasy hair covering his face, to his completely unpredictable eyes, to his muted but frightening speech, Snape simply excels as one of the greatest antagonists ever (I mean this, Snape basically rules over this film and everyone in it, and everyone who will ever play a villain in any movie, ever). Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger is also ideal as the annoying but friendly know-it-all who would no doubt have wound up at MIT had she not attended Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (except perhaps that anyone can see that young Emma Watson is going to grow up to be really hot).

The sets, meanwhile, are stunning. Sadly, the camera has no time to linger in Diagon Alley, the bustling main street filled with wizards, goblins and animals. Likewise, the banquet hall at Hogwarts is simply gorgeous, a cavernous and noisy space brought to life both by magic and by the presence of students. Even the bathrooms are exceptionally detailed, and look great while being demolished by a fully-grown mountain troll.

The characters and sets come together perfectly, and little on-screen feels out of place, the exception here being some of the computer-generated imagery. In sequences such as the Quidditch match, it is sometimes not hard to tell that you aren’t looking at real people on those broomsticks. Then again, the Quidditch match is still so exciting it makes the Phantom Menace pod-racing sequence look like a game of chess with Death.

Elsewhere, it is always the level of striking detail that makes the scenes work. Listening to Harry get chewed out by potions master Professor Snape is augmented by the subtle sounds of bubbling solutions. When Harry first steps onto the Quidditch field to train with team captain Oliver Wood (Sean Biggerstaff), watching his bespectacled eyes keep a firm watch on a hovering ball elicits sheer delight. Even the calligraphy on Harry’s invitation to attend Hogwarts is just right. The only subtlety that falls short is the John Williams score (reviewed last Tuesday by Suki Dorfman), which is at times and intrusive and is little more than typical, if not derivative. Williams’ idiosyncratic orchestral swirls expired soon after E.T. and he has since become the most predictable producer of “magical” sounding music in Hollywood (given one chance to switch a name in the entire cast/crew of Harry Potter, I would swap Williams for Danny Elfman).

To say that the Harry Potter film cannot possibly stand up to the Harry Potter novels is unfair. It is obvious that the experience of reading the book will always surpass the experience of seeing the corresponding movie. Instead, we must think of the movie as an addition to the Harry Potter world, and a solid one at that. It is often hard to tell if the movie wasn’t simply made for people who have read the book already.

Throughout the film, I found myself asking whether I was enjoying a scene because the story was truly engaging or simply because I wanted to see the movie’s approach to all of my favorite parts of a great book. The question is, at best, moot. Who hasn’t read the book?