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Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone: Ample Illusions Can't Cover Lack of Rowling's True Magic


Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger in Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter,
Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson
as Hermione Granger

Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore in Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone
Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore

Maggie Smith as Professor McGongall in Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

Maggie Smith as Professor McGongall

Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Ston
Alan Rickman as Professor Snape

The Great Hall in Warner Brothers' Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone
The Great Hall

Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers

By C. Antonio Romero

NEW YORK, 19 November 2001 - The long-awaited Harry Potter film is here at last, and of course it will be a smash at the box office—with a built-in office of tens of millions of children and adults, it's bound to be. The four novels released thus far may not have the mythic depth of, say, the Arthurian myths, or even Tolkien (whose Lord of the Rings will get the Hollywood treatment in the coming weeks), but they do have a magic that even Tolkien never achieved: they conjure into life characters that audiences relate to, and in so doing become great reads, if not great literature. As the series has unfolded, the readership has flocked to bookstores to follow Harry and his chums Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, as they grapple with boarding school life at Hogwart's, growing pains, and graver menaces like the half-living wizard Lord Voldermort. The magical goings-on are no doubt as much of the charm for children as the funny-punning name games, mock-Latin-cantations and the awful goings-on of Harry's Muggle aunt and uncle, but, to be sure, for an adult reader the characters are the real pleasure of Potter.

So how close is this film to the Harry Potter of our imaginings? Compression has left a few loose ends, but that's to be expected when a longish novel is squeezed into even a rather lengthy film. One important element of the atmosphere that survives is the sense of real danger that hangs over the world of wizardry. Hogwart's, we learn, has a hospital wing for a reason. Students really do get hurt—or even, rarely, killed—by attempting magics they're not ready for; and the elaborate adult situations that young Potter finds himself embroiled in by birth, it is clear, can have even deadlier consequences.

Another element that carries over is the atmosphere of the British boarding school, and especially the terribly British class hierarchy. Golden-boy Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) comes from one of the proper families and joins the proper house, while harassing poor-boy (possibly scholarship-boy?) Ronald Weasley, from an Irish family with several other children at Hogwart's (magical birth control is evidently no better than the other kind). A few token non-whites show up in the student body as well (though none have speaking parts)—one of the few concessions to modernity in the world of Hogwart's, which seems to have no phones, no computers, no Internet.

The school facilities look good, computer-generated creatures (a troll, innumerable owls, and "Fluffy"), however un-natural-looking, are nonetheless impressive. The magical trappings are perhaps a bit much—Richard Harris' Albus Dumbledore in particualr is overdone (though not over-acted), with too much fake beard and wizard's cap— and they are clich'ed, but they probably please the children in the audience. Likewise, the faculty may seem one-dimensional and crusty, but this may be how children see their teachers.

So, on the whole, it looks like Harry Potter—at least superficially. Essential locations, incidents and props are here—Harry's horrid life in the cupboard under the stairs, owls bearing Harry's admission letter to Hogwart's, the school-supplies shopping trip to Diagon Alley, platform 9 3/4, run-ins with Fluffy, the Quidditch match, the slain unicorn in the forest, the hatching of a dragon's egg, the obligatory scar on Harry's forehead... the laundry list goes on.

But a laundry list, alas, is what the movie often feels like. Most of the expected scenes are there, but often they have no emotional depth whatever, so the magic of character never takes hold. For instance, Harry lives a miserable life, spending most of his time under the stairs of his aunt and uncle's house, but he never seems sad or lonely—at most, he's occasionally frustrated. Hagrid comes and informs him of his true magical nature, and prepares him to leave for Hogwarts? No astonishment, no trepidation, no elation. Harry and Ron spend Christmas alone at school—Harry has no wish to go back to his Muggle relatives, and Ron's parents are themselves away from home— but there's little sense of loneliness or melancholy over this. And the movie leaves out an important detail about Harry's Christmas gifts—the first he's ever received, they are gifts from his friends and classmates, not his family. Without that detail, the scene is meaningless. Even a cloak of invisibility, a mysterious bequest from Harry's long-dead parents, doesn't strike sparks. The Potter novels are about an extraordinary group of children coming of age, experiencing loneliness, solidarity, fear, bravery, disappointment, exhiliration—but those emotions don't make it to the screen.

Some of this may be the limitations of the child cast—after all, Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, has only this year's Tailor of Panama under his belt, and and neither Rupert Grint as Ron nor Emma Watson as Hermione has prior professional experience. (Not everyone can open like Haley Joel Osment.) But a lot, it seems, can be blamed on Steve Kloves' adaptation and the direction of Chris Columbus (who helmed heartstring-tugger Stepmom, and the crowd-pleasers Home Alone, Home Alone 2 and Mrs. Doubtfire). Rather than putting the characters' growth, change, and emotional development up on the screen for the audience to respond to, the movie seems to count on the score from John Williams to flip musical cue cards at us so we know when to be pleased or touched. The actors, meanwhile, move around the sets like pieces in a game of wizard's chess.

Perhaps it was felt that a film for children wouldn't need such depths, but this seems a serious misjudgement, given the broader appeal of the film, and given, too, that even children, it seems likely, find pleasure in seeing their wizard protagonist feel events and then empathizing with him. Trimming a few minutes of flashy busywork here and there would have left enough room for the characterization needed to make Harry Potter a movie worthy of the book.

With all the trimmings and trappings of magic, but none of the real inner power, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone ultimately fizzles like a mis-cast spell. Go, of course, if you have children—you'll have no choice. But set your expectations appropriately, and hope that the inevitable sequels will summon up the spirit missing in this film. And if you're looking for the real Potter magic, save yourself the price of admission and just re-read the books.

Two stars.

Related: Rowling’s Magic Spell: Two Parts Fantasy, One Part Familiar?

C. Antonio Romero is the Nouveau editor of

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