Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
On Nov. 16, 2001, Warner Bros. found J.K. Rowling’s wizarding universe in wide release with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which grossed more than $970 million global. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is a red-blooded adventure movie, dripping with atmosphere, filled with the gruesome and the sublime, and surprisingly faithful to the novel. A lot of things could have gone wrong, and none of them have: Chris Columbus’ movie is an enchanting classic that does full justice to a story that was a daunting challenge. The novel by J.K. Rowling was muscular and pictorial, and the danger was that the picture would make things too cute and cuddly. It doesn’t.
Harry Sleeps in a Cabinet
As far as Harry knows, his parents were killed in a car crash when he was an infant, and he’s stuck with his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley. Like a modern Cinderella, Harry sleeps in a cabinet and waits on his relatives hand and foot while his pudgy cousin Dudley is spoiled rotten. But as Harrys 11th birthday approaches, all of that changes. A gentle giant named Rubeus Hagrid shows up to advise Harry that he is a magician by birth and invite him to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
At Hogwarts, Harry finds much of what his pitiful life has lacked. Close pals. Littles of his own family history. Charming skills. Recognition. Along with a starting position on the Quidditch team (think airborne soccer)an honor unheard of for a “first-year.” But he also gets a number of things he didn’t bargain for, including a mystery along with a ferocious three-headed dog named Fluffy. Most formidable, he finds he’s the object of renewed hatred from the evil Voldemort, who killed his parents. Harry meets the challenge head-on and faces off with this villain so wicked other magicians won’t even speak his name. Voldemort gets what’s coming to him, but you can be sure he’ll be back in the sequels.
Two notable teachers at Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, and Minerva McGonagall, are a few of the finest authority figures to grace a kids film in quite some time. Professor McGonagall is grim and a stickler for rules. But rather than scorning her, Harry and his pals like and respect her. Dumbledore proffers wise advice and instructs common sense. He becomes like a father to Harry, comforting him when he misses his parents and taking a time to talk through his questions and dilemmas.
When Harry is being assigned to one of Hogwarts four houses, the “sorting hat” assesses his character, then applauds him for having “bravery, talent, not a bad mind plus a thirst to establish [himself].” During the course of the narrative, it becomes clear to Harry that just as Lucifer was once a high angel these gifts could just as easily have landed him in the malevolent Slytherin house as in the noble Gryffindor. His own human potential for “going bad” brothers Harry until Dumbledore reminds him that he asked not to be placed in Slytherin and educates him that choosing the good over the bad makes all the difference.
The bad acts of dark-side wizards such as killing a unicorn for its life-giving blood denounced. Additionally, lines are spoken by villains expose black-side philosophy, which is then refuted when the scoundrels are defeated.
When Harry discovers that it wasn’t a car crash that killed his parents, he also learns that his mother actually died saving his life. Dumbledore instructs him on the importance of sacrificial love, telling Harry, “love leaves a mark that lives in your very skin.”
Harry, Ron, and Hermione go on an Indiana Jones-like experience, solving puzzles and dodging obstacles to unravel their mystery and uncover the sorcerers stone. One leg of the course is a life-sized chess game in which captured pieces get smashed by their rivals. As an accomplished chess player, Ron gets to call the shots, and in a heroic act, he loses his knight (and gets injured in the process) in order to save Harry.
The enormous argument about Harry Potter, naturally, is whether its magic is of a spiritual or mechanical nature. More on that follows, but for now, charming elements are listed here as “religious content.”
Before he finds he’s a wizard, Harry accidentally dissolves the glass over a snake cage at the zoo. This begins to make sense to Harry when Hagrid comes to take him to Hogwarts. The giant asks, Did you ever make things happen that you could clarify? The light comes on for Harry his mysterious power comes from being a sorcerer. Hagrid makes Dudley grow a pigs tail. Doors open Ali Baba-style to a succession of taps from Hagrid’s pink umbrella (which also happens to shoot fire).
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Harry and friends get to the platform for the Hogwarts Express by walking through a brick wall in a London train station. On the train, Ron tries to put a spell on his pet rat to turn it yellow. Other spells are of a similar type, spoken in Latin and meant to make changes in the physical land. Harry and his buddies take classes in Potions, The History of Magic, Defense Against the Dark Arts, etc. Their school supplies comprise robes and magic wands which they purchase on a bewitching street called Diagon Alley. When Harry goes to pick out a wand, he finds that it is the wand that instead picks him. Wandmaker Mr. Ollivander tells Harry that the wand he was destined for is a brother to the wand Voldemort used to kill Harry’s parents and give him his scar.
At Hogwarts, the ceiling in the Great Hall is bewitched to look like the night sky. Staircases go under the influence of long-lasting charms. The school celebrates Halloween with a huge banquet, but it also celebrates Christmas in exactly the same way. The dormitories are supervised by silvery-gray ghosts. The head of Harry’s dormitory is Nearly Headless Nick, who died 500 years previously in a botched decapitation.
Missing from the picture (and at no great loss) is the one category that, in the book, came closest to mentioning supernatural contactDivination. Also missing is a particularly problematic line in which Dumbledore says, “To the well-organized mind, death is merely the next great adventure.”
Also really troubling is the overarching idea that Harry is “rescued” from a miserable life by a couple of sorcerers and witches. Of course, there are two approaches to see this.
Audiences who bring to the film a background in Christian fantasy may see it as somewhat similar to C.S. Lewis Narnia enchanting world far more exciting and “fitting” for the human spirit than the basic actual world. On the other hand, there’s the likely interpretation that Harry is being “saved” by witchcraft, a disturbing notion to say the least. The immediate mental impact of a movie makes the notion even more dangerous because passive thrill seekers won’t necessarily ponder and process it as they might while reading a novel.
Uncle Vernon never hits Harry, however, he treats him roughly at times. He also attempts to shoot at Hagrid, but the giant bends the end of his shotgun. Scenes that flashback to the departure of Harry’s parents are short and discreet, showing simply a flash of light and Harry’s mom falling to the ground. Hagrid kicks down a door when he comes to recover Harry from the Dursleys. (He then apologizes and puts it back in place.) One student gets caught on a runaway broom, crashes into a building and falls, breaking his wrist.
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Ron inadvertently gets hit in the nose with a broom handle. An enormous digitally animated troll smashes up a school bathroom and tries to hurt Hermione. A wand up the nose (gross!) distracts him and his own club eventually knocks him out. A Quidditch match turns awful and Harry is nearly knocked from his flying sweeper. Ron, Harry, and Hermione get trapped in the clutches of a vining plant with a barbarous will of its own. The chess scene is intense, with many shattering chess pieces. Ron gets forcefully knocked to the earth.
Because watching film footage takes less time than reading pages, Harrys final battle scene is really shorter in the movie than in the book. Thankfully missing is a great deal of Voldemorts dialogue in which he repeatedly instructs a follower to kill Harry. Still, the scene is extreme, and for young viewers, terrifying. Things look grim for Harry at first, until he discovers that his mommies love has put a seal on him that makes it impossible for his enemy to touch him. (Instead, physical contact causes his foe to be charred to a crisp.) The evil wizard Voldemort leaves the building in a remarkable and somewhat frightening rush.
Apart from the exceptions noted, Harry Potter the movie is quite loyal to Harry Potter the book intelligent move on the part of filmmakers, who knew any critical departure would fast alienate the target market. The masterfully made film offers practically no surprises. That leaves us dealing with the same questions which have been lurking since the first copy of J.K. Rowling’s book rolled off the press.