The anticipation surrounding Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the film based on the book by J. K. Rowling about the fabulous boy wizard and directed by Chris Columbus, has a lot more to do with commerce than with magic. It’s an “event” movie in the same way that the Star Wars movies are events. Few people expect these films to be classics in any real sense of the word. Instead, what is hoped for in the movie industry is something that is both more monumental and more mundane: a classic commodity. The commercialization of imagination is what Hollywood is best at, and worst at; a great fantasy film for children-of-all-ages can be a globally transporting experience, while a bad one can shut down an audience’s sense of wonder. What’s depressing about so many of Hollywood’s fantasy films from the ebb tide of the Lucas-Spielberg era is how distinctly unmagical they are. At a time when films have turned into fully loaded franchises, it’s a miracle – magical indeed – when anything comes out that truly captivates.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is no such miracle, unlike the book it is so scrupulously based on. (The script is by the gifted Steve Kloves, who also wrote Wonder Boys.) Rowling’s achievement was doubly astonishing: Not only did she create a completely stocked universe of immense appeal, but she did it without co-opting the current, and mostly corrupt, inventory of children’s fantasy films and fiction. Her imagination doesn’t remind you of anyone else’s. The fact that her book, and its three sequels (three more are planned), turned into one of the biggest successes in the history of publishing just goes to show that sometimes the good guys win after all. (Needless to say, at least two movie sequels are already in the works.) The books are marvelous in much the same way that L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are, and will probably be just as enduring. They have a rowdy, spirited elegance.
I mention Oz also because there is much respectful talk in the press about how the Harry Potter filmmakers have remained absolutely faithful to Rowling’s text, and yet, as we all know, the masterpiece that was made from The Wizard of Oz was a musical that took many liberties. I wish Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had developed more of a life of its own instead of being essentially a flat visualization of the book. That literal-minded approach is a mistake, not the least because Rowling’s imagination is much more cinematic, to put it mildly, than Chris Columbus’s. When Terry Gilliam was initially mentioned as a candidate to direct the movie, after Steven Spielberg passed in favor of A.I., ears perked up: Would Warner Bros. really have the nerve to entrust their golden egg to such a loose goose? The decision to go with Columbus, whose screenwriting credits include Young Sherlock Holmes and The Goonies and who directed the first two Home Alone movies and Mrs. Doubtfire, is the kind of life-insurance-policy decision that lets you know what’s really at stake here. The reverent jabber about staying true to Rowling’s sacred tome, and about consulting her every step of the way, is really code for not rocking the boat. It’s all about not offending fans of the book – while building the franchise.
Virtually every character and incident from the book is in this two-and-a-half-hour-long movie, and although there’s always something happening onscreen, it can make for a long sit. On hand is little Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), of course, with his racing brooms and invisibility cape and the lightning scar on his forehead; his cohorts Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft; the hulky Hogwarts groundskeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and professors Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and McGonagall (Maggie Smith), among many others. Hogwarts itself, with its dungeons and shifting marble staircases, is a medieval Gothic playstation; Diagon Alley, where Harry is taken by Hagrid to stock up on school supplies – potions, robes, textbooks on magic – is a bustling Dickensian tableau. What’s lacking in all this is transcendence. Daniel Radcliffe may look the part, but he has a dull, pinched presence. (Rust-haired Rupert Grint, on the other hand, is marvelously expressive.) The various fantasy escapades, including an airborne match of Quidditch – Rowling’s high-flying mélange of rugby and basketball – a chess match with live pieces, and a battle with a troll, are relatively tame. A sequence in a dark forest inhabited by centaurs and ogres is so underlit that you may wonder if your theater is experiencing a power outage. (A puddle of unicorn blood resembles an oil slick.) The emotional core of the story – Harry’s desire to know his deceased parents – doesn’t resonate. When Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised (desire spelled backward) and sees his mother and father as they were before he was orphaned as a baby, Columbus doesn’t hold the moment for very long, maybe for good reason: The parents look as bland as the boy.
For many children, this movie will be the first time they have ever seen a beloved book rendered on the big screen. They may be tickled that so much of what they cherish has been transferred intact, and for that reason won’t get restless; but I can’t help feeling, though I know this movie will be a monster hit, that their imaginations are left famished by all this rote faithfulness. The filmmakers want to show us a magical world that is, at the same time, wholly believable. They want to create matter-of-fact miracles, but what they end up with is mostly just plain matter-of-fact. Muggles is the term Rowling invented to describe non-wizards. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is very much a movie made by Muggles.
In brief: Shallow Hal, the new Farrelly brothers bad-taste comedy, stars Jack Black as a randy jerk and Gwyneth Paltrow as the porcine do-gooder he is hypnotized into seeing as a babe. Some good gross-out inventiveness, but too heartfelt by half. Do we really need the Farrellys to champion inner beauty? … From November 15 through November 30, moma offers up a complete retrospective of the feature films of a more worthy band of brothers, Vittorio and Paolo Taviani. Masterpieces, including Padre Padrone and Night of the Shooting Stars, abound.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Directed by Chris Columbus; screenplay by Steve Kloves.
Farrelly brothers’ comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black.