Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that this year is a big one for Harry Potter fans. We’ve had the release of The Cursed Child play (which I will see and review in December), the first Fantastic Beasts film comes out in November, and three new e-books being released on Pottermore in September. Most likely an expensive time for a big fan. Because of this, I thought I would take a look back at the Potter films. How do they shape up when looked at from both the perspective of a huge fan and a writer?
2001’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (I refuse to call it Sorcerer’s) is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by JK Rowling. It was directed by Chris Columbus and follows the first year at a magical school of a highly unusual eleven year old boy. The film starts off with a group of wizards depositing a baby on a door step. That baby grows up to be Harry, an unwanted Cinderella living with his obsessively ordinary aunt, uncle, and cousin. Strange letters for Harry start arriving by owl (very not ordinary!) and then a giant man, Hagrid, comes to pick Harry up (“Yer a wizard, Harry.”) to take him to the magical world. Harry learns that he defeated the dark Lord Voldemort when he was a baby and no one knows why – he is strange even in the world of wizards. Then he makes it to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where he finally has friends and people who care about him, struggles with schoolwork like any ordinary teenager, and uncovers some dark goings on related to Voldemort. All in a year’s work for this boy wizard.
As adaptations go, Philosopher’s Stone has an obsessive-fan level of closeness to the source material. Many of the book’s scenes, integral to the plot or not, are replicated in the film almost perfectly. The few alterations to scenes are largely unnoticeable and it seems like they were made for tension or to integrate some of the feeling/integration from missing scenes. An example is the scene at Ollivander’s, where Harry gets his wand. In the film, Harry goes to the wand shop alone and is disturbed Ollivander alone, raising the questions about his parents later. In the book, Harry goes in accompanied by Hagrid (ever the proud pseudo parent) and his solo adventure is in the robes shop. A tiny and almost unnoticeable alteration, like most in the film.
The casting of this film is unreal. The portrayal of the characters are pretty much faultless for me. Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, Maggie Smith’s McGonagall, Richard Griffiths’s Uncle Vernon… I could list many more. Their acting is just so on point for their characters. The young actors also do really well, especially Emma Watson as Hermione. They do pause too long on certain points and don’t feel quite as natural as the adults but still very impressive for their ages. My only problems with the casting tend to be aesthetic, like Dudley and Aunt Petunia not being blond, Ron’s nose being wrong, and Snape (although played by the magnificent late Alan Rickman) being way too old. Seriously, whether it’s down to acting or direction, the character behaviours in Philosopher’s Stone are just so close to the way I imagine them in the books.
Philosopher’s Stone is the first film in a franchise and, rather understandably, has to cram in a lot of information about the world and characters. However, because of the wonderful portrayals of the characters, there are no huge moments where the exposition feels clunky or out of place. Explanations about the world and characters are everywhere but they are given out in such a natural manner by characters that it make sense. Like Hagrid explaining Voldemort to Harry, Coltrane acts uncomfortable and a little frightened all through his dialogue and it’s just SO in character that I don’t even care that I’m being told things (and only care a little bit about the awkwardly placed flashback). Certain characters are the main sources of information but only about things that make sense for them – Hermione with her random facts about Hogwarts, Ron with random parts of wizarding life, Hagrid with all the things he shouldn’t have said… It’s very well done.
One of the biggest issues I have with Philosopher’s Stone definitely comes from my writer’s side and not the fan. The film is excessively long because of the languid pace taken. As a fan, I love the time the filmmakers have taken to get everything perfect. As a writer though, I have to point out that there are scenes that, though wonderful for capturing the world, are rather unnecessary or too long. Like the Quidditch sequences or some of the Christmas scenes… Realistically, they don’t help move along the plot and therefore don’t need to be there/be that long. The pacing throws off the film structure rather a lot – the inciting incident, which I would argue is the first moment Harry encounters Fluffy, doesn’t happen until we’re an hour into the film. Most scripts try to get the inciting incident in at around twenty minutes… Bit of a difference.
Though the structure of Philosopher’s Stone is thrown by the lethargic pacing, this allows for one of its greatest successes. I can feel my former scriptwriting lecturer bristling as I write this, but the spirit of the source material is just captured so perfectly. It’s the lingering shots of the magical world, the excellent score, the soft glow of the lighting… Everything works so well to capture the feeling of the book. You do feel as if you’ve joined Harry in a new world, one that feels warm and comforting and just utterly magical. Re-watching it feels like coming home.
As a Potter fan, Philosopher’s Stone is one of the best adaptations in the series. The cast is right, it looks amazing, and you get so much of the world crammed in to two hours. And I still think of it as a pretty big success from a writer’s perspective. The exposition that comes with being the first in a franchise is well integrated and the dialogue feels natural. Though it is clear that the price paid for the fidelity to the source material was the pacing, there’s enough action and wonderment to keep the audience enthralled. Chris Columbus’s Philosopher’s Stone is a great introduction to the world of Harry Potter.