Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

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Cleolinda: ***

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Ian Hart, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint

Rated PG for some scary moments and mild language.

Okay, I'm going to warn you: It is technically Wednesday morning, November 21 [2001]; I just got out of the 10:40 pm-1:30 am screening. (Want to avoid the crowds? Try a late late show: we were in a theater with approximately four [4] other people, two of whom were super-ticked that they'd come in too late to see the Star Wars trailer.) I am a little buzzed after a tanker of overpriced Mountain Dew, and while we discussed it in the car some, I really haven't had much time to reflect on this film. But what the hell: here's some gut reaction to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

(First, let's define "we": The Lovely Emily; Brett, a longtime Friend of Digest; and myself. We three span the continuum: I have only just read all four of the books this month; T. L. E. has been a longtime fan, and Brett has never read them at all.)

Now, in reading the criticism of this film, I'm hearing that (most) fans of the book adore it (while perhaps quibbling that things are left out) while (many) non-readers are either bored or confused. I've also heard a great deal of damnation-via-faint-praise for director Chris Columbus, along the lines of, "Wow, he didn't screw anything up too bad--I thought he was a hack," or, "The direction was okay, but there wasn't really anything that stood out" on his part.

Well, we'll take the second part first--I'm not saying Columbus is Orson Welles, but I was struck by some of the shots in the final chess match. (Granted, he makes the mistake the directors of most action films make: BACK UP AND LET US GET A GOOD VIEW OF WHAT'S GOING ON! STOP SHOWING US CLOSE-UPS OF PUNCHES!) But there are some great, dreadful shots of the chess king--good stuff. Granted, there are also some reaction shots in other scenes that make no sense (why did we cut to Maggie Smith just then?), but Columbus is not a man completely lacking flair. (Faint praise, you said--what?)

The first part second: Too much crammed in or too much left out? Well, I'll put my cards on the table and tell you that I don't really have a lot of patience for people who whine that "the best parts got left out." Yes, there are a lot of things left out--often the cuts are very necessary and clever, such as when Mr. Dursley takes the family straight to the "Hut-on-the-Sea" while trying to elude the deluge of mail, rather than going through the chain of hiding places he seeks in the book, or the truncation of the Hagrid-dragon subplot. All fine and dandy.

But I was dismayed to find myself constantly hissing to the Lovely Emily about things they were leaving out--they couldn't even say the owl's name
once, for the love of God? ("I think I'll call her Hedwig." "Look, it's Hedwig!" "Gee, thanks, Hedwig." Just mention it once, that's all I'm sayin'.) I agree with the (admittedly, rather cranky) IGN reviewer who repeated, over and over: A BOOK IS NOT A FILM. But the film's damn confusing when you leave out certain points. Like, why did nobody ever call any FOULS on the Slytherin Quidditch players, for Christ's sake?? I'm talking about extremely brief shots (Hooch blowing her whistle, perhaps; a foul shot taken in the midst of the regular plays) inserted in an already brisk montage. (The Quidditch game, by the way, is pretty amazing, although all three of us agreed that the more outlandish flying effects--high speed, flipping, spinning--were a little too obviously CGI. "Cartoony" was how Brett put it, and well at that.) And I've always had issues with the book's ending itself, which is preserved (swipe to read spoiler): ** It just never seemed fair to me that Dumbledore would hand out points after they'd announced the point tallies, and it was obvious that Slytherin had won. When Malfoy slams his hat down onto the table, I almost feel sorry for him--Dumbledore is playing favorites; no matter how much the Gryffindor kids deserve extra points, it still isn't fair.**

You hardly ever see the kids in class, either, which bothered me--there were a few scenes, and I admit I don't know where you'd put more, but I mention this because there's a certain character who really doesn't appear in the film enough, and who needs to, for the ending to have resonance. Otherwise, it's just a case of "the villain is the one we ignored the rest of the film." I'm not asking for much--a montage, I don't know. Pass the character in the hall--jeez, isn't it the screenwriter's job to think of these things?

That's who I blame my problems with the film on, mostly. I mean, the Ollivander wand shop scene goes by as slow as Christmas, and yet there's no time for the brisker Mr. Ollivander of the book, with the self-measuring tape and the constant barrage of wands to try? Where's the refrain of wand descriptions ("unicorn hair, yew, nine inches--phoenix feather, redwood, seven inches")? I complain not that the scene "isn't like the book," but that the scene in the book is not only better but
quicker. If you're already running long, why not go with the brisker version--and if it's therefore more like the book, is that not icing on the cake?

I guess what I'm saying, in my caffeine-addled blear, is that the screenwriting could have been more efficient. One of the major complaints from the IGN review was that Richard Harris is wheeled in to explain what happened in the big showdown at the end of the film. I am suppressing a severe urge to cry,
But it was in the book! Because that's not the point--it's bad writing whether it's in a book or a film, if you can't "show" it and have to "tell" it. But the point is that there are two things that need explaining (again, swipe to read): How you solve the final test to find the stone, and how Harry is able to repel Quirrell. The first one I understand waiting to explain: if you gave it away any sooner, you'd ruin the suspense. Dumbledore's explanation seemed fine to me in the book and the film--a bit clever, actually, given what you know about the Mirror of Erised from a previous scene. If you have problems with it, that's the opinion to which you are welcome. The second--well, there's a flashback scene to Harry's mother's death that's handled a little clumsily; it's not apparent that she does anything to save Harry, instead seeming to just cry out and fall down. If, perhaps, it were made more obvious that she had actually put such a powerful charm on her son by sacrificing herself (the "love" that is so cheesily invoked in the film's explanation), it might be more of an "Oh, I remember that!" moment for the viewer. I mean, show Harry's scar prominently as he fights off the bad guy, I don't know! Give us some indication that his earlier survival and his newfound ability are related, and Dumbledore's explanation won't seem like such an afterthought.

I apologize for such a rambling review, though--it's more a response to other reviews I've read, in a sense. I haven't even mentioned the acting, as you'll notice--I thought Daniel Radcliffe was just fine as Harry, not "wooden" like some people had said, but pretty fetching in his own way. Nor did I think that Rupert Grint really stole the show that much as Ron, though he was well-cast, and the Lovely Emily is going to get straight to work on producing a little Hermione of her own. A lot of the actors were just a shade off what I'd imagined while reading, which is why books are so wonderful in themselves, and this is a loss in translation that I can live with--although I personally would like to put in a request for more Alan Rickman next time around.  There's a moment where Harry gives him a certain suspicious look towards the end, and Rickman's Snape compresses about six entirely different facial expressions into one single look of shocked, disgusted indignation in reply that is truly something you have to see for yourself.

See, this is why I'm not in such a wad about this film as a lot of people are: There will be a "next time around," not opportunistic sequels but legitimate installments in a series. This movie, like the first book itself, is just a dry run, folks. Just to explain who we are and why we're here, in essence. And it's a chance for Chris Columbus to locate his hidden "flair," if you were, and for the actors to settle down into their roles.  I have a feeling that this first film will seem pretty quaint after a few years, no matter how frenzied its supporters are now. But that's okay. As beginnings go,
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone won't cure cancer, but it ain't too shabby, either.
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