With a wave of Warner Brothers’ wand, a favorite children’s novel comes to life on the big screen, its English literary sources intact
Think of it! Where would the English-speaking world be without the contributions of Charles Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other gifted writers, to inspire and enthrall us anew? For that matter, where would American if not British cinema be without exploiting the literary merits of the above-named authors to their fullest?
Such is the case with Warner Brothers Studio’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, their extremely faithful (a bit too faithful, perhaps) 2001 film rendering of writer J.K. Rowling’s wonderful children’s novel about the orphaned wizard-in-waiting, eleven-year-old Harry Potter, and the discovery of his new-found magical abilities.
Known in the U.K. as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Rowling’s original title was altered and published in the U.S. and other countries under the Sorcerer’s Stone banner (a common practice, it would seem — see Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass for more information).
Regardless of which name they are known by, the Harry Potter books were — and remain so to this very day — one of those unforgettable literary creations that continue to draw readers by the millions, both young and old, to its fantastical story line. Too, the subsequent box-office appeal of the movies have fed this thirst for more of this remarkable character’s adventures.
Um, about those story lines: they may not be as “original” as they were initially thought to have been. If one can read between the lines, so to speak, and see beyond the fanciful trimmings and ersatz Latin-based terminology, while overlooking the author’s imaginative blending of pre-existing plot elements with a modern, existential-like worldview, the intelligent reader (and, likewise, the observant moviegoer) can readily pick up on Ms. Rowling’s literary sources and influences.
Let’s start with the basic premise, shall we? When Harry Potter, who’s been orphaned after his parents were mysteriously killed in a car crash (or so he’s been told), eventually learns of his amazing powers and magical background, he’s visited by a giant named Hagrid who encourages him to leave the harsh environment of his aunt, uncle, and bully-boy cousin, a.k.a. the Dursleys (short for “desultory,” one gathers), and go off to hone his new-found skills at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Hmm … rather like the premise for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, don’t you think? The orphan Jane, bullied and harried by her late father’s sister and abused by her aunt’s sniveling brood of brats, is whisked away to an orphanage to “correct” her belligerent behavior. Or how about the character of Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations (that little old wand-maker Mr. Olivander’s statement to Harry that “We can expect great things from you” is the lead-up to that connection).
Or take, if you will, the novel Oliver Twist, a story with more “twists” and turns than those mystical, magical labyrinths Rowling is so fond of citing in her later Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), one of the series’ more elaborately worked out projects. Young Oliver is brought up in a veritable nightmare of an orphanage, only to be rescued by a band of street urchins, led by the Artful Dodger, and shown the wonders of picking a pocket or two by the rabbinical looking Fagin (Professor Snape, is that you?).
What about David Copperfield, Dickens’ most ambitious, autobiographical depiction of Industrial-age Britain at its worst? Would you agree that Mr. Micawber, so flamboyantly portrayed by W.C. Fields in MGM’s 1935 film classic, is nothing more than a rumpled, soused-up personification of Hogwarts’ groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid — a fellow whose main purpose in movie life (outside of helping dragons hatch out of their shells) is to act as a makeshift deus ex machina, coming to Harry and his friends’ aid (and vice versa) whenever the situation warrants it?
And speaking of which, what can one make of Professor Albus Dumbledore, the dean of Hogwarts School, a wizened old soul straight out of Tolkien himself? His bedside manner and resigned recapitulation of events (don’t forget the wispy white beard), as Harry lies in the school’s hospital ward recovering from his near-fatal experience with He Who Must Not Be Named, rekindle fond memories of a similar encounter with the White Wizard Gandalf and a wounded Frodo Baggins, from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which premiered in 2001 — coincidentally, about the same time as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released.
The same sensibility that governed such classics as the aforementioned David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and A Christmas Carol, not to mention Jane Eyre and, in particular, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days (doesn’t Slytherin House’s bratty, blonde-haired Draco Malfoy, that snot-nosed, bigoted, and conniving upper-class rich kid, remind you of the intractable Flashman?) is at work here, which only deepens one’s admiration of, and appreciation for, Jo Rowling’s genius for invention and adaptation.
If she’s come “this close” at times to outright plagiarism, Rowling has managed to avoid prosecution by her cleverness and imaginative use of language and locales. And despite numerous lawsuits to the contrary, they’ve all been thrown out in court. Take that, you Heep of infamy!
Notwithstanding the foregoing analogies, there are many memorable moments in the spectacular 2001 movie production, the first (and best, in our opinion) of the protracted series, including the congregation of owls sequence at the Dursley’s (with its hundreds of letters fluttering about), the giant Hagrid’s door-busting entrance, the fog-enshrouded boat ride to Hogwarts School, the fabulously executed Quidditch match (watch out for those bludgers, fellas!) with its knowing parody of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, the troll attack in the girl’s lavatory, the life-size chess match (with Harry’s best friend, Ron Weasley, leading the charge), and the frightening encounter with the Dark Lord Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest.
For the adults, there’s an outstanding Who’s Who of Her Majesty’s supporting players — insisted upon by J.K. Rowling herself — including the soft-spoken Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, sad-eyed Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, the snooty Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, along with Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Ian Hart, Warwick Davies (Willow), and former Monty Python regular John Cleese in a bit part as the ghostly “Nearly Headless” Nick. There’s even a cameo by that old scene-stealer himself, John Hurt, as Mr. Olivander, purveyor of fine wands since 362 B.C. You couldn’t find a more Dickensian group of thespians anywhere!
For the kiddies, there are star-making turns by the young Daniel Radcliffe (who previously played the young Oliver Twist, by the way, in a BBC television miniseries) as Harry, Rupert Grint as his redheaded buddy Ron, and especially Emma Watson as the bookish Hermione Granger, as well as Matthew Lewis as never-say-die student Neville Longbottom. A superbly flavorful score by veteran composer John Williams, destined to become a classic in its own right, is pure icing on this frothy concoction. Not a minute of screen time goes by without hearing some musical trace of Williams’ score.
The marvelously condensed screenplay by Steve Kloves (he did most of the other entries as well) pares the novel down to the essentials while still capturing its essence — a most remarkable job overall; while the production as a whole is directed in grand style by Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire).
Some scenes may be a bit too intense for younger viewers, most notably the entrance of the evil wizard Voldemort. Otherwise, this is fine family entertainment all-around and highly recommended. The series took off in (ahem) high-flying fashion with this version. As for the rest … some of the later offerings are better than others, but the final films in the eight-film series leave much to be desired. They have more in common with the green glare of the Twilight “vampires vs. werewolves” aesthetic than to the boarding-school one of the earlier movies. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying what I feel is an incredible cinematic ride through the fantasy realm.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Produced by David Heyman; directed by Chris Columbus; screenplay by Steve Kloves, from the novel by J. K. Rowling (known elsewhere as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone); cinematography by John Seale; production design by Stuart Craig; costume design by Judianna Makovsky; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by John Williams; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, Fiona Shaw, Ian Hart, and Julie Walters. Color, 152 min. A Heyday Films 1492 Pictures release, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes