Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Posted by Joel Copling on December 3, 2015

J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series took the young readers of the world (and their parents) by storm in the late 1990s. It would catapult the author into stardom (If one cares about such trivia, the sales made her the first author to earn a billion dollars in the history of literature) and launch a film series. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," adapted from the first book of that series by screenwriter Steve Kloves, is exactly the kind of red-blooded adventure tale the book is--complete with the flaws heavily implied in the word "exactly." To both his benefit and his disadvantage, Kloves keeps adherent to the words of the novel, which is a positive thing for the outward elements of the production and, sometimes, not so positive for a cinematic representation of the narrative.

I am betraying, however, the film's real quality with such statements, so to clarify, I will just say that this is quite a solid adaptation in spite of its shortcomings. The material inherently reeks of ambition and, for lack of more nuanced terms, magic, from the mythology (culled from multiple sources of literature and legend) to the characterizations (which often belie expectations by being, to varying degrees, more complex than they might appear) to the magical world itself (which houses, not only wizards and witches of all ages, but also unicorns and centaurs of the traditional persuasion). It's a film at which to marvel on a technical and conceptual level.

Which is to say that the mechanics of the plot are, in this representational form, sometimes less involving than the setting in which they occur, but there are makings of a solid whodunit. I'm getting ahead of myself, though: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is a wizard, but when we find him at the beginning of his story, he's just an 11-year-old boy who has grown under the care of an abusive aunt, uncle, and cousin (the Dursleys, played respectively by Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, and Harry Melling). When mysterious letters come for Harry and Uncle Vernon decides to get outta dodge, gentle giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) tracks them down to a hut on a rock in the middle of the ocean and breaks the news to Harry of his real identity and destiny.

Hagrid is the gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a cathedral-like mansion on the fjords of Scotland, whose many turrets and dungeons are just two examples of Stuart Craig's blustery, gorgeous production design. There Harry finds friends in goofball Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), who of course has quite the guts when the chips are down, and bookworm Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), who of course harbors a secret affection for bravery over brains, an enemy in the prejudiced and bratty Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and a destiny as the only wizard ever to have survived the dark wizard Voldemort. That destiny leads him on a mystery to discover what a three-headed dog is guarding, what vindictive potions master Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) might be hiding, and why headmaster Albus Dumbledore (the late Richard Harris) veers Harry away from a curious mirror that shows its audience their heart's deepest desires.

Director Chris Columbus retains a comfortable formula for this first adaptation of the series, vacillating between set pieces and the central mystery. For the former, there's no better one than the final stretch of challenges beset upon Harry, Ron, and Hermione (including a giant chess set that operates like its miniature counterpart, with moving pieces that actually attack when going in for the kill, and an enormous plant with killer tendrils), while a troll (which attacks Hermione, whom the boys save) and a game of Quidditch (an airborne sport that combines basketball with soccer, except on broomsticks) look a little cheap in their CGI by comparison.

When it comes to the mystery, Kloves is able to convey the tension but without fully selling it. Some business with a mysterious package is solved without much fanfare, whereas Snape's loyalty is settled via a particularly jarring final twist (This was not the last of such twists in the book series; in fact, Rowling is beloved for plotting one step ahead of everyone else). The young actors are untested but appealing (especially Grint, who manages to avoid caricature as Ron, and Felton, whose Malfoy is as arrogant as his blond hair is slicked back); the older ones all approach their roles with a modicum of seriousness that is welcome (Coltrane in particular is the film's lovable heart, Rickman makes for a slimy snape, and John Hurt has a terrific cameo appearance as the local wandmaker, Ollivander). Whatever its faults, there is no doubt that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" captures the novel's lovely sense of imagination.

Film Information

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick).

Directed by Chris Columbus and written by Steve Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling.

Rated PG (scary moments, mild language).

152 minutes.

Released on November 16, 2001.