Whatever your personal feelings about the phenomenon that is Harry Potter, there's no denying that the films have etched a place in popular film culture, both critically and with fans. I can't name one other film franchise in cinema history that has juggled directors while keeping the same cast (whose main members started the series as children and now finish it as young adults) and only increased in quality. No matter how the final film (split into two parts) ends, it's safe to say the Harry Potter franchise has been a tremendous achievement on all accounts.
The first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released on November 19, 2010. From now until then I will be doing a retrospective of each film in the franchise. Enjoy.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE (2001)
Directed by Christopher Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris
*NOTE: a little background on my experience with Harry Potter: when the books first came out I was just entering college. Of course, at the time, I thought they were kiddie stories. I paid no attention to them. The first film came and went, and I cared not, occupied with Lord of the Rings instead. One evening, in 2002, while staying in the guestroom at the house of my girlfriend at the time, I happened to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on the bookshelf. Thinking I was tired and I needed something to put me to sleep, I decided to start reading it. An hour and a half later I was done. And I was hooked. I read the next two books back to back. Not that night, but soon afterward. I wasn't wrong, the books certainly are aimed at kids. The first few, anyway. But, like any good story aimed at whatever demographic, anyone can pick it up and immediately identify with it. And it's well written. Unlike, say, other books aimed at teens and pre-teens (I'm lookin' at you, Twilight). So I became a Potter fan on that evening in 2002 and the rest, as they say, is history.*
When Warner Bros. chose Christopher Columbus as the director of the first installment of the much beloved children's book-series it seemed like an odd choice. After all, the director's last film was the critically destroyed and commercially abysmal Bicentennial Man, and Columbus had never directed a straight up fantasy film before - unlike, say, his stiffest competition: author JK Rowling's director-of-choice Terry Gilliam. Looking back, however, it's not that difficult to see why Columbus won the gig. He made a name for himself directing films that rely heavily on the experiences of pre-adolescents: Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone and its sequel, even Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom involved preteens and/or teenagers thrust into situations involving world disruption predicated by parental upheaval, something Harry Potter deals with directly: the death of his parents is the primary catalyst of the happenings in the first book.
With Columbus directing, Steve Kloves (screenwriter of Wonder Boys) writing (with Rowling herself guiding and dropping clues about what would happen in future installments of the book), Oscar winner John Seale handling cinematography, John Williams creating the score, and a cast that, while starring three unknowns, was rounded out by a bevy of British heavyweights (including Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, John Cleese, Maggie Smith, and Robbie Coltrane), it was clear that WB wanted to make a quality franchise out of the Potter series. While the Lord of the Rings films went on to eclipse the HP films from a cultural standpoint (and deservedly so), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was Warner Bros. statement that Hobbits and orcs would only dominate the box office for so long, and that the franchise of the decade would belong to wizards and witches. It as a shaky start, though, for the film franchise based on the books about The Boy Who Lived.
While Columbus was probably the right decision, because he's certainly familiar with working with kids, his direction is too workmanlike to elevate Sorcerer's Stone above its impressive but simple (simply impressive?) source material. JK Rowling is simply a better writer than Columbus is director, and although the first Harry Potter book stumbles in places, its charms far outweigh its flaws. The film version maintains (most of) the books charming aspects, but doesn't improve on anything else. It also doesn't help that Columbus doesn't take chances as a director. He simply sets up a master, shoots. Sets up a close-up. Shoots. Sets up a medium-shot. Shoots. His mundane process results in a perfectly fine but otherwise uninspiring two and a half hour film. He also bungles many of the effects-heavy sequences - the Quidditch matches especially. While watching the film recently, I was struck by how painful the CG is on the eyes in this film. Fluffy, Hagrid's cerebus-esque pet, is horrifically rendered, and doesn't hold a candle to, say, Fellowship of the Ring's Balrog. (The "troll" scene is particularly terrible. Compare this to Fellowship of the Ring's cave troll battle).
Another aspect of the film that would make for its undoing is the script's slavish devotion to the source material. Steve Kloves is a good writer, and while he keeps the screenplay moving there are no surprises, especially for those who have read Rowling's book. Even those unfamiliar with the Potter universe will find the film variably predictable.
So what makes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone a good and ultimately re-watchable movie, then? Just about everything else. While casting three unknown children - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) to carry an adaptation of one of the most popular books of all time may have seemed like a risk at the time, it turned out to be a the right one. While Radcliffe is stiff in parts and Columbus (and his editor) cuts around a lot of his performance, he projects the right balance of carefree happy-go-lucky 11 year old boy and wounded, angry pre-adolescent that Harry is in the book. He has terrific chemistry with Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley, the goofy but loveable ginger who becomes Harry's best friend. And Emma Watson particularly does a great job as Hermione Granger, a too smart for her britches young lady who keeps Harry on Ron on track when their inner average-young-boys take over. The previously mentioned British supporting cast impresses as well. Richard Harris is Albus Dumbledore incarnate. Alan Rickman is menacing as Severus Snape. I could go on and write a separate blog about how great the rest of the cast is. They're all fun to watch.
Another aspect of Sorcerer's Stone that makes it worth revisiting is John Williams's fantastic score. The film's theme stands up with his best work, and is easily his most memorable since Jurassic Park (and, personally, I don't think he's come close to his Potter theme since). I'm not sure what it is about the film, but his work on the film is invigorating, and, as a whole, will eventually be remembered alongside such classics as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
At the end of the day, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a hefty, lumbering, yet somehow engaging film that kick-started a film franchise like no other in the history of cinema (hyperbole not intended - it's true). Without the casting of the film and Columbus's basic outline on how these films should be, we wouldn't have gotten the sequels that followed - two of them most assuredly cinema classics. It's delightful to go back and watch this first installment and to witness the ground work being forged for the future installments. Those of us that have spent a decade growing up with the films can look back on this first one with both a glint of nostalgia in the eye and also the assurance that we were right when we realized, those many years ago, that Harry Potter was the real deal when it came to fantasy/adventure, and not just some children's tale.