“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” works…well enough as a first film in the series

I was very late to the “Harry Potter” party. I saw the first film at the Peerless Theater and wasn’t a huge fan. I thought some of it worked, but most of the performances from the child actors were not great (but honestly how great can 10 years olds be in their first film roles?). I didn’t think much of the series after that until I was in college and my roommate invited me to see the third film in the franchise, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. I asked if I needed to review the first two films to know what was going on, then promptly fell asleep watching the second. Not a great sign. 

However, not too long into “Prisoner”, I was hooked, trying to solve the mystery and falling in love with the characters. Not too long after, I went to a thrift store and picked up “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” (book 2) for $1 each. There was no turning back. 

Watching the film after reading the books, I gained a better appreciation for what director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves were attempting to create based on JK Rowling’s best-selling novel. Their pretty faithful adaptation holds up with the book, but for someone who hasn’t read it, they might not see its true merits.

For the three of you who haven’t read or seen anything Harry Potter, it’s the story of the aforementioned boy (played by Daniel Radcliffe) learning on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard and has been invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he learns he’s not just a wizard, he’s The Boy Who Lived. His parents were murdered by an evil wizard called Voldemort but he survived, and no one is quite sure how. He bears a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead where the killing curse backfired and destroyed Voldemort. 

The film begins with a wizard named Professor Dumbledore (the late/great Richard Harris) and a witch named Professor McGonnegal (Dame Maggie Smith of “Downton Abbey” fame) placing a baby on the doorstep of a suburban home outside of London. A half-giant on a motorcycle named Rubius Hagrid (Robbie Coltrain) has collected the boy from the scene of the crime and they are placing him in the protective custody of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, hoping to shield him from Voldemort’s supporters and the inevitable fame that will come with being The Boy Who Lived. 

His life isn’t great with the Dursleys until his welcome letter from Hogwarts arrives. Refusing to believe Harry is a wizard, Vernon drags the family away to a shack on a cliffside after his house is literally filled with letters from the school. Hagrid arrives to collect Harry for the start of term and off he goes into a magical world he never knew exists. He befriends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) aboard the Hogwarts Express and they begrudgingly befriend a brainy know-it-all named Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) basically once they realize they’re both terrible at magic and she’s brilliant. 

The three get into a fair amount of trouble at school, seemingly magnets for strange and unusual phenomenon. Harry joins the Quidditch team (kind of like flying soccer, but way more dangerous), gets a nemesis in Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), and suspects his Potions teacher Professor Snape (the late/great Alan Rickman) is evil. Once it is rumored that the Sorcerer’s Stone – a magical rock that can turn metal to gold and create a potion of immortality – is in Hogwarts, the trio set out on an adventure to find it and prove Professor Snape is trying to steal it.

Obviously this is a VERY rough outline of a surprisingly dense young-adult novel. All due credit goes to JK Rowling forever and in perpetuity for creating such an awesome, spralling, fantastical world that spans seven novels, eight films, several spin-offs, two theme parks, and even a Broadway play (that is the most amazing thing I’ve even seen on stage). The strengths of the film lie in the music and the design. The theme from the film is now almost as iconic as “Star Wars”, and that’s saying a lot. The scenic and costume design transports the viewer into JK Rowling’s fantasy world seamlessly, drawing them into a world of broomsticks, magic potions, unicorns, and so much more. The screenplay faithfully hits the major points of the story, but as any fan would say, it doesn’t quite tell the story to the degree we’d hoped. Thus is the nature of film adaptations. The standout performances come, unsurprisingly, from the British royalty that is the adult cast. Harris’ Dumbledore is near-perfection (only to be somewhat marred by Michael Gambon’s turn after Harris’ death), Smith is majestic as Professor McGonnegal, and Rickman sets the bar for how one should bring a character to life from the page to the screen. Not much can be done to improve the performances of Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, but thankfully all three become very talented actors in their own right as they grow and we get to watch it unfold over the next seven films. 

“The Sorcerer’s Stone” functions well as a companion piece to the novel, does well enough as a premiere for the series, and, honestly, the book isn’t that long, so you might as well read it anyway because reading is fun.

 

(and a half)

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Butterbeers

 

Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor and writing living in NYC. He’s currently writing a TV pilot script about space librarians. 

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