Films

HARRY GOES HOLLYWOOD

The film version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone arrives in style

Brian Bethune November 26 2001
Films

HARRY GOES HOLLYWOOD

The film version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone arrives in style

Brian Bethune November 26 2001

HARRY GOES HOLLYWOOD

The film version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone arrives in style

Films

BRIAN BETHUNE

By now there can scarcely be an adult, let alone a child, in the Western world who doesn’t know the story of Harry Potter. Both stories. One is the tale of the mistreated orphan boy who discovers he’s a wizard and ends up, to his wide-eyed wonder, at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There, in four spellbinding novels, Harry makes friends and enemies, demonstrates his skill at the exciting school sport of Quidditch and

battles the evil Lord Voldemort, killer of his parents. And then there’s the equally mythic story of the Potter phenomenon, this one involving Harry’s media-shy creator, J. K. Rowling, the single mom on welfare who wrote the first novel in a Scottish café with her baby on her lap. That saga continued with the sale of 100 million copies, and the feverish excitement surrounding the publication of the most recent instalment in July, 2000.

That kind of pop-culture status made a movie both inevitable and a potential

minefield. For nervous producers, the devil was certainly in Harry Potter’s details. Never before has a kids’ movie been aimed at so huge an audience, so many of whom already know the story inside out. Now that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, all 143 sumptuous minutes of it, has finally arrived in theatres, the filmmakers’ strategy is clear: include as much as possible and, above all, make it look good. And that it does. Philosopher’s Stone, in fact, is nothing short of spectacular. With all the lavish production values that

a budget of $ 190 million can buy, Warner Bros, and director Chris Columbus have brought Harry to the screen with an attention to detail that can hardly fail to impress the waiting millions. Hogwarts is magnificent, inside (thanks to a luminous Gloucester cathedral) and out. The riotous Dickensian life of Diagon Alley, particularly the sharp-nosed and sharper-tongued goblins of Gringotts bank, is perfect. The oafish Dursleys, Harry’s Muggle relatives, are satisfyingly toxic. Quidditch, so hard to visualize from the printed page, comes soaringly alive.

The actors, too, fit the bill. From Richard Harris as the wise old headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, to John Hurt’s energetic

cameo as wand-maker Ollivander, the adult roles feature a Who’s Who of British stars. (Both actors claim their offspring made them do it, with Harris saying his 11-year-old granddaughter Ella swore she’d never speak to him again if he turned down the role.) The cast also includes Maggie Smith, who always makes a superb teacher—in this case, Professor McGonagall—and Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane, who does a stellar job as Hagrid, the giant groundskeeper with a heart of gold. Alan Rickman, as movie blurbs like to say, is the sneering Professor Snape, and stomps into I his potions class as though he was still playI ing the Sheriff of Nottingham about to cancel Christmas in Robin Hood.

Meanwhile, the three neophyte child leads—Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, with Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as his friends Ron and Hermione—also suit their roles. Not that the performances are universally first-rate. Harris seems very sleepy indeed in some parts, and when director Columbus praised Radcliffe’s “tendency to play things so subtly,” he may have been referring to a certain lack of range. But really, who cares? In terms of its prime directive, to insult no child’s visual imagination, Philosopher’s Stone is a feast for the eyes.

As for whafs in and what’s been left out, something had to give in Rowling’s tangent-rich narrative. Some of the changes

are of the mysterious sort that always mark book-to-film adaptations. Harry, early on, frees a snake from a zoo—a Brazilian boa constrictor in the novel, a Burmese python in the movie. Perhaps the python was more photogenic. Most omissions and contractions, however, are more readily understandable. The lengthy subplot about Norbert, Hagrid’s Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, is reduced to a few minutes of screen time, just long enough for his beloved pet to set the groundskeeper’s beard on fire, which is not in the book. The scene nets the filmmakers two birds with one stone—a nod to the popular Norbert and an easy laugh for the movie. (The Potter stories are extremely funny, but Rowling’s literary humour is not easy to portray visually.) Erring on the side of inclusiveness does have its drawbacks, though. Were the stakes not so high—if the filmmakers weren’t so worried by the thought, as Coltrane put it for himself, of being pursued by millions of children shouting “There’s the guy who ruined Hagrid; let’s get him”—they could have made a shorter and smoother movie.

Another result ofWarner Bros.’ obsession with details is that, like the novel, the film in Canada bears the story’s original name, unlike the American version, known as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (U.S. publisher Scholastic thought the philosopher’s stone, a well-known bit of alchemical lore, was too obscure a reference for American readers.) A divergence in book titles is one thing, but it’s unprecedented in the modern era for a major Hollywood studio

to think of Canada as anything other than an adjunct of the U.S. The cross-border distinction came about last summer when Allan MacDougall, president of Rowlings Canadian publisher, Raincoast Books, made the request to the author’s agent, Christopher Little, “even though I knew it couldn’t be done.” Some weeks later, without any official announcement, the Canadian name for the film—Philosopher’s Stone instead of Sorcerer’s—came into use.

It made no difference to the filming itself, since there was always going to be a distinct British version—scenes that mentioned the troublesome stone were simply shot twice.

Where the title change has had an impact is in the merchandising tie-ins. North American manufacturers and distributors have mosdy stuck with generic Harry Potter labels for such products as Lego’s elaborate model of Hogwarts ($130) and $10 bags

of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. (The Muggle version of the beans, parents will be thankful to learn, does not include some of the tastes offered wizards and witches—vomit and earwax come to mind—although buyers do risk sardine and horseradish.) Not that the licencees, all counting on a massive pre-Christmas surge in demand, are liable to begrudge having to spend a few extra dollars for Canadian packaging. Such is the Harry Potter gold mine that Coca-Cola more than covered the cost of the film, paying $225 million for sponsorship rights, roughly what it put out for the Sydney Olympic Games. (Rowling, however, won’t allow Harry’s face on Coke cans.)

Brilliant in its appearance, and cunning in its inclusiveness, Philosopher’s Stone will delight its intended audience. So why then does it feel, immediately after the conclusion, like a vast but empty spun-sugar confection? Kids leaving the preview show weren’t clamouring for a movie sequel but for the next book in the series (due, if Rowling manages to keep to her self-declared schedule of a year ago, by next spring). Beneath the surface dazzle of Harry’s world—the magic, action and humour so effectively caught by the film— the Potter stories include elements from the whole spectrum of children’s literature. Growing up, the pain of being different, the loss of loved ones, school and school relationships—these are the hooks, the real reason children find the novels so utterly absorbing. The boarding-school story in particular is one of the most enduring and emotionally satisfying sub-genres of children’s literature, and Rowling tells it as well as anyone ever has. Two years after Pottermania exploded in North America, Harry’s charmed life continues. For all the glamour of his big-screen appearance, its main effect is to send kids back to reading. E3