“You’re a wizard, Harry.”
With those four words, Hagrid states the most resonant theme of the first Harry Potter film. Harry lives under the stairs, for crying out loud. Dust rains down on him whenever Dudley thunders up and down the steps. He’s made to do all of the household chores. He’s basically a slave. And then he hears those wonderful words from Hagrid, and suddenly he learns who he really is. All his life he’s been made to feel like he’s a burden, someone to be tolerated and kept down. But that single line from Hagrid opens up everything. All of the terrible things he’s heard simply aren’t true. He has value, and he is indeed special.
Of course, “special” isn’t “entitled.” You don’t get a free ride, special or not. You need to earn it. Luckily, the Harry Potter movies made some amazing decisions early on that paid off for ten years and eight films. The books were already bestsellers in 2001, but the producers wisely didn’t think that success was guaranteed. So they pulled out all the stops, finding the best actors, the best locations, the best everything. They knew that they had to earn success, and they did it by not being lazy and committing to a vision that honored the books and treating the books like the children’s classics they are.
I’ve seen Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone many times, and it’s hard to see a familiar movie with fresh eyes. But as I watched it once more to prepare for this essay, I was struck at how well it hides its excellence. Obviously it functions as a wonderful adventure movie on its own terms. It’s exciting, funny, just a little scary, and well-casted to a degree that is frankly a little silly. But it had a much more difficult task: it needed to map out the look and the scope of an entire film franchise. The most amazing thing is that it did so almost flawlessly.
In any series, the first movie sets the tone. You will probably only get one chance to do it right, so you need to make it count. At every opportunity, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone does exactly that. It has so many concepts to introduce, so many characters to trot out, so many big sets to reveal to the viewer, and it doesn’t waste any of those chances. Every new step into the wizarding world is treated with wonder and joy. There’s a shot that gets cribbed over and over again, whenever one of those sets appears for the first time. You see it in the first shot of the Hogwarts Express, the first trip into Diagon Alley, and the march into the Great Hall. The camera pans up to reveal the scope and the beauty of what you’re seeing. I don’t know how much of those sets are rendered in a computer. This was still in the days when CGI stood out more, so I imagine most of it was up there on the stage. Either way, it packs a punch every time, partially thanks to the rollicking score by John Williams. Wizards are, first and foremost, magical, and this is a movie that wants to embrace that magic to its fullest.
In hindsight, Chris Columbus was a strange choice to direct. Up until this point, he was best known for directing the first two Home Alone movies. The competition to direct the first Harry Potter movie was stiff indeed. At one point, no less than Steven Spielberg was in talks to direct it. Rumor has it that J.K. Rowling wanted Terry Gilliam. But Columbus was a great choice because he was fine with letting the good qualities of the book speak for themselves. It didn’t hurt that Rowling had a lot of creative control as well. Perhaps the unsung hero of the entire Harry Potter series, screenwriter Steve Kloves, acquits himself most admirably. His adaptation respects the book deeply, and is able to pace the story with the introductions in a way that never feels forced. He would go on to write the screenplay to six of the next seven movies as well.
As I said already, the amazing thing about Sorcerer’s Stone is that it shaped the entire series. The look and feel of Hogwarts would become darker and more twisted as the series went on, but it always went back to the original production design here. I get excited when I see the Great Hall and think about how pivotal that huge room is to the series, especially the last movie. The seeds of the atmospheric beauty of the late films is all right here, which speaks to an amazing design team.
But the most towering achievement of Sorcerer’s Stone as a first installment is its casting. It’s a murderer’s row of British talent, maybe one of the strongest casts in any genre film in history. There isn’t a single misstep. I could just sit here and type out all of the amazing actors, but a couple leap to mind especially. First of all is Alan Rickman as Snape, who delivers lines like he has to taste every word before speaking it. He gets help from the camera as he towers over the students, and I love how he stalks away with his cloak billowing behind him. The other standout to me is Richard Harris as Dumbledore, who lends the character immense wisdom and a soft-spoken quality. It’s hard to watch his performance and not wonder how he might have done had he lived through the entire series.
But of course most of the screentime is given to child actors, especially Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson. It’s hard to gauge the work of children in any movie, but the best that can be said here is that they never feel anything less than natural. The role of Harry Potter is always going to be a thankless one, and Radcliffe isn’t exactly a revelation at this early stage. But it’s kind of a bland role that is surrounded by characters who are anything but. As such, he does a good job at anchoring the earnestness of the Boy Who Lived. Grint and Watson have more interesting parts to begin with, and they are both up to the challenge. It’s surreal to see them so young in this movie, and it makes me thankful that they (along with almost all of the rest of the cast) would continue to reprise their roles to the very end.
Watching it now with the entire series completed, it can be a reflection on how dark and frightening some of the later films can be in comparison to this one. Certainly it’s the brightest film in the entire series in terms of color palette. But the seeds of darkness and dread creep into the margins ever so slightly. It doesn’t shy away from death as a concept, and that theme only gets stronger in later films. But for right now, those shadows are mostly offstage. Still, it was fascinating to see this movie with that full perspective of the story.
More than a few times, I’ve heard Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone compared with The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard of Oz is probably the greatest fantasy film ever made, so it says something when we say that this movie feels like it belongs in that company. I’m not sure it’s the best film in the series, but it’s certainly the defining one. If I had to show just one Harry Potter movie to someone, this is obviously the one to pick.
- One curious weakness is Professor Quirrell, who is played capably by Ian Hart but barely seems to be in the movie otherwise. It’s like they keep trotting him out in scenes to remind us that he’s on staff. This is partly from the book, where he’s also a bit of an afterthought. But then he is conducting a lesson that somehow involves an iguana. Color me intrigued.
- Quirrell says that his spell to throw Harry off the broom was meant to kill, but I question it’s effectiveness, since at least two other Gryffindors fall of their brooms and are apparently fine.
- The first shot we get of Hagrid when he knocks down that door seems to be borrowing from Mary GrandPré’s illustrations in the American version. Cool trick, that.
- The Slytherin Quidditch team is basically the Hogwarts version of the 1989 Detroit Pistons.
- Once the kids get past fluffy, they face several hurdles to get to the stone. In the book there’s one where they need to solve a logic problem and drink the correct potion to move on. I liked this part a lot, but I can see why they left it out. It might have played a little like that scene with the water jugs in Die Hard III, which I have never been able to follow very well.
- So how did Quirrell get past the chessboard? He clearly didn’t play the game because the pieces are still all set up.
- I know that Slytherin is the official Hogwarts Jerk Depository, but I have always felt bad that they get the shaft with the House Cup. I mean, they did everything right all year! I know Harry is important and all, but honestly Dumbledore? You’ve given Gryffindor the cheapest House Cup win ever. For that matter, what about the implications of just allowing any teacher to add or subtract points arbitrarily? Geez, I need to go lie down now.
Next week: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets