Monday, November 12, 2001
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ is that rarest of birds – a big-budget adaptation of a successful book that works. And it not only works, it also remains true to the plot, vision and values of the original.
Normally, ‘based on the novel by . . . ‘ means ‘well, it’s got the same title’, or at the very best ‘it was all going fine until we did the test screenings, and then we had to reshoot the ending’.
But here the film does exactly what it says on the tin. Aside from the most minor changes to the plot, we get the full story told in a faithful way, even down to the set design, where everything we’re told about Hogwarts is included (candles floating in the air over the dining hall tables, for example), and augmented by sympathetic details not in the book (like the medieval feel for the quidditch stadium).
And the casting is excellent: Richard Harris, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart (that’s John Lennon in ‘Backbeat’, not left back at Elland Road), Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, John Cleese, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane and Zoe Wannamaker. Some of them have no more than a handful of lines, but they add such heft to the film that you can forgive the three child stars when they falter a little.
If there’s heft from the cast, then there’s even more solidity from the story itself, an unlikely collision between a universal myth and an English boarding school jape. The narrative as Harry moves from neglected orphan to chosen one in a fight between good and evil is a classic mythic trope, and any similarities with ‘Star Wars’ are entirely deliberate, as they both draw on the same sources. Where George Lucas added space ships and blasters, Rowling adds dormitories and house points, but it’s a tribute to the film-makers that they left well alone. Voldemort is Darth Vader – the talented master of magic who went over to the Dark Side – but he’s also Lucifer, Sauron and any number of other examples of hubristic evil. And no prizes for seeing Harry as Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins.
My fear with the film version was that this sense of real badness would be toned down, but the movie is appropriately gruesome, and doesn’t pull any punches with some of the more graphic elements in the book. As one little girl remarked after the showing I saw, ‘it’s scary, disgusting but good’.
One result of this fidelity to the book is that the film runs for two and a half hours, but the thing is so carefully plotted and well-played that you scarecely feel the time drag. After the great immediacy of the quidditch match things get a little slow for a while, but in a cinema packed with kids, I didn’t see much restlessness at all.
So if you like the books, you won’t be disappointed in the film. If you’ve never read Harry Potter, the film gives you such a faithful version of the first book that you may as well just jump straight in with this. And don’t believe anyone who tells you that the book’s better, because what you’re seeing _is_ the book.