Looking back at Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone

News Mark Harrison
7 Jul 2011 - 12:31

With the final Harry Potter a week away from release, Mark takes a look back through the earlier films in the franchise, starting with The Philosopher’s Stone…

Here's a potentially contentious point. The Harry Potter films are to the Noughties what Star Wars was to the generation that grew up in the Seventies and Eighties. In many ways, that would be a shame for George Lucas, who presumably hoped his prequels would make Star Wars into the Star Wars for the Noughties.

I say it's contentious, because it's not my intention to write a series of one-sided celebratory articles. The staggeringly successful film adaptations of JK Rowling's book saga will easily get enough coverage from ITV, who hold the rights to show the films on telly and seem to have set up The National Movie Awards solely to remind people of how good they are.

On a personal level, I can trace my interest in films back to the production of the first film in the series, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone. Having loved all of the books released at that point, I absorbed every nugget of information I could find about the big-screen version, before the film's release in November 2001.

It's for that reason that, while I might forget my PIN number or when my birthday is, I can recall the name of the actor who played Quidditch captain, Oliver Wood, at will. These were the beginnings of my film geekdom. But it's in retrospect, and with the added capacities that come with being older than 11, that you notice these aren't flawless films.

So, with the final film, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2, just around the corner, it seems as good a time as any to look back on the big old mega-franchise, which has gone through four directors in eight films, keeping most of the same cast, in just under a decade.

Interestingly, Steven Spielberg refused an offer to direct early on, because of the proven popularity of the books. He posited, "It's just like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank accounts. There's no challenge."

It's also believed that producers disagreed with his ideas for a more radical adaptation, an animated film with Haley Joel Osment voicing Harry Potter, or a film which comprised more than just the first of the seven books planned. So, the magic began with Chris Columbus at the helm, and he played it much safer, setting out the blueprint for the eventual eight-film endeavour.

The director had previously directed the first two Home Alone films, but perhaps more relevantly, he'd written the screenplay for Young Sherlock Holmes, which put a teenage version of Conan Doyle's sleuth in a boarding school, solving a mystery with a young Watson and his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth.

Harry Potter, played by Daniel Radcliffe, lives a pretty miserable existence with his only living relatives, the Dursleys, who make him live in the cupboard under the stairs. Just as they were on the page, the Dursleys, Vernon, Petunia and Dudley, show the series' sensibilities to be close to the gruesome playfulness of Roald Dahl's work.

When the Dursleys are plagued by letters addressed to their nephew, they fruitlessly continue trying to disguise his wizarding heritage. Soon enough, an affable half-giant called Hagrid, played by Robbie Coltrane, comes along and literally kicks the door down on their deception. Harry's due to begin studying at a school for young witches and wizards, Hogwarts.

Although I've already made the Star Wars comparison, it might be more apt to compare this first instalment to Superman: The Movie. There are inherent similarities in the way that it adapts a much loved property by pioneering new special effects and surrounding an unknown lead with a well-known and talented supporting cast.

But the general structure of that first Richard Donner movie makes tonal shifts throughout. We begin on Krypton, as baby Kal-El is oblivious to the ructions shaking his entire world, and we see him being deposited to somewhere far more mundane, our world. Then we're in Kansas, where young Clark Kent lives an ordinary life. That is, until he discovers his powers and moves to Metropolis.

It's worlds away from Smallville, and it's there that Clark, and the movie, really takes flight. The next tonal shift comes when Lex Luthor puts his nefarious plans in motion. Not everything about that big city is wondrous. You get the picture. My point is that the thematic beats of those first two parts have fairly obvious parallels in this first Harry Potter film.

I would argue that the sense of discovery is much greater in this one, as we're bombarded with fantastical concepts like Diagon Alley and Quidditch and Hogwarts, realised on the big screen through the astounding work of Stuart Craig, stalwart production designer on all of the Potter films.

The first half of the film properly achieves the sense of wonderment that any young boy would have, being rescued from that awful life. And boy, is it an awful life. Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling arguably have the hardest jobs in the film, playing characters who have essentially abused a young boy for the last ten years or so. Like so many of the cast in this one, they overplay it in all of the right ways.

That refusal to underestimate or patronise the young audience transfers from Rowling's novel very well, with Richard Harris' Dumbledore sagely dispensing advice, like "The third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds, to everyone who does not wish to die a most painful death," straight from the page.

It's around Christmastime in the film, when that Luthor shift happens, even if the seeds of the titular Philosopher's Stone have been planted all the way through the enjoyable opening. From here, the film takes a supposedly darker turn, which is most immediately apparent from the way that the lighting gets turned down.

Columbus probably isn't the fans' favourite director, but he's still the one who most faithfully adapts the source material. His unwillingness to cut certain scenes from the book occasionally threatens to be the downfall of this film and its immediate sequel, especially when such scenes jar with the darker tone.

There are some scenes excised, such as Hermione's "cool use of logic and intellect", but she gets fifty points for Gryffindor in that regard anyway. I think this faithful adaptation set up the unrealistic expectations fans held about later films. Most literary fans may well agree that Harry Potter fans don't know they're born, especially with the scenes so painstakingly translated in the first film.

For instance, the detour to Hagrid's hut, in which we discover that he's got a baby dragon called Norbert, doesn't really go anywhere in this cinematic version of the story. And a lot of stuff like that is crammed into the breathless last hour of the film, before it slows back down to a crawl after the climactic battle.

Also, in contrast with the unique Britishness of the novel, the film sometimes feels cribbed from Mary Poppins. One of Rowling's conditions in selling the film rights to Warner Bros. Pictures was that the main players should all be played by British or Irish actors.

But Steve Kloves, who eventually wrote seven out of the eight Harry Potter films, is an American screenwriter. I rate Kloves' later work on the series, but it's in this instalment that we get dialogue like "Holy cricket, you're Harry Potter" from Hermione. There's sporadically weird dialogue that actually, sometimes, makes British actors sound like they're instead pretending to be British.

It's not to be blamed on the leads. This was the acting début for both Rupert Grint, as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson, as Hermione Granger. They quickly establish a chemistry with Radcliffe, but like much of this production, there's a definite feeling that they're just finding their feet.

The inevitable dismissal of Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone is that it's the most quaint instalment, as compared to the sequels. For instance, some of the CGI doesn't look as polished as it could have been, even by 2001's standards.

Witness Firenze the centaur, a casualty of the film's rush for a November release date, already pushed back from the lucrative July 4th weekend. Firenze ends up looking like Commander Worf via a videogame cutscene, and a letdown after the tremendously creepy scene of Voldemort drinking a unicorn's blood.

But it's still a film that establishes the wizarding world in much the same way as Superman: The Movie made audiences believe a man could fly, back in 1978.. Despite being slightly baggy in the second half, that's how it justifies its length of almost hundred and fifty minutes. One hundred and fifty minutes minutes, from the shortest book in a series that also contains seven hundred-page tomes.

With all of its sense of awe at this new world, it's not beneath a few genuinely unsettling moments, like the reveal of the arch-baddie's face underneath Professor Quirrell's turban. Largely, though, it has the air of safety that made Spielberg pass on the film. It's inoffensive to fans of the book and highly appealing to a family audience.

The films would have better days, but not until after Columbus' second spin with The Boy Who Lived, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets.

See more of our Looking Back articles here.

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