The first of a series of movies based on a literary saga that I deeply loved came out in 2001: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (in the US it came out as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). With veteran director Chris Columbus (actually, he was young, but already in the 1980s he wrote nothing less than Gremlins, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes – Pyramid of Fear), with a soundtrack composed by legendary John Williams, and thanks to a series of well-made production, casting and special effects choices, I am convinced that it was a really good start! And it wasn’t an easy task by any stretch of the imagination…
How to recreate the fantasy world of J.K. Rowling on the big screen? How to give life to such beloved characters after the huge success of the books which were firmly on top of all the sales charts of the world? How to make a successful fantasy saga at the cinema? This may seem simple now, but at the time it was far from obvious! I find it interesting that in the same year Peter Jackson came out with his first film in the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings… Well, now we are used to the presence of countless and endless fantasy sagas (Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight, Star Wars, The Hobbit, the Marvel and DC cinecomics…), but in 2001 the attempt to start one was a brave one!
I believe we’ve been very lucky:
- J.K. Rowling was involved in the project and could decide several things, for instance her request of using only British actors and actresses was satisfied;
- it was decided to use mostly practical special effects and in fact, even today, 18 years later, the effects hold up;
- the movie was shot in splendid locations (in London, Oxford, Durham, York…);
- the film is very faithful to the book (here’s a review of the latter on Charleigh Writes) but it has its own flavor, it doesn’t feel like a copy and paste exercise;
- a good director was hired who had proven he could work with young actors;
- and speaking of actors: John Hurt, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman… the cast is exceptional!
But, above all, the movie has a great atmosphere, it really respects the book written by J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone manages to show an alternative world in which there’s a splendid magical school in which everyone, at the end of the film, would like to study or have studied (depending on the age). The costumes, the music, the colors, the sets… everything is well made and the result is that the world is credible, it’s well built, it’s epic, and, in a word, it works. It also helps that Harry discovers that same world along with the viewer! And now it’s time to dig a little into the plot.
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is eleven years old and for eleven years he has lived harassed by his aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), his uncle Vernon Dursley (Richard Griffiths), and his cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Harry is an orphan and he was entrusted to his uncles by some strange individuals that we see at the beginning of the film and that soon Harry himself will get to know very well: Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and the half giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). He meets them because, after some initial troubles, he manages to go to Hogwarts, a school for wizards and witches where he also meets his first real friends: Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint).
And here we must give credit to Columbus for having laid the foundations of an entire saga in just two hours of movie. He introduces the four houses of Hogwarts (our heroes are all in Gryffindor, while the evil Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton, is a Slytherin), the quidditch played on flying brooms (the quidditch scenes are inevitably the weakest ones from the point view of the special effects), the discovery of the truth about Harry’s parents and the role of Voldemort… and there’s also time for the story of the philosopher’s stone and the role of the devious professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman)!
The film doesn’t feel like a summary of the book, far from it. Instead, it’s epic, it’s a solid foundation on which to build more complicated stories in the future without having to explain the setting so well outlined already here. I don’t want to say that the film is the perfect transposition of the literary work which, as I said, I love (and that I’ve read three times). A lot gets lost in the transition to the big screen, mainly the daily life of the Hogwarts students who in the film hardly study or go to class. Columbus doesn’t forget this aspect, but for reasons of time he can only show a few key lessons, leaving to the viewer’s imagination the students’ concerns for exams and questions in the classroom.
Little attention is also devoted to the houses’ competition which in the book has a prominent role given that it creates a reason for rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin (mainly), as well as for cooperation between the students within each of the houses. That’s a piety, but I understand that it was impossible to characterize fully the world created by J.K. Rowling in her first book, which in any case is not even that long!
So how to conclude this first post dedicated to Harry (there will be more, I promise)? I like this first movie and I always watch it with pleasure. I believe that in addition to a lot of money and a lot of professionalism, for some strange reason a lot of passion went into it and the result can be seen and felt. At least some of the people involved in the project were enthusiastic about it: if not the gray and cold producers who only yearn for profits (I imagine them like Saruman in their towers full of gold coins), at least the director and some of actors and costume and set designers! If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it without hesitation, even if, if you haven’t read the book, my advice is actually to read the book first (indeed, all the Harry Potter books), and then watch the movie! Ciao!