Having just finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (blog post coming soon), I decided to start a re-visit of the films as well. The series of eight Harry Potter films began in 2001 with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, directed by Chris Columbus. It was a real joy to see the beloved story brought to life on screen – but how does the film hold up after 15 years?
The film faces the task of needing to establish the necessary foundations for the Harry Potter universe, just as the book did – it can’t afford to leave too much out. While it succeeds in getting everything across, it generally does so rather awkwardly. A lot of elements feel rushed, and there’s also some graceless editing. Through this editing, Hagrid apparently takes Harry straight out into a thunderstorm from the Hut-on-the-Rock; the Hogwarts term starts the day after Harry’s birthday; and only five first-year students get Sorted (in a completely random order). Meanwhile, Harry decides he doesn’t like Slytherin after a single quick comment by Ron; he sees Snape limping and decides that he could only have been injured by the three-headed dog; and he gets his Nimbus 2000 on the morning of his first Quidditch match. Norbert the dragon gets barely a minute of screentime and is packed off to Romania a couple more minutes later.
Perhaps the clumsiest thing is how confused the film seems to be about Hermione’s initial relationship with Harry and Ron. In the book, of course, Harry and Ron don’t like Hermione at all until the incident with the troll on Halloween. In the film, even before that event, Hermione appears interested in Harry relating a Daily Prophet article, shows him his father’s Quidditch trophy, and is walking with Harry and Ron when they end up at the forbidden corridor (which again, feels much more forced than in the book). The three of them already seem quite chummy, so it doesn’t even make sense when Ron declares that Hermione has no friends and upsets her.
What the film definitely gets right, however, are the sets and costumes: they are fantastically detailed and appropriate, from Diagon Alley to the Hogwarts Express to the moving portraits at Hogwarts. Some of the special effects work well, like the brick wall that opens into Diagon Alley. However, scenes involving CGI people, like the Quidditch match and the flying class, aren’t so convincing. (Side note: I find it funny how in that class, the students scamper to either side to get out of the way of Neville’s broomstick, while Madam Hooch does a flying leap.) There are many scenes where the John Williams score wouldn’t be out of place in a Home Alone movie, but it does have some really great tracks which remain happily familiar throughout the coming films, ‘Leaving Hogwarts’ being my personal favourite.
Also, with the story transferred into a visual medium, the film does a good job of conveying character information visually. For example, when Dudley Dursley is coming down the stairs, he stops and goes back up a few to jump on the spot above Harry’s cupboard, then proceeds to shove Harry into the cupboard as he rushes into the kitchen. Albus Dumbledore sits up with particular interest when Harry is about to be Sorted. And there’s the scene of Harry’s first night at Hogwarts as he silently stares out of the window with Hedwig, and you wonder what he’s thinking. I also particularly liked the actors’ expressions in the Mirror of Erised scene, how horrific the two-faced Quirrell looks, and the final lines at the end (“Feels strange to be going home, doesn’t it?” “I’m not going home. Not really.”)
Sadly, it has to be said that the star of the show, Daniel Radcliffe, has one of the film’s weaker performances even when compared to the other child actors. His Harry is also a bit too saintly and innocent; he doesn’t have enough of the attitude that Book Harry can turn on when the need arises. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson do a better job of capturing Ron and Hermione, though Grint pulls a few weird facial expressions from the get-go. Tom Felton is perfectly contemptuous and self-assured as Malfoy. Among the child actors, Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom) stands out as looking the most different from his present-day self: watching the film, it’s hard to imagine him playing a drunken, grungy murder suspect in the TV series Happy Valley fifteen years on.
The adult actors are mostly cast very well. Alan Rickman was the perfect choice for Snape: he not only sounds exactly as you imagine Snape speaking in the books, even his sinister movements fit the character well. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall and Richard Griffiths as Vernon Dursley also stand out as embodying their characters perfectly, though I find Richard Harris’s portrayal of Albus Dumbledore to be a bit too frail and ponderous.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone may have its flaws as an adaptation, but it certainly does well as a film in general: despite being a long film at 2 hours 39 minutes, you don’t notice the length and are entertained throughout. Not the best of the Harry Potter films, but a satisfactory way to start.
Rating as a film: 4/5.
Rating as an adaptation: 3/5.