Rowling, Joanne K. (film, 2001). Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. Los Angeles: Warner.

Reviewed 18 November 2001

Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and Ron (Rupert Grint). Photo © 2001 Annie Leibovitz So many aspects of this movie could have been completely butchered. A few, unfortunately were, which will detract from recognition of this film's achievement: a nicely done, faithful adaptation of a book that does not depend upon a previous reading of the book to make sense. That is extraordinarily rare by itself. That it is the first book in a series, with the principal players likely to remain through at least two more of the series, is highly encouraging. And it could not have been done in the US.

Before going into any depth about the film's successes, though, we should look at the principal failure of the film. Would somebody please put an end to John Williams's career as a composer? Even if the flavor of the music had been right for this movie—and it wasn't even close—the theme sounded more like a bad parody of Elgar than anything else. No film of a children's book deserves Pomposity and Circumlocution, particularly when the theme itself is perhaps 14 bars and recorded at a grossly excessive volume, leaving virtually no sound other than actors' voices and combat thuds. This pointed out the general failure of the sound track of the film. It's not just the problems of theater sound systems, but an overly enthusiastic concentration on the foreground (which barely overcomes the blaring score). For example, except when a character purposely makes a noise in the dining hall (as when Professor McGonagal taps her glass for attention), there is no sound but voices—no chairs shifting, no water pouring, no flatware clanking on dishes, no rustling of clothing.

The strongest aspect of the film was the script. It's clear that the scriptwriter paid attention to the novel. Some reviewers have criticized the film for not "adapting the material to the visual medium," but they've missed the point. That's only possible when there are significant ambiguities in the underlying source material, or significant conceptual cuts in the material itself. The only significant cuts in the material were the classroom segments, particularly those in Snape's potions class (which may prove a poor choice when the next movie, with its reliance on potions, hits theaters at this time in 2002). The scriptwriter, however, did a fine job of paring the book down to length for a film (even a 150 minute film's script won't exceed 150 pages or so) without actually harming the integrity of the underlying material.

Trailer extract, © 2001 Warner Bros.The film's imagery was also quite good, being a nice mix of the real, the unreal, and the surreal. Every reader would probably make slightly different choices of what to emphasize and what to omit from the visual design, but the director and cinematographer's choices were more than defensible. Similarly, the mechanical editing and cinematography were virtually invisible—the prime sign of their success.

Where most films involving children tend to fail is in the acting. Normally, in any group of four child actors one is competent. The casting here was quite good, although there are certainly some weak points; relegating John Cleese to a ghost, when with his ability to portray irrational outrage the role of Filch seems to have been invented for him, and the unfortunately flat work of the miscast Dumbledore (Sir Richard Harris) doesn't help either. Snape (Alan Rickman) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) successfully tread the line between cartoonish overacting and bombastic overseriousness. Of the three leads, only Ron (Rupert Grint) came off as a poor actor; his range of facial expressions was extremely limited, he did not act with his eyes, and his body language was puppetlike. Harry himself (Daniel Radcliffe) was competent and enthusiastic; his portrayal of bewilderment without being stupid was a nice touch. Hermione (Emma Watson) used her face, particularly her eyes, and body language to reinforce an intense delivery of her lines. If anything, she's somewhat too pretty for the Hermione in the books, but that's a minor quibble. The only problem with the remainder of the cast of children is that they're too blandly attractive—the common Hollywood-production curse.

One final comment: Shoot the asshole at Warner who decided that Flash Multimedia is a requirement to even view the site. Please. Then read the counsel's office the citation to the ADA. Oops. Given my litigation against Warner's corporate parent, maybe I shouldn't be criticizing them. Or maybe I should. In any event, http://harrypotter.warnerbros.com does have quite a bit more material on the movie. But very, very little on the book—which leads the cynical lawyer in me to question exactly whose trademark interests are being met here, since the owner of the master mark is Joanne Rowling.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Very Good
(a very high rating for a film from me—only one film from the 1990s earned better than a flat Excellent). This is a more than adequate adaptation of the first book in an ongoing series. If they'll fire John Williams and hire someone like Mark Knopfler (The Princess Bride, Local Hero, Cal) to handle the score, the producers will be far ahead of the game. Let's hope they continue showing respect for the source material, that the child actors continue to grow in skill, and that none of the adult leads becomes unable to continue—because, at least on the basis of this one, I'd rather see another Harry Potter film than another Star Trek, Star Wars, or virtually any of the other current franchises.

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