Photo by Peter Mountain
In the latest installment in the ongoing and wildly lucrative adventures of Harry Potter — conqueror of bookworm children everywhere, scourge of literary lions and freaked-out Christians alike — the boy wizard has taken on the dragons of Hollywood and come out of it, well, a bit of a dullard. Does it matter? For Potter fans, it’s unlikely. Movie lovers who read more than opening credits are used to disappointment. The film versions of beloved books so rarely make us happy that when one does succeed in bringing forth some of the original’s good feeling, turning privately loved words into images that don’t betray either the words or our love, we’re not just surprised, we’re grateful. And so it is with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a clumsily directed, painstakingly faithful adaptation that’s heavy on plot, light on nuance, and features in its title role a young newcomer whose most striking quality is an almost preternatural absence of oomph. That’s a drag, but since author J.K. Rowling, with her plain style and alert imagination, has already done the film’s toughest work by summoning up flurries of snowy owls, its hobgoblins, ghouls and all the enchanted rest, neither is it calamitous. The movie’s pleasures are finally those of the book — inferior, but welcoming enough to putter through.
If the movie never jostles the book from your head, it’s likely because the first Harry never left. Motherless, fatherless, friendless, outfitted in broken glasses and ill-fitting hand-me-downs, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) lives with his unwilling adoptive family, the Dursleys, in a London neighborhood after having been left on their doorstep years ago as an infant. Now almost 11, Harry sleeps in a closet under the main staircase filled with shadows and spiders, and puzzles over the lightning-bolt scar emblazoned on his forehead. He’s the family scapegoat, one of those outsider kids who, if he were living in the United States, would be headbanging to death metal and thumbing through Soldier of Fortune. But Rowling is a sentimentalist, as well as a pasticheur, and her Harry is heir to various British literary traditions, among them Dickens foundlings, boarding-school adventures and the myth-rich fantasy genre. As with most famous orphans, Harry is destined for more than heartache and gruel, which is how he’s whisked to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to find his fate, along with his friends, classmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a childlike giant who looms through the books as sentinel and eternal wild card.
J.K. Rowling’s novel was first published in Great Britain in 1997 under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. By the time it hit the United States a year later, the book had been “Americanized” (an insulting procedure that involved everything from crumpets being turned into English muffins to the very title), and widely debated — the more so, it seemed, the more successfully it sold. The philosopher’s stone is meant to transfigure base metals into gold as well as promising restored youth, so it seems fitting that on publication Rowling’s book itself became something of a philosopher’s stone, both in its journey from slush pile to best-seller lists and in its staggering appeal to adult readers. Since then, the Harry Potter series has been called many things in its short shelf life — publishing sensation, marketing juggernaut, ungodly threat — but rarely has it been called literature. But then, why should it be? Genre fiction has always been the bastard child of the literary arts: “Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd,” Edmund Wilson famously sniffed about the likes of Agatha Christie in 1950. (Wilson was similarly appalled at W.H. Auden’s love for J.R.R. Tolkien, whose novels Rowling has clearly strip-mined.)
While some detective and mystery writing has since muscled into the ranks of serious literature, much genre fiction remains the province of geeks and freaks, or worse, at least as far critics such as Harold Bloom are convinced. Just last year, serving as a literary gun for The Wall Street Journal, Bloom tried to make canon fodder of Harry Potter by declaring that Rowling “makes no demands upon her readers” and that her millions of fans are nothing other than “reader non-readers.” “At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study,” wrote Bloom, “anything goes.” As Harry was no more than a pint-size straw man in Bloom’s Goliath crusade against postmodernism, it’s not surprising the Yale scholar didn’t solve the biggest mystery of the books — their extraordinary popularity. What Rowling gets and Bloom doesn’t, even as the editor of a collection called Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, among others), is that the best kids’ books don’t merely create worlds in which imaginations freely roam, they create other consciousnesses with which to experience those worlds, and that while Hogwarts is a blast, Harry’s a pip.
In the book, the child becomes a little man by way of the usual growth spurts in loyalty and courage while learning more eccentric lessons in bucking broomsticks, invisibility cloaks and battling pure evil. For all his lessons, inside the classroom and out, Harry never loses an ounce of his runt-kid charm: He’s heroic but never virtuous; sometimes he’s a bit mean. It isn’t looks or grades that make Harry special, but the fact that he’s different; he’s not simply an orphan, he’s a magical child — and it’s being different in and of itself that seems to make him a great wizard. But in the hands of director Chris Columbus, who became famous with Home Alone and, later, the unspeakably treacly Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry isn’t really a runt, or much of a kid. Mostly, he’s just a straight man to the far more animated Ron and Hermione; sometimes, alarmingly, he’s even a bit Christ-like, as minted by De Mille. Stripped of his childish pettiness or any of the other qualities that made him human (he doesn’t hate anybody, including his sneery upper-caste rival, Draco Malfoy), the screen Harry turns out to be good enough, pure enough, nice enough to register as a bore, an immaculate blank slate on which nothing, neither longings nor irritation, can be inscribed.
Given the apparent stakes — Western civilization and so forth — it’s a shame that Columbus and the talented screenwriter Steve Kloves didn’t trump Bloom’s rhetoric by giving all those Harry Potter “reader non-readers” the film they deserve, a movie that takes the book’s facile pleasures seriously. Kloves (who also adapted Wonder Boys, as well as writing and directing Flesh and Bone and The Fabulous Baker Boys) cleaves so closely to Rowling’s template that he forgets to take the necessary liberties, like a few snappish lines to break the monotony of Harry’s ad nauseam amazement, bafflement, wonder. In keeping true to the book’s otherworldly details, which they enumerate like worrisome accountants — Hagrid still falls from the sky, while Harry glides through it — Kloves and Columbus lose sight of the fact that what makes the books ultimately work is the kid himself, his old-world magic and new-age childishness. But while he flies, this Harry never soars, and so soon the eye and heart stray to Stuart Craig’s production design, with its bewitched ceiling and airborne candles, and to the underused supporting cast — Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Hurt, Ian Hart, Julie Walters — who flicker on and off the screen, as fleeting and ephemeral as Hogwarts ghosts.
It’s a cliché that pulpier books make for better movies than classics, but that’s only true if the filmmakers evince suitable irreverence for the original material. On their first go-around, the people who own Harry Potter (more movies are promised) have done more than try to stay true to Rowling’s orphan, they’ve tried to turn him into something important, to inflate what is essentially a pop phenomenon with meaning. When Harry sits in a window bathed in moonlight and John Williams chokes out another forlorn chord, you could be forgiven for thinking a reel of A.I. Artificial Intelligence had been slipped onto the projector. The music is one wretched clue to the film’s great expectations (though, somehow, the expectations seem more for the potential franchise than the character), and the filmmaker’s inability to trust the integrity of Rowling’s creation. But Columbus has none of Spielberg’s natural artistry and not nearly enough of his killer pop instincts. He found the right torque for Home Alone (and lucked out with a child actor who made a little nasty go a very long way), but here he seems to think he’s been granted custody of a classic, not a Zeitgeist jackpot.
There’s one person, at least, who knows better: As Snape, Harry’s venal professor of potions, Alan Rickman skulks about in neck-to-ankle black and a Prince Valiant shag looking very much like John Barrymore on a Hamlet drunk. He’s ridiculous, but he’s also a fright — a touch of evil, a whiff of grandeur, a wonderfully malevolent jester to publishing’s crown prince.
HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE Directed by CHRIS COLUMBUS | Written by STEVE KLOVES | Based on the book by J.K. ROWLING
Produced by DAVID HEYMAN | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide