Sunday, July 12, 2009

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

With the release of the sixth Harry Potter installment upon us, I decided to revisit the other five films for the first time in ages, to chart the series's progression on celluloid but also because nostalgia is a dangerous, dangerous thing and I seek to undermine it where possible. Then again, I don't recall ever going crazy for any of the actual films; it was the book series that, like countless others of my generation, gripped me. It didn't make me want to read -- I was always an avid reader, though I've shamefully fallen off the wagon since leaving for college -- but the series always kept me entertained.

Until I tried to re-read them, that is. About two years ago, before the final book hit shelves, I had a marathon reading session over a few weeks, most of which felt like arduous labor the writing had so soured on me. I actually gave up on the first two books altogether because I found their styles to be so simplistic, while the fifth was so cumbersome and tangential I wondered if they just published her first draft by mistake. But films tend to cut stories down to their barest essences, and they allow the director and adapting writers to explore their own themes. "So why not give 'em a go?" I wondered.

Sometimes I wish I didn't just go with every thought that pops into my head. As with the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- I will never understand why American publishers changed the title from the original Philosopher's -- churns out all the mythology-establishing exposition needed to launch a franchise, and it gets so bogged down in telling us about this incredible alternate world that it never bothers to take advantage of the properties of film and actually show us.

Oh, there is Computer-Generated Imagery aplenty, but too often characters describe Hogwarts' splendor as they quickly whisk through the scene, as if to outrun budget limitations. Then again, $125 million should have gone a long way since epic action pieces don't really enter the series until the fourth book, so they really could have fleshed things out a bit if only they just cut the sodding thing down some.

Oh my God, now I know why I liked this as a 12-year-old back in November 2001: they didn't leave out a goddamn scene. There's a false perception among the fans of any piece of literature on its way to the big screen that the movie's quality is directly proportionate to how rigidly it follows every scene, every line even, of the book. This is, of course, utter hogwash: where some films work wondrously for adhering to the author's vision (No Country for Old Men, which is almost certain to go down as the best film of the decade), many of the best deviate notably from the narrative and even themes of the source to explore new territory (The Shining, Ran). Director Chris Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves are too afraid of angering children to take any chances.

I mean, I'm so confident that people are aware enough of the phenomenon that was Harry Potter that I haven't even gotten down to the plot yet; do you really need me to? Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), an orphaned lad sent to live with his aunt and uncle after surviving an attack by the dreaded Lord Voldemort, is abused and mistreated by his guardians. On his 11th birthday, a giant, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) finds him and reveals that Harry is a wizard and shall attend Hogwarts, the finest magical institution in the world. Soon, we discover that Harry is the biggest celebrity in the magic world, simply for surviving Voldemort's attack.

On the way to his new school and life, he befriends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), the second youngest member of a seemingly endless family, and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a book-smart Muggle-born who knows more about magic in her first year than is mentally possible. None of these kids really has a grasp on the characters yet, what with Radcliffe's inability to convey any sense of rage, or pain or anything other than a dopey grin, really. And that's nothing compared to Watson delivering every line like she just got done running three miles, or her distracting emphasis on any word starting with an 'h.' They lack charisma at this juncture, which is an unfair thing to criticize in a child, but they're meant to carry the film.

To take the weight off of them, Columbus assembled a cast comprising some of the finest British actors in the biz, from Maggie Smith (Gryffindor professor McGonagall) to the aforementioned Coltrane to Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore). Such a team could carry just about any movie, but Columbus never features any of them prominently enough to let them pick up the slack. Alan Rickman is a good choice for the venomous Severus Snape, but it will be a few films before he pours into the role with the oily bitterness it requires. Ian Hart's role as villain Professor Quirrell is, by nature of the novel, so underwritten that he cannot make an impression, and the final reveal of his "better half" is undone by some dodgy CG.

That weak animation also hurts some of the better sequences of the film, chiefly the Quidditch match. Quidditch rapidly became such an annoying distraction in the books that Rowling relegated it to the background starting with the fourth book, but it once was a fun break from stories that were light enough to support the aside. Here, it's the most exhilarating moment of the film, which reflects on the tepid direction of the final gauntlet of challenges protecting the Philosopher's Stone and Columbus' inability to fill them with any sense of tension or even excitement. So, it's up to the Quidditch game, but the animation is choppy and you can practically see the green screen behind the actors on their broomsticks. Still, it carries a bit of dramatic heft to it, and I actually found myself caring about the outcome even though a) I knew what would happen and b) I don't even care about real sports.

Elsewhere, though, the script is so concerned with just throwing every single narrative event of the novel on the screen, only to leave out what minimal character growth existed. I understand that the novel was all about setting up the sandbox in which these characters played, but as that's the case, the film hardly needs to be 2-1/2 hours long. It almost feels like five episodes of the first season of Harry Potter: The Series than a proper film, making the whole thing more of a chore than an escapist fantasy.

That dogmatic adherence to Rowling's writing means that the same contrivances of the book now appear on-screen: Harry, who must wear glasses because of weak eyesight, becomes "the youngest player in a century," and as the Seeker no less. How can someone who needs corrective lenses somehow see a tiny, darting ball that becomes entirely invisible if it moves more than six feet away from your face? For that matter, is there not a spell that has a similar effect to eye surgery? A number of older wizards wear spectacles as well; this is a bigger logic gap than Captain Picard's baldness in the future of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Furthermore, McGonagall actually buys Harry the finest broom on the market so he can bring home the Cup? Isn't that kind of like a football coach bribing his star players?

These are nitpicks, of course, more about the book than the film, and it's not like Columbus could alter Harry's already iconic look. But it's the director's responsibility to shift my focus away from the minutiae and contrivances, especially in a light-hearted romp such as this. Starting with the third installment, the series took a firm left into young adult literature from of children's books, but the first two are all about the spectacle. What a shame that Columbus and Kloves so utterly fail to convey any of it.

1 comment:

  1. Harry Potter may well be one of my obsessions. I love the books and the movies. And this one is just special to me. And now that things get darker and darker starting with the third one, it´s nice to see how things started.
    It may be softer but it´s great entertainment.