Personal story: I love the Harry Potter books. I caught the fever in sixth grade, when the first three books had come out. After reading “Sorcerer’s Stone” in class, I jumped into the other two, scooped up the fourth book when it came out right before summer camp, and the rest was history.
I, like most other kids of my generation, fell head over heels for the scrawny little hero, his wizard friends and the magical, fanciful world J.K. Rowling created.
With how hugely popular the series got, it was no surprise movies soon followed. The first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” came out in 2001, five years after the book’s original publication in the U.K. The films, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as the main trio of Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, were beloved by fans, as well, raking in billions at box offices across the globe.
As tribute to my mania for this series, I will periodically take a look at each of the books and their movie adaptations, looking at how the two match up through the years and trying not to get too weighed down by silly little omissions (but seriously, they couldn’t have included S.P.E.W. in the movies?). I’ll start, of course, with “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which details 11-year-old Harry’s first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learning about his past, meeting new friends, making new enemies and halting the plans of the sinister Lord Voldemort for the first of many, many times.
For the most part, director Chris Columbus makes an almost spot-on adaptation. And that’s actually a bad thing. Columbus leaves just about every subplot from the book in the movie, pushing the run time to nearly 2-and-a-half hours. (The book was just over 300 pages long, by the way.) It speaks wonders to the series’ fan base that kids were willing to sit still for that long and watch a movie, especially one that moves along so slowly as this. It also helps when an all-star cast is on hand for the roles of the teachers. Maggie Smith (the strict yet likable Professor McGonagall), Alan Rickman (the slimy and suspicious Professor Snape) and Robbie Coltrane (the lovable half-giant Hagrid) held the film together while the child actors got their feet wet.
The kids actually aren’t too bad at this point, mostly because the series is definitely geared toward children at this point, anyway. There isn’t really anything spectacular about the plot — boy learns he’s a wizard, he goes to school, hijinks ensue. Save the main story arc (someone is trying to steal a stone hidden in the school that would give the user eternal life), everything that happens seems rather inconsequential, and the only reason the readers/viewers care is because of how attached they are to the characters. Really, in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter who wins the House Cup? Or who wins the Quidditch match?
And this is where the movie takes a major hit. Rowling is able to showcase the silly little things about everyday school life and still keep readers focused on the bigger picture. Most of the chapters end with some kind of callback to the greater issue at hand, and even in a children’s book, it’s always apparent that there’s something more happening in the story. This gets lost at times in the movie, and a lot of that blame goes to the music. While John Williams’ soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar, it almost always rings with a whimsical tone that makes even dangling from a bucking broomstick hundreds of feet in the air seem lighthearted. The only time the situation really seemed dire and dramatic was during the living chess match near the end, which also was about the only time the action scenes involved actual props and not overused, poor CGI.
One of the reasons I love the books so much is the way Rowling writes the characters. Readers feel as though the students at Hogwarts could also be at their own schools (if they were British, of course). Because the characters feel so real, their relationships also come off as very natural. Before Harry and Ron saved Hermione from the troll on Halloween, Rowling showed how separated she was from the rest of her classmates, making that one incident a major moment in forging a friendship between the three.
In the movie, though, probably because Columbus wanted to give Watson more screen time, Hermione often was hanging around Harry and Ron. After the troll encounter, the three didn’t act any differently toward each other than they had before Harry shoved his wand up the monster’s nose. This would go over fine with fans who had read the books beforehand and who would already know the significance of that event, but to those new to the world of Harry Potter, this whole scene seems like a fairly pointless way to spend 10 minutes.
Overall, though, “Sorcerer’s Stone” is an enjoyable kids movie, just like the book. People new to the series would be better served tackling the book first rather than watching the movie; it’s a quick read, and it gives a much more thorough and complete introduction to the way the wizarding world works as opposed to the film. From there on out, though, especially as the books grow to 800 pages, the movies will suffice.