Sunday, November 20, 2016

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

We all realized there were multiple layers of storytelling and transfiguration at work within those iconically two-toned tomes whose colors are still so vivid in memory: purple cover on red spine, blue cover on green spine, viridian cover on purple spine, auburn cover on black spine. That's right, The Sorcerer's Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Goblet of Fire... Harry Potter is the young-adult fantasy series by British author J.K. Rowling that became the world's best-selling series of novels in the history of printed word, put books in the hands of millions who wouldn't have otherwise been reading, and told the unforgettable story of the boy who lived. In November 2001, about a year and a half after the fourth of seven novels was published, the film adaptation of the first entry Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released in theaters, vaulting the popularity of the series to new heights, teaching everyone how to pronounce Hermione, and creating the definitive look of Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry and the fantastic world we had only begun to imagine.

It’s providence that Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Harry Potter because everything about the production of the film series was first-rate from the very beginning. Very rarely does a literary series come along with such universal appeal, and WB recognized Harry Potter's cultural significance and rose to the challenge of adapting the greatest book series of our generation. The fact that they made a two and a half hour movie dedicated solely to the first book that cost $125 million shows the care and effort that the studio dedicated to this project. Most other contemporary book series never had a fair chance of seeing a movie for every novel whether due to lack of popularity or simply screenplays that were too scattered to pave a clear path to follow, but where the likes of Nickelodeon or 20th Century Fox would be prone to falter, the initial Harry Potter film established that Warner Bros. would go all out to faithfully portray the seven book series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a tremendous movie which set the tone for the rest of the films that followed to loyally adapt J.K Rowling's novels and spare no expense in bringing the magic of Harry Potter to cinema.

Producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves, production designer Stuart Craig, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, director of photography John Seale, and director Chris Columbus, along with the help of many others, impressively perfected the definitive look and template for the Harry Potter franchise in their first go. The film's sets are incredible at giving a distinct look and continuous feeling of the Hogwarts castle despite being filmed at a variety of locations including Alnwick Castle, Gloucester Cathedral, and Oxford University; when watching The Sorcerer's Stone, Hogwarts truly feels like a real place. Other key filming locations included King's Cross Station, the London Zoo, Australia House (Gringotts), and various London storefronts. The distinctly designed castle and Diagon Alley set pieces and props such as wands, brooms, books, quills, and wizardly candy and treats add a finishing touch in each scene and serve to bridge the realism of the Muggle world and the hidden fantasy of the wizarding world.

While its main visual strength lies in its predominant use of location shooting and practical effects, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone also makes good use of CGI for 2001 especially on the castle ghosts, the moving staircases, the wizard's chess board game, and Fluffy the three-headed dog. Practical and digital effects are also used well in tandem in the scenes featuring Quidditch, the troll in the dungeon, and the life-size chess match. Special effects would be the series' biggest area of improvement in later movies, however, and the computer generated effects of The Sorcerer's Stone are quite poor in particular spots including Norbert hatching from the egg, Neville falling off his broom, and a few obvious green screen backgrounds. I see these weaker effect shots as a parallel to the novel’s improper use of commas. They break immersion for a split second (which is admittedly dastardly in the fantasy genre) but are ultimately just minor blemishes on an otherwise beautiful work of art. Speaking of, the movie poster artwork by Drew Struzan (best known for his artwork on Star Wars, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones) is splendorous. I wish we he would have designed art for the whole Harry Potter series.

Like the original novel, the movie has a very tight plot which develops throughout the course of Harry's first school year at Hogwarts. For being just over two and a half hours, The Sorcerer's Stone never feels that long whenever I watch it which is a testament to how engaging it is. Remarkably, everything important in regards to not only progressing the story's narrative and characters' relationships but also creating the atmosphere of the wizarding world and boarding school is adequately addressed and given equal weight which is something that can't be said for most of the other Harry Potter movies. With the small exceptions of the midnight duel and Snape's potion room leading up to the mirror of Erised, every scene one would want to see from the book made it into the final movie. When everything's considered, the often quaint Philosopher's Stone was adapted with a sensible tone that retains its warmth but would also fit the more mature conflicts of the later stories. As a testament of its success, while much of the screenplay is lifted straight from the novel, many lines are memorable because of the acting and delivery in the film version:

I think it is clear that we can expect great things from you. After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great.

Our caretaker, Mr. Filch, has asked me to remind you that the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side is out of bounds to everyone who does not wish to die a most painful death.

Now if you two don't mind, I'm going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed - or worse, expelled!

She NEEDS to sort out her priorities.

Nearly headless? How can you be nearly headless?

Harry, it's you that has to go on, I know it. Not me, not Hermione, YOU.

I’m not going home, not really.

When it comes to the cast, it's nothing short of incredible to look at the young actors who were chosen and see how well most all of them turned out as the film series progressed. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom). Our favorite first-year Gryffindors were just age 10-11 when filming began (Tom Felton was 13), but adult actors Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), Richard Harris (Headmaster Albus Dumbledore), Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), and Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) led the way and were crucial mentors for the young, developing actors. The smaller roles of Harry and Ron's family members including the Dursleys (Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, and Harry Melling), Fred and George Weasley (James and Oliver Phelps), and Mrs. Weasley (Julie Walters) were also well chosen, and John Hurt provides a brilliant performance as Mr. Ollivander. All these actors embodied and gave life to the personalities penned in the novels and showed command of their characters from this first film.

The one factor above all else which coalesces the magical aura of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is the orchestral score composed by John Williams. "Hedwig's Theme" is beautifully woven throughout the film and is memorable as the series theme used heavily in the early movies, but there are several other great numbers with "Platform Nine-and-Three Quarters and the Journey to Hogwarts" and "The Chess Game" of particular note, not to mention the unforgettable aethereal tones of "The Invisibility Cloak and the Library Scene". The emotional range of the tracks matches the mood of each scene and enhances the feelings of marvel, whimsy, longing, and suspense at precisely the right moments. Next to The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Sorcerer's Stone is truly one of John Williams’ finest film soundtracks.

Although subsequent installments in the Harry Potter film series reached new heights in special effects, better displayed the talent and maturity of its young stars, and visualized the most compelling moments of the novels, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone captures the unbridled wonder of magic and the wizarding world better than any of the other movies and for that reason needs to be recognized as one of the best entries in the film series if not in fact the very best of the entire lot.


  1. Some scattered thoughts:

    Would love to see in a later review your opinions on Richard Harris as Dumbledore vs. Michael Gambon.

    All together, I'll agree with you that the plot itself is secondary to the atmosphere of the film. The SS itself is really a McGuffin of the worst kind in terms of story construction and the internal continuity of the series, yet this is so easily forgotten when measured against how well the world meshes together on the screen.

    I'm fascinated with your point about how the story was adapted from what really is a novel for children (if perhaps not a childish novel) into a film that can still be appreciated from an adult perspective. This is the true skill of the director and screenwriter I would imagine, so it might be an intriguing line of study to try and find some analyses of how this is done, and how it pertains to HP in particular. I'm inclined to dissect HP as having the standard combination of Young Adult themes (Youth themes of confronting your fears, learning to be confident, learning to deal with the rivals that are your age)and Adult themes (facing a morality that transcends your individual needs and demands, confronting mortality, self-sacrifice for one's friends and allies, hunting for existential purpose when faced with serious choices).

    My long-standing objections to Harry Potter center around this fusion of themes, and the glaring omissions that are made when combining them. I understand for pragmatic/publishing reasons why JKR would omit discussing religion, sexuality, narcotics, etc. openly, but doing so also exposes how thin the veneer of her world really is. If anything, the series itself should be called 'Dangerous Times at Hogwarts High' since the rest of the world outside school grounds seems pretty thin under any kind of scrutiny. And I do realize that these were written for children, yet I think it's pretty bold to say that children can deal with horrifying death more easily than the thought of what's in their pants on what a crucifix stands for.

    Finally, no commentary on the troll in the dungeon? An interesting moment in terms of combining practical/digital effects. Would love to read your thoughts on it.

    This post is rambling ad nauseum, but that's what blogs are for, right?

    1. I plan to discuss Dumbledores as well as Quidditch in the Chamber of Secrets post, high fantasy vs. low fantasy in conjunction with the Deathly Hallows, and other topics along the way where they crop up such as time travel, politics, and so on. Some movies have more rant material or potential tangents, and I'll attempt to cover the bases without getting repetitive or straying too far from the focus of assessing the films.

      And you're right! I need to add mention of the troll and one or two other hybrid practical/digital effects.

      Thanks for the thoughts. Cheers!

    2. Added a little bit up top, but check out Chamber of Secrets for Dumbledore analysis. I think the troll in the dungeon came off pretty well but not the best. Next to Quidditch it's the most ambitious FX shot in the movie and really nails the practical aspects like smashing the sinks and stalls as well as hanging Dan Radcliffe upside down, but the CG troll although appropriately scaled doesn't fully blend in and the CG model for Harry when he's on the troll's shoulders for as quick as it flashes by looks a bit off similar to the Neville model when he falls off the broom. Overall though a very well done scene and it works, I just would put in the category of "good for 2001". I think the Harry Potter special effects started off a couple years behind the Star Wars prequels but caught up prior to the release of Episode III (2005) which is a real accomplishment. Maybe they just started using ILM more. I don't know who did each shot but per Wikipedia: "Industrial Light & Magic created Lord Voldemort's face on the back of Quirrell, Rhythm & Hues animated Norbert; and Sony Pictures Imageworks produced the film's Quidditch scenes."

      I really love the chess scene though leading up to the final room with the sorcerer's stone. I think this is the best practical/digital effects scene in the movie without qualification. Not that they needed to as the attacking pieces looks great, but they actually reduced the number of digital shots through an excellently directed montage of the match.

      And to your point on the directing for content, I give a lot of credit to Chris Columbus. He directs well when children are involved, for both the relatability of a young audience as well as the empathy of a mature audience. For me, some moments of The Sorcerer's Stone hearken back to his work on Mrs. Doubtfire, with the difference that the child and not the adult is the primary character. And musically, I might add, Columbus partners well with John Williams as previously evidenced on Home Alone which is major in the action-oriented scenes but also those with dialogue or other character interactions.