Review: “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone”

Adapting a book into a movie is usually a very tricky business and in nine out of ten circumstances its a failure – some because the story isn’t designed to work as a movie, but most because key material has to be dumped in order to fit into a two-hour feature film.

In that case the elements of the book which make up the basic story are kept, but a lot of the subtleties and character nuances are dropped to fit it all in. The celluloid version of Rowling’s first “Potter” book is probably the most faithful adaptation I’ve ever seen, and while something is still lost in the translation there’s absolutely no question its a great movie for kids and pre-teens, as well as being an enjoyable diversion for adults.

I must admit I started the first book about a month ago and within a week I’d gotten through all four and thoroughly enjoyed them. Sure Rowling’s books aren’t classic literature, but they are very entertaining reads. “The Philosopher’s Stone”, re-named the less accurate “The Sorcerer’s Stone” in the US due to the publisher’s making the ridiculous assumption that American kids wouldn’t buy a book with the word ‘Philosopher’ in the title (even though the philosopher’s stone has been a famous myth in and of itself for over a millennia), is a very impressive debut novel.

It combines classic storytelling methods, mythical elements, wry observations, imaginative settings and most importantly of all – very memorable and distinctive characters to create a world both rich and vast. One of its charms is that each succeeding novel adds more scope, exploring areas only hinted at in the first novel and elements which may seem throwaway in one story are vital to the next so anyone trying to adapt any of these novels into a film has a tough job ahead.

That being said the books aren’t flawless, indeed most of the literature (esp. in the first book) is spent discussing the locales, characters and intricacies of spells that there’s not much in the way of plot – which is a good thing. This is where the Britishness of the books shine through as they play out more like a murder mystery than anything else, the villains in each one only being revealed toward the very end.

This makes the plot more interesting as its not the standard ‘good guy vs. bad guy’ routine which is fine but overused, rather it challenges you to try and figure things out yourself. Indeed, half the criticisms being lobbed at the movie are unfairly put there (eg. the fact the ‘Stone’ of the title is hardly mentioned, that Voldemort isn’t much of a villain, and that John Cleese’s role seems pointless) simply because the filmmakers have stuck so close to the novel’s story.

Acting wise its a solid but mixed bag on display here. Emma Watson stands out of the main three as the bratty teacher’s pet Hermione, and Rupert Grint is likeable comic relief as Ron Weasley, Radcliffe as Potter on the other hand does ok but nothing special.

The demand of the role is of course very tough and Radcliffe does his best – he’s easy to sympathise with thanks to the way the character was written, but this isn’t a hero your going to fall for quickly (ala. Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”) but thankfully he’s one that doesn’t annoy like most child actors (ala. Jake Lloyd in “Star Wars: Episode I”). Most of the other actors do well, I was expecting the kid who plays rival Draco Malfoy to be awfully over the top, when actually he does a good job (though the character’s antagonism towards Harry in the film is handled clunkily).

The adults are a mix of some truly great talent and all do their roles superbly with what little screentime they have – cheers must go out to the casting people as the characters in the novel are brought to life just as one would hope. Rickman is perfect as Snape, Smith as the stern but sweet McGonagall, Harris as the eccentric yet wise Dumbledore, and Hart as the very nervous Professor Quirrell.

All the characters have been toned down slightly for the screen (in the books Snape was nastier, Dumbledore weirder, and Quirrell’s nervousness explained) but no matter, they’re still great to see up on screen. The scene stealer though is Hagrid, and Robbie Coltrane who has done a mix of serious dark drama (“Cracker”) and off the wall comedy (“Nuns on the Run”) brings his charm to the role, giving it his distinctive gruff but fun flavour which makes it more memorable than even the novel’s Hagrid.

Story wise is where the only real faults lie. Director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Kloves have very carefully stuck to the novel as close as possible, in doing so they’ve remained faithful to the text but not really to the vision. Rowling’s sly wit and the overall charm of the writing is lost, also jettisoned is some of the humour and much needed character development in key scenes (the Dursleys for example have been severely cut back).

Other sequences which should’ve been far more emotive, such as the very creepy and suspenseful trip to the Dark Forest, are ruined by Columbus’ ham-handed directing which thankfully never really goes down the overly sentimental path but also makes several scenes which should be exciting seem not so great. At two-and-a-half hours it still feels overcrammed and has too much going on (which also thankfully means it never gets slow or dull), this is the sort of project that would’ve worked better as a mini-series and I’d be very curious to see Columbus’ original four-hour cut.

While Columbus may not have been up to scratch, and DOP John Seale gives us some rather odd and murky visuals at times, everyone else from the production designers to the costumers and set decorators have done an absolutely top notch job. They spent $125 million on this baby and it shows – visually it superb and John Williams does a score which is better than a lot of the stuff he’s been churning out in the last five years.

The FX aren’t breathtaking but are certainly adequate. On the downside there’s the horribly rubbery looking troll, centaur, three-headed dog Fluffy, Norbert the Dragon and the big finale bit. In the middle is the quite fantastic ‘Quidditch’ match which, whilst looking quite blue screen or CG at times (ala. The Pod Race from Episode I), still is a good fun sequence. On the upside there’s some great CG with a snake, the famed ‘invisibility cloak’, an excellent giant chess sequence, and Hogwarts itself which looks fantastic from the moving paintings to the multi-towered exterior.

So is this worth seeing? Indeed it is, especially to casual readers of the books. Hardcore fans will be miffed about stuff being left out. Those who haven’t read the book will still think it ok-good but will have complaints which would be explained by reading it. Honestly I have to say that if you’ve been tossing up over whether to read the book or see the film first, my advice is most definitely read the book – it will make the film just that little bit more of a richer and above all less confusing experience. As a casual fan of the book myself I have to say I had a great time, bring on the sequel.