WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: The miserable life of orphan Harry Potter is transformed when he’s summoned to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for his first year of education. With his new friends Ron and Hermione, Harry discovers who he can and cannot trust, why those he mistrusts might be after a desired object hidden at the school, and comes face to face with the evil wizard who gave him the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.
Now that she’s worth more than many a small country, it’s difficult to imagine J. K. Rowling as a single mother struggling to raise interest in her first Harry Potter book. Nonetheless, this was the case, and it was only slowly that the boy wizard became a publishing phenomenon, causing dollar signs to light up in the eyes of movie studios. Warner Bros won the deal to make film versions of the books and eventually gave Chris Columbus the job of introducing Harry Potter’s world to moviegoers, because of his track record of producing successful family-friendly fare such as Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire (presumably glossing over rubbish like Bicentennial Man and Nine Months). He was never likely to take many risks with this first instalment, but he ran the risk of playing it too safe.
Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) lives with his aunt’s family, the Dursleys; but unlike their spoilt son Dudley, Harry sleeps under the stairs, unhappily believing his parents died in a car crash. However, unusual events around Harry’s eleventh birthday make things a lot clearer, when fearsome giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) bursts onto the scene and invites Harry to Hogwarts, a magical school which has been waiting for him since his birth. In addition to making sure Harry is equipped with money (whilst retrieving something else from the bank too), books, a wand and an owl, Hagrid informs Harry that his parents were wizards, killed by an evil wizard called Voldemort who could not, however, kill Harry, making ‘the boy who lived’ something of a celebrity in the wizarding world.
On the way to Hogwarts Harry befriends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), the former part of a huge wizarding family and relatively poor, the latter posh and irritatingly studious. Together, they settle into life at the enchanted school and discover that while Hagrid is a good friend and the headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) is a wise and kindly old soul, the same cannot be said for others: pupil Lucius Malfoy (Tom Felton) becomes Potter’s natural enemy and Potions teacher Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) seems to take a strong dislike to Harry for no good reason. Harry and his friends suspect Snape of being a follower of Voldemort, and when it appears that Snape is trying to steal the precious object Hagrid removed from the bank, Harry, Hermione and Ron put themselves in harm’s way by attempting to stop him.
To give Columbus credit, although he can’t possibly fit all of Rowling’s ideas into Philosopher’s Stone (Sorceror’s Stone in the US, for no particular reason), he has a good go. The first hour is entirely expository, satisfactorily explaining the staff, rules, houses and quirks of Hogwarts, setting up friends and enemies, and generally establishing the nature of wizardly life. The main plot doesn’t really go anywhere during this time, but the film lays out so many wonders it’s not a problem, except for the annoying overuse of characters saying ‘Woah!’ to express their wonderment. Once the main story does get going and our heroic trio get involved in safeguarding Nicholas Flamel’s philosopher’s stone, the film offers a blend of exciting action and touching emotion as Harry, Ron and Hermione confront a troll, a three-headed dog and other obstacles guarding the stone, and Harry gets to see his parents (sort of) and meet a form of the man responsible for their death.
Though the ideas are not always presented with finesse – the effects for the Quidditch game are so-so and John Williams’ score flagrantly overdoes the melodrama – they are ideas from the book and stand or fall as such. For example, I find the rules of Quidditch unsatisfactory (it’s two different games stitched together, as far as I can tell), but you can’t blame the filmmakers for representing it faithfully (albeit on an obviously CG pitch).
Where you could potentially blame the filmmakers is in casting, and the choice of Daniel Radcliffe is a mixed bag. He looks credible as Potter, and this must have been the main reason for picking him; for while he is evidently capable of taking direction, you wouldn’t call him a natural actor, his reactions to situations studied rather than instinctive. Radcliffe’s limited range is not a huge issue, and he’s certainly preferable to casting an established name like Haley Joel Osment, but it does mean that while he’s constantly referred to as famous, we don’t get any particular sense that Harry is destined for great things. Maybe this was intentional. Around Harry, Grint is very good as Ron, notwithstanding that he’s landed with a mild form of Tourette’s (to make the film not too ‘kiddy’), and Watson perfectly fine as Hermione, if threatening to come off as overly precocious. The adult cast take care of themselves, with particular plaudits going to Rickman as the shifty Snape and Harris, who entirely captures Dumbeldore’s warm, eccentric nature.
Columbus has taken no risks whatsoever in bringing the first Harry Potter book to the screen, making a film to appeal to the majority of Potter purists and introduce Rowling’s world to youngsters everywhere, even if the inclusive approach means that, at two and a half hours, some of the younger (or much older!) viewers might nod off in the middle (except the ear-splitting soundtrack doesn’t let them). The director has played it safe, conscientiously bringing the world of magic to life and casting its population wisely. Conservative, yes, and probably too literal an adaptation for cineastes; but with literally billions of dollars at stake, no amount of care could be considered too much.