Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone fans are desperate to know: “Is the film true to the book?”

Well, that depends. As the Sorting Hat says while reading Harry’s mind, “It’s all here, in your head.” The world that millions of passionate fans have conjured in their own imaginations based on JK Rowling’s writing is unlikely to coincide precisely with what director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs Doubtfire, Stepmom) has created for the big screen. And that may or may not be disappointing.

But purists will at least be reasonably pleased to see that the basic plot and certainly more dialogue than the norm have been preserved in Hollywood’s version. And that’s a very good start.

For those who haven’t read the book – which takes just eight hours to read aloud – a brief synopsis is possible. Harry Potter, who’s been brought up by his nasty aunt and uncle, discovers he’s a wizard on his eleventh birthday. His parents were not, after all, killed in a car crash when he was a baby, but were themselves masters of magic, tragically murdered by a wizard gone bad. During Harry’s first year of wizardry education at a very English boarding school, he has a mission to complete as he makes friends – and enemies – and uncovers more of his past.

Disclosure: I’m not a fan of the book. It’s a conventional magical tale of the poorly treated kid who comes to understand he’s special, simply but competently executed. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t envelop me and compel me to rush reading through to the end. But the film itself is more watchable than most other Hollywood productions of its ilk.

Despite the film’s length (152 minutes), some scenes have been skipped, and many efficiently streamlined or combined. For instance, there is not as much focus on Harry’s adoptive parents, and more specifically, Hermione uses a wave of her wand to get the gang out of a trap towards the end, instead of her steely logic. But there are some nice little changes: Harry’s adoptive brother Dudley ends up behind glass as the boa constrictor slithers away from the zoo, a chocolate frog springs to life in the train, and the design of the Quidditch spectator stands is marvelous.

And the characters remain mostly true to form. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) starts off a little woodenly, seeming quite unsurprised at his conversion to wizardry. He grows into character however, and has a very British capability of being a subtle but strong screen presence. Ron (Rupert Grint) is fine as Harry’s sidekick, delivering some good one-liners on cue, while the utterly precocious Hermione is delightful to watch. The only real disappointment is the downgrading of Draco Malfroy’s visibility a notch or two.

The adult characters, too, are finely conjured. Hirsute Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) is the slightly dense but friendly giant with an accent true to the book, although his repetitive slips of tongue (“I shouldn’t have told you that!”) become a bit predictable. Snapes (Alan Rickman) is memorable as a very Gothic and teacher with a sinister talk; but headmaster Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall are unforgivably underused.

At the screening I saw, British sarcasm seemed for the most part to be lost on Thai audiences. When Hermione saves a screaming Ron from a writhing Devil’s Snare, and does so in the nick of time, a relieved Ron says “Thank goodness we didn’t panic!” (That’s one line, by the way, that’s not in the book.) On the other hand, Hermione only had to flick her hair and the audience was in hysterics.

The special effects are refreshing to watch, precisely because they are used as such – high- and low-tech effects used specially. They don’t overwhelm the film and undermine the story, but for the most part enhance it instead. The scene where hundreds of owls gracefully fly into school to deliver the mail is memorable, as is Mr Ollivander’s selection of Harry’s wand. Harry’s invisible coat is well-utilised and the three-headed dog, trolls, centaur and dragon are authentic enough. The Sorting Hat is a simple but excellent creation, and touches such as airborne candles and moving staircases provide further diversion. The Quidditch match, where seemingly dozens of players shoot around the screen on fast-moving broomsticks, is the only time the film moves too quickly for the audience and aims to dazzle for the sake of dazzling.

While attention was given to the visual effects, it’s a shame more wasn’t placed on John Williams’ bland and forgettable score. Not a single point for originality there.

In all, for a Hollywood production of a very English tale, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone succeeds. It’s at once mostly faithful to its creator, while bestowing some extra whimsical imagination for the screen. For some, that will be a delight. Others may prefer to go home and read their book again.

/ Movie Reviews