Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

In 2001, the fantasy film genre took off with the launch of two film adaptations of two the most popular and well-loved fantasy novel series. While my 12-year-old self was eagerly counting the days until the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, another fantasy series slipped past my radar. The series was, of course, Harry Potter, a series I didn’t catch up on until recent years.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the film that kicked it all off and I can’t help but cringe when I revisited this film. Yes, there’s a lot to love here: the characters are great, the performances are fantastic and it’s fun to experience the magical world of wizards through the young eyes of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). However, the film is missing something key.

The problem with the film is that it has to spend so much time setting up the ensemble cast, developing the characters, introducing the various fantastical elements of the world, that there essentially is no plot in this film. Granted, not every film needs a plot, but the problem is that good characters are challenged and bred out of conflict and Harry faces little conflict in this film.

It also hurts the film that the last act comes off as contrived and artificial. Granted, it’s straight out of the book and there it worked a bit better because the various conflicts of the final act built around subplots developed throughout the novel. In the film, most of those subplots are gone and it might have been better if the last act was reshaped in light of that. It also doesn’t help that the screenwriting seems to take a dive in the last act with some truly abysmal and face-palm inducing dialogue.

Another element of the film that makes me cringe is the deluge of terrible CGI. Even by 2001 standards, these graphics are bad. Go back and watch The Fellowship of the Ring and Jurassic Park II and you’ll see what the bar for CGI was. Scene after scene is composed, shot and melded together in such a way that you can tell it was shot on a blue screen with little actual motion involved on the actor’s part.

What’s also hard to go back to is Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore. He’s as ridged, dull and placid as Michael Gambon is witty, exciting and playful in the latter Harry Potter films. Aside from him, the cast is fantastic. Alan Rickman as Snape may be his best character ever and even small bits from someone like John Hurt remain memorable.

Also, I was surprised by how good the child actors were back in the day. Radcliffe got some flack as an actor in some of the latter films, but he’s quite good here and Emma Watson is surprisingly confident and composed at such a young age. In fact, it was Rupert Grint that I found wasn’t quite as good as the other two, but his performance was still solid.

And yet as hard as I’ve been on this film, I still like and enjoy it. There’s something magical about the world J.K. Rowling crafted and seeing it come to life makes for so many fantastic moments. When I get to see the Quidditch match come to life on screen or the giant wizard chess match play out, all the qualms I have in the film dissolve for a few minutes of pure movie magic.

At the end of the day, I still have to respect the work that went into a film that essentially was doomed to be a good hour or so of exposition in order to get people comfortable with the world. Novels afford a level of detail that the film could never hope to convey and yet so many of those elements are essential for the story to work. In the long haul, it’s a stepping stone to much better and more refined films.

And even as I watch the film with a critical eye with the book in the back of my head I can’t think of the film coming out much better than it did. Granted, they probably would have been better to diverge from the book in the last act and just endure the wrath of the fans for a better film. And honestly, some of the blame must be placed J. K. Rowling, who didn’t start crafting truly interesting stories until the third book, which not coincidentally is where I think the series starts getting really good.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing