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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer`s Stone
Reviewed by Paul T. Riddell, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Chris Columbus (director) and Steve Kloves (writer)
Genre:   Fantasy / Adventure
Released:   November 16, 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

Alert the media: for the first time in years (perhaps ever), we have an adaptation of a fantastic novel that's actually faithful to the source material. Not only that, but isn't painful to watch.

Here in the final weeks of 2001, a few denizens of Lewisville, Texas may have not heard of the Harry Potter phenomenon, but the literate portions of the world couldn't get away from our young wizard if they wanted to do so. The series is an incredible cash cow for Scholastic, as readers go berserk over the latest news about the upcoming fifth book. J.K. Rowling's ongoing yarns have managed to infuriate the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, with both Robert Sawyer and Locus editor Charles Brown bitching about how Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire managed to win the Best Novel Hugo without Rowling stooping to suck up to the SF community.

And then we have the kids, young adults, and old adults reading them over and over again: if drug dealers were to start advertising campaigns, one of the most memorable would be "Crack: Almost As Addictive As A Harry Potter Novel!"

Naturally, because of this fan base, a film adaptation of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was viewed with a bit of trepidation. Actually, a lot of trepidation, considering the reputation of director Chris Columbus, former Spielberg protege turned sappy director of such saccharine successes as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Considering how little of Isaac Asimov's story remained in Columbus' adaptation of Bicentennial Man, the worry was understandable: Hollywood isn't exactly known for faithful adaptations of literary works anyway, and the track record with novels of the fantastic is atrocious.

No worries here. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is easily the best line-for-line adaptation of a novel this side of Fight Club. And this is no insult.

Again, only those residents of Lewisville wouldn't know the basic storyline, about an 11-year-old orphan living with his aunt, uncle, and atrocious cousin who discovers that things in life aren't all that they seemed at first. Being on the wrong side of his spoilt cousin Dudley means that poor Harry has to dodge every disappointment and flat-out cruelty coming his way. Not until a strange invitation comes sliding through the mailbox does Harry realize that he has a way out, and that way out is through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

The telling point of any film adaptation is that, under most circumstances, nobody's really happy with movie adaptations because the final images are nothing like the images conjured up during the reading. What makes Harry Potter fascinating to watch is that in many cases, the cinematic images are better. It's not just that Robbie Coltrane was born to play Hagrid, the Hogwarts groundskeeper, but that all of the other casting decisions were made with that same level of care. Instead of standard exclamation about casting, as in "Oh, cool, we've got [fill in the blank] to play [fill in the blank]!", the cast is well-balanced enough that the performance comes first and recognition of the actor comes later.

This is especially true with the child actors playing Harry Potter and his first-year friends and enemies: all are cast well enough that you can't conceive of anyone else filling those roles. Even quick cameos featuring such well-known actors as John Cleese as the ghostly Nearly-Headless Nick don't disrupt the flow of the story.

Oh, and let us talk special effects. Most films of any type these days, especially genre films, suffer from CGI poisoning. Lots of special effects for no readily apparent reason other than because "Oh, this would be so cool." Hundreds of hours of rendering solely so the director can shove the end result in the audience's face and scream "LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT IT! AREN'T WE SO CLEVER!"

Subtlety is practically a dirty word when involving special effects, with whole sequences of effects, even allegedly "background" effects (look at Total Recall or any of the "remastered" Star Wars films) with all of the delicacy of a baseball bat to the crotch. Due to the subject matter and the fantastical nature of Harry Potter, the film should be a terminal case of CGI poisoning, but while the effects are essential, they're also pay-attention-or-you'll-miss-it surprises. Instead of oohing and aahing "Wow, what a great effects sequence", the audience oohs and aahs because we're seeing things that no human has ever seen before. Who knew that Chris Columbus had it in him?

And here comes to the crux of the matter. For decades, directors and producers of fantastic films rationalized the mangling of classic science fiction and fantasy novels, comics, and even television on the rationale of "Well, we couldn't adapt it in any other way and have it work."

Admittedly, in many cases, some of these adaptations worked better (turning Starship Troopers from libertarian masturbatory fantasy to inadvertent comedy was a stroke of genius), but most fell under the aegis of "meddling". Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin couldn't come up with something as original as Godzilla on their own, so their adaptation was an "improvement" that satisfied nobody, especially the companies stuck with unsellable Godzilla merchandise. Batman gets body armor, the X-Men get leather instead of Spandex, and Dune actually get made TWICE, all in the name of "Well, this was our interpretation."

And why did they feel that the interpretation was necessary? No reason, other than the fact that no matter how bad the adaptation, fans would go out and see it anyway. The ongoing cry of "I couldn't stand it, so I only paid to see it four times" is a mantra in ticket lines for genre films, and the only time studio publicists or executives care what the SF community thinks is when they have an utter dud on their hands and need to pitch it off on the only group willing to pay for it.

(Just use the covers of SCI FI or Cinescape as a guide to good films. If the movie has at least one big feature within, run like hell, because the studio only went to either magazine, or Starlog, because Entertainment Weekly and Time and Premiere laughed in their faces when contacted about a cover story.)

Well, we're not talking about thousands of fans any more with Harry Potter: we're talking about millions of fans. Millions of fans who won't complain about how the casting stinks or the action sequences don't make any sense or the direction only made sense if the entire production crew was mainlining curare. These fans will just let everyone else know that a Harry Potter adaptation is garbage and go back to the books, leaving the offending studio stuck with millions of dollars in losses. With that sort of pressure, it's no surprise that no effort was spared to keep the cinematic Harry Potter as faithful to the literary Harry Potter as possible, because nobody had anything to gain by pulling a fast one.

With luck, someone in Hollywood will pay attention to this, and keep the dolts who want to impress "my vision" upon movie adaptations as far away from the studio lot as possible.

And that's the thrust of it. A lot of good actors, a lot of good situations, and a lot of obvious love for everything that made the Harry Potter series as popular as it is. With luck, not only will it help the fall 2001 movie season erase the bad taste of Summer 2001, but just might remove the stigma of fantastic films having lots of flash but not a whole lot of brain.

Paul T. Riddell is the Collectibles editor for RevolutionSF. Examples of his dangerous hubris and crippling lack of self-esteem are available at Texas Triffid Ranch.

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