Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

Daniel Radcliffe gets sorted in the first of the franchise Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Director: Chris Columbus

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), John Cleese (Nearly Headless Nick), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Richard Griffiths (Vernon Dusley), Richard Harris (Albus Dumbledore), Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell), John Hurt (Mr Ollivander), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Fiona Shaw (Petrunia Dursley), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy),  Zoe Wanamaker (Madame Hooch), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Warwick Davis (Filius Flitwick)

In 2001, I was in my first year at university. I went to the cinema to watch this new, much-hyped children’s-fantasy film. I’d never heard of this Harry Potter fella going into it – so must have been one of the few people watching who was coming to it completely fresh. I was swept up in the film’s story when I first saw it. But how does it stand up watching it again decades later?

Well it’s a long bloody film. I was actually amazed this is nearly two-and-a-half hours long. Strewth. I mean this is the slightest and most childlike of Rowling’s books. Did it really need such a bum-numbing run-time to bring it to the screen?  I guess it needed a lot of that time, because there is a heck of a lot of backstory and wizarding world to introduce very early on – and the film explains this in very careful, loving detail. 

But Columbus’ world building here is excellent. I think it’s easy to forget how much pressure must have been riding on this film. How many imaginations worldwide did this need to satisfy? Not only that, but this had to cater for, and build towards, a host of sequels, some of which hadn’t even been written yet (other than in Rowling’s brilliant mind). But the film succeeded in bringing this wizarding world enchantingly to life. There is a delight in every magical sequence, or trick, produced in the film – so many that poor Daniel Radcliffe must have swiftly exhausted his repertoire of “awe-inspired” faces. But the film’s loving reconstruction of the world of the book is perfect, and the fact that it not only didn’t alienate people, but that so much of it has become integral to the popularity of the books as well, says a lot.

Later films would get more daring and imaginative in bringing book to screen – with Rowling’s full support – but this first one probably did need to hew pretty close to the original book in order to hook and secure that fan-base. So while Kloves’ screenplay may feel at time like a mixture of transcription and rewording rather than a true work of adaptation, it meets the needs of this first film.

The design elements of the film were also spot on. Much of the wizarding world would be radically overhauled design-wise in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but the foundations are all here. John Williams’ score was also pretty much perfect from the start so winningly constructed and so perfectly matched with the mood of the book that it has also become an integral part of the Harry Potter world.

But, watching the film back, it’s clear still that this is one of the weakest films in the series. Part of this is of course is that it’s also the most simple and childish of the books – Rowling would immeasurably enrichen and deepen the series with each book – but when placed in context with the rest of the franchise efforts, this does seem like a brighter, more colourful, Roald Dahlish, traditional children’s film. Again, a lot of this is faithful replication of the book – but considering how children embraced the later more emotionally mature films, it would not have been a disaster to include more of that material here.

The other main issue with the film is quite simply that it is averagely directed and rather mundanely filmed. It’s a bit of a shock to be reminded that Oscar-winning photographer John Searle shot this film, as it’s ludicrously over-bright and conventionally framed. In fact, it lacks any real visual interest at all, looking more like a child’s picture book than any form of motion picture. There is hardly a shot or visual image in the film that sticks in my head – and I am literally writing this as the credits roll on the movie. As a piece of visual storytelling, it’s pretty mundane.

Similarly, Chris Columbus is a solid but uninspired film maker. He marshals events on camera with a reliably safe pair of hands, unspectacular and undemonstrative. But he doesn’t have any real dynamism as a film maker – perhaps that’s why the material never really feels like his own. When the series did have a film maker with vision in Alfonso Cuaron (in Prisoner of Azkaban), the difference in imagination and vision was immediately striking – so much so the two directors who followed Cuaron effectively trod in his footprints.

But Columbus may well have been what this franchise needed at this stage: a safe pair of hands, who could work with the studio and the producers and shepherd to the screen a series of films that would be running for over a decade. Much as other names bandied around to direct at the time would have been better film-makers, I can’t imagine them having the “safe pair of hands” quality that Columbus did, providing the solid foundation from which the series could later grow – let’s be honest could you imagine Terry Gilliam successfully kick-starting a huge-franchise series like this?

And let’s not forget either the casting gifts Columbus left the film-makers with here. Have three child stars ever been better chosen than Radcliffe, Grint and Watson? And indeed all the other young actors, all but one of whom stayed with the series to the end? The triumph of choosing not just the talent, but the level headedness, was quite something. And the three actors here are very good. 

Grint probably wasn’t better than he was here – his natural comic timing becoming an overused tool in later films, but here he’s charming, likeable and endearing. Watson is raw but a good mix of know-it-all and vulnerable feeling. Radcliffe gets a rough ride in a hugely challenging part – and yeah he’s not yet an actor here – but he does very well, considering how often he is called on to look amazed, and how many deep feelings of isolation, loneliness and confusion he is called upon to show during the film. Not one kid in a thousand could do what he does here. Columbus got magnificent work from the entire child cast – and that alone is enough to give him a pass.

The adult cast is of course pretty much perfect. Robbie Coltrane is a stand-out as a loveable Hagrid, immensely cuddily and endearingly sweet – perfect casting. Rickman was of course similarly inspired casting, Smith was perfect, Harris an unusual choice but one that worked. Ian Hart’s twitchy nervousness gets a bit wearing, but it’s not an easy part. Griffiths and Shaw embrace the cartoonish Roald-Dahl-bullying of the Dursleys. Pretty much every casting choice is spot on.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the least deep and rich of the Harry Potter films, but it had a hell of a difficult job to do. And what I have to remember is that I was one of the uninitiated who sat in the cinema to watch it and needed all that introduction. Any film that has to get Muggles like me up-to-speed while keeping the die-hard fans happy faces a very difficult task. I think you can say, for all the later films surpassed it, that Philosopher’s Stone managed that in spades.

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