Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Dir. Chris Columbus. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson

The Harry Potter books are meant for young people—I was in elementary school when my dad all but pressed a copy of Sorcerer’s Stone on me during a Barnes and Noble trip, and in high school when I inhaled Deathly Hallows—but unless you’re one of those cops who go to boarding school, I don’t know that the story entirely makes sense until one has lived at college for a few years. In some ways it is much easier to fall in love with the place than it is to fall in love with the people, even if the joy of university is primarily in the people one joins with. One’s first love is with the buildings, the grounds, the shrunken dorms and the architectural landmark they put on the flyers. In my own past, once my feet were on the ground, I delved into the history of the university, to know who the people were whose names fill the campus, to know something about the policies of former presidents, to know why the school relocated. If they gave me a year off of my job, I would be sorely tempted to go back to the school and spend months on the floor of the library where the records of the school are. I would read every issue of the student newspaper. I would learn to research again. I would write a history, even if it were only for me. Harry never really does get around to reading Hogwarts, a History the way that Hermione does, but all the same this is where I find him most relatable. Sorcerer’s Stone is the story of how he made home in a place that the child him never knew, could never have imagined, where he will become a person unrecognizable from his pre-education self, and how he makes himself one of the many leaves on this ancient tree.

When Sorcerer’s Stone came out in 2001, the origin of Harry Potter (Radcliffe) must have been as familiar to moviegoers as the origin of Spider-Man. A boy living with his awful extended family has a room under the stairs; his uncle (Richard Griffiths) intercepts letters addressed to the eleven-year-old before putting the family on the run. “You’re a wizard, Harry” is in its own way as indelible as “With great power comes great responsibility.” When they reboot this franchise in a few years, no doubt the story will seem a little more tired then. But even on the thousandth rewatch of this movie, adapted from a book I’ve read a million times, the story feels fresh. A cat sits on a quiet suburban street. A man in funny clothes reaches into his pocket, pulls out a shiny chrome object, and pulls the lights from the streetlamps. Later on, we’ll learn that this man, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), is the great wizard of the era; it would be as easy for him to shroud the block with a spell, and faster, than it is to click on his little chrome cylinder and pull the lights. The understatement is the key; the magic is subdued, hidden, remarkable without ever really reaching miraculous territory. That Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) should transform into herself from a cat form is incredible, but we only see that in a shadow on a wall. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) on a flying motorcycle makes a noisy landing on the silent road, but the total dearth of reaction from Dumbledore and McGonagall makes the motorcycle landing almost prosaic; haven’t all of us seen a motorcycle jump over some obstacles and then land, just as this one has? Hagrid’s appearance at the little shack on that little rocky island results in Dudley (Harry Melling) sprouting a pig’s tail, but it is not until Harry and Hagrid reach Diagon Alley that the magnificent world beyond Harry’s Muggle life explodes into being.

A crowded street, a bouncing John Williams melody, owls and broomsticks and funny clothes, Gringotts, Ollivander’s: this is the Wizarding World, the one that feels real enough to touch and is achingly untrue. (Any movie becomes a sort of imaginative default for book readers, especially for those of us who saw the movies at a young enough age to let them influence our readers’ eyes. That everyone, at least for Sorcerer’s Stone, was so content with this becoming that default says an awful lot about the quality of the production.) Any fantasy world of consequence, from Middle-earth to Westeros, Wonderland to Earthsea, must envelop the observer. It must be lived-in, unironically real to its citizens while mostly alien to us. We may love Ned Stark and Frodo, but we never read just for them: we read for the place. Sorcerer’s Stone gets that on a heartbeat level. Its lead actors are pre-teens, and the story follows them, but what makes the film is the wonder of the Wizarding World. We’ll see Hogwarts made over in other Potter movies, see a closer connection between the world we live in and the world that Harry can flit in and out of. But once Harry manages to step onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, the movie does not leave this magnificent country, as beloved to us in the gods as it is invisible to our sight once we’ve stepped out of the theater. What a joy it is to be introduced to Hogwarts in segments, to its forbidding lake and high towers, its tricky staircases and comfortable dormitories, its unknown acres of subterranean adventureland. And what a sadness it is to leave, as the kids get back on the train and Hagrid waves them goodbye with the promise of another year afterwards. No matter how close he gets to getting beaten to death by a troll, chewed up by a three-headed dog (“Fluffy”), or murdered by the spirit of Voldemort (Ian Hart), it’s clear how much he loves it, because the happiness in his eyes as he wanders the school is the mirror of our own.

The Wizarding World is the true star of this picture, as it ought to be, but the kids in this movie are good! No one’s going to put these kids on the same plane that Nikolai Burlyayev or Sonsoles Aranguren live on, but they are entirely competent. Emma Watson’s performance as Hermione is the standout; maybe it’s just hindsight, but a lot of the gifts and flaws that come with these actors were there in the beginning. Watson’s great contributions to these movies—her ability to make sarcasm play, especially as a potent defense mechanism, and her honesty in tender moments—are here. “Is that a real spell? Well, it’s not a very good one, is it?” she says to Ron (Grint) before letting him know he’s got dirt on his nose. (The way she says “Pleasure” in response to meeting Ron is Downton Abbey perfect.) Later on, she’ll downplay her “cleverness” in favor of Harry’s “bravery,” which, well, that’s sort of the one-sentence summary of the Harry Potter stories, innit. Of the kids in this movie, Watson’s the strongest performer, and as much as Internet wits (I somewhat ruefully include myself here) have made fun of her wiggly eyebrows, she was probably the finest of those three actors playing in this movie. Grint’s comic timing is very much present; in this movie he sticks “She needs to sort out her priorities!” and a number of goofy fearful faces with aplomb. As for Radcliffe, he’s got the wonder down, as well as the general likability that anyone playing Harry needs to have if we aren’t going to actively root for him to be murdered, but he never did manage acting angry; his anger and shouts come in a very different register than the rest of his speech, like the barrier between head voice and falsetto. All the same, this is a more than adequate performance from a young person in the starring role in a huge blockbuster.

This is, like the majority of the Potter movies, over two and a half hours, and like a number of Potter movies its best scenes are in the early going. (Let it not be said too loudly, but the best parts of these stories were never the conclusions.) Aside from the obvious winners, like “You’re a wizard, Harry” and the Sorting Hat and Harry’s first ride on a broomstick, the movie is very much at home stepping aside and allowing its profoundly overqualified supporting actors to steal scenes. Alan Rickman’s Snape is swooping and fey; his classroom is singularly sepia colored, casting the students into darkness lit only a smidgen by the fires under their cauldrons. Later directors would decide that Snape’s settings were insufficiently dark; I get the impulse to go full dungeon, but I can’t help but think that this is more effective. It places Snape in the spotlight, billowing to and fro, sneering at Harry’s insufficient knowledge of magic chemistry, while Harry is stuck in this sad little shadow, towered over and chastened. John Hurt’s performance as Ollivander, whose shop is somehow much darker than Snape’s dungeon, is the most magnetic of the film. Rarely near to Harry, and absent from the alternately humorous and prophetic shots of Harry’s wand attempts, he is ethereal and strange, appearing from around corners and difficult to latch onto. It’s not until he tells Harry a horrifying truth about the wand that’s chosen him that we really get a sense of his presence, and then it lands wonderfully. In close-up, we can see the condemnation become awe become appreciation as Ollivander says that Voldemort’s accomplishments, though “Terrible!” were still “great.” Sorcerer’s Stone gets its single moment of gray in Ollivander’s apologetics, and that’s all on Hurt’s rasp and keen eye.

Although the movie’s two best and most consistent supporting actors, Richard Harris and Robbie Coltrane, have great moments in the final third of the movie, it’s their appearances in the first that stand out most. (Apologies to Maggie Smith. Don’t crucify me. Other movies let her stretch her wings in a way this one does not.) Harris accidentally gave this series an incredibly damaging blow by dying in 2002, though, let’s be honest, they would have had a hard time getting him to 2010 anyway. In this movie, he sets forth the portrayal of Dumbledore which, as far as the books had gotten, was just right: grandfatherly, wise, mysterious, odd, basically flawless; it’s a charming performance that is amplified most by his slow movement, the quiet, distinctive voice, and the gradations of physical expression. He claps in a way I’ve never seen anyone clap for some students as they’re sorted, sort of a golf clap for someone who doesn’t know what golf is. For Harry, who chooses Gryffindor, it’s real, if measured, applause. Coltrane’s performance answers a question that I’ve been wondering over for some years now. Watching this movie again I understand why people were so attached to Hagrid; I will always primarily remember the Hagrid of the books, who I was never terribly interested in, relatively speaking, but then again he never has Coltrane’s presence in the novels. Coltrane was nominated for a BAFTA for that performance, and there’s no reason the Oscars shouldn’t have given him a nod as well. There’s a tremendous heart in this heartiest of Potter characters, enough mock seriousness to make “I shouldn’t have told you that” a charming running gag and enough outright silliness to drop a line like “Oh, bless him! He knows his mummy!” at a special effects dragon without losing the thread of the movie at all. It is deeply fitting that he is the last person we see in the movie, waving to the kids as the train pulls out of the station below the castle.

One thought on “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

  1. […] Chris Columbus’ versions of Harry Potter were loving if long-winded, Alfonso Cuaron’s…I hate using this word, but it really was disruptive…and remarkable, and Mike Newell’s clean and effective. If those are all true, then David Yates’ versions are by and large ham-fisted. Yates’ four adaptations are puzzling, heavy on montage, confused about where to place their narrative weight. Where Goblet of Fire used special effects as a tool, Order of the Phoenix begins a trend in which special effects are supposed to be drama unto itself. Think about the way that Harry (Radcliffe) is swept away from Privet Drive early in the movie. These members of the Order swoop through London, past lit-up yachts and the Palace of Westminster. Not to be “Does this make sense?” guy, but does this make sense? Would a group of people who must not be seen on broomsticks fly past all of these people? This is intended, doubtless, as a lovely showstopper, all smudgy blues and shining yellows, but the effects are mediocre; it looks like someone Photoshopped some silhouettes on brooms onto actual footage of London from the Thames, and what should be a stunning moment is a waste of time. This is the movie where every Death Eater has learned to fly about in a plume of black smoke. Wordless spell-casting begins in earnest in this movie, and this is admittedly a different road to hoe. At the same time, that wordless spell-casting coupled with flying smoke cylinders (which are white if the person is good) in front of a mysterious arch makes the movie’s climactic sequences look like a scene out of Super Smash Bros. I have played many hours of Smash, and watched some number of hours too, and I feel confident saying that relative to playing, watching is fairly dull! […]

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