Harry Potter then and now.

There follows my contemporaneous review of
harry potter
and the philosopher’s stone

My thoughts on the finale are here. Compare and contrast.

So, we finally made it. The world, at last, gets to see what Hollywood has done to Britain’s current favourite son. What, we’ve all been wondering (and, for once, I do feel that “we” to be inclusive – there are very few people not familiar with JK Rowling’s absurdly successful series of books about the boy wizard), has Chris Columbus done?

Well, the good news is that he’s got the book up there on the screen, more or less. A few bits here and there are missing, but, on the whole, yep, that’s the book. All of it. In a whisper over two and a half hours. Everything from the Dursleys to Diagon Alley, Hedwig to Hogwarts, in glorious slightly-washed-out colour. For, as prosaic a director as Chris Columbus is, the book can’t help but be beautiful when translated into moving pictures. Hogwarts was always going to be a prime slab of eye-candy, the Forbidden Forest unavoidably atmospheric. So there isn’t much in the way of actualstyle – it wasn’t needed.

If you know the book, you know the movie. In fact, you know the movie slightly better than one who has only seen the cinema version. Major characters are brushed over with little or no introduction, plot points are rushed through in an effort to cram in the full novel. Blink, and you will miss things. The problem with this approach is that very little imagination went into actually fixing the problems of the book, and this is the main problem with the film. You see, call me a heretic, but Philosopher’s Stone is not exactly a brilliant book. Yes, yes, put away the matches, please. It’s a good book, sure, but it suffers by comparison to the later entries in the sequence, and feels.. Well, like a first novel. You see where I’m leading to with this? Any halfway accurate adaptation – and, oh my, this is damn near a perfect adaptation – is going to be, through no fault of its own, lacking. Though they do acknowledge this with the slight rewrite of the book’s shocking deus ex machina ending, their revamp is still less-than inspiring.

Okay, so while you’re filling my pockets with stones and dragging me to the lake, I may as well carry on with my negative attitude. Not much to lose, eh? Let’s get this out of the way – Daniel Radcliffe is a poor Harry. Sure, he’s almost the exact image of how you’d imagine the boy wizard, but there’s something missing there. Okay, he’s too posh, I can live with that, but his acting leaves something to be desired. His reaction to the frequent revelations (“I’m a what?” “My parents were what?!” “The Philosopher’swhat??”) feel deeply forced and stagey. This may seem like a small point to hang a total trashing on, but, dammit, this is important. Harry should be having his mind blown on a daily basis here, not just parroting astonishment. We can only hope that he improves with the coming movies. There is hope.

See, for instance, his co-stars. Too many excellent performances to go into in depth, but Emma Watson’s Hermione was drop-dead perfect and Rupert Grint was, to my amazement, less annoying as Ron as I thought he would be. Whole minutes went by without me wanting to hit him repeatedly with a half-brick in a sock. This we call “progress”. Of the adults, Alan Rickman deserves a mention for his hamtastic, breathy Snape – not that this should be a surprise; he wrote the book on English Baddies in Hollywood, after all. Robbie Coltrane was, as everyone has said, born to play Hagrid and Richard Griffiths probably wouldn’t thank me for saying he is Vernon Dursley. But he is. Maggie Smith was less impressive as McGonagall, underplaying it just a shade too far and leaving her unmemorable. Richard Harris, too, was a bit too human for Dumbledore, never quite giving a good enough impression of the tightly-controlled powerhouse of force and knowledge the character comes across as in the books. But these are minor problems, and for the most part the casting and performances were wonderful. The book lives.

You know, I was dreading the Quidditch section. They’re not exactly the most interesting bits of the books – Rowling insisting on force-feeding us her magical version of all the worst excesses of bad PE memories (Harry’s always picked first for his team, isn’t he? So much for geek solidarity) – and the expectation, for me, was of a US-sports-movie bore-a-thon. I was therefore amazed to discover it was among my favourite sequences. Showing unusual flair, Columbus, via an admirably ramshackle mix of CGI, wire-work and tricky camera moves, transforms Quidditch into a breathless cross between the Death Star trench run and a jousting match. A lot was forgiven. Other set-pieces fared just as well. The Forbidden Forest sequence, for example – piss-poor CGI centaur apart – did a pretty good impression of the inside of my head. The challenges guarding the stone itself were executed with an eye for nasty detail; Harry does not escape unscathed from the attack of the winged keys, nor is Ron spared the full brutality of the oversized chess match.

In short, if you’re a fan of the books, you won’t find any reason to complain too loudly regarding the quality of the adaptation. Quibbles are there to be found, as I’ve amply demonstrated, but, really, this sort of thing works more to fuel post-movie discussion than spoil the enjoyment of actually watching the thing. There is barely a dull moment in its 154 minute running time, which is notable in itself, and you’ll have a ball watching your favourite moments come to life (except Peeves the Poltergeist. We were promised Rik Mayall as Peeves, and he’s not there! What gives?). Come to think of it, if you’re a fan of the books, you’ll probably already have seen it. If you’re not, I’d give some serious consideration to becoming one before heading out to your local megaplex. Otherwise, you may just leave the cinema with a spinning head full of unanswered questions. Should this occur, do not panic. Head to your nearest bookshop. You’ll find all the information you need in the children’s fiction section

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