Do You Believe in Magic?

Of all the arena sports in the wizard world, Quidditch is by far the most important. An integral part of wizardry culture, the game—for all you muggles out there—consists of three Chasers that score points by passing the Quaffle ball, one Keeper that acts as a goalie, two Beaters that protect their team from their opponent’s Bludger balls and most importantly, a Seeker, who pursues the Golden Snitch. A tiny golden orb that flies at breakneck speed, the winged snitch is the center of any Quidditch match, for after it is captured, the game is over.

The upcoming holiday movie season follows the rules of Quidditch surprisingly closely. There are Quaffles such as Oceans 11 and Lord of the Rings—flashy movies that are guaranteed to score. There are Bludgers such as Ali and A Beautiful Mind—heavy-handed dramas that smack you over the head with the weight of their anticipated Oscar nominations. And of course, for the discerning movie-goers, seekers that they are, there is that golden snitch—that highly desired and gossamer film that flies high above all the others. This season, that golden film seems to be Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Director Chris Columbus’ latest child-centered opus brings the first installment of Scottish author J.K. Rowlings’ multiple part book series to vivid and fantastic life. The series tells the story of Harry Potter, a young wizard who spends the first 11 years of his life trapped under a cupboard by his muggle, or non-wizard, relatives before discovering that he is actually a wizard, and has been invited to study witchcraft at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With his trusted pals Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, he discovers a new world of potions, Quidditch games and Bernie Bott’s Every-Flavor Beans, all the while being drawn towards his destiny—a confrontation with the evil Lord Voldemort, the evil wizard that killed his parents.


For fans of the book, the film is a dream come true. Columbus faithfully recreates all of the book’s major plotlines, which may satiate his audiences, also clocks the film in at an astounding 142 minutes—practically enough time to re-read the first book in its entirety. While minor alterations have been made (less pivotal characters such as Peeves the Poltergeist have been eliminated), on the whole, Sorcerer’s Stone is one of the most precise book to movie translations to emerge from Hollywood in a long time.

Ironically, its very faithfulness is one of the film’s flaws. It is quite obvious that the Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves are trying to squeeze in as much expository information about the series as possible, but the format of the strict narrative fails to capture the imagination and soul of Rowling’s literary wit and vision. Characters that prove to play essential roles in the stories to follow are often carelessly inserted, solely for the purpose of displaying them on-screen, if only for a few minutes each. Admittedly, part of the problem is the book itself; Sorcerer’s Stone was created as the first of seven installments concerning Harry’s education at Hogwarts. Rowling’s novels grow only increasingly dark as her narrative progresses, pulling us into a more complex and intriguing world of magic.

But why complain when there’s so much to praise? Daniel Radcliffe is picture perfect as the young Harry. While he seems a little unsure of himself at times, he ideally plays his character’s maturation from unsuspecting innocent to wizened first year graduate. Newcomer Rupert Grint is adorable as the red-headed Ron Weasley. He heaves huge sighs every time he becomes aggravated, and displays an honest look of amazement at all of Hogwarts’ wonders. As the third member of their trio, Emma Watson makes a proper Hermione Granger, although her role is slightly softened from her more officious character in the book. Of the more established actors in the cast, Robbie Coltrane bumbles his way into portraying a perfect Hagrid. Big and burly, he conveys an appropriate tenderness as a giant who has a fond spot for dangerous animals such as three-headed dogs (his pet “Fluffy”) and fire-breathing dragons. Dame Maggie Smith is appropriate as the stately and feline Professor McGonagall, and Richard Harris rasps his way through his role as Professor Dumbledore. Other famous stars only make brief appearances: John Cleese hams it up appropriately as Nearly-Headless Nick, Julie Waters is onscreen for two seconds as Ron’s mom, John Hurt sparkles with appropriate wit and gravity as the wand-seller Mr. Ollivander and Warwick Davis (Willow) teaches levitation as Professor Flitwick.

Production Designer Stuart Craig’s sets are a sumptuous feast for the eyes. His Diagon Alley, crammed with gossiping ghoulies and tantalizing shops, bustles with excitement. Gringott’s Bank oozes ghoulishness and Hogwarts stands eerily and majestically tall, with its moving staircases, talking portraits and stately halls. The visual effects are amazing as well. The talking sorting hat makes clever use of computer graphics, as does Harry’s invisibility cloak. But without a doubt, the most thrilling scene in the entire movie is the Quidditch game between the Gryffindor and Slytherin Houses. Set against a perfectly blue sky, the players magically dip down and about, making sharp turns, all to the lively soundtrack composed by film composer extraordinaire John Williams. The image of the students’ brightly colored robes flapping wildly in the wind are an exciting sight to see.

With over 100 million copies of the books sold in over 46 languages, one of the reasons the Potter series is so loved is because of Rowling’s intricate character and plot development and magical way of stirring the imagination. Therefore one of the film’s missteps is that it tries too hard to strike a balance between making the film a primer for fans new to Potter lore, yet simultaneously, assuming that its audience knows the complex history behind the characters. Aside from the prerequisite villain, the unpleasant characters that readers love to hate from the books don’t seem nearly as vile as they do in Rowling’s books. Both Harry’s arch-nemeses at Hogwarts, the spoiled Draco Malfoy and the leering Potions Professor Severus Snape, are given limited exposure time in the film, thus de-emphasizing the obvious tension that exists between the characters in the book. We see no trace of Snape’s sincere hatred of the boy in the film. As played by Alan Rickman, Snape occasionally sneers at the boy or proffers a strange warning, but whenever he follows his cautions with a toss of his mop-like hair, he looks more humorous than frightening. Looking like a blond version of Eddie Munster, Malfoy is not nearly as insidious either. Most centrally, the computer generated Voldemort fails to inspire the sheer terror that he invokes in the entire wizarding world, where he is called only “He Who Must Not Be Named.” It is as if the movie expects the audience to understand that these are truly the “bad guys” but fails to explain why. I almost wish some subplots could have been forsaken in lieu of more centered character development.

Opening on over 8,000 screens across America (more than any other release in history), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a guaranteed blockbuster. But as exciting and luscious as the film is to watch, devoted fans are sure to be somewhat disappointed. Yes, the film is faithful, but it fails to capture the heart and magic of Rowling’s words. Such is the curse of filmmaking—it destroys the innocence and imaginative visions that are inspired through reading.