This look at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the next in our series of “Have You Watched a Good Book Lately?”
The series’ intention is to track a number of books’ progression from the printed page to the silver screen and assess how well or how badly the filmmakers accomplished each of the adaptations.
Today we’re going to be discussing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the YA blockbuster magical fantasy novel written by J.K. Rowling that was first published in 1997 as “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and adapted for the screen in 2001 by writer Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Adventures in Babysitting,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”). For those of you unfamiliar with the basic premise, here is a brief synopsis of the story (adapted from Wikipedia):
“Harry Potter discovers his magical heritage when he turns 11 years old and receives an acceptance letter to the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. With the help of his new, first-year friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, Harry learns what it means to be part of the magical world at the same time as he must deal with an attempted comeback by the dark wizard Lord Voldemort who had killed Harry’s parents a decade before. His failure to kill Harry when he was just 15 months old, though, forced him into hiding and earned Harry the nickname “The Boy Who Lived.”
From the Source’s Mouth
Let’s start our discussion with one of the main concerns of any story adaptation – how true is the film to the source material? It’s said the devil’s in the details, and this film adaptation may be the best example of that truism. Whereas the book takes pains to describe each new situation Harry encounters in the wizarding world, the film seems quite shallow, moving only from one high point along the journey to the next, without bothering to explain what the characters are feeling and why, nor providing the kind of background information that breathes life into the tale. It was those background details that elevated the series from mere YA books to books that appealed to people of all ages and in countries around the world (according to scholastic.com, the books, to date, have been translated into 68 languages in over 200 territories).
The film did a fairly good job of showing Harry’s abysmal life with his Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley at the beginning. Harry had been an unwanted 15-month-old burden literally left on their doorstep by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore and transfiguration Professor Minerva McGonagall when his parents were killed; the family never let him forget he was an outsider and also never revealed the magical world from which he came. He was banished to sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs, and he was constantly admonished and punished for anything and everything, especially if their precious Dudley had done it. It was only when Harry turned 11 and an owl tried to deliver his Hogwarts acceptance letter that things began to change. When Uncle Vernon tore up the letter, more owls appeared, each bearing an identical copy; the more that came, the greater his attempts to prevent Harry from receiving them. It took Hagrid – the gigantic Hogwarts gameskeeper – breaking down their door and delivering the news personally to let Harry learn about who he was and where he belonged.
It seems, though, that when the filmmakers went from the Muggle (non-magic) world to the wizarding one, they felt that less explanation was better than more, even though we, the viewers, are not familiar with it, and Rowling wrote highly detailed chapters about Harry’s experiences. The quick pace and highlights-only mode definitely provided a “gee whiz” factor, but we needed more than that to understand the depth of the story. Let’s look at a few of the more problematic issues with the adaptation.
Hagrid first takes Harry shopping in Diagon Alley, hidden from the Muggles behind the Leaky Cauldron bar, for all of his school materials. We’re introduced to Gringott’s, the wizarding bank, and we learn that Harry’s parents left him quite a bit of money. We also see Hagrid retrieve something from the vaults that will play a major role in the story’s climax. However, something of importance happens during the trip that was glossed over in the film. Harry goes into Ollivander’s Wood Shop to get his wand. In the book, Mr. Ollivander recognizes Harry the moment he walks in and describes the wands he sold to his parents. He also tells Harry about the construction of the wands and how they differ, so that we have some understanding of what a wand actually does. After measuring Harry, he presents him with wand after wand after wand to “try out,” but snatches each one back as unsuitable when nothing happens. Eventually, Ollivander gives him one of “holly and phoenix feather, eleven inches, nice and supple.” The wand instantly warms in Harry’s hand, and it shoots out some sparks. Ollivander remarks that it’s curious – the phoenix who gave its feather for the core only gave one other feather, and it was at the core of Lord Voldemort’s wand. “The wand chooses the wizard, remember … I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter.” In the selection of this wand was re-born the connection between Harry and Voldemort, something that will provide the backbone for the entire seven-book series.
In the film, though, as Harry swishes the first wand around, boxes fly off the shelves and create an enormous mess. When he waves the second, it produces an explosion. When he gets the third and is able to make it sparkle just a bit, Ollivander tells him it’s the right one and then mentions just the feather connection with Voldemort’s wand. It was a flashier visual sequence, but we learn virtually nothing about what wands are actually supposed to do, and we certainly don’t get a firm grasp of what the wizarding world expects of “The Boy Who Lived.”
Broomsticks brought their own problems in adaptation. In the story, along with the first years’ materials list, Rowling included a note that stated in all capital letters, “Parents are reminded that first years are not allowed their own broomsticks.” That meant that all first years were starting more or less at the same point, including Harry – none of them would have a lot of – or even any – experience riding a broomstick. (We know that Draco Malfoy, Harry’s nemesis at the school, did ride a broomstick at home, but he was the exception rather than the rule.) When they meet with Madame Hooch for their first broomstick lesson, all students, we are told, are using school brooms, which Harry had heard from Ron’s brothers were problematic: they vibrated if you flew too high, veered slightly to the left, and certainly were inferior to the quality broomsticks that Quidditch players used, like the CleanSweep or the Nimbus 2000.
Harry, despite his Muggle upbringing, proves to be a natural at flying. He instantly calls the broom to his hand when even Hermione can barely get hers to budge, and he gets into a mid-air battle with Malfoy that leads to him being chosen as Seeker for the Gryffindor Quidditch team despite his first-year standing. Then, with Professor McGonagall’s gift of a Nimbus 2000, and loads and loads of training, he’s ready to play by the time the first Quidditch match comes around.
In the film, although Harry is still a natural at flying, there’s no indication that first years aren’t even supposed to have a broomstick let alone the problems using the school brooms. So when the Nimbus 2000 arrives one morning by owl, with an unsigned note attached, it’s hard to understand its significance beyond the fact that it’s a good model. Harry seems to intuitively know it’s from McGonagall, his Head of House, but he has no proof and doesn’t look for any. And he has not one second of Quidditch practice before the first match with Slytherin – how is it, then, that the boy who didn’t even know what Quidditch was two months before expertly fly around the pitch and win the match for his team?
Another curiosity is classwork. Rowling went into great detail about some of the classes, especially Potions, taught by Professor Snape. Not only does Snape taunt Harry with his “celebrity” status, but when they’re mixing their first potion, he takes points away from Gryffindor because Neville’s cauldron explodes; his reasoning is that Harry must have caused it to explode because he wants to see others fail where he succeeds. This sets up the animosity between the two characters that flows throughout the series and wrongly leads Harry to conclude that Snape must be the one trying to steal the Sorcerer’s Stone. And Rowling repeatedly mentions the load of homework they’re getting – so much that Hermione has to make up study schedules for all of them. Classwork in the film, though, is mostly absent. Apart from Harry and Ron arriving late to Professor McGonagall’s Transfiguration class, Hermione making a feather levitate (in an unspecified class), and Professor Snape sneering at Harry, we never see the students in a classroom, studying, or doing any homework. It kind of makes you wonder why they’re even at the school.
Finally, there’s the incident with the dragon. Hagrid tells Harry as far back as Diagon Alley that he wants to have a dragon, even though they’ve been outlawed as pets. One day, while Harry, Ron, and Hermione are visiting Hagrid’s hut, they notice a large dragon’s egg sitting in the fire, which Hagrid says he won at the pub. The Norwegian Ridgeback, “Norbert,” hatches two weeks later, and the trio regularly goes to Hagrid’s to try to convince him that Norbert’s a danger and he should let him go. Hagrid is protective, though, even after the rapidly growing Norbert bites Ron’s hand so hard it swells up and turns green. Then, suddenly, Ron has an idea. His brother Charlie lives in Romania, where he works with dragons. He convinces Hagrid to let him write to Charlie and see if he’ll come and take Norbert back with him. Hagrid agrees, and they set a time for the transfer. Malfoy overhears the three friends talking about it, and, as Charlie arrives, there is Malfoy peering in the window; he then races back to the castle to inform the teachers about Hagrid’s crime and the trio’s involvement, earning all four of them detention.
The film introduces us to Norbert, but only when he’s hatching. The next thing we know, Malfoy has tattled, and all four of them are serving detention with Hagrid in the Enchanted Forest. Hagrid makes some tearful reference to Dumbledore taking Norbert away and then the matter is dropped for good. Gone is the opportunity to see some of the wizarding world outside of the school and to meet one of Ron’s siblings. The entire incident seems rather incomplete, and we have to wonder why it’s in there at all.
The Final Cut
So, how did “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” as a movie fare as a book adaptation overall? It certainly was very visual, as befits the medium, and we share the “gee whiz” factor Harry feels each time he discovers something new about the wizarding world. Including all the details of the book would have made the film much, much longer than its 2 ½-hour run time, but adding some key elements would have made the world much more real to the audience. Overall, I’d say it deserves a B-.
What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Please add your comments in the section below.
– Miriam Ruff, Content Creator, PoetsIN
DISCLAIMER: The opinions discussed in this blog post are solely those of the blogger and do not necessarily represent any thoughts, values, or opinions of PoetsIN and any of its affiliate groups.