So I’m trying a new thing where I deep-dive into movie franchises every Friday, and as I was just fulfilling my millennial duty and re-watching the Harry Potter movies, I figured this would be a great place to start. This series will examine each entry in a franchise in terms of its overall quality, as well as the context of its release and in the overall evolution of the franchise. I hope you will join me on this adventurous and opinionated journey.
The Harry Potter movies didn’t need to be good. When producer David Heyman and Warner Brothers bought the rights to the first four books (for almost two million US dollars), it was 1999. The adventures of the boy who lived and his time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had been enchanting young readers and their parents for two years already; it had been topping The New York Times Bestseller List for all of that year and would continue to do so into 2000; it had, in no time at all, become the biggest pop culture phenomenon since Star Wars… all this, and it was a children’s book. So when Steven Spielberg, one of many high-profile directors considered for the first film in the franchise, contended that it would be “a slam dunk” and “like withdrawing a billion dollars and putting it into your personal bank account,” he was foreshadowing what we now know to be true of 21st century franchise filmmaking – there need not be artistry as long as the box office returns are good.
Yet artistry is on display throughout the Potter films. And perhaps that is their most magical element. We can, and we will, talk about the amazing roster of adult British talent; we can talk about how moving it is to see the trio of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint mature over the 10 years it took to shoot the 8 films. But what blows my mind is how Heyman maintained the artistic integrity of the series from beginning to end. Each film, with one or two exceptions, feels like its own creative being – David Yates’ vision is very different from Alfonso Cuaron’s; hell, even Yates’ sensibility in Order of the Phoenix is different than what it is in Half-Blood Prince. The films never stopped evolving, experimenting, and challenging the normal strictures of big budget studio filmmaking, and the credit for that rests solely on Heyman’s shoulders.
The irony of all this, of course, is that this artistic evolution begins with Chris Columbus, a director who’s about as light on the artistry and heavy on the box office returns as they come (note: his last film was Pixels, which you could not force me to watch). J.K. Rowling wanted Terry Gilliam (and we were robbed of his take on these films), the studio went with Columbus. He gets a bad rap, and he will undoubtedly continue to get one from me. But it’s important to distinguish one fact – when he got handed the keys to the wizarding world of J.K. Rowling, he didn’t fuck it up.
Erase your memory of all imagery from the Potter films, place yourself back in the late 1990’s, and imagine for a moment what might have been. The Lord of the Rings had yet to be released; there was no big-budget Narnia movie, no Percy Jackson, Lemony Snicket, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. There had been high water-marks for family films based on children’s books – The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, but wonderful as they are, they play fast and loose with the source material. Young adult literature was not a highly-respected intellectual property.
So it comes as no surprise that Rowling was worried about the potential of a Harry Potter Goes to Las Vegas or Harry Potter Goes to Mars. Spielberg himself wanted to make an animated movie combining elements of the first three books, starring Haley Joel Osment as the voice of Harry. Which opens up a world where we have an American Harry, an American Hogwarts. Tough to imagine, but then again Dorothy’s age was upped, Mary Poppins was made more bubbly, and both of those characters’ source material were turned into musicals. Steve Kloves, who adapted all but one of the books to film, has said it was suggested to him several times that Harry be more Ron-like – less introspective, more snarky and quippy. Again, it sounds ridiculous, but such a studio note now perpetually plagues all Marvel enterprises.
When you look at all this context, the much-maligned over-faithfulness that Columbus brought to the first film is not only understandable, but necessary to what the films would become. Yes, as the series progressed, plot elements fell by the wayside, characters were cut, but the films and the books wound up exploring the same themes and telling the same story. As obvious as that seems now, it just wasn’t the case in 1999. Spielberg’s version could’ve very easily happened, and it would’ve had the same results as he forecasted. It didn’t need to be good.
And the first film is just that – it’s good. It’s the best Chris Columbus film by a country mile, which feels like damning praise, but for a director regularly targeted for his lack of visual panache, he brought forth a striking number of memorable moments in this one. In fact, for all the tentpole sequences to come in the series, I would honestly say that 75% of the franchise’s most iconic moments occur in Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry jumping for the letters, the entry into Diagon Alley, the wand igniting for the first time in Ollivander’s, the lanterned boats reflecting off the surface of the lake as we see Hogwarts for the first time – when I close my eyes and think Harry Potter, these are the moments that stand out first and foremost.
Of course, the whole thing benefits from such intense nostalgia it would give the Member Berries aneurysms. We all remember the first time we read about “the letters from no one,” the first time we met Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and the first time we tried to suss out what the actual hell was going on in Quidditch. And that’s what makes the first hour or so of Sorcerer’s Stone so enjoyable to this day – the introduction of Rowling’s world on the page unfolds with an imagination that mixes the vivid detail of Charles Dickens with the cheeky mischief of Roald Dahl. Not to mention, just about every 5 minutes there’s a moment of retrospective poignance – ohmigod, those kids grow up so much; ohmigod, Snape; ohmigod, how did Neville turn into a model? It’d be hard to fuck up, and as stated above, Columbus didn’t.
He didn’t because he made three unquestionably outstanding choices right from the get-go. The first, and most obvious, is the casting. Aside from being a vice for ABC Family-watching millennials, the Potter films stand as a “Who’s Who” of the top British talent of the 2000’s, and that all begins here. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Robbie Coltrane are Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape, and Rubeus Hagrid, respectively. The late great Richard Harris didn’t want to take the role initially as he didn’t want to be remembered as Dumbledore (he both is and isn’t), but he brings a welcome touch of dignity to the proceedings, mixed with a more quiet sense of mischief than his forebear Michael Gambon.
Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Warwick Davis,Julie Walters, John Hurt, and (lest we forget) John Cleese all turn up at one point or another during the first film, and they all claim their roles with supreme commitment and style. But the real casting coup is those three kids, and Columbus did not settle until he found the perfect three.
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint are about as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as you can be in Sorcerer’s Stone. Their power ranking in terms of acting prowess will fluctuate over the next seven films, but I think it’s safe to say that they are all pretty perfect in this first one. Emma Watson and Rupert Grint seem remarkably at ease in their respective over-confidence and lovable doofiness. Radcliffe, who has the toughest job in all eight movies, is a lot scrappier here, but still completely winning. Columbus hit the jackpot with all three, and it’s clear that there was a lot of coaching in between the numerous cuts. He and editor Richard Francis-Bruce were able to fashion three leading performances from 11 year olds, and that is no small task.
Equally invaluable was the hire of Stuart Craig. Craig was the production designer on all eight films, creating literally thousands of sets that had to fulfill the unenviable duty of visualizing a world which millions of people had imagined for years in their heads. And the most wonderful thing about his sets is that they’re real. It’s not actors wandering around on green-screen sets so an assault of pixel nonsense can be added in later (see: this year’s Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time).
In a seemingly-uncharacteristic move, Columbus referenced the work of David Lean in how he envisioned the film. Lean directed, in addition to Lawrence of Arabia and Brief Encounter, the most iconic screen adaptations of Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. And while Columbus’ understanding and use of the camera can’t hold a candle to Lean’s, the reference is clear in the sets. They’re tactile, detailed, and they feel lived-in, and they bring a sense of grit and reality to the film that makes the magic more meaningful rather than all-consuming.
And yet, perhaps the smartest move on Sorcerer’s Stone, and the element that unequivocally makes the film is John Williams’ score. It’s top tier Williams, right up there with his legendary work on Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Star Wars. For a film series known for its faithfulness to the books, its most magical asset is the completely original creation of “Hedwig’s Theme.” First heard in the film’s teaser trailer, Williams intended it to have a minor role, related mostly to the appearance of the owls. But right upon first listen, it became cemented to the Potter franchise as the de facto theme.
And it doesn’t just stop with that track. Every cue elevates Columbus’ flat visual style into something more, something wondrous. My personal favorites are “The Mirror of Erised” and “Leaving Hogwarts,” but the entire score has a grandeur and sweep to it that is nothing short of soul-lifting. It’s the best part of the movie.
So what keeps Sorcerer’s Stone from cracking the top tier of the Potter movies? Pretty much everything else. Columbus’ films lack personality and a singular vision to propel them forward event to event. Home Alone had John Hughes’ solid structure, Mrs. Doubtfire had a stellar lead performance, and Sorcerer’s Stone has novelty – of these actors in these parts, of the design, and of the score. But all that wears off about an hour in and the film devolves into a bit of a slog starting with the Quidditch match, which looks bad even for 2001 and is about as exciting as watching your friends play a video game you do not understand..
By the time Harry is looking at a CG Voldemort (note the nose) on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, the whole thing starts to feel bloated and unwieldy, and Columbus’ and Kloves’ over-faithfulness winds up crippling the movie. Sure, these events all happened in the book, but Columbus fails to make us see why they matter in the context of a film. On top of it all, he can’t quite translate the whimsy of Rowling’s inventiveness on the page, nor does he succeed in making the magic anything beyond a “gee whiz” vibe, which gets old even in the movie where such a vibe is the most apropos.
Columbus would go on to direct one more film in the franchise before handing it off for others to nurture its evolution. While he is most definitely the “worst” of the Potter directors, Sorcerer’s Stone still ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack. It lacks the vision of Prisoner of Azkaban, the more confident performances in Half-Blood Prince, or the emotional highs of Deathly Hallows: Part II. But what it does have is a wondrous introduction to Harry’s world on-screen. The combination of this cast, Stuart Craig’s designs, and John Williams’ score all work in tandem to make sure Columbus doesn’t fuck it up.
When Sorcerer’s Stone premiered in November 2001, it dominated the box office, of course. But it also received solid reviews. No real raves, but solid notices nonetheless. Looking at it today, no, it’s not great, but it’s good. And after all, it didn’t even need to be that.
Next week: Chamber of Secrets has all the problems of Sorcerer’s Stone and none of the novelty.
The Sorting Hat’s Stray Thoughts:
- MVP: A tie between John Williams and Stuart Craig
- Academy Award nominations: 3 (Original Score, Production Design, Costume Design)
- Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
- Rotten Tomatoes Ranking: 6th of 8
- Best Scene: Ollivander’s wand shop
- Best Music Cue: “Hedwig’s Theme” goes without saying, but I’ll go with “Leaving Hogwarts”
- Best Set: The chess board
- Overall Grade: B