Skip to main content

After all, He Who Must Not Be Named did great things. Terrible! Yes. But great.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
aka
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
(2001)

(SPOILERS) If you want a functional, serviceable, unremarkable version of Harry Potter, look no further than Chris Columbus’ chocolate-box, Hollywood-anglophile vision. It’s studiously inoffensive and almost entirely lifeless. I should emphasise at the outset that I’m not a Harry Potter fan; I don’t have anything particularly against the series, but by and large it failed to captivate me on screen, so I’ve had little impetus to reach out for the novels. However, I was curious to revisit each film successively, having seen them exactly once. Columbus’ offerings are much as I remembered, striking dutiful, overly diligent notes in faithfulness to the author – and fans – but missing out on being anything much more than that, and it’s easy to see, on this evidence, why JK Rowling’s first choice, Terry Gilliam, demurred at the prospect of being tied to someone else’s rule book.


Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t in-between ground to be eked out; it’s surely no coincidence that the series’ best entry is also its most stylistically versatile. Steve Kloves’ reverential adaptation (he delivered all but The Order of the Phoenix) isn’t so much the problem here, although he might have ironed out some of the clunkier exposition and cruder reveals, as it is Columbus’ inability to make hay with what’s on the page. Spielberg had also been approached (he favoured an animated movie voiced by Haley Joel Osment, but ultimately decided there was no challenge to it – a bit like Jurassic Park, then), and if there’s a movie in the director’s catalogue Philosopher’s Stone most hearkens to, it’s his overblown soundstage extravaganza and resounding turkey Hook, or the ‘berg-produced, Barry Levinson-directed Young Sherlock Holmes. Not that Philosopher’s Stone isn’t a better movie, but it has that same – to use Columbus’ description of the picture – “golden storybook, an old-fashioned look”. Of the final four contenders, I wouldn’t have wished it on Gilliam, frankly (he’d have found being a gun for hire too frustrating, and it wouldn’t have brought out the best in him), but either Alan Parker or Brad Silberling would have been preferable to Columbus. The former had more than proved himself with a child cast (Bugsy Malone), while the latter could readily work to order and offer a bit of polish.


It’s notable that two very different hero’s journey narratives arrived in 2001, both kick-starting the fantasy genre (really the only significant contenders, despite numerous attempts since by other studios to get in on the magical action). The Lord of the Ring’s Frodo Baggins was a nobody special, just a little Hobbit (although, one might stretch the point by suggesting he was the nephew of a special nobody, but it isn’t quite the same thing), while Harry followed the more favoured (currently, at least) hero through birthright, in the vein of, most significantly in the previous thirty years, Luke Skywalker, and long before that King Arthur and from thence even further back to the likes of demigods (Hercules, Perseus, Achilles) destined to be just basically damn better than everyone else. And, while the magician figure is an evergreen in mythology, both of a benevolent and dark kind, it had been more commonly the supporting, peripheral figure (Merlin, Gandalf), where here and in Star Wars there is a shift, that figure (Obi Wan, here most particularly Dumbledore) training now one who is central to become one of their kind.


As such, there’s a sense of elitism – the hierarchy of the elite – infused into Harry Potter. The aspiration towards something the average person can never be. These are special people, more than mere humans (Muggles), who live apart and above the rest of us. They are the nobility – they go to public school, wear robes and are taught a life of privilege. There’s no question that they are better than the rest, because they are born to be better.


To rub that in, the main Muggles we come into contact with are Harry’s cruel relatives, who lock him under the stairs, in Roald Dahl-ian fashion, and treat him like a second-class citizen (the petty revenge of serfs who know they’re beneath their lords, see); the common folk can summon only spitefulness and envy in the face of landed status. Perhaps they’re actually right to resent Harry’s genetic superiority; he is, after all, one of the master race, those deigned to secretly preserve the truth from the ordinary, ignorant masses. He doesn’t even have to try; in this fantasy, destiny – or Robbie Coltrane – will come to you. Even if, rather (Harry) pottily, your relatives flee to an island in the middle of the sea to isolate you (I particularly wondered about this wacko development, because you’d rather expect the depiction of the “real” world to be intentionally mundane – à la Time Bandits, another story with a nobody special lead, common to Gilliam’s narratives – so as to contrast the magical other that awaits).


It shouldn’t be a surprise that Columbus lends the proceedings a broad, sketchy feel, as he did the same with New York in the Home Alones. Train stations are all classic steam and wizards all pointy hats. The result is that Philosopher’s Stone is presented as something of a fait accompli; like Harry and his destiny, the director knows he has a ready audience so doesn’t need to exert himself beyond sorting the art departments, costume and set design, all of whom are doing the most obvious, expected thing. Much the same happens with the cast and plot, the latter unfolding in a formal, stolid manner, invariably inching forward through lining up a series of Brit thesp stalwarts to coax the fledgling leads through their scenes.


If the youngsters aren’t quite bad, only Rupert Grint could be suggested to possess the disposition of one approaching “a natural” (arguably, Daniel Radcliffe still doesn’t look like he’ll ever get there). Tom Felton shows the discernible makings of a supremely hissable little snot as Draco Malfoy, so must be doing something right. The movie suffers most when the main trio are in frame, unsupported by their peers, but only a few of these seasoned boards treaders get a chance to do more than a walk on (as far as I’ve been able to discern, Maggie Smith spends the entire franchise doing only that).


Richard Griffiths brings the suitably obnoxious as Harry’s uncle, while Richard Harris makes a supremely benign and loveable Dumbedore in a way Michael Gambon just doesn’t have in him. It’s Alan Rickman who really delivers as Severus Snape, though.  There were times when the actor’s manner didn’t quite fit with material or tone, but in the Potter-verse, his intonation creates a refreshing rhythm, such that the personality-free Columbus is required to keep Snape’s pace whenever he’s on screen.


Indeed, the best part of the quidditch match – cited by many reviews as the highlight of the movie, much as the podrace was in The Phantom Menace, but looking altogether unremarkable in the cold light of fifteen-odd years, not to mention its rules being about as comprehensible as Rollerball’s – isn’t so much Harry’s gamesboyship as the misdirection of Snape’s incantations. The actual perpetrator is a disappointment. Ian Hart isn’t really suited to this kind of fare – David Thewlis, who auditioned, would have been better – and he’s entirely defeated by the reams of exposition required when Professor Quirrell is unmasked.


Of which, for such an expensive movie, the special effects are often pretty ropey (and looked it then, so this isn’t revisionism). There’s an all-CGI centaur, an all-CGI troll, and an all-CGI Cerberus-esque three-headed dog named Fluffy, none of them inviting the suspension of disbelief. The reveal of Voldermort’s head on the back of Quirrell’s is a chilling idea, but slightly laughable as rendered (although, the scene in the woods, with Voldermort feeding on a unicorn is one of the few appreciably moody incidents in the picture, mustering a sense of what might have been).


The lost-in-translation problem here tends to result from being too beholden to the source material and so coming a cropper as a result. The obstacles on the way to finding the Philosopher’s Stone don’t really pass muster, especially the chess game (Ron’s “self-sacrifice” is particularly weak), an awkward Indiana Jones-by-way-of-Enid Blyton recipe. There’s attention paid to characters no one could possibly appreciate unless one had read the novels – Neville Longbottom, whose significance still escapes me despite his cropping up in all eight movies – and a lack of attention to those who really ought to have been significantly more significant but appear to be referenced as an afterthought; Nicholas Flamel, whose secret is, after all, in the title of the movie, is dealt with in an entirely perfunctory and offhand manner. We’re told he has agreed for the Stone be destroyed and that he’s comfortable dying, which smacks rather of admitting defeat and represents the worst kind off-screen “and by the way, kids” wrapping up of loose threads. Particularly since there’s rich material in such immortal suspects, be it Saint Germain or Arnold of Tully in The Box of Delights.


The picture generally offers a rather anaemic approach to its occult elements, offering plenty of signifiers but translating more as Bednobs and Broomsticks than anything with potent overtones or undertones. Where Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone undoubtedly scores, though, is with John Williams’ theme. Come the 2000s, the composer was mostly limiting himself to work for his old pals Lucas and Spielberg, and I think it’s fair to say his best days were behind him (he could yet pull something special out of a well-worn hat), but this represents an instantly recognisable, iconic score. It does much of the heavy lifting that Columbus simply can’t to infuse Philosopher’s Stone with atmosphere. I’ve already noted that there’d be numerous young adult and fantasy pictures stuttering into various states of existence in Harry Potter’s successful wake. The irony is, as average as many of them were, they were still superior to the first couple of Potters.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Basically, you’re saying marriage is just a way of getting out of an embarrassing pause in conversation?

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
(SPOILERS) There can be a cumulative effect from revisiting a movie where one glaring element does not fit, however well-judged or integrated everything else is; the error is only magnified, and seems even more of a miscalculation. With Groundhog Day, there’s a workaround to the romance not working, which is that the central conceit of reliving your day works like a charm and the love story is ultimately inessential to the picture’s success. In the case of Four Weddings and a Funeral, if the romance doesn’t work… Well, you’ve still got three other weddings, and you’ve got a funeral. But our hero’s entire purpose is to find that perfect match, and what he winds up with is Andie McDowell. One can’t help thinking he’d have been better off with Duck Face (Anna Chancellor).

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.