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…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

The whole thing should just be your fucking nose!

A Star is Born (2018)
(SPOILERS) A shoe-in for Best Picture Oscar? Perhaps not, since it will have to beat at very least Roma and First Man to claim the prize, but this latest version of A Star is Born still comes laden with more acclaim than the previous three versions put together (and that's with a Best Picture nod for the 1937 original). While the film doesn't quite reach the consistent heights suggested by the majority of critics, who have evacuated their adjectival bowels lavishing it with superlatives, it's undoubtedly a remarkably well-made, stunningly acted piece, and perhaps even more notably, only rarely feels like its succumbing to just how familiar this tale of rise to, and parallel fall from, stardom has become.