Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Review

I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, January is a difficult time for me. Especially this year, the post-Christmas slump has hit hard and I’ve found myself severely lacking motivation. I have a pile of films to watch and review, but all I’ve found myself watching for the past week is the Harry Potter films. For what feels like the millionth time. So I thought it best to put those viewing hours to use here.

Harry Potter is a tough subject to talk about now. It’s a world I’ve loved since I was a kid, I read the books multiple times throughout my tweens and teens, and I watch the films – all of them – at least once a year. All this being said, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the public statements made by the woman responsible for writing this world I have grown to love.

I bring this up because I feel like it would be hypocritical of me to ignore the elephant in the room. As many of you know, I am LGBT (the ‘G’ part, to be specific) and I have several good friends, who I love dearly, who are transgender. I am not in a position to talk for trans people, however, I can only do my best to make sure I use my voice to make sure they’re acknowledged and heard, and that is why I deem it worthy of mentioning here.

I have, in the past, voiced support for separating the art from the artist, but truth be told, there are compelling arguments on either side of that debate, and my position on the matter is fluid and changing depending on how I am feeling at that time. I do think there is a stronger argument to separate the HP films from the original writer, given the lengths much of the cast have gone to distance themselves from Ms Rowling’s wittering. I am also reassured that she didn’t have any direct input on the scripts of the films, so she is, therefore, easier to ignore. It is my sincere hope that we one day will not have to have these discussions and qualifiers when people learn to be more accepting and learn to shut their mouths about matters that don’t affect them. I am, and will always be, on the side of the oppressed, and I hope you agree with me that these films are worthy of being viewed in their own right.

I think it has been forgotten in the mists of time just how big a deal Harry Potter was back in its heyday. It was a true phenomenon that launched a multimedia franchise now worth many billions of dollars. I was at just the right demographic for the books when they came out, you couldn’t move for Harry Potter merchandise when I was at school. They even used to have midnight launch events for the books, as mad as that sounds now.

From this whirlwind, the movie adaptation was inevitable. When something becomes that popular, you’d be mad not to capitalise on it, and that’s exactly what Warner Bros did when they snapped up the movie rights, and they’ve been laughing all the way to the bank ever since.

I understand that the films (and indeed the books) name was changed to Sorcerer’s Stone in the US, because, and I’m not making this up, publishers thought American readers wouldn’t associate the word ‘Philosopher’ with magic, essentially, they thought you were too dumb to know what a philosopher is, and this is in the days before QAnon, imagine what they’d call it now, probably ‘Magicman and his Magic Adventures’ just so they don’t leave anyone out. Don’t worry though America, I trust you know what a philosopher is, so I’m using its proper name; also, start using the letter ‘u’ in words again. We were nice enough to give you a language, at least use it properly; and learn how to say ‘aluminium’. It’s said like its spelt, but I digress.

Still, the pressure was on WB to get the movie adaptation just right. A rabid fanbase is a hard enough thing to contend with, but they are even more so when the thing you’re adapting is still so fresh, and therefore at the height of its popularity. I can only imagine the sheer number of children who applied to audition for the three main parts, I bet they were long days for the producers…

So, here’s a quick refresher for those readers who’ve not read or seen Harry Potter, incidentally, please write to me and let me know what living under a rock is really like.

Harry Potter is an orphan, living with his abusive aunt and uncle, who make him live in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is informed by half-giant (and full-time sweetheart), Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) that he is a wizard, a fact hidden from him by his magic-hating relatives. He is whisked off to Hogwarts to learn magic under the great Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris). Along the way, he meets two people who are to become his inseparable best friends Ron Weasley and Hermoine Grainger (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) and discovers the truth behind his parent’s death and his subsequent fame in the wizarding world.

Trying to boil down the plot of any Harry Potter book/film is lie trying to get an elephant through a hula hoop. There’s so much subtext and complexity to the world and its characters that just trying to summarise it so briefly is doing it a massive injustice, but still, I did my best.

The Harry Potter film series isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It took them a few films to find the right groove, and even then it wasn’t immune from the odd stumbling block; but, having said that, I do think it’s a series made at the perfect time with a perfectly assembled cast.

I certainly do not envy whoever it is that decides to remake this series in several decades, having to assemble a cast that comes anywhere near as perfect as the one assembled for these eight films. You could wait for a thousand years and not have the good luck to have actors of such high calibre across the board again. The quality of actor, and how perfectly matched they are for each part is almost eerie in how well it all fell into place.

All of this starts with the admirable casting of the three child actors picked to spent their puberty waving wands around and wearing silly clothes… come to think of it, that’s not too different from most puberties.

Joking aside, they showed a lot of faith in their child actors. They needed to pick people who would age well with the part, and whether by design or sheer dumb luck, they managed it. Of course, this meant that they had to get cracking with churning out sequels so that Harry wasn’t suffering male-pattern baldness by the time Deathly Hallows released.

All of that was in the future at this point though. The first film was very much a stab in the dark when it came to the kids, which is maybe why the adult cast is packed to the rafters with acting greats, perhaps there was a hope that such co-stars would up the game of their younger counterparts. I don’t know if this was the intention, but if it was, it was a brave one.

As it happens, the child actors are very middling in this film. They’re passable, but they’re certainly not excellent. Not quite deer-in-the-headlights, but still very wooden in places and very much still acclimatising to the job, which is to be expected. It would take a crueller man than I to blame these three pre-teens for not being quite as good as Alan Rickman yet.

With this in mind, it’s left to the adults to carry most of the heavy load in terms of acting, shepherding the youngsters through the experience until they’re good enough to carry their own weight. So, it’s a good job the cast is so bloody brilliant then isn’t it?

Richard Harris is wistful, wise and yet approachable as Dumbledore, a role he would sadly pass along to Michael Gambon later on following his passing. Robbie Coltrane makes us fall in love with Hagrid all over again with his charming performance, and Alan Rickman delivers a menacing performance in a role he would only get better in over time.

Alongside the young group of actors finding their way in this new world, I think the film as a whole has teething issues all-around. The whimsy and charming side of Hogwarts is captured well enough, but it doesn’t seem to have a strong enough grasp of the stories tone, and as a result, it can feel rather washed-out and weak when compared to later instalments.

Again, these are issues that needed to be discovered before they could be ironed out later, the film nonetheless deserves praise for being a balancing act of all the franchises elements, along with being an introduction to a potentially new audience. Like many book-to-film adaptations, there are omissions – most painfully for long-time fans was the lack of Peeves the Poltergeist – but what it leaves behind is a smooth adaptation with a light, fun (if occasionally inconsistent) tone, and a brisk enough pace to keep the whole family engaged.

As a starting point, it was out of the gates with decent enough momentum, which it needs to keep up through subsequent sequels. It is difficult to judge this as a stand-alone piece, given that it is the start of a sprawling story, but it achieves what it needed to, that is to say, it established the story elements and characters admirably, and left us wanting more from the sequels, a job well done all around for the first time out I’d say.

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