The best thing about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the story’s author J.K. Rowling, whose imaginative conjuring of the world of Hogwart’s School of Witchery and Wizardry, with all of its fresh details and vivid characters, can only be compared with L. Frank Baum’s Oz or C.S. Lewis Narnia.
There is a magic mirror quality to Harry Potter, as there is a magic mirror in fact in the center of the story. What you see inside are desires made real. When Harry Potter walks through a brick wall in a train station to find the correct platform for the train to Hogwart’s, we step through the wardrobe, so to speak, with him and find ourselves in an amazingly vivid and convincing new reality. The moment of surprise we experience when the streets of this other London materialize alone makes the film worth watching.
Harry Potter is the choice to take it beyond two hard covers and the head of a single child, to this gigantic The worst thing about commercial machine designed to market as many artifacts of the Rowling world as will fill department store shelves, and then Christmas stockings.
This is number one of seven proposed films. Seven. Even the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone reminds us of the blitzkrieg at hand. I would be inclined to dismiss this commercial onslaught as “the nature of the business” were it not, in my mind at least, a contradiction of the themes of the film, which are 1) the need for imaginative escape in a conformist, middle-class society – magic in the books and film (Christians may relax) stands as a metaphor for a childlike need for the world of fantasy – and 2) the danger of power placed in the wrong hands – the evil Lord Voldemort who has used his powers for self-glorification. The mass culture commercialism pushing the Harry Potter machine is run by the forces Rowling implicitly condemns – both conformism and a very powerful and wide-reaching set of ravenous economic interests. The film plays to underdogs. The film is not.
If, however, you can strip Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from all that binds it to global consumerism run wild and look it as just a film, you will probably enjoy it thoroughly. My children did. So, let’s pretend for a moment that we are all children.
What director Chris Columbus has managed in the film is an exact visualization of the Rowling book, an accomplishment that will prove prudent given how many viewers will match the film to all the memorized details of the story. Most directors find it hard not to tamper with even the best of stories – recall last year’s grotesque rendition of Dr Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The performances in the film are likewise vivid, from Daniel Radcliffe’s conveyance of wonder, the Harry Potter look, to Robbie Coltrane’s brilliant characterization of the gigantic mentor Rubeus Hagrid, to the cameo roles of Maggie Smith, John Cleese, and Richard Harris. Everything seems proportional and well-toned. The only film that comes to mind on this level is the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland with Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Edna May Oliver playing Carroll figures they seemed born to play.
The plot of Harry Potter has its innovative twists, like when a chess game comes to life, but overall it resembles the last few Disney blockbusters: a group of underdogs will overcome a series of hurdles en route to a final confrontation with the dark – fill in the blank. The universe is Manichaean, which is to say that good is good and evil is evil, and we are going to watch the two grapple for six more films.
In this generic blandness, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is unfortunately doomed to suffer some poor comparisons to the next blockbuster coming at us – The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s story carries in it all the source material for Rowling’s but with far-greater human insight. Assuming all things filmic are the same, The Lord of the Rings will have the longer shelf life.
And one more thing. To all those folks who fear the shady witchery of Harry Potter, I offer a consolation. The appearance of magic – be it through elves or fairy godmothers or good and evil witches of the east and west – has always been a part of children’s stories. Children see through the gauze of reality more easily, finding readier access to imaginative worlds where life seems more heavenly; that is, closer to the spiritual center of things. Christians should know that center to be God.
It is normal and even hopeful that children, and adults for that matter, in a very scientific and rational age, clouded by ominous threats of global doom, should find pleasurable escape in a magical world where brooms can fly and where chessmen come to life. Didn’t God create the human imagination? And, in an odd way, doesn’t Harry Potter just remind us that we are not merely a bundle of chemical and biological processes? And that we are not doomed? There may even be some extra coals in the fire this Christmas.
As always seems to happen when the forces of censorship converge, conservative Christians who encourage their fellows to avoid or condemn Harry Potter target the wrong work. Rowling is a friend of the faith. Where is the outcry over Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a set of books intentionally anti-Christian?