For better or worse, no surprises in ‘Sorcerer’s Stone’

BY LYNN LEE

Well, it’s finally here, and Harry Potter fans everywhere can breathe (somewhat) freely. The movie is scrupulously faithful to the text, perhaps faithful to a fault. In attempting to reproduce as literally as possible the scenes, events and characters of the original, the filmmakers appear to have forgotten that a good movie, even an adaptation, has to be a creative work in its own right.

The brilliance of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” lies in J.K. Rowling’s ability to create, like Tolkien, a richly layered alternative world, a parallel universe inhabited by witches and wizards — and unlike Tolkien, to do it with a light touch and an unerring ear for the present and modern, rather than the past and archaic. For every quotidian item we Muggles (non-magic folk) take for granted, Rowling conjures a magical counterpart with an ingenious twist: chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavor Beans, in place of Hershey bars and Skittles; Quidditch, played on flying brooms, in lieu of soccer; pictures in which the people move around instead of remaining in eternally fixed poses. The crowning feat of Rowling’s vision is, of course, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, her delightful riff on the British public-school system, which our hero enters with no idea what to expect.

The movie shows painstaking efforts to recreate all this, but the demands of conventional film narration force it to limit the setting to merely that, a setting, at best a sumptuous backdrop to a storyline which in itself is far less noteworthy. Narrative drive isn’t the strong suit of “The Sorcerer’s Stone:” Loosely stitched and episodic, it’s more concerned with introducing the framework of Harry’s new world than constructing a well-made plot. Rowling taps into the myths and archetypes of good versus evil drawn on by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, George Lucas, et al. for her ├╝ber-narrative, but she’s clumsier at it here than in her later books. Which is one reason why the final showdown, in the movie, seems so painfully cheesy and downright anticlimactic. It isn’t much better in the original.

But the movie has serious flaws that can’t be blamed on the plot alone. It’s curiously dull; it lacks Rowling’s lightness and wit, paradoxically because it seems weighed down by its mission of textual fidelity. For the same reason, perhaps, it also lacks directorial vision. We may be thankful that Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Stepmom,” etc.) doesn’t get to gum up the works with his usual mixture of slapstick and syrup, but his self-effacement leaves a vacuum. For a reader who knows in advance everything that’s going to happen, there can be no suspense in the movie except in seeing how the director is going to make it happen. The problem with a face-value transcription such as this is that it packs no surprises; it is entirely devoid of cinematic daring. Even in the visuals, there’s much to impress the eye (the filming locations, which include various Oxford sites and a stunning castle in Northumberland, are gorgeous), but little to astonish the imagination. The Quidditch match is a swift and bracing piece of technical wizardry, and only that; it feels too much like a video game, and not enough like — well, think of the flying scene in “E.T.” Spielberg, as it happens, was originally slated to direct “Harry Potter;” not surprisingly, he butted heads with Rowling and abandoned the project due to “creative differences.” No doubt he wanted to alter too much. Yet the thought occurred to me that, had he remained at the helm and been given some (but not too much) free rein, he’d have taken more liberties with the book but maybe made a better movie — one with a truer sense of wonder and enchantment.

As for the cast, all of them look and act their parts admirably, but not too many convey a genuine sense of feeling it, inhabiting it, down to the bone. There are exceptions — notably, Robbie Coltrane, who is pitch-perfect as the gigantic, rough-hewn but soft-hearted Hagrid, Harry’s first non-Muggle friend; David Bradley as the dour caretaker, Filch; and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), Harry’s snobbish rival at school, whose slicked-back blond hair, perpetually wrinkled nose and supercilious sneer continually upstage Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry, adorable as the latter is. I also would have liked to see more of the wonderful Maggie Smith as the straitlaced Professor McGonagall and hear more of Alan Rickman’s velvet drawl as Snape, the sinister potions teacher. As for the three stars — Radcliffe’s Harry and his best buds Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) — they do just fine. I’d pictured Harry a little edgier, Ron a little lankier and Hermione a bit more overbearing; Watson’s Hermione in particular is cuter and snippier than I had imagined her. These quibbles aside, though, their perfectly commendable performances somehow don’t really get beneath the surface of their characters. We get very little background history on anyone except Harry, and even there, explanation is minimized; we don’t get a full sense of why he, and the fact that he’s “the boy who lived,” is so damn important.

This speaks to the broader question of why the film, for all its good looks and good intentions, fails to live up to the book. I came away with the feeling that anyone who saw it who hadn’t read the book would have no better understanding what the big deal is about Harry Potter. This movie may satisfy the existing fans, but it’s unlikely to win any new ones or convince the uninitiated to read the series. A pity, because these are books that deserve to be read; unlike the movie, they transcend the sum of their parts.

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