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Article ID: 3722
Age Group: Adult
Posted: November 18th. 2001
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Peg's Review
by Peg Aloi
There is some sad news to report at the beginning of this month's column. Anthony Shaffer, playwright and screenwriter (Sleuth, Frenzy, Death on the Nile, and The Wicker Man) and twin brother of playwright Peter Shaffer (Equus, Amadeus), died on November 6th at the age of 75 after a brief illness. Pagans familiar with The Wicker Man know that Shaffer's sly, literate screenplay about a Christian police officer investigating the report of a missing child in an odd pagan community in the remote islands of Scotland, offered mystery and magic that reached audiences across genres: horror, mystery, and musical. The Sunday Times wrote in their obituary:
"A film dear to his heart for its exploitation of sinister scariness was the cult classic The Wicker Man (1973), for which he wrote the screenplay. This highly effective tale of diabolical possession, starring Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland and Christopher Lee, was directed by Robin Hardy and made use of ravishing Scottish Highland settings as the backdrop for its supernatural goings-on."
Shaffer's collaboration with director Robin Hardy yielded one of the most enduring cult classics of all time. The recent DVD release includes a fascinating documentary detailing the strange occurrences which marked the making of this film, and its success against all odds. Ironically, several weeks before Shaffer's death, news of a big-budget Hollywood remake was announced, written and directed by Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty) and starring Nic Cage. It was well-known that Shaffer was bitter for years because of the lack of creative ownership he had maintained over his property, and he publicly declared his disapproval over the remake. Shaffer was also involved in creating a stage musical based on the film, which was rumored to open in Canada in the next year. It is not known at this time if that project will go forward.
Rest well, Mr. Shaffer. And thank you for your art and vision which have inspired so many.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
The other bit of news this month hardly needs to be announced. The film version of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opened to record-breaking audience attendance and ticket sales, setting box office records in the first few hours. Fans of the series of books (and they are many; the book has been translated into dozens of languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide, among children and adults) have been abuzz for months wondering if the magic of the books could possibly be translated to the big screen.
Film adaptations of magical books are often disappointing; the human imagination crafts images and emotions from words on a page in ways that speak to us individually. For one artist (or creative team helmed by one singular vision) to interpret that work of literature is a recipe for disappointment by its very design. Think of the film versions of Dune, or Interview with the Vampire, or The Witches of Eastwick, or The Shining, or The Mists of Avalon, or Practical Magic: all are good films or mini-series in their own right (well, maybe not The Witches of Eastwick). But readers can point to many examples of plot elements left out of or changed from the film versions (Morgause murders Viviane? Huh? And why does Gillian become possessed by the ghost of her lover?), unfortunate casting choices (Tom Cruise as the androgynous Lestat? Glamorous, twiggy Cher as the overweight, earthy Alexandra?) or simple omission of key visual or magical elements (the topiary that comes to life on the grounds of the Overlook) so important to a story's success.
A book as richly detailed as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (originally titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone but apparently "dumbed down" for American audiences; I am in the process of ordering UK editions for myself) could not possibly be replicated in all its wonder and intricacy... or could it? Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) who became interested in the project as a result of his young daughter's insistence he read the book, has said he often asked for her input and she watched many of the daily rushes and offered her opinion on how scenes were shot. "I'm not saying I based any major editing decisions (on her comments, " he said in Katie Couric's interview, but he admitted her encyclopedic knowledge of the book's trivia was useful to him, as well as her very strong feelings about how certain things should be portrayed.
WARNING: From This Point On...
This Review Will Contain Spoilers. Ye Have Been Warned.
I am not going to go over the basic plot elements because for the most part the film is remarkably faithful to the book, in terms of chronology and important plot points. I'm offering my commentary on the acting, special effects and the film as a whole, because in adapting a book like this those elements seem the most significant. As critic John Leonard said in his review, "Hollywood didn't spoil War and Peace, " and there are times when the silver city gets things right. I am happy to report that this is one of the most engaging, magical and entertaining films I have seen in a very long time, and that the movie's faithfulness to Rowling's book is about as thorough as one could reasonably expect from Hollywood.
Of course one of the most crucial aspects of a successful film adaptation is characterization, and the first key to success is effective casting. There is such an impressive roster of actors in this film (among England's finest, and I for one appreciate the Englishness of this film's sensibility) that it would be hard to go wrong. From the amazing newcomers Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione, to veterans like Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, Zoe Wannamaker as Madame Hooch, and Fiona Shaw as Aunt Petunia, it is hard to imagine a finer array of actors to make this story come to life. Also, John Cleese has a hilarious cameo as a certain nearly-headless ghost.
Of course we expect fine things from the likes of Harris, Smith, Coltrane and Shaw. (I got to interview Fiona Shaw during a publicity tour last year for the film The Last September; one of my favorite actresses and a delightful woman, I was delighted when I heard she would play this juicy role, and she does not disappoint: her Aunt Petunia is as full of spite, jealousy and cowardice as Rowling's portrayal of her). But it is the unselfconscious, utterly convincing performances from our three young friends of the House of Gryffindor that leave an indelible impression. Daniel Radcliffe is perfect as Harry, with his Paul McCartney hair and big blue eyes. At first beaten down by his horrid muggle aunt and uncle and their odious son Dudley, shocked at the arrival of the owls and Hagrid when he is whisked away to Hogwarts, then gradually growing to understand his unique gifts and fame, every one of these transformations of his character is subtle and believable.
I confess I fell in love with Rupert Grint's Ron Weasley: an inexperienced actor determined to get this part, Grint's winning the role over hundreds of other actors is a childlike fantasy come true. He makes the most of his opportunity, portraying Ron as a likeable, self-deprecating boy eager to make friends but careful not to reveal too much. His embarrassment over his humble upbringing, his repulsion/fascination response to Hermione, and his immediate fondness for Harry, all are clearly based in the actor's own fondness for the book and his naturalness for the big screen (his quick wit and sparkling humor with Katie Couric on the TV special were a reminder that using American child actors for these roles would have been a big mistake). I particularly love the scene where the two friends meet, on the Hogwarts Express. It is slightly different from the book. When the sweets cart comes around to their compartment, Ron sheepishly holds up a bag of squashed sandwiches and declines to buy anything. Harry, his pockets bulging with Gringott's gold, says without hesitation "We'll take the lot" and Ron explains all the strange, magical candies to him, since Harry, up until now, has never had any money to buy treats of any kind for himself-Ron instinctively understands Harry's generosity is not showing off but genuine kindness. This is later exhibited when the boys first meet Draco Malfoy, a bleached blonde little smartass, eager to make friends with the famous Harry Potter, but who cruelly teases Ron ("Red hair and hand-me-down robes, must be a Weasley"). He arrogantly informs Harry he should be careful not to hang out with the "wrong sort" and extends his hand, which Harry refuses, saying he can tell who the wrong sort are for himself, thanks. Alliances are drawn instantly, and while the history of the rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin is not as detailed as it is in the book (one wonders why Harry keeps saying "Not Slytherin" again and again as the Sorting Hat-a slouchy leathery face with a "been there done that" demeanor--prepares to place him in his chosen house), the dislike between Draco and Harry is understood as being in the scheme of things.
As is the chemistry between bossy bookworm Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, who says she is nothing like Hermione in real life and "hates her, " gives a stunning performance) and Ron and Harry. They are like a 19th century Mod Squad, all giving of their best as they unravel the mysterious happenings around them; Hermione's studiousness pays off and saves their lives more than once; Ron's devotion to his friends and Harry's courage get them through various death-defying scrapes.
One can't review this film without mentioning the amazing special effects. Obviously the story is full of magical moments and impossibilities, and to describe every single effect would take pages. I also noted that the effects seem inspired by and drawn from many different schools of special-effects wizardry. I am not sure if this was intentional or not. My favorite by far was: the owls! The scenes where the letters from Hogwarts arrive at 4 Privet Drive, accompanied by hundreds of owls, and the owls delivering mail in the dining hall at Hogwarts, are spectacular. Diagon Alley is even more magical than Rowlings' description: a Dickensian corner of secret London, the cobblestoned streets lined with shops full of magical items and the shoppers a mind-spinning array of colorfully-attired children and parents and wizards and witches. The instantaneous appearance of food on the tables at dinner, shot from above, is beautiful, with candles suspended high in the air overhead. The students and teachers alike are all served a bounteous feats of candy at Hallowe'en with floating Jack o' lanterns replacing the candles. I was not overly fond of the portrayal of the Quidditch match: it looked and felt too much like Jedi fighters in Star Wars, the boys and girls zipping around on their brooms moving way too fast to be much more than a blur. The various creatures were a mixed bag: the goblins were first rate, like the finest Jim Henson creations. I also loved the unicorn and centaur, shown in the blue-lit Dark Forest. Norbert, the baby Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, was perfect. The huge troll that attacks Hermione is great: a grey-skinned, pin-headed oaf right out of Brian Froud's fairy books. I have to say, Fluffy, the three-headed dog clearly based on Cerberos, demon guardian of the gates of hell, was disappointing, since he was so obviously computer-generated. And Voldemort, who lives parasitically on the back of Quirrel's head, looks a lot like the walking zombie-like beings in The Mummy. Perhaps one of the most impressive special effects is ingenious because of its low-tech ingenuity: Harry's cloak of invisibility. We are shown Harry's point of view from beneath the cloak, and it is nothing more than the actor wearing a diaphanous piece of fabric painted with magical symbols like the heavy velvet cloak he put on earlier. This was a clever and effective way to allow us to see and feel what it was like to wear that garment. Speaking of costumes, they were exactly as I pictured them. Maggie Smith wears a green velvet mantle with subtle Celtic and occult designs; hmm, I wonder if the spring fashion shows will feature clothes inspired by this film's odd combination of luxurious magical robes and proper English public school attire? They're saying the scarlet and gold striped scarf (Gryffindor's colors) will be THE fashion accessory to get hold of this winter...
I was struck again and again at the myriad magical lessons inherent in this story and their application to modern witchcraft and magical practice. Some of the best scenes and lines that speak to this were unfortunately left out, as when Hermione says, "This isn't magic, it's logic. A lot of the greatest wizards haven't got an ounce of logic." We see what happens when young wizards and witches don't study their herblore carefully. We see how easy it is to be fooled by glamour, and how easy it is to want to be fooled indefinitely. We see how foolish it can be to set off boldly in the face of the unknown. We hear the fear and hatred in the voices of muggles when they refer to their own flesh and blood as "freaks." We see that love is the greatest virtue a magician can have. We see that true magic is not about spells and potions and brooms and amulets, but about friendship and bravery and courage and truth.
It needs to be said that the Religious Right is not at all happy with the popularity of this film. Here is just one example of the sort of things being said: (Link)
But I think the book's runaway success is more significant; children the world over have discovered Harry Potter, and have grown to love these incredible stories. They have left their video games and mindless cartoons and uncreative modes of play behind, at least for the moment, and are finding joy in reading. Books. Literature. Who'd have thought it possible? They are learning that study and effort and good old-fashioned strength of character can help them solve a whole world of problems. If that is not magic, what is?
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Saturday, Nov. 19th 2001
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