In anticipation of November’s release of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I plan on revisiting all of the films in the Harry Potter franchise. This will likely be a once a month type deal, though it’ll vary depending on time and the films in question (ie anticipate both parts of Deathy Hallows coming shortly after one another). In any case, I should explore a bit of my history with the franchise. Harry Potter served as a pretty significant pop cultural touchstone for myself and those I grew up with. More so than even the Star Wars prequels that were being released around the same time, this was the highly anticipated series of films that my friends & I eagerly awaited on a semi-annual basis. It also served as the first series of films where I had read the books prior, working up that book geek feeling of disappointment over details that weren’t in the final adaptation. Yet despite meaning so much to me at the time, I haven’t really taken a look at any of the Harry Potter films since Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released five years ago. Until now, that is.
So, our journey begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (at least for American audiences like myself, though Philosopher’s Stone is a far more appropriate title that I guess Warner Brothers figured we couldn’t wrap out heads around). Director Chris Columbus – most likely chosen due to his practice getting memorable performances out of child actors in Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire – had the immense task of introducing JK Rowling’s world to cinema and quelling the needs of the demanding fanbase at the same time. The resulting film is often criticized for feeling too close to the page, but that dedication to adaptation is honestly needed for an introductory film like this. Through the eyes of young Harry himself, we get a vibrant sense of variety that this magical land hidden beneath our own can give. The wondrous ennui of discovery from the halls of Hogwarts. The danger that lurks in the shadows of the Forbidden Forest. The hauntingly infinite sadness of the Mirror of Erised. It’s the perfect combination to build this wondrous world yet tease the terrors that will come in the inevitable future of the franchise. Of course, Columbus’ direction would be nothing without the seminal production design by Stuart Craig or the gorgeously sweeping John Williams score. There are moments where the seams are a bit more torn than others, mainly with the confusing and completely unneeded aspect of Qudditch that bogs things down in a sport that’s ultimately pointless and the rather muddy CG that makes the humans in particular look like Shrek extras. Yet, the better moments of the latter and the enchanting practical effects work strongest at crafting a world that hadn’t really been depicted in many mainstream fantasy films beforehand, arguably on par with the admittedly more vast and grandiose initial Lord of the Rings trilogy from Peter Jackson that came around the same time.
Well, inevitable might not be the perfect choice of words. For the time, no one working on this first Harry Potter film knew if this would pay off. The gamble of putting out this first in a at least seven part series – let alone casting these kids and acclaimed UK actors – with the potential chance that some of them wouldn’t continue with it is staggering. Given hindsight, it’s a risk that ultimately paid off. Sure, one can see the training wheels clearly set in place for our leads. This works out for someone like Daniel Radcliffe, whose genuine stiff child actor awkwardness fits the titular character given his harsh and suffocating upbringing. Of course he’d be socially inexperienced and shy, which makes the embrace from his new friends all the more endearing. The same awkwardness isn’t as well worn by young Rupert Grint as Ron Weasely or Emma Watson as Herminone Granger, who have plenty of cringeworthy examples of delivery that show the type of naive acting choices they would luckily soon grow out of over the course of their ten year journey. Other child actors fit comfortably in their admittedly more standard roles, particularly Matthew Lewis as the dimwitted yet lovable Neville Longbottom or Tom Felton as an effectively slimy Draco Malfoy.
But the balls they fumbled are picked up wonderfully by the immense talents around them. Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid is the perfect lovable deliverer of initial information. His emotional honesty instantly attaches us not just to his character, but also to the magical world he’ll introduce Harry and the audience to, especially after he gives the Dursleys the verbal lashing they’ve been asking for. This is then carried into a more complex sense of authority from the more familiar group of English actors, particularly the elegantly stern Maggie Smith, the brief playfully black comedy of John Cleese or the warmheartedly regal nature of Richard Harris. Harris in particular is interesting to note, given this is only one of two turns he had as Dumbledore before his eventual death shortly before the release of what will be our next topic Chamber of Secrets. Though Michael Gambon would be given the chance to show much more range for the character over the course of five films, Harris did the better job of getting across the more authentic sentimentality of the part. Even for as schmaltzy as his monologue to Harry is about “love” being the big factor that saved him from Voldemort’s grasp, it’s sold incredibly well by Harris’ genuine dedication to the role. One can see it in every moment he has on screen, from the building warmth of his House Cup ruling to the small aside of “Alas. Earwax.”
But of course, the main reason I started this series this month was spurred by an unfortunate event. Alan Rickman, who played Severus Snape here and would go on to play the part for the entire eight film series, passed away on January 14th, 2016. Rickman, beyond being an iconic actor from films like Die Hard, Galaxy Quest or the Harry Potter cast grab bag Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was a professional who knew how to embody the varying facets of a character that would grow to be incredibly complex from this point forward. One can see, even at this point when JK Rowling had only a vague idea of where Snape would be, the conflicted heart that would lead to Snape’s reveal in the final part of the series. Right from the moment Snape introduces himself for Harry’s first potion’s class, the intimidating presence of Rickman sends eerie vibes down the audiences’ spines, showing the mysteriously droll effect Snape has on those around him and building up enough seemingly incriminating evidence to support the red herring of Snape’s motives. Yet, that piercing face is still able to transition into dedicated worry, showed off in probably the most redeeming aspect of that Quidditch scene. Rickman’s face was one of complex variety, managing to show off intense warmth and rage with mere seconds apart. It’s a shame we’ll never see that face again in a new context.
By the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we’ve gotten a true sense that an adventure has started. Many of the attempted fantasy YA based franchises that came in Harry Potter‘s wake like The Spiderwick Chronicles or The Golden Compass failed to give their commencement chapters much weight by simply introducing a few pieces of world building via exposition and a cliff hanger rather than truly endear us to the characters populated within that world. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the characters find a genuine connection of friendship as they’re tossed into an environment based around learning. Learning not just about spells and magical creatures, but how to deal with social situations, how to question authority within reason and how to deal with immediate danger thanks to their collective skills. Even with the clear foibles of the era it was made in, this first chapter of the Harry Potter saga serves as the adolescent’s imperfect entrance into a strange new world, both of the magical and adult variety. Something I really could relate to as a child when I originally saw it. But it’s only the first step. See ya in the Chamber of Secrets!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 3.5 out of 5 Hogwarts Letters