Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone received a title change in America – the original was "the philosopher's stone." It seems that distributors thought so little of American audiences that they worried even about the word "philosopher" as being a turnoff. Contrary to that belief, the film is packed with philosophy, if optimism in a scary world can be called one. The film makes every room seem built for reading and warming up in. Even its scary aspects cannot deflate the feeling of childhood, not as it was maybe but as it might have been, to those who wish it felt as special at the time as it does in retrospect. I have heard this film called one of the lesser Harry Potters, but I can't agree – next thing you know, Christmas will be called one of the lesser holidays.
The Harry Potter fairytale is so focused on the idea of heroism that it doesn’t have time for heroics. Harry’s a bit of a well-meaning lump. He’s always behind on the action, a fish out of water in his own pond, and gets everything explained to him so carefully that you wonder what his grades were in mortal schools, much less in the magical ones. As in The Chronicles of Narnia, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world exists in the same space and time as our own: just as the Pevensies might have been considering Hitler when sizing up the White Witch, Harry is likely familiar with gentlemen as vile as the unspeakably evil Lord Voldemort (shhh!) from his own history books. The dark lord may be an aberration in a world of alchemists and pudgy gamekeepers and pointy hats. But in the real world, he’d be a footnote.
By making the extreme seem exceptional, and the hero seem normal, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone becomes an optimist’s fable. The story isn’t about Voldemort, or even Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). Ingeniously, it’s about what people have heard of them, and what they have thought of him since they heard his bedtime story for the first time (we're doing the same thing). Swathed in animal leather and hair and hidden smiles, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), like a disheveled Santa who’s taken up chimney sweeping, tells us the story. The dark lord was on his murderous rampage when he slaughtered the Potter family, approached the crib where baby Harry slept, and disappeared. He tried to kill the baby, but something “stumped him,” he says. Hagrid is an antique body with a Norman Rockwell face: beer foam in his beard would complete the merriment that he, like most adults in the magical realm, keep to themselves, for some reason. After living with them in it for just a little while, we learn that the reason is called, Voldemort.
Harry Potter is not exactly a cautionary tale, but its world comes with a safety warning. Rowling armed it with irresistible mystery; magic tricks are its means to tell the story, not its subject. These people seem worried about each day, perhaps because their world is out of balance, fading from the map, or perhaps it's simply because one of those days might bring harm to Harry Potter.
Harry is special, as he learns, when hushed voices follow him around the tavern, and careful eyes watch his every move, eyes who have seen fantastical creatures and lived to conjure fire from their fingers, but can’t believe their senses when they see Harry Potter. It’s the cleverest possible reversal of a worn horror trope, the scene where the ignorant adventurer says too loudly that he has come to visit a vampire and all the voices in the place hush in warning. In Harry Potter, the adventurer causes the hush by finding himself, a hush that is not a warning of things to come but a memory of something already done.
He’s special because, of all Voldemort’s victims, he's "the boy who lived.” The respect that Harry gets from his teachers, the cautious way they protect him from the shadows, has nothing to do with the boy himself, but rather, what his life means to everyone else. They don't believe he's a messiah or hero. But if he can live, and keep living, then maybe evil can be stopped. He represents, just by being a small boy in a scary world, the possibility that things will be okay.
Most heroes accomplish great feats of strength or learning, even as children. But the story purposely shows Harry being shown up constantly – everyone he meets seems to be smarter, braver, or savvier than he is. The story seems to say that since the hero doing great deeds is easy to write, the hero might as well do nothing but still be regarded as heroic, to see what interesting places that could take it. He goes on less of a hero’s journey than the squeamish Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) who matures into a child’s idea of a hero. Compared to the aplomb Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a stunning know-it-all, like a mix between Violet Beauregard and Nancy Drew, Harry knows very little about the world around him.
Yet Harry’s heart, just as it is, has some special place of power in the world, adapted and somewhat unavoidably reduced by Steve Kloves. Warner Bros. spun a roulette wheel with these kids, hoping they would grow up likable; after the Star Wars prequels, they had an example of how wrong it could go. Even in The Sorcerer’s Stone, where Watson’s reads her lines with the “precious” dialed up beyond sensible levels, the kids ended up being good bets.
Their school for witchcraft and wizardry upholds its reputation: it's called "Hogwarts," and captures the antique menace of that name. It’s not a safe, schoolboard-sterilized learning facility. It holds great mystery and danger for the curious. The kids are like orphans in a Dickensian prison by choice, full of nannies and watch guards and mangy cats and terrible punishments for being tardy. Each “house” lives sequestered in fairytale towers and competes in a school-wide competition to receive the least punishment. “We could be killed,” Hermione chirps, contemplating leaving the dorms after hours, “or worse – expelled.” We never know what that means and don’t have to: we know it must be wittily horrific, with such persons on call as the well-meaningly curt Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, who wraps his lips around every word like it’s a delicacy he’s eaten so frequently that it bores him). Harry Potter knows that punishment for children can seem worse than death, which is a mystery they have never confronted and possibly don’t believe in.
Those school houses as established in The Sorcerer’s Stone make sense from the perspective of a child. One represents heroism (Gryffindor, naturally, the house of the protagonists). Another represents villainy (Slytherin). And because we don’t know anyone from them, the others, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, represent very little. That makes sense in this first film, but it set the series on a path of believing that the houses are morally separated, with little grey area. At a certain point down the road, that begins to seem counterproductive to the overall messages of free will and acceptance. Retroactively, Hermione seems like an ideal candidate for Ravenclaw, Ron for Gryffindor, and Harry for Slytherin, to prove that villainy is a choice and to accentuate the positive virtues of Slytherin house. The idea of them all being in the “hero house” and the numinous headmaster, Dumbledore (Richard Harris), willfully awarding them bonus points until they win the film, works in this first film only.
It works on the level of a fable that a kid like Harry would hope to write for himself. In this episode, it is a story about discovering that you’re more special than you realized. Director Chris Columbus gives us a glimpse of Harry’s upbringing under the mildly villainous Dursleys, his life in the cupboard beneath the family’s stairs, the life of punishment that a child would imagine for themselves in such a story to justify becoming a hero. There’s something about European stories and villainous aunts and uncles, perhaps from the ingrained cultural value of the significance of blood lines. From Dickens to Rowling, we see how difficult it is to be the child of someone’s sibling living in their house. Harry endures his piggish cousin’s (Harry Melling) greed for child things and his bloated uncle’s (Richard Griffiths) unruly temperament towards anything the least bit magical. When Harry blows out a birthday cake drawn from dust on the stone floor of the room, his tragedy has been blown up by a kid’s exaggeration to become funny. Harry Potter borrows quite a bit from Matilda here: Vernon Dursley is like the parental monstrosities of Roald Dahl by way of The Good Neighbors. Harry endures a lot. In this first film, at least, he doesn’t protest too much, which may be his most tangible virtue.
This brings me back to heroism. Harry possesses none of the fairytale traits: no great strength or speed or cunning, no ability to meaningfully defy authority or change the course of his mistreatment. When they were handing out panaceas, the poor kid must have been grounded. His destiny follows him, as other people make it. (“She knows more about you than you do,” Ron says.” Harry’s reply is from someone losing to his identity crisis: “Who doesn’t?”) The audience gets to participate in his wonderment, witnessing it do the impossible by turning those pointy hats and wands and baubles, tired from overuse for centuries of magic stories, into something new again. For Rowling, the symbols are elemental, familiar to the point of comforting. Everyone is wearing their own bedtime story in The Sorcerer’s Stone.
Dumbledore seems to stuff all of them into one flowing robe. He’s perfectly numinous, speaking as paper crinkles, gesturing with the slow grace of someone underwater. His eyes sparkle with the old stories. We know everything about him in one nervous glance, most of all that we know almost nothing about him. Harry receives his oaken wand, given to him by Ollivander (John Hurt), in a scene of mythic levity, and no less significant for it. It doesn’t seem to give him any great power – Rowling navigates the Excalibur situation, throwing a little Star Wars in there, to give Harry the sibling wand of Voldemort’s and also to show that it can only do what Harry tells it to. As most things in Harry Potter, beneath the magical items is a perfectly simple lesson: our choices are more important than our abilities.
The mundane parts of the story are far better than the showdowns. The children face monsters and towering schoolteachers, but I prefer them shopping, unpacking, going to class. These are the things that separate it from other blockbusters for children, films that skip to the “good stuff” by skipping the best stuff of all. This magical realm is warm, lived-in, like a whole world constructed out of colonial cabins. Every place in the world seems to have a fireside. For almost no reason at all, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by feeling alone is perfect viewing for Christmastime.
The simplicity is the story’s best influence. The magical children lead lives out of time; their homemade clothes are lit by candles in the simple rooms made of wood and stone. They leave behind their vacuums and hair-curlers and PlayStations to come here, to learn quill pen calligraphy and the many uses for an enthusiastic broomstick. When we’re riding behind Harry’s back in his big Quidditch game (they bat balls from flying broom-back, like a cross between an aerial dogfight and polo), we have regressed in technology into a future of wonderment. It fits the audience like the copilot’s seat in Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing, which was a ship so enthusiastically futuristic that it could blow up a mechanized planet, yet still had the bolted down rusty feel of a racecar. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter crops out the distractions to create a future with the past in it, or the reverse. The Harry Potter stories have the appeal, not only of a great invention, but an even greater omission.
The warm dining hall, with its tumultuous walls and floating candles and visiting ghosts (John Cleese shows up as the self-evident ghost story, Nearly-Headless Nick), is not something the audience can accept as real, or should. Instead, the film asks the audience to consider that it might always have been possible, with the right intuition. My memory of The Sorcerer’s Stone has an oaky finish, a warm feeling, like a well-meaning smile. The characters aren’t deep on their own – it feels improbable in the first film that they could fill seven more films with conflict – but they represent the simple hopes and fears of childhood, which is more complex to render accurately than the most complicated character arc.
The hopes and dangers of the world are built on their level. Even a monster, a brutish troll for instance, has the dumpy expression of a lost child. Columbus, whose experience directing Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire would not have given me hope for Harry Potter, manages to put aside the part of him that thought it was funny for Joe Pesci to be hit in the meatballs repeatedly, squealing, set on fire, and then pressed into shards of glass, and just keeps the part that feels like holiday cheer. He creates the world best of all in little details: a bank run by goblin tellers, a forest of centaurs haunted by a unicorn’s death, a potion master with an unknown secret. He carries the quest of a little boy who hasn’t figured out his quest yet. What if you’ve lived your whole life, not knowing that you’re important? This is the question Harry asks now. The one he might end up with later will be: what if that was the most important thing about me?
Harry Potter may never do anything to deserve his own legend. Will any of us? The Sorcerer’s Stone is only partly the story of a mystical object that can become whatever its owner wishes for most. The rest is the pursuit of a feeling, the idea that even a scary world can be conquered by hoping for the best from it. The rest of the series casts shadows of varying intensity over the little cabin of Harry’s magical new world, but that’s okay. The shadows are meaningful because Columbus (and Rowling) was willing to start here, at the beginning, where all children start. I’ve seen many rankings of the Harry Potter series that rank The Sorcerer’s Stone in the bottom half, even the bottom two. It’s easy to forget after the action and sensation had grown so much that in adaptations of youth novels, this is rarer than a unicorn, and much, much rarer than a hero. It’s the castle in moonlight, as the children row into its ancient dock. It’s Harry smiling from ear to ear because someone took one random moment of his life and made it feel like Christmas. During The Sorcerer's Stone, that’s something he and I have in common.
This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, August 3, 2018
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures