'Harry Potter': Rowling good fun
By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 16, 2001
When I went to see "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," I made sure I sat next to the cleric.
I'm not talking about some intimidating, bearded man clutching a book. My cleric was the 10-year-old daughter of a good friend, who has read all four Harry Potter books in English and French.
Nothing untoward would pass her intense scrutiny. I waited for her to note even the slightest departure from The Text with a pained sigh, theatrical eye-rolling or, worst of all, a premature exit.
Here's the big news: The cleric was pleased.
Well, of course she had issues. Clerics always have issues. The actor (Bonnie Wright) who plays a little girl named Ginny Weasley didn't have red hair like the rest of her family. And Alan Rickman, a sinister character named Professor Snape, well, he didn't seem evil enough. But Robbie Coltrane, who plays the momentous role of Hagrid, was a big, shaggy hit.
This was a carefully measured thumbs up.
But first, a "Harry" briefing. Based on the best-selling book by J.K. Rowling, the movie's about young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), whose parents (of the wizard variety) are slain by the dreaded Voldemort.
To protect Harry while he grows up, wizards Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) leave the infant at the doorstep of his perfectly horrid relatives, the Dursleys, Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths).
The Dursleys, who favor their nasty son, Dudley, treat Harry badly, trying to keep the story of his parents and their wizardry a secret.
But Harry learns about his true identity (and budding magical powers) when the oversize Hagrid reappears in the Muggle (or non-magical) world to collect Harry and dispatch him to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Suddenly, the 11-year-old boy's miserable existence becomes a life of wonder. He's a wizard, destined to acquire amazing magical abilities and to meet others like him. And, down the road, there's bound to be a confrontation with Voldemort, whose bungled attempt to kill the infant Harry has left a lightning-shaped mark on the boy's forehead.
"Potter"-the-movie is about Harry discovering his powers, making friends with classmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and learning about the good and dark forces around him at Hogwarts.
There's much more to Harry's first term, including a fast acquaintance with the airborne, broomstick-riding, no-holds-barred game of Quidditch; a form of in-your-face chess, in which the pieces smash one another to smithereens; and a confrontation with a gigantic, three-headed dog named Fluffy.
Having tackled only the first Harry Potter book, I am a mere dilettante, of course. (The hyper-literalists and other clerics always seem to ask me if I've read the books, plural.) But Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a high treat of a read, with evocative characters, wonderfully subtle wit and a great sense of epic adventure.
It would be a near impossibility to evoke the letter of this, or almost any, good book. And, inevitably, the Warner Bros. movie is a special-effects, big-moment version of a book that trades in a dynamic mixture of priceless moments, big and small.
Case in point: In the book, Harry visits a wand shop (located in a secret dimension of London) to find the perfect magic stick. It takes several wands before he settles on the right one.
But this isn't dramatic enough for a movie that needs to make billions in box office and merchandising dollars. Thus, in the movie, Harry tries only three wands (the audience couldn't take more than that), and the first two cause enormous, comical explosions in the shop. Incidentally, in his cameo appearance as the wandsmith Mr. Ollivander, John Hurt is terrific.
The bottom line: "Harry Potter"-the-movie, directed by Chris Columbus, who co-adapted the book with Steven ("The Fabulous Baker Boys") Kloves, retains (and in many cases, boosts) as much of the spirit as you could reasonably expect. And it makes a worthy attempt to duplicate Rowling's engaging sense of humor. The cast (thankfully, British) is uniformly good. In the difficult-to-cast roles of Harry's young classmates, Grint and Watson are impressive. I actually liked Rickman as Snape. And loved Coltrane as Hagrid. And, in the title role, Radcliffe is an utter, unpretentious, non-obnoxious charm. Let's hope he can complete his round of Harry roles before his voice breaks. And, as a final point, Warner Bros. executives please note, my 9-year-old son (who also came to the screening) watched with enrapt attention and made only one trip to the bathroom. For a 2 1/2-hour movie, that's no small achievement. In fact, I call that rockin' good news.
Contains some scary, noisy things, a three-headed dog and giant chess pieces fighting one another.