The Harry Potter film has loads of technical expertise but lacks the enthralling life of Rowling's original
Fearful wizards refer to their nemesis, the wicked Voldemort, as You-Know-Who. But for literate kids and plenty of adults, the book world's You-Know-Who for the past few years has been Harry Potter, unassuming boy hero of J.K. Rowling's fantasy series. Now that the first book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Philosopher's Stone in the original British version) is a movie, true Hogwartsians will return to the source and compare written and visual texts with the care of a New Critical scholar. They will find that the book was better richer in mood, in thrilling melodrama, in joy than director Chris Columbus' meticulous, stolid film.
Rowling's first inspiration was to plop modern, realistically drawn kids into a magical, medieval setting. Her next was to make Harry a naive hero, plucked from ignominious obscurity the spidery cupboard under his awful relatives' stairs and challenged to greatness. The result, a witches' brew of Tolkien and Tom Brown's School Days, was so vividly written that it was, in effect, already its own movie. It gave readers the narrative equivalent of the best seat in the house and free popcorn to boot.
How to make a film out of such a cinematic experience that 100 million readers have seen in their minds' eyes? Either by transferring it, like a lavishly illustrated volume of Dickens, or transforming it with a new vision. Columbus, along with screenwriter Steve Kloves and the Potter production team, chose Column A and made a handsomely faithful version, with actors smartly cast to type. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) look word-picture perfect. Members of the Hogwarts staff Dumbledore (Richard Harris), McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Snape (who else? Alan Rickman, in Hamlet's drab garb) have the requisite majesty or malevolence. The special effects are spiffy too. The Golden Snitch has a mischievous mind of its own, and that three-headed boar could guard bin Laden's cave.
We will let other Potterphiles debate the movie's excision of the book's spooky Halloween party, or its use of a Sorting Hat that speaks its musings aloud instead of whispering them conspiratorially into the wearer's ear, or its slight cuting up of the officious Hermione. All that is just grading papers. The big question is whether Columbus has found a potent kinetic equivalent to the book. We sigh and say no.
In choosing to be true to the words, he's made a movie by the numbers. Stopping to admire his film's production design (good work by Stuart Craig), he slows the action down; it's often stodgy, humorless. His reaction shots are clumsy; each gives you just one piece of narrative or emotional information at a time. That doesn't help the three young stars, on whose slim shoulders the whole project rests; they are competent but charisma-free. The film lacks moviemaking buoyancy the feeling of soaring in space that Rowling's magic-carpet prose gives the reader. The picture isn't inept, just inert.
An adapter of a famous work need not choose between fidelity and poetry; the King James version of the Bible had both. But Columbus is content to make a student's copy of the original master portrait. This movie about You-Know-Who is missing a sprinkle of you-know-what: what one dared to expect in a wizard's tale. This is a magic act performed by a Muggle.