Dir:- Chris Columbus
Starr:- Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman
I frequently find myself out of step with the times, whether that is an admirable badge of individualism, or merely an indication of how far my head has become rammed up my rectum, I cannot fairly judge. The whole Harry Potter craze initially landed sometime around the beginning of my University days. I can remember odd sojourns to the capital and being somewhat perplexed by the number of grown adults who had exchanged their copies of The Evening Standard for a chunky, garishly coloured kids book, whilst shuttling back from the office on the intensely claustrophobic rush hour Tube commute. At that moment the stubborn, recalcitrant, post-teen independent streak in me absolutely refused to consider the idea of devouring even one paragraph of JK Rowling’s massively popular fantasy tomes. What did I, a fully grown, red-blooded man need with a boy wizard and a boarding school for spell-casters? For the best part of a decade since then I have avoided all contact with the famous bespectacled prepubescent conjurer. However with the saga now at an end I find myself at least a little curious to see what all the hype really was about. Not wishing to wade into upwards of 7,000 pages of kids fiction, I’ve already got my eyes full with George R.R. Martin’s epic adult fantasies thank you very much, I’ve set myself the target of delving into the cinematic offerings one-by-one over the next week, with the express aim of going to see Mr. Potter’s final instalment at a cinema near me soon. Thus, I begin at the beginning with the interchangeably titled Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone.
Being more than at a remove from my own childhood, dim memories frozen off before one might make contact with the more painful root, I prepared myself for this viewing by remembering the children’s fiction that I found most memorable and inspiring. One of the defining features of almost all my childhood favourites, even Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood saga, were there relatively complex engagement with the dark and disturbing idea of death and mortality. Of my most cherished childhood books not one veered away from a challenging detailing of the rather messy ends of life. The Snow Spider was all about the familial grief at the loss of a beloved child, The Box of Delights was riven by the notion that winter brought with it both magic and ultimately menace (a motif that Martin borrows in his Westeros saga), Wilde’s The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant demonstrably introduce a young mind to the otherwise fearful notion that all good things come to an end, The Fox Cub Bold has a simply heartbreaking death at the very heart of the story, then there are the works of Roald Dahl that plough the deathly in a much more macabre and altogether more mischievous manner (was anything more morbid than George’s Marvellous Medicine?). Even amongst the fantasy sagas that I adored as a child (Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Robert C. O’Brien’s Nimh book, Ursula Moray Williams Gobbolino stories and, of course, Tolkien’s The Hobbit) there was very much the all-pervasive spectre of death lingering over the next horizon for each of our heroes. Death scared me, perplexed me and utterly engaged me in the various quests and travails, battles and perils. As a kid my abiding memory of reading was the close proximity in which happiness, hope and horror found themselves in the best children’s fiction. Once you’ve mastered the rudiments of reading, gone past the Meg and Mog’s of this world, then you actively seek out the engagement of a twisted tale or two, or at least I did. Having mentally reconstructed my childhood mindset, without being wholly able to extinguish the critical faculties that run amok in adulthood, I was all prepared for a deeply unsettling and upsetting tale of derring-do, ladled with the treacly succour of a warm and wholesome moral education.
What first struck me about The Philosopher’s Stone was it’s almost anaemic way with horror and struggle. Think back to Narnia, or Prydain, or even Bilbo Baggins, did any of these characters ever have such long, almost summery, moments of safety and ease? Aside from the wonderful first twenty minutes, in which Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw enjoy themselves as the horrid ‘muggles’ relatives of young Harry, the movie seemed to canter along a wide, expansive and utterly riskless bridleway. Much like Tolkien’s pre-history to the Rings, Harry finds himself, once ensconced in Hogwarts boarding school, facing a series of challenges to his bravery and courage, but throughout each of these moderately scary, or thrilling episodes, there is never any real doubt that our Harry is going to come out victorious (something only reinforced by the cruelly malicious ending which brings Harry’s house the inevitable victory. Throughout the film every little detail is ridiculously signposted as to whether it will be for, or against, Harry. The only elements of true intrigue and visceral fear are those involving the odious and ambiguous Snape (Alan Rickman mainlining his very best Uriah Heap, with an added dose of magisterial haughtiness and self-importance) and Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort (whom here attaches himself to the character played by Ian Hart, when will he ever get another lead role deserving of his talents?). Other obstacles in Harry’s path, such as games of Quidditch, dopey trolls and three-headed dogs, really don’t cut the mustard in the out-and-out scare stakes.
What is perhaps moderately unusual about Harry Potter is his unimpeded ascendancy, unlike Bilbo Baggins, who has to overcome his attachment to The Shire (not to mention his inbuilt fears and neuroses), Harry has no such problems. In fact, for a child who has lost his parents, been raised by an obnoxious relative and suddenly discovered that he has been lied to for much of his life, our young hero seems remarkably unfazed, in an almost Dandy comic character manner. Aside from a brief moment of callow brooding in front of a mirror of fulfilment, Harry’s orphan status seems to have done him absolutely no harm whatsoever. In fact on arrival at Hogwarts (and even before that whilst shopping for Wizard accessories, oh yes, a Nimbus 2000) Harry receives the kind of adulation and enmity normally reserved for the wildly famous. All the students of Hogwarts, with the exception of another nemesis in the making Draco Malfoy, seem to be entirely on Harry’s side, with nothing better to do than wait around to celebrate the wee wizards latest success. This adulation is further fostered by the paternal and maternal coaching of Hogwarts heads Dumbledore and McGonagall (expertly played by the late Richard Harris and the exquisite Maggie Smith, who appears to be revisiting her Prime of Miss Jean Brodie glory days) who waste few opportunities to commend Harry for his latest good deed and ensure maximum attention is paid to the young pup, by the rest of the pupils. In essence what you are left with in terms of character struggle and conflict in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is nothing more than a parade of successes, culminating in Harry’s goodness of spirit denying Voldemort the immortality of the aforementioned gem. This seems like a curiously modern take on childhood wish fulfilment, the idea that one can achieve fame without really having done anything, as of yet, to have warranted it. It also seems to suggest the boarding-school experience of Hogwarts is a peculiarly narcissistic place of education, engaged in ensuring that the many cater to the needs of the chosen one.
Among the things that Home Alone helmer Columbus does get absolutely right is the casting. The impeccable turns by seasoned British stage and screen talent, such as John Hurt, Zoe Wannamaker and John Cleese, add a thick veneer of class to the production and must have gone some of the way to wheedling out some wonderful performances from the first-time child stars. In particular Emma Watson’s emergence as Hermione Granger, with her clipped ‘Home Counties’ consonants and precocious way with a put-down, was a bona fide strength in the movie, whilst Daniel Radcliffe done well in donning the spectacles of the most talked about pre-teen in recent history. Where Rupert Grint’s general mugging was a bit distracting at times, it still wasn’t off-the-radar irritating and Tom Fenton’s composed smarm and conceitedness as Draco Malfoy seemed spot-on. Despite the 150 minute running time there is a strong feeling that a lot is being lost in the condensing processes of screen adaptation, with the book surely having to paint a bit clearer a picture of the house relationships amongst the various peripheral pupils, such as the Twins or Neville Longbottom. The movie feels at times like a whistle-stop introduction to the main players in a longer, more intricate saga. The episodic structure thus serves to highlight certain basic facets of the Potter universe and makes this initial offering a little awkward. Columbus was clearly also working with fledgling CGI and does as good a job as could have been expected in creating the odd hybrid form of late Victorian-era England, pastoral fantasia and knowingly modern suburbia, that is the world in which Harry Potter inhabits. Compared to the grittier look of the later Pullman adaptation of The Golden Compass, Potter has a bit of a zany comic book feel to it, with an overabundance of primary colours, particularly on the Quidditch field. Overall I found the whole Potter experience not half as arduous as I thought it may be, but the myriad shortcomings of this first instalment will need to be remedied to maintain my interest over the long haul.