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Monday 19 November 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Steven Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman

Reviewed by John Shirley — with Special Consultant Julian Shirley (age 14)

There are very few movies that couldnít be improved. A few do exist, perhaps. Then comes Harry Potter and the Sorcererís Stone... and it isnít one of them. As an adult watching the picture, I felt it could be improved, that it wasnít the perfect, endlessly-rewatchable classic some people have claimed, like The Wizard of Oz or Itís A Wonderful Life. I thought Columbusí direction was professionally fairly high quality, but sometimes choppy, without the sense of a flowing, seamless movie youíd have gotten from, say, Peter Jackson or even Steven Spielberg. His special effects team was not held to the level of perfection possible and necessary, in 2001, that another director would have demanded. Some miniatures looked miniature, and some of the flying looked fake to me. The centaur looked too animated. Spielberg wouldíve given the effects, so crucial to this story, another deeper level of crafting. You could tell theyíd cut some wonderful things — probably John Cleeseís Nearly-Headless Nick was a bigger part. I thought Richard Harris, though perfect in the role, was almost wasted as Dumbledore — that part demanded more presence, more scripting. Daniel Radcliffe read his lines wonderfully, and is very appealing — but he didnít seem scared when he shouldíve been, courageous character or not, and he didnít seem really concerned for the endangered Hermione (fetchingly played by Emma Watson) when he shouldíve been. I think a better director wouldíve made him work harder and gotten a better performance from this talented young actor. Things come too easily to our Harry, in the story, despite the grim life he has in the beginning (in which Radcliffe doesnít actually seem very unhappy), and the logic that takes them into their quest seems like a constant jumping to conclusions. There are some wonderful scenes — that wand-shop, first rate. Wonderful sets and art design. Smart, thoughtful performances by everyone, especially Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid (looking rather like Michael Moorcock), Alan Rickman as Snape and Dame Maggie Smith as McGonagall.

But I felt a level missing from this film — only, you know what? Iím not the guy to please. Really, this is for my 14-year-old son, Julian, and his half-sister Lorea, whoís 7, not for curmudgeonly scowlers like me. Julian is a fan of the books — so letís ask him. Heís my special consultant on this movie.

John: You are a fan of the books — did you think the movie was a fair adaptation of the book?

Julian: Yes. I think it stayed true to the story except for slight variations that were necessary to fit it into movie length. But they didnít include a scene where they release Hagridís dragon — they say that Dumbledore released it but in the book they went on this whole mission where they release it from a tower and itís one of my favorite scenes in the whole book. It develops Hagridís character, where you see more of how heís this big guy who loves the little dragon, which they did but not enough. But the good thing is they didnít add anything dumb to make it more like a Hollywood movie.

What do you think kept them from adding anything?

Julian: J.K. Rowling — she made sure she had some control over how the movie was made. So that made it better. I think authors should have that more often when their books are made into movies.

What was your favorite part of the movie?

Julian: Quidditch (the flying ball game they play) — I always wanted to see a live action version of that and they did it really good.

What did you think about the actors? Was that kid a lot like Harry?

Julian: Yes. It seemed kind of weird that everything was exactly how I imagined it. All the characters were like I imagined them. Everyone was cast, like, perfectly, everybody was just like I thought theyíd be. And how Snape was muttering the counter-curse in the Quidditch match.

And why do you think that was, maybe?

Julian: Because it stayed true to the book. Because of J.K. Rowling.

I think we see a pattern emerging. Traditionally they keep the originator of the story, often the script writer and always the novelist, off the set. But not in this case. And the result of doing it the authorís way this time? A better movie!

I felt there was some stuff missing from this film though — but you didnít? It was completely satisfying in every way?

Julian: Except for some missing scenes.

But you mentioned to me that they didnít use certain terms — squib and mudblood.

Julian: A squib in Harry Potter is someone who has trouble using magic. In the book they use different techniques that are kind of extreme to get the kid to use magic.

Why do you think they took out those terms?

Julian: I think with mudblood they didnít want to make any references to racism — although she doesnít mean it that way.

Maybe with squib too; maybe they were kind of sanitizing it, Disneyizing it.

You know, Julian, I thought it was pretty weird that they send poor Harry back to those awful people whoíd raised him for school vacation (Richard Griffiths was particularly fine in his repulsive smarminess as Vernon Dursley). But maybe thereís a reason — for the sake of Harryís character and humility, just to bear these horrible Dursleys.

Julian: Yeah. Thatís probably right. Anyway, theyíre working on adoption in the fourth book. His godfather — they think heís a serial killer but it turns out heís not. I think his name is Sirius.

Anyway those Dursley characters, that spoiled fat kid right out of a Roald Dahl book — he wrote The BFG and James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In fact Rowlingís set-ups and people are much like James and the Giant Peach.

Julian: Also scenes in that dark forest seem like Tolkien.

Still thereís no denying that sheís an excellent and imaginative story teller. But I thought another director mightíve done this better, like Spielberg.

Julian: I thought it was directed like really really good, so I donít know. Also I thought it was just the right length — not too long but long enough so they didnít have to cut too many things.

Why do you think you like these stories so much?

Julian: Because itís like another world. And the way she tells it, it captures your imagination, and it gives you really good mental pictures of whatís happening and it never gets boring. And the movieís like that too.

— Thatís Julianís take, and thatís what matters. And to tell you the truth, the film didnít bore me either. I enjoyed it. (And Julianís 7-year-old half-sister Lorea said: "I give it five thumbs up!") In some of my reviews Iíve returned to this issue of whether as an audience member I feel people will be getting their moneyís worth — as theater costs increase, and when it comes to movies made for sheer entertainment, it becomes a consumer issue. Hype steals from us. But despite having to pay $8.50 for a ticket and the outrageous price of almost 20 bucks for some popcorn, a little candy, and a soda — gouged by the greed-heads who run the theater chain — I didnít feel ripped off. Julian knows a bad movie when he sees one. But for Harry Potter... he was on the edge of his seat, and he left smiling, and thatís what matters.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including the forthcoming Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure books) and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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