Imagine Entertainment

Rowling's 'Stone' gathers mass: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson in 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'
Peter Mountain

Some pop-cultural bandwagons are okay to jump on, and Harry Potter is one of them. To put it another way: If people sniff at you for digging Harry Potter, they're jerks. They probably think Nirvana's Bleach is better than Nevermind, and they probably don't like the Beatles. And, in their hearts, they're deeply, sadly self-hating. Plus, they might be Bible bangers, in which case you'd better talk slowly as you explain to them that they are cannibalistic magic-believers if they eat Jesus. Personally, I'm all for magical cannibalism. In fact, it rules. Let's just be honest about it.

My main gripe is that Harry Potter is a boy, when the world is so desperately ready for Harriet Potter, and when it's obvious that J.K. Rowling--born wizard, single mother of a young girl--is Harry Potter. (And if Harry had to be a boy, why couldn't there be cooler female characters? Hermione and McGonagall are such tight-asses.) Other than that, the books are superfab--written, like all great children's literature, for adults as much as kids. They have inspired me (and several of my best friends) to kick ass against terrible foes, and they have comforted us in times of horror. On my planet, that qualifies them as great literature. (Their obsession with the nature of evil also feels weirdly relevant from time to time, if you know what I mean.)

Anyway, one thing's certain: We must thank providence that Steven Spielberg didn't make Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. He sort of thought about it, I'm told, but he didn't love the book the way director Chris Columbus did. For Columbus, Harry Potter is the dream of a lifetime--and that's exactly as it should be.

With this movie (the first in a series), Columbus and Co. try their darnedest to re-create Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in meticulous physical detail and, more subtly, to convey the spirit of the book, wherein the impossible seems probable. That's a tall order, considering that Hogwarts is a multidimensional realm of the imagination--and one that, to some fans, is more real than real life. It may be evidence of my own limited imagination (or of the filmmakers' skill), but the movie is a visual triumph. If you've read the book, you may watch the movie thinking to yourself, Oh, wow--that's just how I pictured it! I'm talking about the Hogwarts invitations flying into the Dursleys' living room through the fireplace; the hut on the rock; the tiny wizard shops of Diagon Alley; Hogwarts Express; the ceiling of the Great Hall, which mimics the sky outside; the round tower with four-poster beds; the baby dragon...on and on.

A few elements even exceeded my imagination: the moving photographs and oil paintings; the medieval classrooms; the fast 'n' brutal Quidditch ("Cooler than pod races!" said my friend Hillary); the flying keys and life-size chessboard. All of this would be moot if the boy playing Harry, Daniel Radcliffe, weren't such a little wonder. He doesn't act, but is just himself, with a guileless joy and a melancholy stillness that's obviously natural.

However. Where the book is aimed at grownups as much as kids, the movie is more narrowly focused on children, and the spiritual and emotional subtexts of the book are grievously downplayed. I don't mind that the scary bits have been softened for the tots--or that the many pratfalls and booger jokes have been increased. It's that the misery and oppression of Harry's life are lightened, which removes the weight of the book's deepest meaning. None of the magic of Hogwarts matters without the life-and-death/good-and-evil/hope-and-fear struggle that Harry fights. This is a serious book, which is why it has struck such a chord with children (and aging children) everywhere. Nobody knows about oppression, misery, and injustice as well as children: It's only adults who want to pretend that childhood is one big hayride. That's patronizing--and it doesn't make for great art, either.

And then there's the matter of corporate tie-ins: Free Commemorative Plastic Cup With Large Drink Purchase! et al. See, Harry Potter lives in a Coke-free realm. He doesn't drink Coke, because Coke doesn't exist. Rowling was apparently adamant that Harry himself not become a corporate patsy, yet he has sort of become one anyway. It's no biggie for me, since I'm old and I learned years ago how to locate the sacred within the profane of pop art. But I do kind of worry for kids who might not know that Coke is not their friend. Being Harry Potter has nothing to do with purchasing anything--in fact, just the opposite. One of the many messages of the books is that money is fun, but a kid doesn't really need anything more than heart and nerve to be cool.

So: Rowling made a deal with the devil and sold her baby to the dark powers. I don't know her, but I'm betting that she hunkered down with her muse one dark night and decided--swaggering, weeping, shocked at her own hubris--that her books were so amazing that they would not only survive cinematic taxidermy, but ultimately triumph over it. See, the books can't be touched--not even by Hollywood. And, as it turns out, she was right. Hogwarts is a state of mind. And though the movie is lovely, the book is the Word.

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