The Trouble With Harry
The Beloved Book is Here--Except the Good Part.
The record-smashing popularity of J.K. Rowling's novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone isn't so mysterious. It is the sprightly told tale of an 11-year-old English boy who escapes the complexities of a modern-day suburb for an alternate 18th-century-like universe. Potter's world bypasses epic fantasy's traditional layers of alternate histories, weird languages, outlandish creatures, and moral ambiguities in favor of comfortably predigested genre bits (including plot points from Star Wars) and instant familiarity. It appeals to separatist daydreams and atrophied attention spans, offering escape into a soft-edged realm of morally uncomplicated fantasy.
Home Alone director Chris Columbus' anonymously-styled cinematic rendering is obsessively faithful to the book's plot and minutiae, but omits or glosses over everything that made reading it enjoyable in the first place. Banished are Rowling's smartly cynical snipes at inter-class tensions and her embrace of outsiders as heroes. Her very British sense of the daffy and her willingness to do just about anything to keep readers enthralled have dematerialized. What's left is no more--and often much less--than a lumbering, wrong-mindedly reverent, big-screen Classics Illustrated version of the book.
In a rushed, slapdash first act, we meet Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), orphaned as a baby and left to suffer a lusterless middle-class Brit existence with his buffoonish Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and shrewish Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw.), who squander their affections on their porcine spoiled-brat son Dudley (Harry Melling). It's not just a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on Harry's head that sets him apart. On a family visit to the zoo, Harry manages to telepathically talk with a snake. Then owls deliver letters addressed to Harry, inviting him to some place called "Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry"-a scene that's both eerie and funny in the book and is replete with clunky The Birds references here. A hirsute giant named Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) shows up to inform Harry that the boy is not a Muggle (regular human), but rather, the scion of a top-notch wizard family murdered by Voldemort, a sorcerer seduced by the Dark Side.
And so Harry is off to Hogwarts, a sort of a junior Cambridge for sorcery studies, presided over by wizard headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris, perpetually seeming to be on the verge of a deep and restful sleep). Harry and new friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) find themselves threatened by snarky fellow student Draco (Tom Felton), a three-headed dog, and creepy instructor Snape (a Trent Reznor-ized Alan Rickman,), to say nothing of a possibly ruinous plot against Harry hatched by the highly evil Voldemort.
Strip the story of its sword-and-sorcery drag--and delete most of Rowling's wit in favor of de rigeur CGI imagery--and the Star Wars similarities become stultifying (Harry/Luke, Hagrid/Chewbacca, the battle of opposing wise men, a favored son who is a marginalized people's Last Hope, etc.). There is a terrific airborne match of "quidditch" (akin to several basketball games played at once on flying broomsticks), but even that has its visual roots in Return of the Jedi.
But appropriation isn't the real problem; it's the aspects of the book that Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) rush through, truncate, or misguidedly attempt to repair. The well-shaded ascension of Hermione from annoying smart girl to sister-in-arms is trimmed, as are the details of Harry's demeaning day-to-day Muggle existence. Nuggets of inspired invention--the secret history of magic wands, for example--and characters such as Harry's charmingly oafish pal Neville are also lost in the filmmakers' haste.
There are always casualties in the transfer from page to screen, but try telling that to the expectant kids at the screening I attended. They hooted joyfully as the opening credits rolled and left the theater oddly subdued. And the film's soporific 152-minute running time provides ample opportunity to reflect on some rather unsettling implications of this adaptation.
As in the book, Harry lives in a modern-day suburb and visits London, yet pop culture of any sort does not exist--nor do people of color. The filmmakers address this absence by including a few happy-go-lucky black students in the rear of fleeting background shots and, in some eye-blink scenes, a sassy quidditch-match MC. Such tokenism only serves to reinforce an unsettling subtext of the book's appeal--that it's a sort of fantasy white-flight from the modern world to a low-tech universe of unfettered Anglo-Saxony. Of course, there's the irony that the movie is all about using very high tech to sell objects of all kinds to kids of all colors.
And then there's the book's essential theme--that, as burgeoning practitioners of witchcraft, Harry and friends are anything but slaves to consensus. The book's Dumbledore, a delightful oddball prone to delightfully obtuse outbursts, leads the school in a celebration of tweaked individuality. On film, he's a vacantly wise authoritarian leading a crew of hectoring teachers lording over a remarkably non-rebellious student body. The filmed Hogwarts evokes nothing more magical than a somewhat upbeat finishing school for future conservatives. Which, in the current environment and in spite of this very poor film, may actually contribute to Harry Potter's success.