A movie is a very different sort of thing from a book--a truth that legions of young Harry Potter fans are learning this week. (One can only hope that this isn't breaking news to the books' adult fans.)
The debate about the film will be fascinating, because those with the most authority in it will be the books' core audience--kids. This is one movie narrative that isn't being fed to fluff-headed midget consumers; its best viewers are a highly critical audience of grade-school-aged devotees. And this production may have lasting effects on their feelings about film in general.
It's about time. For a couple of decades, special-effects-heavy movies have aspired to take over the work of imagination--they've claimed to show us, and especially our children, things "beyond imagination." And we've more or less accepted that this new world of constructed wonders was, in fact, the future of mass-market narrative, and we've kept ponying up the price of admission.
That the movies would bring J.K. Rowling's fantastically popular series to the people (!)--and, incidentally make more money than lies in the vaults of the goblin bank--was inevitable. Isn't "The Movie" the culmination of every story?
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a gloatingly self-confident, impeccably mounted, all-star production with very serious problems. These arise from the makers' failure to recognize the difficulties of translating print narrative to the screen. The result is a hectic, $150-million Cliff's Notes redaction of the novel. With, just to be original, an overbearing, faux-Tchaikovsky soundtrack by John Williams. ("Minor-key mazurka = magical high-jinks! Now I get it!" Could someone just kill that man before he scores another movie?)
People who haven't read the book will walk out of the film knowing what animal Professor McGonagall transforms into, what kind of feather lies at the core of Harry's wand and who's Lord Voldemort's secret agent at the school--each Harry Potter novel is pulled forward by a mystery-story engine--but the plot will be an irritating muddle in their heads. Why would a troll head straight for the girl's bathroom 90 seconds after we learn Hermione's in it? Why should a dragon that's on screen for 30 seconds have a name? What's important about Neville? And why are these kids always creeping around at night, anyway? Most of the dozens of characters who've been yanked on- and off-stage will have blurred together.
Worse, filmgoers will have had only intermittent glimpses--a sky full of circling owls, an orphan coming downstairs to his first real Christmas--of the books' strong enchantments that have lured literally millions of children away from the VCR and video games.
(On the other hand, those flashes may be enough to make them pick up the real thing. The obstinate non-Potterite with whom I saw the film came out of the theater wanting to see more of the classes at Hogwarts--and ready to read.)
In place of the book's humane and deliciously detailed narrative, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) hands us hectic, run-here, run-there, quick-let's-recap action--approximately every other line begins, "You mean to say ... ?"--and zillions in hyper-digital f/x. The robot centaur is particularly awful and was, I'm sure, particularly expensive.
Hollywood magic looks labored and obvious against our vivid memories of the book's hilariously matter-of-fact sorcery--and the eye never quite accepts the lighting, the unnatural movement or the blurred edges of things. (The big quidditch game is impressive, but, ironically, less exciting and harder to follow than in the novel. And, hey, didn't they just forget the bludgers?)
Worse, we've seen these tricks before, beginning with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and on down to Battlefield Earth and The Mummy Returns. One stagy, second-hand effect after another plonks us into remembrances of movies past.
While the film as a whole declines to come alive, a couple of scenes do succeed in evoking the feel of Rowling's ravishing counter-world. The giant chess game, in particular, is massively beautiful, terrifying and--unlike so much in this determinedly surface-dwelling production--revelatory. The scene belongs to young Rupert Grint, who's simply perfect as rueful, spontaneous Ron Weasley. In fact, he and Emma Watson--too pretty but otherwise excellent as Hermione--provide welcome relief throughout from Daniel Radcliffe's smirky Harry.
If the movie as a whole had achieved the power and emotional beauty of this scene, it would have done the book proud. The Harry Potter series' deepest appeal isn't the hocus-pocus, delectable as that is; it's the moral optimism of fairy tales, of Britain's stand against the Nazis, of all stories with happy endings.
In Harry's world, courage, love and quick thinking always win against even the most sophisticated evil: Grint's scared, determined face peering down from the back of his doomed charger trumps all the matte paintings and fake beards money can buy.
So. The moral of the film turns out, unintentionally, to be that of the novels. Still, those of us who long for more Potter are just going to have to wait for the next volume. We knew that.