This film is based on J. K. Rowling’s 1997 novel of the same name. The film and the book were originally named Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This is still the name used in the United Kingdom. However, a man named Arthur A. Levine, who helms the Scholastic imprint that publishes “Harry Potter,” suggested a change in the name when adapting the story for U.S. fantasy lovers. In his view, “Philosopher’s Stone” was somewhat arcane, so he suggested “Sorcerer’s Stone” as a more overtly magical substitute.
Director: Chris Columbus
Writer: J.K. Rowling (novel), Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris
Release Date: November 16, 2001
Run time: 2 hours, 32 minutes
Late one night, Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall, professors at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, along with groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid, who arrives on a motorcycle and with a baby in tow, deliver an orphaned infant named Harry Potter to his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, his only living relatives.
Ten years later, just before Harry’s eleventh birthday, owls begin delivering letters addressed to him. When the abusive Dursleys refuse to allow Harry to open any of the letters, the number of owls and letters increases in number until the Dursleys flee with Harry to an island hut, Hagrid arrives to personally deliver Harry’s letter, explaining to Harry’s surprise that he is a wizard. Hagrid also reveals that Harry’s parents, James and Lily, were killed by a dark wizard named Lord Voldemort. The failed killing curse that Voldemort had cast against Harry is responsible for Harry’s lightning-bolt scar. The fact that the curse failed to kill Harry, instead rebounding and destroying Voldemort’s body instead, is the reason why Harry is famous throughout the wizarding world. Hagrid then takes Harry to Diagon Alley for school supplies and gives him a pet snow owl whom he names Hedwig. Harry buys a wand that is connected to Voldemort’s own wand.
At King’s Cross station, Harry boards the Hogwarts Express, bound for the school, and meets Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Ron is from a financially poor wizard family. Hermione is the daughter of two non-magical parents (Muggles.) Harry also meets Draco Malfoy, a sneering blonde-haired boy his own age who is from a wealthy, pure-blood wizard family. The two immediately dislike each other. On their first day in the castle, Harry and the other students assemble in the Great Hall where the Sorting Hat sorts the first-years in four respective houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Harry is placed into Gryffindor alongside Ron and Hermione, while Draco is sorted into Slytherin, a house which Ron notes to Harry is well-known for dark wizards.
When Harry learns to fly a broomstick, he finds out that he is so natural gifted at it that he is recruited as the youngest player to make a Hogwarts House team for Quidditch in a century. One day, returning to the Gryffindor common room, the castle’s moving staircases change paths, leading Harry, Ron, and Hermione to the third floor, which is restricted. While there, and attempting to avoid being seen and punished, the three hide inside a locked door where they discover, and barely escape, a giant three-headed dog named Fluffy.
Later in the year, Ron insults Hermione after she shows off in Charms class. Hermione hears him and spends the afternoon crying in the girls’ bathroom. That night, while she is still hiding in the bathroom, crying, a giant troll is released into the castle by somebody, and the troll enters the bathroom where she is hiding. Harry and Ron realize she is in danger, they go looking for her, and they save Hermione. The three become friends after Hermione takes the blame by claiming she went looking for the troll.
The trio discover from Hagrid, who accidentally blabs the secret, that Fluffy is guarding the sorcerer’s stone, a magical object that can turn metal into gold and produce an immortality elixir. Harry suspects his Potions teacher, Professor Severus Snape, who is also the head of Slytherin House, wants the stone to help Voldemort return. The three kids become suspicious that Hagrid may have accidentally blabbed the way to get past Fluffy to someone, and when they question him about it, he accidentally reveals that music puts Fluffy asleep.
After running to tell Professor Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ Headmaster, of their concerns, and learning that he is away from the castle, Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to find the stone before Snape. When they reach the third floor door, and enter, Fluffy is already asleep. They debate how to proceed through a trapdoor guarded by the dog as the dog wakes up – forcing all of them to jump through the trapdoor. Beyond the trapdoor, the trio face a deadly plant called Devil’s Snare, which Hermione helps them to overcome, a room filled with aggressive flying keys, which Harry’s skill on a broom are able to best, and a giant chess game that Ron, a prodigious player of Wizard’s Chess, is able to best but not without sacrificing himself in the process.
Harry leaves Hermione to tend to run and moves on alone, discovering that Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Quirrell is the real bad guy seeking out the Stone. Snape, as it turns out, has been protecting Harry. Quirrell removes his turban and reveals a weakened Voldemort living on the back of his head. The last protection of the Stone is a mirror put in place by Dumbledore. Only a person who looks into the mirror, wants the Stone, but does not want to use the Stone, is able to retrieve it from the mirror. When Harry looks into the mirror, this enchantment places the stone in his pocket. Voldemort – who is now talking to Harry from the back of Quirrell’s head, attempts to bargain the stone from Harry, but he refuses. Quirrell attempts next to take it by force, but when Harry touches Quirrell’s skin, it burns Quirrell, reducing him to ashes. Voldemort’s soul rises from the pile and escapes, knocking out Harry as it passes through him.
Harry later wakes up in the school’s hospital wing. Dumbledore is there as he wakes and tells him that the stone has been destroyed. He also tells him Ron and Hermione are well. Dumbledore then explains to Harry that on the night his mother Lily died to save him, that she left a a love-based protection against Voldemort in his skin. This protection is what destroyed Quirrell.
At the end of the year ceremony, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are rewarded with house points for their heroism, elevating Gryffindor from last place and into a tie with Slytherin for first place. Dumbledore then awards ten points to their housemate Neville Longbottom for having had the courage to stand up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione and trying to keep them from sneaking out. The points awarded to Neville give Gryffindor the House Cup. As the film ends, Harry returns to the Dursleys for the summer.
This is a really fun kid adventure movie that holds up well despite feeling dated in several respects – both visually and in terms of story.
A movie like this really only works if the kid actors are *good enough* and the adults around them are able to both set a tone for the film and have the appropriate chemistry with the kid actors. Richard Harris is perfect as the friendly but distant grandfather figure of Albus Dumbledore. Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid is just the right mix of protective and dim-witted to be an adult friend to the kids. Maybe the toughest characters to play were Vernon and Petunia Dursley and Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw were great. They managed to walk the line of executing child neglect on screen without it feeling so much like abuse that it was hard to watch. (There should be a whole category at the Academy Awards for “played an awful person in a fun and watchable way.”)
Daniel Radcliffee, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint are all good enough. It’s actually fun to watch them at this age because you can see their talent and that they do not quite know how to use it yet. That’s a reality true of all kids that age so everything kind of just works. In particular I was really impressed with Daniel Radcliffe in this film. He manages to be simultaneously haunted, likeable, and optimistic – and he does it with an innate authority. Even the grown-ups seem to notice a force of personality, or magic, when “Harry” speaks.
One of the first things that really jumped out at me in re-watching this movie is the special effects – it has the look and feel of a movie done before CGI really took off. The CGI of Voldemort’s face on Quirrell’s head, the centaur in the forest, and the troll in the castle do not hold up very well at all to modern standards. The Quidditch match looked like it was shot on a green screen, with the pitch in the background occasionally looking like a video game background rather than a place that’s real. The moving staircases in the castle looked like the type of effect you might see in an Indiana Jones film ten years or more prior. A lot of the set design (probably most notable to me in The Great Hall scenes) is also obviously done using physical objects, present with the actors, instead of being added digitally later. You can see the difference. When you become used to watching modern effects, the switch back to something like this is jarring.
To be clear, though, when I say that it was jarring, I only mean that it jumps out, not that it was *bad.* For me, realism is not the standard of good and bad. I thought the effects here are well-done, just no longer modern. I actually enjoyed the dated look of the film and thought that added a bit to the feel of my nostalgia during the re-watch.
One other important factor in the delicious nostalgia of this film is the score. John Williams’ Harry Potter score is iconic. When you hear one of his works, you know you are listening to a Williams piece, and it transports you back to a time when Hollywood was a little more magical and a bit less ugly and real.
As for the story itself, the “kids on an adventure, in mortal danger” plot has gone a little out of fashion, too. Being reminded of how pervasive these types of stories used to be, by watching one, was enjoyable. That said, I am not entirely sure that I understand why the kids decided to undertake their adventuring, by protecting the Stone themselves, let alone why they felt the need to go fetch the Stone, immediately, when they realize it may not be completely secure. I am also not exactly sure why the kids thought they could stop a Hogwarts professor who is trying to steal it. We never actually see Harry do any spells in this movie. Their story-telling execution, to explain their motivation, was a little messy.
I think that we as the audience were supposed to feel that the Stone was in danger, just as the kids did, but the reality is that it was the three kids’ innate curiosity which drove the plot much more than any actual danger to the Sorcerer’s Stone. If Harry and his friends had not gone down there, absolutely nothing would have happened to the Stone… except that maybe Quirrell gets caught by Hogwarts staff. He certainly could not have taken the stone from the mirror. Nobody believed Harry and his friends that Snape was after the Stone, sure, but as far as the kids knew, Hagrid gave the knowledge of how to get past Fluffy away several days or weeks prior and nothing had happened to it yet. They also knew that it was protected by far more than just Fluffy. Their urgency does not make sense. In fact, it’s more than a little strange that the children – Hermione in particular – never give much thought to the dangers they will face if they manage to get past Hagrid’s protections. I guess if they had, there would not be a movie.
In the proud tradition of films like The Goonies, Labyrinth, and Home Alone, the kids in this film reason through their choices illogically to further plot. They are also treated with a criminal neglect by the adults. The kids-on-adventure movie is entertaining but it requires the viewer to suspend disbelief as to the actual dangers being faced. Adding realism to the danger would make the movie much less enjoyable to watch. Considering this is already a movie about witches and wizards, suspending my disbelief here was not too difficult, but it is a problem of the genre.
On the topic of kid endangerment, Draco “Wait ‘Til My Father Hears About This” Malfoy probably has a point when he makes that statement in the Forbidden Forrest. Sending unarmed and untrained children alone out into the woods, where a monster is killing unicorns, to *find* that monster, should be grounds for somebody losing their job. They succeeded in finding it and also almost succeeded in getting murdered. A centaur who doesn’t even work at Hogwarts had to save Harry’s life. Inasmuch as Draco is painted as a villain, he clearly connects his father with his idea of feeling safe. You can kind of see that the choices of Dumbledore drive Draco and his family away from Dumbledore’s side. That connection with his father – which is essentially just love – is treated as a vice within the story, but imagine how differently you feel about Dumbledore if one of the kids is seriously injured, or dies.
There are plenty of other incidents of Dumbledore being reckless, as well. Fluffy was too dangerous to keep just behind an easily accessible door at a kids’ boarding school. Kids are constantly ending up in the hospital at Hogwarts. Quidditch is an insanely dangerous game for children to be playing with the child participants fully aware of the possibility that one of them may die while competing. Even during the broom-flying lesson, in what is supposed to be a safe classroom setting… Neville nearly died.
And yet I watch this and wonder if there were more safeguards in place than we the viewers or the characters realize. Dumbledore seems to have been keeping an extremely close eye on everything. He spies on Harry for days as Harry visits the Mirror of Erised. The obstacles between the kids and the mirror, at the end, were specifically designed for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and dumbed down enough that they could manage the challenge – which again implies Dumbledore watching them closely. If the Stone’s protections were tailored for three specific first year students, and not to protect the Stone from a thief, then what was really going on here? My guess is that Dumbledore’s mirror is the real protection for the Stone, and the rest is the Headmaster *testing* his young Chosen One, and his two friends, to learn more about them. Was some failsafe in place to save the kids in the event that Hermione panics and does not remember how to get past Devil’s Snare? We’ll never know. But Dumbledore is definitely puppeteering these small children for his own ends and there is something unsettling about that.
If you watch this movie closely, you should come away with a lot of doubts about Dumbledore. However, if you watch closely you also just cannot help but like and trust him. I believe this tension between doubt and admiration is quintessential to the character of Dumbledore.
Thinking more broadly about Harry Potter, the little kid: First, he joins the long – and frankly bizarre – tradition of orphan superheroes, alongside characters like Batman. Second, it really strikes you when watching this as a grown-up just how abused he is when living with the Dursley family. It’s not just that he lives in a closet, or that he does not know the truth about his parents, he is denied even small acts of love – such as celebrating his birthday or getting Christmas presents. He was placed in this environment on purpose, by Dumbledore, and you can be sure that Dumbledore is keeping an eye on him in one way or another. Was it really necessary to his character development to do this to him? The thing that makes Harry heroic is that he remains a good kid in spite of what the people who are supposed to love him, do to him.
That innate goodness and heroism is why Harry Potter is so beloved. His story, and Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in telling it, is also why this movie is still enjoyable more than twenty years after it debuted.