Screening Log #60.1: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Written by Steve Kloves based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
Directed by Chris Columbus
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson

 

 

 

This entry marks the first in a series of screening log entries that are going to appear for the Harry Potter series of films, so perhaps if you are not so interested in wizardry, or things Hogwarts related, perhaps it would be best to avoid the blog for the next little while. I also suppose this whole proposition has to begin with the caveat that I have never read a sentence from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books. My engagement with the Harry Potter narrative, in its various adaptations and nuances, has, to this point, been strictly cultural and by osmosis. While I cannot speak to the elements of the novels that have made them such a phenomenal success, I can, hopefully, inspect the light of them that shines through the prism of the films for evidence, if not accuracy.

This first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – or the Sorcerer’s Stone if you’re American – is saddled with the many tasks that the first of a long series must undertake: a multitude of introductions – of characters, locations, themes, narrative arcs, etc. – must be made while leaving room for the mystery necessary to incite a viewer to follow the franchise. With its roots being in youth fiction, Philosopher’s Stone’s general arc for Harry, Daniel Radcliffe, is archetypically familiar and immediately graspable: a young man is destined for greatness, overcomes a sense of isolation by finding a peer group, moves toward realizing his implicit greatness, and triumphantly faces a foe that gestures toward future challenges. The film begins with Harry’s deliverance to his nasty, self-involved, extended family after the death of his parents, and follows his entrance into Hogwarts, the seeding of his friendships with Ron Weasley, Rupert Grint, and Hermione Granger, Emma Watson, his antagonistic relationship with Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton, and the looming shadow  of He Who Must Not Be Named, i.e., Voldemort.

Harry’s position in the beginning of the film, literally trapped under the stairs, cruelly marginalized by his aunt and uncle immediately places him in a position of sympathy, to viewer’s both young and old. The evidence of the family’s mistreatment of Harry is brief and, because of this, Harry’s initial use of magic could potentially be read as him just being a jerk, but the commitment of the actors supplements the lack of quantity of proof with an insistence of its quality. The avoided invitation to Hogwarts catalyzes and validates Harry’s stature as being potentially great, if not yet actually so, and the journey to the school affords the film a natural means to both gradually acclimate Harry, and by proxy, the viewer, to the magic embedded in the world around the characters and to introduce the supporting players on the train. The film sets its hooks deep into key youth themes here, appealing to both the Romantic hope that the world is filled with inexplicable wonders and that there is a place on the horizon where they belong, even if they have not yet found it at home.

Hogwarts is rendered with a sense of scale and the fantastic that beguiles the imagination, its paintings moving in the background of their own accord, its hall stately and seemingly infinitely ceilinged, its staircases arbitrarily moving, and its professors visually engaging. The school exists as a sort of re-framed version of Northrop Frye’s idea of Shakespeare’s Green World; Hogwarts is another world wherein the fantastic is possible, where magic reigns in stark opposition to the mundane “real” world, where social and political stature is mutable, and where the slights of the real world are able to be remedied. Here, the practicality of education is manifested as having immediate and empirical results. Where traditional education in subjects such as math or science produces abstract knowledge with, especially at a young age, little casual effect in the real world, education at Hogwarts provides a means by which the students are able to immediately, and radically, impact the physical world around them. The film similarly gives physical agency to abstract emotional ideas, such as love, by highlighting the genealogical connection between Harry and his father in Harry’s abilities to play Quidditch – a fictional sport played between the houses of Hogwarts – and, later in the film, by a physical ability granted to Harry’s skin by the love of his mother that prevents an evil wizard from doing him harm. The alchemical properties of the film’s magic extend beyond spells and into its ability to make concrete the elements which most confound and complicate the lives of children.

The narrative is also rife with repeating structures that increase its accessibility and its ease of reading for younger audiences. There is a repeating motif – in this film at least – of fours: Harry, Hermione, Ron, and Malfoy make four central characters; the houses of Hogwarts – Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff – also number as four; the most prominent adult characters in the narrative –Dumbledore, Snape, Minerva, and Hagrid – are four. Each of these groupings consists of a character or element that has a similarly distinct quality or personality which proves to be archetypically relatable for young audiences. This basis for character arrangement is prominent in much youth-oriented material, i.e. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and can be traced back to the four humours of Hippocratic medicine – Blood, Black and Yellow bile, and Phlegm. There is also a sort of echo of plot structure to be found in this quadratic equation where the narrative arc consists of an introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement. Thinking geometrically, this basis of fours makes a solid foundation on which one can erect their narrative structures. This strategy also ensures that a majority of its audience, i.e., children, will be able to directly relate with not just one of the younger characters, but also the older and their respective houses as well. The film is able to provide a sense of belonging not just for its protagonists, but cleverly accommodates for the varying perspectives of its audience as well.

In terms of its content, the plot of the film is largely usual and bland, following the traditional patterns of first films. Some details – such as the intricacies of a seemingly important contest for points between Hogwarts’ houses – are effaced in the interest of time, one assumes. The film moves along swiftly, often buoyed by its visual charm, despite an overlong Quidditch match and a ham-fisted montage of Harry, Ron, and Hermione playing a high stakes game of chess, and the mystery of the eponymous Philosopher’s Stone, is measuredly underwhelming insofar as it serves more to announce the series’ villain than provide anything overwhelmingly remarkable. Not to mention the oblique hilarity of Harry donning a robe that renders him not unlike Predator in order to see his parents in a mirror that reflects one’s desires. The cast, populated by considerable British talent, grounds the film and provides emotional weight where the film’s narrative may lack the time to invest it. This first Harry Potter film hangs as a scarf woven from alluring material that, upon closer inspection, reveals numerous holes. The film’s succeeds in establishing a basis for subsequent films and its nagging imperfections are salved by imaginative accoutrements and its ability to provide both agency and relatability for its target audience and whatever measure of this youth that is carried forward in the hearts of adults.

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