By the time the Harry Potter film series is all over and done with, it will have comprised ten years, eight films, and every single British actor ever to utter a letter of the Bard. But as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1 apparates into theaters this weekend, it’s almost hard to remember how it all started: An American behind the camera, a color palette approximately 16 shades brighter, and a marketing team who, never mind “hallows,” was afraid the word “philosopher” would alienate all those American readers that find thinking to be elitist. So we flipped our Time-Turners and went back to the beginning to see how the greatest (by default?) septology of all time has changed over all these years. Of course, this all just a couple of Muggles’ opinions.
Darren Franich: I feel pretty confident saying Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is unquestionably the worst Harry Potter movie. Even Chamber of Secrets, which was based on the worst book, actually turned into a decent movie. You could argue that Chris Columbus had to introduce the whole world, so Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was always going to be a difficult movie to make. But the first Star Wars did a great job of introducing a complete universe in the context of a thrilling storyline. By comparison, Sorcerer’s Stone plays like Exposition!: The Movie.
Keith Staskiewicz: At a certain point you lose the wonder and gain the wondering when it’s going to end. A 2 1/2 hour running time is fine, but the first book is about 1/64 the size of the later ones. If they were able to condense Goblet of Fire into an acceptable running time, Sorcerer’s Stone didn’t have to be any more than 2 hours long. But, to be honest, I don’t dislike the movie that much. Saying that it’s the worst of the bunch really only means that the series got better over time, which is impressive in itself. Chris Columbus was a decent choice for this kind of movie. The first book is all about wide-eyed wonder and introductions, with very little dirt and grime and Cuaróniness. Columbus isn’t the director we deserve, he’s the director we need. Like his namesake, he’s discovering and mapping out new territory, but without all that killing-a-civilization-with-smallpox stuff.
DF: My problem with the movie is exactly that there isn’t that much wide-eyed wonder in this movie. All the magic is presented in such a clinical, rote fashion. Every scene is: Harry Potter walks into room. A talented British actor does something magical. Harry: “What’s that?!?!” Hermione: “That’s [random latin magic word].” Ron: “Blimey!” Harry then tries to perform the magic, succeeds on his first try, and everyone applauds.
KS: No, no, you misunderstand. I meant, literally, Harry Potter’s eyes are really wide throughout the whole movie. He looks amazed at everything.
DF: Goblet of Fire is actually a good comparison point. That movie is also a complete narrative mess, but it’s a lot of fun! Sorcerer’s Stone just looks like a preproduction cycle that someone turned into a movie.
KS: I think we’re not giving Columbus enough credit. He was building the foundation for the rest of the series. He had six more movies looming over him when he made this, which then changed to seven. He had to show enough, but not to much; get actors who would be willing to commit for that long; and actualize a ton of imagery in the book that they’d then be stuck with for a decade. Quick digression that has absolutely nothing to do with anything: one of the best moments in the movie is when Hedwig drops the package, and it’s clearly a broom wrapped in brown paper, but everyone around the table is like, “What is it?” and “I wonder what it could be?!” What do you think it is? A book? A bicycle?
DF: Okay, but this scene connects perfectly with what you were just talking about. Because yes, we can give credit to Columbus for laying the groundwork. But that just seems like the job of a producer, really. Whereas every single directorial choice he makes in the movie — “Kids, act excited! ACT EXCITED! Okay, Rupert, do your wry smile!” — is so wrongheaded.
KS: With the exception of Half-Blood Prince, which is one minute longer than this, the first two Potter movies are the longest. Chamber of Secrets is the longest ever, at 2 hours 41 minutes. What I want to know is how did Columbus take the shortest books and make them into the longest movies? Maybe it was easier for the later directors because the audience was familiar with the material, but come on.
DF: It’s even more egregious when you consider that Order of the Phoenix is the longest book, and it became the shortest movie.
DF: In the interest of not picking on Columbus, I will say that Sorcerer’s Stone is probably the best showcase of the supporting cast. The Harry Potter franchise has the most enjoyable overacting by the highest volume of great actors. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, brilliant one-offs like Kenneth Branagh and Imelda Staunton…
KS: Emma Thompson as Trelawney, Brendan Gleeson as Mad-Eye Moody…
DF: This is something I always wonder about when I watch the Star Wars prequels: Why are British actors so much better at playing claptrap than American actors?
KS: Because they’re actually trained. Many have experience in theater, playing Falstaffs and Iagos and whatnot. American actors go to the Actors Studio and play smoldering versions of themselves. But I think British actors are doing theatrical work less and less nowadays, though. Just look at Christian Bale. Imagine him playing a Harry Potter character. I guess I can see Colin Firth in a Potter role. But not Ewan, Jude, Orlando, Keira. Although Clive Owen was originally going to replace Richard Harris as Dumbledore , wasn’t he?
DF: Ha! Watching Sorcerer’s Stone now is interesting, because it reminds you of all the stuff you used to care about in the Harry Potter world. Like Hagrid. Remember when he was, like, one of the main characters?
KS: To me, the first two movies work better when taken with the later ones. Their superficial wonder and amusement-park-ride sets look almost purposefully cutesy and Britishly twee when compared to the horror that comes later. Even Harris dying, while clearly sad, is an interesting demarcation point. Harris’ Dumbledore was wise and kind and friendly. Gambon always played him as a little bit of an a–hole.
DF: One other thing I noticed watching Sorcerer’s Stone this time around is just how primitive it looks by comparison to the later movies. You can tell this was the one Harry Potter movie made before Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters.
KS: The broom-flying CGI is that same terrible featureless ragdoll look that was in the first Spider-man. It was 2000-2001, and they were still reaching beyond their grasp when it came to that kind of stuff.
DF: We should also talk about the hindsight weirdness of seeing Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson when they were young and kinda annoying. It’s remarkable to me how little Radcliffe has to do in this movie. Besides the scene with his parents in the mirror, which is quite moving, he’s literally just onscreen to open his eyes really wide, and then open them wider in the next scene.
KS: Emma Watson is the most successful here, in my eyes. She manages to hide any stiffness and awkwardness by overdoing Hermione’s annoyingness, which totally works, so she doesn’t have those same “What do I do?” looks that Harry and Ron have every once in a while.
DF: I think she’s fine, but I think Rupert Grint actually carries the (very) few scenes between the three or them. In a weird way, the franchise kind of abandoned Ron in the later movies, partially because his plotlines in the book were the most extraneous, and partially because Radcliffe and Watson just have way more actorly chemistry than Radcliffe and Grint. I haven’t read the first few books in awhile, so maybe there are more rules I’m forgetting. But is Quidditch, like, SUPPOSED to be the most pointless game ever? Because all that really matters is getting the Golden Snitch, right? What’s the point of the beaters and thuggers and cudgels and whatsits?
KS: You get 150 points and end the game if you get the Snitch. So I guess, technically, if you’re 16 Quaffle goals behind, you can still lose. But then, why would you even go after the snitch? (Looks up official rules online.) Okay, apparently the Quidditch Cup is based on points earned rather than games won. So, the Quaffle goals do make a small difference. Though that seems unfair, if a game goes really long and lots of goals are scored then both houses playing have an advantage over the other two. Man, there’s a lot of strategy going on here. I can see losing thousands of Galleons at the OQB (Off-Quidditch Betting).
DF: Then Gringotts repossesses your house.
KS: Can I just say how awesome Rowling is at naming her characters? Every name perfectly evokes exactly what the characters are. Harry Potter: Generic, strong, staid. Ron Weasley: Scruffy, lovable, none too bright, can’t even afford a good name. Hermione Granger: A fancy-pants first name, but her last name isn’t all that. (Maybe because her parents are Muggles?) Draco Malfoy: basically Dragon Badfaith. Even objects: Quaffle, Bludger, Golden Snitch. Dammit, J.K. Rowling! Even her name is awesome.
Next Week: Burlesque is a story about a talented small-town girl who seeks fame and fortune in the big city. Showgirls is literally the same movie, except with more nudity, less talent, and did we mention more nudity? Check back here next week for a thoughtful discussion in which we attempt to answer the big questions: Is Showgirls purposefully bad? And does that make it good? Where are we?