Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone

New feature alert! I work in a library, and I love books. I also blog about movies. It seemed like a natural idea to do a feature comparing movies to their literary inspirations- then Tasha Robinson of The Onion A. V. Club started a terrific feature called Book Vs. Film, and I lost the enthusiasm to do my own. But as she’s been a bit busy with other things and hasn’t done one since March, I’m launching ahead with my own weekly movie adaptation feature, Transfigurations!

I take the title from the name for a type of spell in the Harry Potter universe, not only because my first six installments will be about that series (whoo!), but because it implies I can include movies based on comics, tv shows, video games, view master toys, and whatever else there is, even remakes, rather than solely books. Though I suspect that novels will be the majority. As it is, we begin a six part Transfigurations journey with Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s (nee Philosopher’s) Stone, the first part of the best-selling seven-part bildungsroman.

NOTE: This entry may contain spoilers for all six movies and all seven books! If you, and the rock you live under don’t jibe with that, please don’t read it! Also it‘s very long and somewhat obsessively detailed, because that‘s just how Harry Potter fans roll.

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The novel was of course written by J. K. Rowling, who I’m sure will someday write something not Potter-related. For now, she’s merely the richest woman in Britain (maybe behind the queen?), and a name immediately known to children, parents, and those of us that just like awesome things worldwide. Rowling acted as a consultant on the film, telling people what changes not to make, as well as insisting that the cast be British.

The movie was adapted for the screen by Steve Kloves, whose previous career consisted of writing and directing The Fabulous Baker Boys, and adapting an Oscar nominated screenplay from Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

It was directed by (long pause, sigh) Chris Columbus. Columbus rose to fame writing (The Goonies, Gremlins) and/or directing (Adventures In Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) madcap, mostly child-friendly comedies of the late eighties and early nineties. And while he surely must’ve seemed like a good candidate based on that pedigree, those films weren’t exactly nuanced or subtle, and Columbus had been on a major flop-streak leading up to HPatSS’s production. There wasn’t one person in the Warner Brother’s offices who raised his hand to say “wait, why are we handing the reins of this potentially multi-billion-dollar franchise to the director of Nine Months and Bicentennial Man? And the producer of Jingle All The Way?”? Columbus directed the second film in the series, and has gone on to mediocri-fy other things that people love like Rent and (presumably) The Lightning Thief.


Really, the cast is too big to cover here, but it’s honestly the biggest strength of the entire series. Thanks to the inherent prestige of the project, veteran British actors all appear in the smallest of roles, making Rowling’s expansive universe seem a lot more three dimensional in limited screen time.

Add the lucky break of finding three well chosen leads amongst thousands of children in an open cast-call, and you very nearly redeem any complaints I might have about Columbus’s direction (which we’ll get to as we go along).


1. Smooth Exposition

Both versions of the story are presented with the problem of creating a universe, and cramming a lot of exposition into the first half of the narrative. Rowling manages it a lot more deftly, given the slower run-time of the page.

For example, Hagrid ends up with the task of explaining to Harry A) That he’s a wizard, and there are lots of wizards and witches that have schools and shops and such, B) That his parents were in fact, a witch and a wizard of some renown that died when he was a baby, and C) That said deaths were at the hands of an evil wizard named Voldemort. In the book, he does all this while growing comically more enraged at the Dursleys (Harry’s Aunt & Uncle) for never telling him about any of it:

“…Did yeh never wonder where your parents learned it all?”
“All what?” asked Harry.
“ALL WHAT?” Hagrid thundered.

Not until a page later does Hagrid drop the revelation that Harry is a wizard, which is an important moment with some atmosphere: “There was a silence inside the hut. Only the sea and whistling wind could be heard. ‘I’m a what?’ gasped Harry.”

In the film, this becomes an abruptly flat exchange with no fanfare: -“All what?” -“Yer a wizard, Harry.” Also, perhaps in order to move the pace along, they have Hagrid explain about Voldemort and the murdering and all several scenes later, after Harry’s gone shopping at Diagon Alley and gotten his wand (which means he might have been a bit befuddled when the wandmaker tells him that his wand’s twin “gave you that scar.”)

2. Subtlety

The slower, eventual revelation of magic in the book is another subtle part that I loved, but it's absent from the film entirely- the studio clearly must’ve worried about kids falling asleep with all the talking. Small bits like Hagrid leaning making a fire out of sight from Harry and the Dursleys (instead of just blasting fire into the fireplace with his umbrella) or Dumbledore not looking at cat-McGonagall when he adresses her, and then turning back to find her in human form (instead of us seeing her change shape right away). It’s just a part of the magical world slowly creeping in on the regular one (like the first, Dursley centric chapter that the film justifiably skips).

You certainly can’t fault the film all that much for not making any big departures from the book, best-selling as it was. I just wish it would've also retained the small amount of nuance that Rowling used so well.

Take the snake: Harry sees a snake at a zoo that seems like it can understand him, talks to it a bit, then Dudley pushes him down and in that moment the glass disappears, the snake slithers by a terrified Dudley- Harry “could have sworn” he heard the snake say thanks. In the movie, Harry gets knocked down, very obviously glares at Dudley- then the glass disappears, and we literally see the snake say “thanks” and slither away. Har har, Columbus. What hilarious hi-jinks. It’s not like it was a sly setup of Harry being a Parseltongue in later books or anything. Glad you’re having fun.


1. Special FX

There were, I’ll admit, some nice touches here and there that can only be in our imaginations in the book: The dissolving brick wall passage into Diagon Alley peels back in a fun, more complex way than a small hole growing “wider and wider” in the book.

The transition from baby Harry to 11-year-old Harry through the forehead scar is reasonably inspired (even if it’s got nothing on the zoom-through-the-WB-logo of the later films).

Mostly the effects seemed to just be content to do the best imitation of the way things were written, which is pretty sad, if you think about it. You’re only a huge movie studio with a giant budget for computer animation, Warner. Why does the mountain troll that gets loose in the girl’s bathroom need to look exactly like Mary Grandpre’s illustration?(from the US edition, below. On the right is the action figure of the film-troll):

The madcap scene when Harry tries wands at the shop and makes various things fall over or explode is the right idea- in the book the wands feel different to Harry, and fizzle sparks- there's no way to show that, so why not make things up? But aside from a few other differences (like the potion room in the final sequence being replaced by a more complex bit with the plant obstacle), they just did it by the numbers.

And a word on Quidditch- maybe the later films are just better at it, but anything involving a broomstick looked shoddily intergrated to me. Very awkward, flying imposed over bright backgrounds. Most of the broomstick flying seems to be in inclement weather in the later movies, lending them more drama and less cartoonishness.

2. (Very) Occasional Character Moments

-Early on, Dudley runs up and down the stairs to make dust fall on Harry in his cupboard, an addition I liked. Harry also commiserates a little more explicitly with the snake in the beginning, a rare deft touch.

-When Harry takes Potions for the first time in the film, Snape chastises him for not paying attention when he’s actually taking notes, which fits well. (Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Snape is hands-down the best part of the films not really implied by the book character at all).

-We also get the recurring motif of Seamus blowing things up in his face.

-Finally, when Harry faces off with movie-Voldemort, he’s offered a vision of a life with his parents, all he ever wanted, if he only gives Voldemort the stone. It’s a fun, Last Temptation Of Christ type moment, and even if it’s not perfect I respect the attempt to give Harry more of a narrative arc than “learning a bunch of new stuff while being suspicious of Snape.”


-Harry doesn’t meet Draco before any other classmates, as in the book, at the robe shop, or even argue with him on the train. They meet randomly at the top of a staircase much later- it seems unbecoming of Draco’s introduction, since he’s the most persistently vocal of the series’ various antagonists.

-As much as I lament the “kiddiness” of this film, several of the book’s most playful touches are gone: There’s no sorting hat song, or school song. Nor do we hear of Dumbledore’s penchant for lemon drops, or of course his few words “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” Richard Harris does sprinkle in a few more winks than are canon, however.

-The deluminator in the movie looks more like a light saber than a cigarette lighter. Just saying.

-Harry goes to Hogwarts right after meeting Hagrid and buying his school things- does this mean his birthday is at the end of August, just for this first film? Is it best not to think about it?

-No introduction of the name “Nicholas Flamel” on the card in the chocolate frog box. Not that it has to do with the titular plot or anything.

-One of my favorite moments in the book is when Hagrid gives Harry the book of photos of his parents, and mentions rather casually that he just sent away to all of their friends for them. The gulf between the way he presents it and what it means to Harry near chokes me up every time. The movie, he just says “this is for you,” and then smiles importantly, once again overstating the moment.

-Flitwick looks a lot less humanoid in this movie than in later ones. I wonder when they just decide to retcon it? And will the goblins who play major parts in the upcoming Deathly Hallows two-parter look the same as the sort of creepy, felsh-tone goblins we see in Gringotts here?

-Harry doesn’t ask, in the film, why Voldemort would want to kill him in the first place, and doesn’t receive the subsequent non-answer, a very important thing later.


I actually saw this film, and the next two, before I read the books (it was Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful handling of the third installment that finally drew me into the story). So it clearly didn’t bring the material to life as much as it wanted to, as closely as it hews to the book.

That’s the thing- and the rather obvious conclusion I’ll probably reach in this feature over and over- movies aren’t books. You can do so many different things with movies, but all of the movie magic for Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone is spent trying not to ruffle too many purist’s feathers, or else wasted on a madcap John Williams score that distracts from the movie like a mosquito buzzing in everyone’s ears at once.

I still enjoy watching the film in a nostalgic, since we’ve all seen the young leads grow up in front of us, and I do of course enjoy the story- now being a huge fan of the books. It's hard to consider the first installment of a seven (or eight) part series purely as its own entity, given what we know comes later.

The movie was of course tremendously financially successful- it’s hard to imagine what else Columbus would’ve had to do to prevent that. And he had a major role in assembling the brilliant cast that serves us so well later. So I’ve probably been too hard on this film (and the next one) in casual discussion. I mean, I still watch them both when I flip by on cable...

But given the depth and atmosphere of the third through sixth (so far) films, it’s hard to look back on this workmanlike debut of the cinematic Harry Potter universe with a wistful hindsight, wishing for a more unified series. Ah, well.

See you next week with Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets!

1 Response to "Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone"

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