This article appeared in Issue 24 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
In an age where today's youth are bombarded with Pokemon, video games, movies, and Britney Spears, it is quite amazing that one of the most recognizable and well-loved media properties of the younger set is a book. In the four years since the publication of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" ("Sorcerer's Stone" in the United States), Harry Potter has become a full-blown cultural phenomenon. This children's lit sensation has gathered considerable momentum with each successive installment, and finally became a force to be reckoned with in 1999. It was that year that Pottermania reached an all-time high, when interest from older readers helped the books cross over into the adult best-seller lists and landed Harry Potter on the cover of Time Magazine. The following year saw the release of the fourth book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", which triggered such an unprecedented level of demand that even the postal services in the United States and Canada made Saturday deliveries to get the book into the hands of Potter fans.
With such a groundswell of support mushrooming around the adventures of Mr. Potter, the announcement of a Harry Potter film was inevitable. Work on the first film actually began in 1997 when producer David Heyman ("Ravenous") bought the rights to a still-unknown "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" and began development with Warner Bros. However, by the time scribe Steve Kloves ("Wonder Boys") became involved in drafting the film's script, the first two books had already taken off in Britain and were starting a following in North America. Pretty soon, the Harry Potter film was attracting the cream of the crop in Hollywood, and Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan") through his hat into the ring to direct. However, when Spielberg backed out to direct "A.I. Artificial Intelligence", Chris Columbus ("Stepmom"), whose daughter had turned him on to Harry Potter, got the job.
Now, after what must have been an interminable wait for Potter-philes, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" has finally arrived on the big screen with its opening weekend $90 million+ take, shattering the three-day record previously-held by "The Lost World". Fortunately, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" more-or-less earns the hype with an entertaining and spectacle-filled tale that remains faithful to the source material. Yes, there's definitely something about "Harry".
For the uninitiated, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" kicks off the magical adventures of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe of "The Tailor of Panama"), who has spent a decade growing up under the stairs of his mean uncle, aunt, and cousin since his parents were killed in a car crash. On his 11th birthday, Harry receives a letter from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which opens his eyes to an unimaginable existence. In contrast to being the black sheep of his uncle's household, Harry learns that he is a celebrity in the hidden world of wizards and witches, and has a great destiny to fulfill. Also, instead of being killed in a car crash, Harry learns that his parents were slain by the evil wizard Voldemort, who left a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.
Upon his arrival at Hogwarts to begin his formal education in the ways of magic, Harry is befriended by fellow freshmen Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), praised by Headmaster Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris of "Gladiator"), and taken under the wing of groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane of "The World is Not Enough"). Unfortunately, Harry must also deal with the jealous arrogance of fellow classmate Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton of "Anna and the King"), the stern discipline of Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith of "The First Wives Club"), and the sinister demeanor of Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman of "Galaxy Quest").
However, Harry's true adventure is only beginning as he quickly learns that there are some sinister things afoot at Hogwarts that involve a locked dungeon, an evil being in the Dark Forest outside of the school, and a member of the school's faculty who may be up to no good. Furthermore, all of this might have something to do with the death of Harry's parents... and place the young wizard-wannabe in very grave danger.
Though I have never read the books, I can appreciate why millions of readers both young and old around the world have succumbed to Potter-mania. "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" incorporates many themes and storytelling elements that are common from age-old fairy tales ("Cinderella") to modern-day mythology, such as "Star Wars". A boy is made to feel worthless as he grows up under the care of his stepfamily, only to discover that he is someone truly special, which leads him onto a quest where he will grow his skills and learn the truth about the world around him. If it worked for Luke Skywalker, why can't it work for Harry Potter?
And though the film runs almost two-and-a-half hours, it never feels long because of its snappy pacing as well as the carefully-crafted intrigue around Harry's past and his education at Hogwarts. The film also hooks the viewer in with its sense of discovery, gradually revealing the hidden and fantastic world that Harry is exploring for the first time, from the hidden shopping district for mages in the heart of London, to Harry's 'first day of school', to Harry's first flying lesson. Using seamlessly-blended live action and CGI, many of the book's showcase sequences are brilliantly realized, such as the aerial sport of Quidditch, a life-and-death chess game with life-size pieces, and a battle against a troll.
As the titular character, Radcliffe is perfect as Harry Potter. Not only is he a splitting image of the face that has graced four best-selling books, but he also brings an earnest quality to Harry Potter, a boy who is doing his best to contain his excitement while trying to digest the intricacies of the new life that is rapidly unfurling around him. As his sidekicks, Grint and Watson are likable, with the former being the hapless underdog and the latter being the typical know-it-all with just a touch of arrogance. This thespian triumvirate is ably supported by Harris, Rickman, Smith, and Coltrane, along with some cameos by John Cleese ("Isn't She Great"), John Hurt ("Captain Corelli's Mandolin"), and Julie Walters ("Billy Elliott").
Overall, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" is a solid piece of filmmaking that will be enjoyed by young and old alike. Looking into the future, J.K. Rowling intends to make Harry Potter a seven-book series, following Harry and his friends at Hogwarts through their schooling and transition to adulthood. Though this first film is not quite perfect, it is still an impressive beginning to what may be a very lucrative film franchise. And given that the later books in the series take on a darker tone (the death of a main character) and illustrate Harry's gradual maturation (including his discovery of the opposite sex), future Harry Potter movies will probably be even more interesting... provided that the filmmakers don't mess things up too badly (look what happened to "Batman", another Warner Bros. film franchise that showed great potential). Until the next film "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" comes out next year, I think I just might start reading the books...