This is something that I thought I would never do. What I’m about to say might not be totally true, but for the sake of making this whole enterprise feel a little more dramatic, I will say that, at some point in my life, I swore I would never read a Harry Potter book. The reason behind making such a stupid claim is very simple: I was a contrarian. It basically boils down to my experience with the first Harry Potter movie. I watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorcerer’s Stone depending on the weird logic of the people at your local publisher) when it came out in late 2001. I was nine years old, and I loved it. So, what happened? A couple months later I went to the movies again, only this time I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which is almost objectively a superior movie.Now, there is no particular reason why I should have to pick one fandom between Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, but try to tell that to my nine-year-old self. I decided that Lord of the Rings ruled and Harry Potter sucked; the rest is history…
Or it was until now. It’s been more than fifteen years since the publication of J.K. Rowling’s first book in the Harry Potter series, which means enough time has passed. Fandom and passions have calmed down, and I finally feel like I have the distance and maturity required to engage with these books in an honest and meaningful way. I’m not reading them to try and find flaws that will make me win stupid arguments (something that my younger self might have done), but out of true curiosity. Did I really miss out on a hugely important cultural touchstone? What is it like to read Harry Potter? If you are interested on what a person such as me would think about these books, well, then stick around, this series is just getting started!
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: The Book
Thanks for making it this far, because this is the part when, after two paragraphs of convincing you that I will look at Harry Potter as open-mindedly as possible, I alienate all HP fans by saying that I didn’t like this book. As a way to calm those who think this whole project will become me ranting about J.K. Rowling’s books, I must say that I have heard from people whose opinion I trust that this first book is the weakest of the series, so I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the series, and be surprised by how good the books get as it goes along.
This is also where I point out that I have grown to not be much of a literary person. It’s not only that I’ve come to prefer to occupy my free time with movies and television, but that it’s become rather difficult for me to like a book. If you allow me to be as pretentious as I can be, I will now point out that my favorite book is Anna Karenina -which is as improbable and unimaginative as saying your favorite movie is Citizen Kane– but the truth is the truth. I am also a huge fan of children’s fiction, which would, in theory, make Harry Potter an easy book for me to enjoy -and this is where my problem kicks in- I suppose Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a fine read for kids (God knows you could do much, much worse than this), but I can’t help to find it unimaginative and mediocre.
If you look at the first few chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry is living with the Dursleys, you can’t help but feel like you are reading some sort of Roald Dahl rip-off. Now, I’m not saying that Rowling stole her ideas from Dahl or anything (he certainly did not write about a boy going off to a wizard school), but spiritually and tonally, the story of Harry Potter sounds awfully like James and the Giant Peach or Matilda. In all cases we’re dealing with an unfortunate child who lives a miserable life under the “protection” of grotesque family members that don’t really like him/her, and who discovers that he/she can escape his misfortunes through the use of special supernatural abilities (or meeting a bunch of talking bugs in one case). Yes, a lot of children’s stories have similar plots (it’s an easy way of winning sympathy for the lead character), but the cold matter-of-factness of Rowling’s writing when describing the magical elements, or the Durlsey’s most ridiculous behavior, seems lifted straight from the Roald Dahl playbook.
The worse part is that Rowling -at least at this stage in her career- is not as good a writer as Dahl. I would only go as far as to call her an adequate writer, really. This was particularly disappointing to me because one of the things I love the most about children’s literature is that it allows its authors a level of playfulness that results in some of the most memorable and delightful passages. Think, for example, of how many tumblr posts are there that quote Alice in Wonderland or The Little Prince. I recognize that those books are written in a far more poetic and language-centric way than the more epic-like Harry Potter, but you can find clever prose anywhere. Case in point, look at the opening line of C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” It’s one of the most memorable lines in all of literature. There is not a single time while reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where I wanted to grab a high-line and mark the book so I can remember a line.
To be fair, I am already reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the second book in the series), and Rowling’s writing seems to have improved quite a bit. Actually, and I don’t know if this is at all possible, but it also seems to me as if she got better while writing The Philosopher’s Stone, since the writing in the latter half of the book is superior to the first. This also has to do with the fact that the book must serve the unglamorous task of delivering lots and lots of exposition so that we learn all we need to know about the Wizarding World Harry Potter lives in. The book also suffers a little bit, in my mind, for being too episodic, in the sense that things that are set up in the plot tend to pay-off very quickly after they are introduced. However, the second half of the book features two moments that I found to be actually pretty great. The first is the second Quidditch match (between Gryffindor and Hufflepuff), which is not only much better written than the chaotic and dull first match between Gryffindor and Slythering, but manages to have an undercurrent of the camaraderie and excitement that the students must feel about watching their houses play against each other. The second, is when Dumbledore catches Harry looking at the mirror of Erised, and you make the delightful realization of just how much Dumbledore enjoys giving sage advise and being a smart-ass at the same time.
I don’t like being so negative, especially after pointing out two things that I actually liked about the book, but I can’t finish talking about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone without pointing out the one thing that made me actually angry. It comes very late into the book: Harry, Ron, and Hermione have already succeeded at many of the tasks required to reach the room that holds the Philosopher’s Stone when they are faced with a riddle created by Professor Snape. There are a bunch of different bottles holding different kinds of potions on a table, only one of which will let you go to the next room. It’s not a problem, though, because Hermione is so smart that she can easily solve the problem… a problem which by the way isn’t explained to us at all! What, in the name of good writing, is the point of setting up a riddle if you are not going to provide any kind of meaningful answer beyond “because magic”.
As a matter of fact, something that has always bothered me about Harry Potter, is the expansive way in which magic is used by Rowling. There are very few rules to the way magic operates in the world of Harry Potter, and thus, logic and reason don’t really hold much of a candle when everything can be magically solved with all sorts of deus ex machinas. This very book ends with a huge deus ex machina, in which Dumbledore realizes just at the precise moment that he should come back to Hogwarts, just as Harry conveniently discovers that someone as evil as Voldemort can’t really touch him without melting (a plot-point that I believe doesn’t play a role in his future adventures, at least not in the movies).
Ok, so, before this post becomes a novel in and on itself, The Philosopher’s Stone is sloppily written, but is it a worthy read for your children? If you grew up loving Harry Potter, you will certainly say yes. I say, if you kid wants to read it, then fine, he or she will probably have a pretty good time doing so. Now, the people over at the Journal of Applied Social Psychology would go as far as to say that your child would actually benefit from reading Harry Potter. According to a recent study, children that read Harry Potter are more tolerant of stigmatized groups, which in my book, is the same as saying Harry Potter makes you a better person. I won’t sound off against the results of the study, since I certainly haven’t performed one of my own, but I will say that I find this very surprising, since I had always perceived the wizards and witches of the Harry Potter world as being a very exclusive and hermetic group. I expect I’ll be talking more about this as I read more books, but I think these books are very much obsessed with the idea of inherent greatness. The way wizard-folk couldn’t care less about muggles, the fact that “all the best people are in Gryffindor” and “there hasn’t been wizard that went bad that wasn’t in Slythering”, and especially the fact that the only way Rowling and her characters seem to able to humiliate Dudley Dursley is by pointing out that he is fat, are all elements that make me a little uncomfortable with the books philosophical implications. Anyway, I might be wrong, and if I am, I suppose I will find out sooner rather than later.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: The Movie
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as in the movie that was made out of the novel of the same name, has a pretty bad reputation. It was reviewed rather positively at the time of its release, but on hindsight, both fans of the Harry Potter series, and of movies in general, have retroactively deemed it a pretty mediocre film. The popular opinion is that it is too close an adaptation, and that Chris Columbus does what is essentially a hack job as director. Now, while Columbus deserves a certain amount of praise for being the one who visualized and commanded the translation of Rowling’s prose into films, the popular opinion of this movie is pretty much on point.
This is a mediocre movie, and I think there is no other way to look at it. The adaptation -by the talented Steve Kloves- does, in fact, skew too close to the book. It obviously leaves some stuff out, and tweaks stuff here and there to make the narrative work better as a feature film, but it really has to bite much more than it can chew. The fact that, like the book, it has to present us with endless scenes full of exposition doesn’t really help the matter. Neither does the decision to lift quite a bit of dialogue directly from the source material, which like I said, isn’t exactly the best written novel of all time. The result is a bunch of moments in which characters deliver lines that belong only on paper. However, this story is all about the magic and the wonder, so a weak script shouldn’t necessarily bring the whole thing down. In the hands of a good director, just looking at this world on screen could be enough to turn The Philosopher’s Stone into a good movie.
Sadly, Chris Columbus is not a good director. The filmmaking in this movie is actually so incompetent that it manages to ruin some of the most basic and elemental emotional beats of the story. How Columbus couldn’t land the thrill that the audience should feel when Harry first learns that he is a wizard is beyond me, but it’s exactly what happened. The original director for the movie was actually Steven Spielberg, who abandoned the project in favor of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Now, you may or may not have problems with Spielberg as a filmmaker, but he is undoubtedly an auteur, an artist with particular preferences and vision. Columbus’s directing of this movie is so anonymous that it feels like he was barely concerned with bringing any kind of look or feel to the thing. That a movie about a magical world full of wonders ended up being so flat should be a crime. For a brief moment there I though maybe Columbus was trying to make some sort of throwback to the kids movies of the mid-eighties, but there really aren’t enough visual cues in the movie as to even attempt to make that claim. From the lack emotion to the dated visual effects, this movie just doesn’t hold up.
Here is something that I will actually give Columbus, or whoever was in charge of this movie, they did a pretty good job of finding children that would grow up to be pretty good actors. Maybe they were just lucky, but I highly doubt it, they must have something in these children, and they made a mighty find job. As for the acting of the children in this first movie, well, child actors can be tricky. Daniel Radcliffe is (and will remain) my least favorite of the main trio. I’d describe his work in this movie as “meh”. Rupert Grint, meanwhile, is kind of adorable, and the most curious and particular case is that of Emma Watson, who at this point in her acting career seems to be incapable of delivering a line and making it sound natural, but shows so much attitude playing Hermione, that she manages to make it work, and come out as the most impressive of the kids.
On the other hand, and this is something that I will always praise the Harry Potter movies for, no matter how indifferent I feel about them, the adult cast is pretty terrific. If nothing else, I’m glad this series of movies existed just so we could spend ten-plus years watching British thespians chew the scenery as the many professors, wizards, and witches that populate this world. The stand-outs of this first movie are Maggie Smith, who really should have gotten more to do in the following movies, David Bradley, who is delightfully despicable as Filch, and, of course, Alan Rickman, who finally found a role that would let him be as Alan Rickman-y as he wanted to be in Severus Snape.
Up Next: We’ll venture into The Chamber of Secrets, which I’ve heard is the weakest book and movie of the series (gulp!)