Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (dir. Chris Columbus, 2001)

This first Harry Potter film is not as accomplished as many of the later ones, being rather more cardboard cut-out in its style as well as somewhat overlong and bloated, but Columbus did manage to capture the magic of Harry Potter’s world, so I quite like it. Although this Hogwarts doesn’t look much like it’s in Scotland, the design of Diagon Alley is gorgeous, all rickety old houses and twisting streets and the castle of Hogwarts itself looks great (I had a lovely poster on my wall at university of Hogwarts at night, with all the first years in their boats rowing towards it). Casting and costumes both reflect the books perfectly (actually, I always pictured Professor McGonagall as Bebe Neuwirth, Lilith from Cheers and Frasier, but any excuse to watch Maggie Smith is a good one. And Snape really ought not to be any older than his mid-30s, but Alan Rickman is too completely perfect in the role for me to care. The glare at Harry and exquisite flick of the hair as he says, oozing malevolence, that ‘people will think you’re... up to something’ makes me grin every time. That man does the best Hair Acting I’ve ever seen).

As I re-watched the film, I wondered if wizards use owls for their postal service because owls symbolise wisdom – which does rather beg the question why Minerva McGonagall, named for Athena/Minerva, a goddess of wisdom and war who had a particular connection with owls, turns into a cat rather than an owl? But that’s really an issue with the books, not the films. Also in the category of things that hadn’t occurred to me before, how come Ron has a different accent to the rest of his family?!

Much like the plural minotaurs who seem to be all over fantasy at the moment, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone features a giant three-headed dog called Fluffy who is, we can only presume, one of a larger species of giant three-headed dogs. (The alternative is that the Irish fella Hagrid met in the pub went down to Hades and stole Hades’ personal hound, taking him back up to the world and selling him to a gameskeeper who decided to keep him in a school. Which seems... unlikely). Cerberus is supposed to be especially large in myth, but the gigantic dog here is bigger that Cerberus is in most vase paintings. This is partly because Heracles brought Cerberus us from the underworld, rather than killing him, so he’s unlikely to be that enormous, but mainly because otherwise he wouldn’t fit on the vase. The humungous dog here is nice, though, a suitably scary guard-dog (and would, of course, look smaller next to fully grown adults rather than eleven year olds).

Centaurs come up time and again and their most interesting Harry Potter appearance is in The Order of the Phoenix, so I won’t look at them in too much detail here (see previous discussions). I also don’t want to dwell on the centaurs in this movie too much, as the CGI is absolutely awful. I don’t usually complain about dodgy special effects because I think viewers should just use their imaginations, but this is a special case. The centaur here looks utterly ridiculous and bizarrely ape-like, and is rather larger than he needs to be. The BBC produced a slightly iffy but certainly satisfactory centaur in the late 1980s by splicing together footage of a man and footage of a horse – I’d much rather look at that than at this weird CG thing.

I’ll indulge in some random non-Classic-y thoughts as well while I’m here. I always thought, in the books, that the robes the children wear as their school uniform were more like the adults’ robes, or Gandalf’s – full garments that replace other clothing. I think the combination of ordinary school uniforms with robes as cloaks over the top works though – it makes the children look a bit less strange, as their outfits look more like graduation outfits, which we do see in the real world, albeit not very often, and they can look more casual by taking off the robes. The books in the restricted section have chains on them – have they been stolen from the Library of Unseen University?! And I’ve always thought Professor Quirrell’s end was a bit too horrifically nasty, especially given the general tone of the film and young target audience. And the fact that Harry essentially murders him doesn’t seem to worry anyone – sure, it was self-defense, but was putting his hands all over his face strictly necessary? But perhaps I’m just excessively squeamish.

And on a half-Classics-y note: does anyone else have fun imagining that it’s actually Emperor Marcus Aurelius running Hogwarts with serene philosophical majesty? Just me? OK, never mind.

It is over-long and it is lacks a certain depth, but I like this first Harry Potter movie. Not as much as the others perhaps, but I do like it – thanks largely to John Williams’ score, it has the magical feel it needs to have and although the movie may have gone a bit too far in trying to be faithful to the books, including just a bit too much stuff, it is fun seeing these characters come to life as if they’re sprung up from the page. I’ve even been known to shed a tear or two when Hagrid gives Harry that photo album at the end.

Lacock, near Bristol, where the first two Harry Potter movies did some filming. I think the cauldron was put in there for the tourists. And that's one of my best friends' elbows in the corner!


  1. Juliette, I think I have more issues with the film than you do (probably because I was ten and fiercely loyal to my own crazed opinion of what is 'proper' adaptation to screen), but overall, I like what you have here. I think that film tends to streamline the novels in such a way that most of the Classical influence that nuances the books is lost. I'm cool with Fluffy being so big (after all, if Hesiod were right about his 50 heads, that'd be one big dog), but otherwise I think your quibbles are mine. I was seriously upset by Quirrel's end in the film, precisely because it makes our boy a murderer; in the novel, Harry inflicts nonlethal but debilitating damage.

    And no. You're not alone. In later watchings, I did see Marcus Aurelius tromping around.

  2. My problem with this film is that without the book the scenes tend to be very disjointed. It's a wonderful movie for people who know the book, but has some flaws as a way to get new people interested in the books.

    As an American I never noticed the Weasley accents. It usually takes a major difference to stand out, or when someone has a strongly different accent in an interview than what they act with (both Marina Sirtis and Danny John Jules come to mind). I guess you could say that Ron hasn't had his accent polished at school, yet, but shouldn't it be more southwestern then?

    I tend to see Peter O'Toole as either Lawrence of Arabia or the drunk actor from My Favorite Year, usually the later. Anyway, I'm usually too distracted by noticing how little the kids are.

  3. hunh, I never noticed the difference in the Weasley accents, and I usually pick up on that kind of thing!

    I was completely engrossed by the magic of the story coming to life on the big screen to be too critical about it flaws. I actually consider it to be on of the best adapted ones if for no other reason than it's the one that leaves the least out of the book and it really manages to recreate the magical feel from when reading it!

    And I can't picture anyone other than Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman in their roles, they're pitch-perfect! My favourite Rickman moment is when his voice is oozing loathing "Miiiister Potter..."

    And yes, Williams score = musical magic! :o)


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