Right, first things first. Let’s get this straight, once and for all – it’s the Philosopher’s Stone, not the Sorceror’s Stone. I have no idea why J.K. Rowling agreed to change the name for the American market, but I bet she’s regretting it now. A philosopher and a sorcerer are completely different things!
Anyway, now that’s off my chest. I have a tremendous fondness for the Harry Potter books. I grew up with them. I was introduced to the Philosopher’s Stone when I was 10, and the Deathly Hallows was released when I was 17. I’m pleased that people are still discovering the books now, but it’s hard to explain to someone quite what it was like when they first came out – queuing at midnight to get the books, and then the agony of anticipation waiting for the next one to be released! And when J.K. Rowling announced she was taking a short break to have a baby, my mother and I were beside ourselves. She could have a baby when the series was finished, didn’t she realise we were desperate to find out what happens? The Harry Potter series was a phenomenon the like of which has never been seen before or since, and it makes me quite sad to think that I’ve never looked forward to new books being released in the same way as I did for this series, and I probably never will again. It was an absolutely huge part of my childhood, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my year 5 teacher, Mr Oakes, for introducing me to the series.
Now, obviously I’ve reread the first few books in the series many, many times because I’d reread from the beginning in preparation for every new book that was released, but I haven’t read any Harry Potter at all since I finished Deathly Hallows on the day it was released when I was 17. So far I’ve only managed to read Deathly Hallows once and the Half-Blood Prince twice, so I think the end of this week is going to get pretty emotional. Returning to this series was like a warm hug from an old friend though. The comfort and joy I felt from reading those first familiar words almost made me a bit teary in itself. I was instantly sucked back into the world I was so desperate to be a part of when I was younger (and, to be honest, I still am). I remember the disappointment of my 11th birthday, when I knew I couldn’t really get a letter from Hogwarts, but part of me was so desperately hoping for one anyway. (Sometimes I like to think that it’s an elaborate double bluff and absolutely real, because even though that means I’m just a muggle who could never go, I like to think that others do go, even if I can’t. You can probably tell that this series captured my imagination more than any other).
What surprised me most when rereading The Philosopher’s Stone was the fact the Harry and co. are all so young. I forget they’re only meant to be eleven because they’re dealing with such dangerous stuff, but now that I’m a horrifically old person of twenty five, it surprised me to think what they’re apparently capable of at such a young age (and also made me feel like a bit of an under achiever). This was hammered home even more in the film where all the actors are so baby-faced and squeaky-voiced.
In terms of setting up the series, J.K. Rowling managed to pack so much into what is essentially a pretty short book. The world building is just fantastic, and I can’t for the life of me imagine why so many publishers turned it down. Looking at that one book separately from the whole Harry Potter furore, and viewing it just as a debut novel without taking the rest of the series into account, I still think it’s brilliant. She’s absolutely nailed what kids would love to read, or at least what kids like me loved to read (and still do). Of course, it’s important to remember that the Harry Potter books aren’t just for kids. My mum would look forward to the next new release with just as much anticipation as I did. It’s a formula that appeals to everyone, of all ages. I bet those publishers are kicking themselves now!
So for those of you who don’t know (and how could you have missed it?!), in the first book Harry Potter discovers that he’s a wizard, and not just any wizard – he is the only person to have ever survived a killing curse from the evil Lord Voldemort, who also killed his parents. He gets to leave his horrible aunt and uncle behind and go to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he is famous for (unknowingly) being the person who got rid of Lord Voldemort. He has to cope with learning how to use magic, make new friends, and prevent a secret package being stolen from the mysterious third floor corridor.
I remember waiting for the films to come out almost as much as the books, but they really are the poor relation of the two. They’re fine, but they can’t possibly hope to contain all the little subplots that made the world of Hogwarts so vibrant and real, especially in the chunkier books. The film did stick to the story quite accurately, but it was quite a long film considering the pace with which it rattled through everything, especially at the beginning when it’s being established that Harry’s a wizard. The acting isn’t spectacular for the most part, with the obvious exceptions of Professor McGonagall, played by Maggie Smith, and Professor Snape played by Alan Rickman, both of whom are always brilliant. I didn’t agree with all the casting either, but then I never do. For me, the Phelps twins just aren’t right for Fred and George (sorry Phelps twins). I can’t put my finger on what it is exactly, but they just don’t have that spark of mischief about them. They’re not twinkly or cheeky enough, and I think they’re too tall (although admittedly they can’t help this). Quirrell was also too tall for that matter, and while I think I prefer Richard Harris as Dumbledore (I don’t think Dumbledore would ever let his fingernails get as dirty as Michael Gambon’s), still neither of them are quite right for me. Plus James and Lily (but especially James) are far too old, judging by their appearance in the Mirror of Erised.
So overall it was quite accurate, although I think the biggest difference to the storyline involved the baby dragon Norbert. It had been so long since I’d read the book that I’d almost forgotten about Norbert, goodness knows how! I’d quite like a little Norbert for myself. Anyway, in the book Hermione and Harry arrange to send Norbert to Charlie Weasley in Romania (Ron’s in the hospital wing with an infected dragon bite). Harry and Hermione get caught being out of bed, as do Neville and Malfoy, and all four of them end up serving their detention in the Forbidden Forest. In the film, Harry, Ron and Hermione get caught coming back from Hagrid’s, as does Malfoy. They still serve detention in the Forbidden Forest, but it transpires that Norbert was taken away from Hagrid and that other members of staff, such as Filch, are completely aware of what happened to Hagrid’s ‘secret’ dragon. A few of the enchantments protecting the Philosopher’s Stone (the potions logic riddle and the troll) are also missing from the film, presumably due to time constraints, and instead of burning when he touches Harry, Quirrell rather horrifically crumbles into dust. Voldemort’s face on the back of Quirrell’s head is also suitably horrible, but would never have fitted under Quirrell’s turban. Sorry.
All in all, the film’s a tad cringey, especially when Harry, Ron and Hermione try to show any real emotion (but then they are incredibly young, so we can’t really hold that against them), and towards the end I found myself becoming increasingly distracted by wee Daniel Radcliffe’s monobrow. I suppose it’s kind of funny seeing them so young when we’re now used to seeing them as fully grown and accomplished adults. I feel like I grew up with them too in a way, so it’s no different to looking back fondly at myself and my friends at that age, and thinking how serious we were trying to be and how ridiculous we really were. It’s a good introduction to the Harry Potter world and I liked how the actors aged alongside their characters in the films, but of course it can never really compare to the book itself, which is just brilliant.
See also My Culture Mission, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, or read previous Book Vs. Film Review featuring Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.