Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Directed by Chris Columbus
Written by Steve Cloves
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

All together now, let's breathe a sigh of relief. Since both our expectations and our fears for the film were so high it's a pleasure to report that the film in no way does violence to the book. More than that, it captures not only the plot, characters and events that we all know so well, but it also translates the spirit and the magic of the story without even one stumble. The unenviable job that writer Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus had was to give us the book - the whole book, in every sense - as a movie, and they have come through with great panache. What might have been a Cliffs Notes, or a Classic Comics, or, God forbid, a George Lucas inflation of the whole thing, is instead a witty, gripping, touching and most exciting motion picture that compels us to live fully with its people for two and a half hours.

How did they pull it off? Most reviews are going to slight Kloves's script, because it appears so easy to make a movie from a book that's mostly dialog anyway. But Kloves's achievement is to pick and choose, to save the essence of each scene, to avoid the obvious and let the film's images speak when necessary. There's no redundancy, no needless underlining, no tedious plot exposition, ever. As an example, he's removed Draco Malfoy's little claque of obnoxious friends, letting Draco speak for all of them. And Draco (Tom Felton) isn't evil; he's just an obnoxious 11-year-old kid. He's believable. Kloves has written a movie that works whether or not you've ever read the book.

And Columbus turns out to be the perfect director for the film, because he treats the book's wonderful witchcraft with the same matter-of-fact spirit that was J. K. Rowling's great achievement. He never goes cute, nor does he ramp up the tension or fear needlessly. He uses the magic of Hogwarts exactly when and where it is needed. The invisibility cloak is just something that works when needed and never appears when it isn't. The Quidditch match, which in lesser hands might have been stretched out to equal a World Cup final, is just a part of life - an exciting part, of course - at Hogwarts. It foreshadows Harry's future skills as we'll meet them later, but it is not the centerpiece of the film.

The casting is beyond praise. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry never thinks of himself, or allows us to think of him, as a star, a future superman, or anything other than a boy of eleven who needs friends, who finds bravery inside himself when he looks, and who is happy to be one among the three pals. Emma Watson as Hermione is bossy, thoughtful, as smart as Harry, and the perfect friend. And Rupert Grint as Ron has enough individuality to stand apart from Harry as well.

The adults are also extraordinary. Richard Harris as Dumbledore has both wit and wisdom to go with his two-foot beard. Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall is the perfect matron of a boarding school. Alan Rickman, who with his pageboy haircut looks like Prince Valiant's evil twin, is delicious as the supposed worm in the school's apple. The enormous Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid uses his immense body and soft voice to great effect as the imperfect, all-too-muggly figure the children can identify with. And just enough is made of Harry's life with the Dursleys (perfect looking and well played by Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Harry Melling as the avaricious young Dudley) to make the point but not lean on it. There is a particularly delicious moment early on when the family visits the zoo and Harry unconsciously uses his magic powers to put Dudley in the python's cage.

In a miracle of restraint, Columbus has used his special effects only as needed. They work and are wonderful, but the film never overdoes them. In fact Kloves's script eliminates most of the classroom lessons and experiments in magic that occupied much of the book, recognizing, I think, that they are not needed here in the film. The point is made early on in Diagon Alley when Hagrid takes Harry to Mr. Ollivander's wand shop (John Hurt in a beautiful cameo) to try out different wands, each of which causes an explosion. The major pieces of computer-generated work - Quidditch, the talking pictures, the instant banquets, the moving staircases, the sorting hat - are all handled with an offhand realism that makes them even more effective.

This is a film to be seen and reseen, as the book is read and reread. A difficult but wonderfully successful achievement for everyone.