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Wizard Redux



*Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (PG)
Warner Bros.

Gentle Reader:

I am having slight crisis of confidence in my job. What function can I possibly have in writing about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone almost two weeks since its release? Discussed over every water cooler in the United States, reviewed in every print or electronic medium yet invented, and with breathless box office stats part of daily morning radio fare, why on earth should I even bother?

And for that matter, why should you? If the demographic surveys on the Indy are correct, you're one of the hippest, most intellectual readers in the southern part of this fine state. So, what are you doing reading a review about a kids' movie that, if the stats are correct, everyone has already seen? Are you caught up in the Potter phenom? Or are you just a compulsive movie-review reader?

Well, whatever your motivations, you've read this far expecting some opinion on the movie, so I will do my duty. But first, some background. Harry Potter is a young British boy who discovers, after a yucky childhood in the household of his aunt and uncle (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw), that he is actually a wizard. Luckily for young British wizards, there is a fabulous boarding school that it is apparently mandatory to attend, where, like generations of their upper-crust Muggle (non-magical) counterparts, they can be properly molded, away from the influence of their parents. There, at Hogwarts School, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) not only learns about a parallel magical world but also discovers that he comes from the most impeccable wizard stock and he is bound for wizarding greatness, most notably to resist the evil powers of Voldemort, a dastardly dude who killed his parents.

Like most of the critics that you have probably already heard or read, I found Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the movie, quite faithful to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the book. Faithful, that is, to the words on the page. What the sometimes wonderful but usually cheesy special effects can't and don't capture, however, is the stuff in the spaces between the words. Forget the battle of good and evil: Seeing Harry Potter has gotten me thinking about the ways books operate on the imagination, how vivid and yet how hazy are the images conjured in the layers of the mind. When I create a soundtrack accompaniment to Harry's discovery of his parents in the mirror of desire, I know I don't hear a bombastic John Williams score, but I'm not sure what I hear. Debussy, maybe, like the first four measures of "Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun." My vision of Quidditch, a game of souped-up broomstick racing, was also more spare -- spacious, violent, graceful and otherworldly, not at all like director Chris Columbus Monday-night-football-bloopers-at-11-influenced Quidditch match.

There are other places where film reality doesn't look so great. I was somehow shocked to see that, again like their Muggle peers, so many of the wizards chosen in Britain are white. There is one very visible token black kid, with dreadlocks no less, but that's about it. A quick walk down a Manchester street shows a multicultural world that somehow isn't reflected in the wizard world and the starkness of the racial inequity was quite jarring to my poor brain.

All that said, I'm not going to warn you off the movie. After all, you don't want to be the sole American who hasn't seen the darn thing, and your kids will love it. Besides, although there are far too many scenes where young Harry and his friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) have to simply stand and grin in wonder, in general the young actors are quite competent, and I look forward to seeing their development in the future (there are to be seven books, after all, and that means six more movies, for sure). The giant Hagrid who befriends Harry is wonderfully portrayed by Robbie Coltrane, and although they are somewhat neglected in the film version, both the wizard teachers Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) are also well rendered. The screenplay is a careful working of the action of the book, and it hangs together quite well, without the awful wordiness or ponderous voiceover that often haunt movie adaptations.

It is a strange damning-with-faint-praise to say that a movie was faithful to a book -- and a critique that goes both ways. Sadly, neither book nor movie form is particularly well served by this attempt. The movie feels pedestrian and literal, too timid to explore the possibilities of a world where, although parallel to ours, nothing is quite the same. The book, in turn, is tarnished by the movie stuffing all the lovely spaces populated, decorated and embellished by the imagination. I am hoping that when I get to reading book No. 5, I won't have Voldemort's silly plasticine face floating through my mind when I picture his pure evil.

Finally, whether or not you've read the book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is an adequate kid's movie that suffers most from what makes the books so appealing: the spark of imagination is gone. In providing a literal translation, the magic of Harry Potter has been detailed into oblivion, and I'm left, like the rest of the critics in the nation, writing a review about just about nothing at all.

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