Hogwarts Has Me: My take on the Harry Potter series - Volume One ("Sorcerer's Stone")
I didn't really notice when the book craze hit the U.S. I didn't fall over myself to try and see the movies when they came out. In fact, I didn't even see one of them in the theatre until the third film was released, three years after the first.
But recently, something happened after I watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Some kind of delayed interest finally kicked in, and as a result, I decided to not only rewatch (or in most cases, finally buy) the five available Pottter DVDs, but I also decided now would be the best time to see if the hype around the books was all it was cracked up to be.
So, yes, I'm one of those people who decided to watch the films first, and then read the books. The main reason for this was because, as someone who's written for a website that focused on book vs. film adaptations, I know all too well how common it is to find yourself disappointed when your favorite things aren't included in the cinematic presentation.
I would also add that part of the appeal with going into one of these films is not knowing what will happen. The big reveal near the end of Sorcerer's Stone, or Sirius' true identity in Prisoner of Azkaban, or the revelation of who the half-blood prince is in the sixth book would not have been as effective had I already known what to expect. True, you run the risk of spoiling it for yourself in either case, but as a film person, I'd much rather see a big reveal than read about it first.
Once she got wind of my interest in the series, my mom decided she wanted to watch the films with me. So last Sunday, we took two and a half hours out of our day to sit through Sorcerer's Stone. This was my mother's first time seeing it, and I can't tell you how I surprised (and thrilled) I was to hear her say she thoroughly enjoyed it. This coming from the same woman who hated, hated, hated the Lord of the Rings films, and typically isn't overly enthralled by sci-fi fantasies.
Not a bad way to start the process.
What can I say? This is one of those very rare cases where the hype wasn't just hype; it was real. This may be fashioned as a kids' book, but I think there's enough here to appeal to anyone, regardless of age.
For me personally, I attended boarding school one year while in high school. So much about what J.K. Rowling writes about --- Harry's uncertainty about how to arrive on the train, the attitude of the prefects, the school-wide dining presentation, the quirky headmaster --- I find incredibly easy to relate to. Now that I think about it, boarding school was a lot like Hogwarts, except that not as many faculty members were wizards. A few goblins, but no wizards.
Now that I'm in college, there's still plenty to identify with. I found it very realistic that first years were not allowed brooms. At my university, first years are not allowed to live in off-campus housing. And many are discouraged from bringing their cars with them.
Something else that Rowling taps into is the importance of school sports. Frankly, people are a little obsessed with Quidditch. But this idea is nothing new. In boarding school, there was always more talk about the lacrosse team or varsity basketball than anything else. And do I even need to talk about how obsessed everyone is with University of Georgia football?
There are a few things expressed in the book (Ron being taller than his brothers, Hermione having huge teeth, Dudley having blonde hair) that don't translate on screen, which is to be expected. But for those, like me, who thought there wasn't much difference between the movie and the book, there are still some interesting tidbits worth reading about.
Rowling puts much more empahsis on Ron's being poor, which seems to be a big part of who he is. Also, both he and Harry seem much more annoyed by Hermione at first, which makes their eventual friendship all the more interesting.
There are plenty of great moments in the book that didn't make it into the film, but some of my favorites were these:
- Neville, overly excited by his placement in Gryffindor, jumps off the seat with the sorting hat still on his head
- Snape calls Neville "idiot boy," and blames Harry for something he had nothing to do with
- Snape acts as a Quidditch referee; Ron, Neville and Malfoy fight in the stands as the game goes on
- Hagrid attempts to talk with a centaur, who's too preoccupied with how bright Mars looks at night
- There's an early hint as to why Snape hates Harry so much
Aside from a few omissions here and there, the film does a pretty fantastic job of staying true to the book. But more than that, I'd say there are several instances where the movie takes certain scenes and enhances them:
- There isn't a barrage of exposition in the opening of the film like there is in the text, explaining Harry's importance and his history with Voldemort. This is not to say it doesn't work in the book, but it definitely would have been a bit much for the start of a nearly three hour movie.
- In Ollivander's shop, Harry tries out multiple wands to no avail, shattering glass and throwing things out of whack. He goes through several wands in the book, but he never gets to actually try them out to the extent that he does in the film.
- Hagrid says "I shouldn't have said that" much more frequently in the film, to the point where it almost becomes a trademark. I don't know if the idea to use it more often was Robbie Coltrane's or Chris Columbus' or Steve Kloves'. But whoever thought up the idea, smart choice.
- The chess match is much more thrilling and detailed in the film. Ron seems so sure of what to do in the book, there's almost no real sense of impending danger.
The film has a decent pace to it, though it does feel slightly winded. Nonetheless, it's an enjoyable viewing experience, thanks in large part to the performances of its actors. Of the six films currently completed, it's hard to say exactly where I'd put this one, but I'd say more than likely in the 3rd place slot.
It would probably be much, much easier to talk about who doesn't work here, because I can't think of anyone. So many people seem right for their parts. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are all entertaining to watch as young child actors here, with Watson stealing the majority of the scenes.
Truth to be told, there's a small sense of nostalgia present when watching the three of them now, particularly in Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets. And I don't just say this because it reminds me of when I was in junior high, high school and boarding school. It's mainly because audiences, particularly those in their late teens and early twenties, have literally grown up with the cast. They're enjoyable to look at here, but you can appreciate how much they've grown (physically and acting-wise) once you compare this film to the others.
Picking adult standouts is like trying to pick out the best grain of sand: it's next to impossible. John Hurt is terrific in his limited time as Ollivander; Maggie Smith's Professor Mcgonagall is sure to remind most people of at least one stern teacher they've encountered; the late Richard Harris makes the part of the endearing yet loopy Dumbledore entirely his own; and Robbie Coltrane must surely be the only human being alive who could play Rubeus Hagrid.
However, hard as it may be to pick a standout, I'll try my best and go with Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. When you go through the backstory, it seems unreal that he wasn't the first choice to play the part. He's creepy, he's scary and unlike anyone I've ever seen on screen or in real life, he takes his dear sweet time developing. . .thoughts. He's perfect.
THE VISUAL EFFECTS
I set aside the film's special effects because they're an essential part to all of the films and, like the young actors, they only get better as time goes on.
The filmmakers have stated that they weren't completely happy with the special effects on the final product of this one, and they have a reason to be unsatisfied.
At several points in the movie, it's incredibly obvious that what we're looking at is not, in fact, Neville on a crazy broom, or an actual human on top of a troll, but instead, visual stand-ins that move too freely with skin that looks like jello. Not all of the effects were bad (the troll and Voldemort's face looked pretty good), but too many of them were unwelcomed distractions.
People will have differing opinions on the films as a whole. Not everyone will like the actors. Some may not like any of the special effects. And when it comes to Dumbledore, it seems you're either team-Richard Harris or team-Michael Gambon.
But if there's one thing I would hope everyone could agree on, it's the fantastic, incredibly impactful music scores. Master composer John Williams sets the bar pretty high with the first installment, creating an instantly memorable theme song in the movie's prologue. It's likely the most recognizable score from any of the Potter compositions, but there are other pieces here even more pleasing to the ear.
Harry's Wondrous World is a thunderous yet elegant orchestra score that works perfectly as the film's end credits song, in addition to being the second track on the actual soundtrack. Christmas at Hogwarts puts you right in the holiday mood, while Fluffy's Harp provides a soft, therapeutic touch. Last, but definitely not least, Leaving Hogwarts is arguably the best piece of music from the first film. Short and sweet, effecting and rousing, it's bound to leave a lasting impression.
Also, for those stateside, see if you can get your hands on the UK soundtrack, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It's an expanded score soundtrack, and it includes songs not on the U.S. album, like Opening Logo / The Arrival of Baby Harry, which is a pretty nice piece of music.
THE DVD FEATURES
Of course, with this I'm talking about the special edition 2-disc DVDs (which are now out of print), and not the crappy single-disc versions you can buy in stores, which have zero features.
Honestly, the features are only so-so. There are a lot of interactive DVD games to play, a semi-interesting interview with the director and producer, and, finally, deleted scenes. They're quite good, actually. The only problem is the ridiculous amount of work you have to put into getting them. It literally takes 10 steps to get 7 deleted scenes. If you need the directions (and if you have this on regular DVD, you will), you can find them here.
The deleted scenes are:
- Dudley wearing fashioning his uniform; Petunia dying Harry's
- Petunia cracking eggs in the kitchen, all of which have Hogwarts invitations inside
- Harry and Hagrid on the way to the train station
- Harry, Ron and Hermione walking through the school right after the troll attack
- Harry in the cafeteria during Christmas break contemplating the mirror
- Harry, Ron and Hermione in the cafeteria connecting Dumbledore and Nicholas Flamel (Seamus also walks away with a huge bald spot on the back of his head)
- An extended scene of Snape going after Harry in the potions class. It's much better than the shortened one used in the film
THE ULTIMATE EDITION (Coming December 8, 2009)
Fairly recently, Warner Bros. announced the release date for Half-Blood Prince, as well as "ultimate edition" dates for the first two films in the franchise. Since I already have the first five on DVD, I wasn't really planning on adding them again. I told myself I would only consider it if two things were added: screen tests and commentary.
Well, guess what. The ultimate edition set looks like it's one of the few "special editions" that's worth the money. Take a look at some of the best features:
- Disc 1 (theatrical version); Disc 2 (extended)
- 48-page book with rare photos from years 1-7
- Screen tests for Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson
- New vintage interviews
- "A Glimpse into the World of Harry Potter" (2001 international TV special)
- Footage from the first day of shooting
- In-Movie experience with Chris Columbus (on Blu-ray)*
So "In-Movie experience" isn't exactly the same as commentary, but it sure sounds like it. Equally interesting is the footage from the first day of shooting.
Now, I think everyone who follows the films knows this will probably not be the last DVD/Blu-ray edition. The big stuff will probably come after the release of both parts to Deathly Hallows. To those who can hold out for that long, I salute you. In the meantime, I don't mind acquainting these new versions with my Blu-ray collection if the features are good (they sure look it) and the price is right. Besides, you can always sell your stuff on Ebay.
So bravo, Ms. Rowling. And the filmmakers as well. It took me a while to come around, but you finally pulled me in. And maybe I'm not the only new convert.
Right after watching Sorcerer's Stone, my mom mentioned how, if we weren't already busy, she'd want to watch the next film immediately after.
So much for kids stuff, right?
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