There is no denying that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a very faithful adaptation of the novel upon which it is based. It gets about as much of the book into the movie as it possibly can. This may have been good fan-service, but almost literally translating a great book directly to the screen does not a great movie make. The first entry into one of the most ambitious film franchises of all time gets off lucky. It turns out to be quite good, and serves as a great introduction to the world of Harry Potter on film. I just wish that it had been great rather than good.
Director Chris Columbus is not an adventurous filmmaker, but he gets the job done. There is nothing about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that feels like a risk aside from the general scope of the film as a whole. The set design for this film, for example, needs to live on for the rest of the series; both literally and as a way to inform future design. At this the film very much succeeds. The world built for this film feels vast and complete, much like it did in the novel, and it is a testament to Columbus as a director that he was able to capture it all in a way that feels grand and exciting.
Columbus’ other major coup was in the casting department. The three kids (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) are not too great in the acting department but they do the job, they have good chemistry, and they definitely look their parts. It’s in the supporting roles that the film really shines. If you’re going to cast your three leads based more on look than chops, you’d better fill the world around them with actors who can carry the film. They did just that and more. You’ve got Maggie Smith, as Professor McGonagall, in the role I imagine she was born to play. Robbie Coltrane is perfect as Hagrid. Richard Harris plays Dumbledore with appropriate gravity and humour, though I always imagined him being a bit more spry than he is here. The film even gets John Hurt and John Cleese to show up for a couple of smaller supporting roles. But among all these wonderful actors it is Alan Rickman, as Professor Snape, who completely owns his part and steals the show. The scene in which he teaches Harry’s first Potions lesson could be in turn used as a lesson in acting. Rickman brushes up against that overacting line without ever crossing it and the film is so much better for it.
Then there’s the issue of John Williams’ score. It’s hard to say exactly how I feel about it. The main themes are beautiful and memorable and probably stand with the best themes he has ever written, but there is also a lot of music that sounds strangely Christmas-y, and worse still is the fact that the movie seems like it is wall-to-wall musical score. Williams knows no restraint, and his over-indulgent streak nearly sinks a few scenes in a sea of overwhelmingly loud and obnoxious music. The cinematography is also a problem. As good as all the sets look, the camera never makes them feel totally real. Everything, when not very dark blue, looks bright and orange and never quite completes the illusion of verisimilitude. Everything still looks like sets. Amazing sets. Beautifully detailed sets. Epic scale sets. But still, sets.
But none of these represent the biggest problem of the film. Both those issues are somewhat superficial, and though they are problematic, they are also good enough to remain serviceable. No, the biggest problem with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is its pacing. There is no natural flow to the sequences in the film. We simply move from one thing to another without effective transition. It doesn’t quite feel episodic, but it never feels like one cohesive story, and worse still, it makes the movie feel even longer than it already is. The film never gets boring, but at certain points it definitely is a bit plodding. This is probably the clearest evidence that such a faithful adaptation was not a great idea. The movie seems to need to hit every point the book does with only a few exceptions, and this makes for a film that has trouble connecting one scene to another.
Luckily the story in the book is great. The film might trudge through its plotlines, but those plotlines are still really fun. The introduction at the Dursley’s is a little too cartoony, but it actually works quite well with that Dahl-ish tone set forth by Rowling. The scenes at Diagon Alley are full of life and excitement. The introduction to Hogwarts Castle is big and wondrous. The journey through the trapdoor for the climax is fun and scary. All that stuff works exceedingly well in spite of the construction and direction not being as amazing as say, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, released only a month later.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a great example of why a faithful adaptation of a book is not necessarily a great thing, but it is also an example of a very solid entry to a long and ambitious franchise of films. It has some serious pacing issues, but the story is great, the sets are beautiful and the actors that populate them are fantastic. All in all, this first film in the Harry Potter series is really quite good, and acts as a great set-up for the series as a whole.