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“Dear Mr. Potter, we are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.”
– Harry’s acceptance letter to Hogwarts
When I was in third grade, I saw my older sister doing something that shocked me beyond all belief – reading a book. Not a girly magazine, not 30 posters of Devon Sawa and Johnathan Taylor Thomas stapled together, an honest to goodness book. It was one her best friend recommended she read. On the cover was a boy riding a broomstick; the back whispered of an orphan boy, midair sports, dragons and a school for magic. Vaguely remembering the name Harry something-or-other from a quiz featured in an issue of Disney Adventures (yes, really), I fell into the usual baby sister routine of waiting for the older sibling to pass her book down to me so I could see what the fuss was about.
It was worth the wait.
An unprecedented worldwide success, Harry Potter was to literature as Star Wars was to film, revolutionizing the fantasy genre and changing the way people viewed “children’s” entertainment. JK Rowling, a woman who suddenly made reading not just for lit nerds, quickly became a household name along with Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and a cast of hundreds of magical characters she brought to life in an immersive original world that any kid would give their front teeth to visit. Luckily most wont have to do that now that we have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal Studios theme parks. Speaking as someone who’s gone there twice, I’m not ashamed to say it feels like the whole Hogwarts experience was ripped right from the page and screen. I even got myself my own wand (reed, 12 inches, leafy vine pattern spiraling towards the tip, very firm and reliable).
With three hit books and a fourth on the way, a movie series was as inevitable as the dawn of the twenty-first century. Rowling was courted by many studios and directors for the rights to produce one of the biggest blockbuster franchises in history. Disney was among them, but since this was during the Eisner era they let it slip through their fingers along with prospective theme park rights, respect for legacy, and common sense in general.
Thanks to a largely faithful screenplay by Steve Kloves and Rowling’s adherence to detail (as well as insisting that the entire cast be authentically British), the stage was set for a perfect adaptation. The one caveat was who would be helming Harry’s first foray into Hollywood. Rowling’s first choice was none other than Monty Python alum, the brilliant mind behind The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Director With The Worst Luck in the Universe, Terry Gilliam. Unfortunately the heads at Warner Bros were wary of potential box office returns with Terry because, well, see the last title. With that they unceremoniously dumped him in favor of the significantly safer bet, Chris Columbus of Home Alome fame. Chris is not a hack by any means, yet book fans and Terry’s fans (and poor Terry himself) have criticized this movie as too safe by half under his direction. And…
…honestly I don’t see it. Chris Columbus, in my opinion, not only does a fine job introducing the wizard world to us, but later manages to top himself in the sequel. As the initial entry into the Harry Potter saga there’s a load of backstory and world building that needs to be done and he does so with whimsy aplomb, but not without that undercurrent of mystery and darkness that turns this boarding school romp into a true adventure that explores the power of friendship and love and the lines between good and evil. One can’t help but imagine every now and then what kind of creativity and wonder Terry might have brought to the film, but as a wise man once said, it doesn’t do to dwell on dreams.
So grab your wand and settle in with a mug of butterbeer, let’s dive into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone.
Right from the get go we are sucked in by John Williams’ enchanting score. Do I need to go on about how he is the musical master of film? No I don’t, and you only have to listen to the decades of memorable soundtracks he’s created as proof of why he’s the best. The opening in particular is enticing and creepy, with a glockenspiel and strings cluing into the magic and tension of what’s about to unfold. From out of the mist in the unassuming neighborhood of Privet Drive appears an old man, so suddenly and silently you’d have thought he’d just popped out of the ground, unaware that he’s just arrived in a street where everything from his name to his boots was unwelcome. This is Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris).
Using a device resembling a lighter, Dumbledore sucks the light out of the lampposts, cloaking the street in darkness. He acknowledges a tabby cat beside him as “Professor McGonagall”, and the silhouette of the cat becomes said professor (Maggie Smith). They are joined by one Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a giant of a man astride a flying motorcycle. In his arms he carries a tiny bundle which he reluctantly hands to Dumbledore. McGonagall implores Dumbledore to consider other options than leaving the bundle – a baby boy with a lightning-shaped scar freshly etched on his forehead – with “the worst muggles imaginable”, but Dumbledore says they’re the only family he has and he’s better growing up away from the fame his name carries in their world until he is ready for it. He places the baby on the doorstep of Number 4 Privet Drive along with a note to its owners and whispers “Good luck…Harry Potter.”
Cut to little over ten years later and Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is now living in the cupboard under the stairs in the home of his uncle and aunt Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their son Dudley, who’s so spoiled rotten that he makes Veruca Salt look like Mother Teresa. To prove my point, when Dudley finds out that his parents have only given him 36 presents for his birthday, he throws a tantrum because last year he got 37. The family outing for the occasion is a trip to the zoo, and since the filmmakers forgot about the character of Mrs. Figg the babysitter until Book 5, the Dursleys have no choice but to skip that subplot and go right to reluctantly taking Harry with them. Vernon ominously threatens Harry with no food for a week if there’s any “funny business” from him, a threat we get a feeling has been made one time too often.
At the zoo Dudley bothers a python in the reptile house until he gets bored and moves on to the next cooped up animal. Harry stays behind and commiserates with the snake when something peculiar happens – the snake understands what he’s saying and reacts to him. Harry is incredulous, but continues the one-sided conversation. Both Harry and the python share that they’re both essentially orphans with little knowledge about their parents and a desire for freedom, but Dudley cuts the bonding short when he pushes Harry aside to get a better look. As Harry glares at Dudley, the glass abruptly vanishes and Dudley falls into the enclosure. The python escapes, hissing a quick thank you to Harry as he slithers out the door. Dudley tries to leave but the glass has returned and he’s trapped like a…something in a…something. It’s right there, I can feel it.
Harry’s amusement at this turn of events is short-lived, however, as Vernon drags Harry home and demands an answer. When Harry insists it happened like magic, Vernon shuts him in the cupboard and yells through the slats “There’s no such thing as MAGIC!”
Some time later as Dudley is trying on his new school uniform, Harry is made to go pick up the mail and he finds something incredible by his standards – a letter addressed to directly to him at his exact residence.
Despite living his entire life in a household where everyone hates him and actively works to steal every bit of joy from him, Harry doesn’t think to hide the letter until later and attempts to open it at the breakfast table. Dudley snatches the envelope from his hands and shows it to his parents, which makes them fall gravely silent.
For the rest of the week more letters to Harry arrive, but Vernon intercepts and destroys each one with the deftness of a White House aide trying to keep valid criticism from reaching the president’s ears. It gets to the point where Vernon, looking like a half-crazed loon on holiday from the asylum by this point, loudly boasts the fact that there’s no mail service on Sundays when that day of the week finally rolls around. But Harry notices a strange disturbance outside.
In seconds a torrent of letters from the fireplace floods the whole house, terrifying the Dursleys and delighting Harry. But Vernon goes off the deep end and nearly hurtles into bad touch territory as he wrestles Harry to the ground bellowing that he’s taking the family far away where “they” will never find them.
Cut to some time later where Vernon has shacked them up in a…shack, perched on a godforsaken rock out on the ocean in the middle of a raging storm. It’s nearly midnight and everyone’s asleep but Harry, who’s counting down the seconds until his eleventh birthday. He makes a wish on a cake he drew on the dirt floor he’s sleeping on (damn, Columbus knows how to rack up sympathy points for Harry). No sooner does he blow out the candles than there’s a bang on the door, as if something enormous is knocking to come in. The door falls off its hinges and the massive visitor enters – Hagrid.
Vernon pulls a shotgun on their unwelcome guest, but Hagrid tells him to shut it and messes with the gun like it’s a balloon animal in a cartoon. He introduces himself to Harry, gives him a real birthday cake and drops a massive bombshell:
Harry denies he’s an awesome gay fabulous wicker weiner transformer hobbit woman, but is reminded of the zoo incident as well as some other implied past moments where inexplicable things happened around him. And with that, Hagrid gives Harry his long-awaited letter informing him of his acceptance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Vernon furiously insists that Harry won’t be going, not after he’s spent the past eleven years trying to squash the magic and his spirit out of him. Harry confronts him about knowing the truth all along, but it’s Petunia who bites back, spilling years of envy and vitriol in one hate-filled monologue. When her sister, Harry’s mother Lily , was revealed to be a witch and asked to attend Hogwarts, Petunia turned on “the freak” in a fit of jealousy and refused to have anything to do with her; that is, until Lily and her husband James “got themselves blown up” and Petunia was stuck raising Harry. Of course, this is all news to the boy, who was raised believing that his parents were killed in a car crash. This libel also angers Hagrid, but not as much as Vernon insulting the good name of Hogwarts’ headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.
Rather than inflict some rather deserved bodily harm however, Hagrid settles for cursing Dudley (who’s been helping himself to Harry’s cake this whole time) by giving him a pig’s tail, because that’s all he really needs to make the comparison complete. He spirits Harry off to London to get his school supplies, making a stop at everyone’s favorite magical pub The Leaky Cauldron. The patrons are gobsmacked at seeing Harry and welcome him like a prodigal son. Also there is mousy little Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), turban aficionado, Hogwarts’ teacher of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and candidate for Michael Palin’s stutter removal therapy.
Harry asks Hagrid why everyone is treating him like he’s famous, and Hagrid says he’s not the right person to tell him…which is weird considering he does so ten minutes later, but whatever. Script compression, it happens. A couple of taps on a brick wall later and a doorway opens up into the wizard’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue and City Walk, Diagon Alley.
Diagon Alley is a masterwork of design. This is the moment Harry and the audience fully leaves behind the muggle world and enters an extraordinary new place, both figuratively and literally. It’s as not normal as possible. Not a single building is designed to be orderly and straight; instead we have a near claustrophobic series of lanes and stores leaning into one another, and every single person bustling about is dressed in full wizard and witch regalia with colorful robes and pointed hats. There’s always something to see at each new turn – exotic owls hooting for attention, moving mannequins in the robe shop window, kids fawning over the latest racing broom on display like it’s the hottest new toy. I haven’t been to the Diagon Alley expansion at Universal yet, but it’s clear they borrowed heavily from this when they initially built Hogsmeade with its giant display windows and delightfully crooked buildings.
Hagrid leads Harry to the wizard bank Gringotts, run by a group of menacing-looking goblins. Harry’s thrilled to learn he’s got a small mountain of gold in his parents’ vault (or as Scrooge McDuck would call it, pocket change). Then they visit mysterious Vault 713 so Hagrid can pick up something for Dumbledore. What it could be is built up big time, only to reveal all the fanfare worthy of the Ark of the Covenant is over a grubby little package.
After picking up what he needs for school, Harry’s last stop is Ollivander’s, the wand maker. Ollivander is played by the late great John Hurt. He’s only here for the one scene, but he infuses Ollivander with such worldly wisdom and an aura of mystery that he is unforgettable. It’s very reminiscent of his titular role in The Storyteller, a short but astounding Jim Henson series that I can’t recommend enough. Trying out wands to find the perfect one is no easy task as the results cause quite a mess in the shop. Ollivander does get to wondering though, and the music picks up again so you know something special’s coming. Picking out a wand from a box tucked in a neglected dark corner, Ollivander gives it to Harry. And without a single word (except for the mystical “aaahhhs” from the choir), it’s clear the wand has chosen its wizard.
Ollivander explains his theory – none of the wands he’s ever created are identical to one another, but there was one exception. The phoenix whose tail feather makes up the core of Harry’s wand gave another feather to be used in a different wand. And that very wand was the one that gave Harry his scar. Ollivander refuses to speak the name of the wizard it belonged to, but concludes that this outcome means Harry is destined to do extraordinary things as He Who Must Not Be Named once was.
The mood is lightened somewhat with the return of Hagrid bringing a present for Harry – an owl named Hedwig – but Harry can’t put off his questions any longer. Back at the Leaky Cauldron, Hagrid relates through an effectively eerie flashback the story of the darkest wizard ever known to magic-kind, Voldemort, whose evil presence was so feared that to this day people are still afraid to call him by his name.
Voldemort gathered followers and spread fear and death as his power increased. Few managed to stand up to him and live. One night, Voldemort attacked Harry’s parents, who were among those who challenged the evil wizard’s wrath, and killed them. When he tried to murder Harry, however, something happened that caused his killing curse to rebound and destroy himself instead, which has never been done in the history of the wizarding world before or since. That is the reason why Harry is so revered. He is The Boy Who Lived.
Later that day Hagrid escorts Harry to the train station to get to Hogwarts and – wait a minute, Harry’s birthday is July 31st. The first day of school at Hogwarts is September 1st. Were they at Diagon Alley for a whole freaking month?! Looks like we’re not gonna get an answer to that as Hagrid gives Harry his ticket to the school’s train on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters and promptly vanishes before Harry can learn how to find it. The boy asks a conductor for help getting to said platform, but Sir Topham Hat here thinks he’s pulling his leg.
Luckily Harry overhears a nearby family dropping the word “muggle” and follows them. The kids run into the column between Platforms 9 and 10 and disappear and nobody bats an eyelid because like I said before, them British don’t give a fuck about seeing something strange in their neighborhoods. Harry tries it with some encouragement from the family’s matriarch, Mrs. Weasley, and finds himself inside the hidden platform where a scarlet steam engine awaits to take him to Hogwarts.
On the ride there, one of the Weasley boys, Ron (Rupert Grint) asks if he can share Harry’s compartment and the two become fast friends as they compare different types of wizard candy, from Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavor Beans (and they do mean EVERY flavor) to Chocolate Frogs. An inquisitive girl named Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) also pops in looking for a lost toad but stays to watch Ron’s first attempt at magic, turning his rat Scabbers yellow. The spell fails and Hermione can’t help but show off a real one she’s been practicing which fixes Harry’s broken glasses. And all right, no more beating around the bush, let’s talk about the child acting in this movie. For most of the kids in this picture, this was either their first film they’ve acted in of this scope or just in general. And they’re ok. Not bad, not astounding, simply fine. On a scale of Jake Lloyd to Patty Duke, I’d say they rank a solid Macaulay Culkin. It’s only when you really analyze this acting (Emma Watson in particular) you see them giving a good performance as opposed to fully inhabiting the roles. However with each movie they do get better, and by the third one it’s easy to see how far they’ve come (which is one of the few good things I can credit to that installment, but more on that when we get to it.)
By the time the train arrives at its destination it’s already dark. Hagrid leads the first years to the lake where they get their first real look at Hogwarts.
Professor McGonagall welcomes them outside the Great Hall and lays down the rules before the children are sorted into their Houses, four in all: Gryffindor (the good guy house), Slytherin (the bad guy house), Ravenclaw (the smart guy house), and Hufflepuff (the “meh” guy house). The houses are in fierce competition with each other for the House Cup given at the end of the year to whomever has the most points, which are gained for good schoolwork and lost for rule breaking.
After McGonagall momentarily leaves the kids to prep for the sorting, one rather snotty kid reveals Harry’s presence to the others.
This is Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), a little shit from a powerful wizarding family who lords his superiority over Ron, whose family line is infamously numerous but destitute. Malfoy offers his friendship to Harry, but Harry hasn’t spent his childhood living with bullies without learning how to recognize one from the get-go and declines, giving birth to a rivalry that puts Pee-Wee and Francis’ to shame.
McGonagall brings the children into the Great Hall, a massive golden room filled with floating candles and a ceiling that mirrors the sky. Before the sorting, Dumbledore announces that this year the third floor corridor is out of bounds to all those who do not wish to die a most painful death; a usual start of term notice for an art school – believe me, I know – but for a magic school? I’d expect better.
The sorting ceremony is a simple one: McGonagall puts the enchanted Sorting Hat on someone’s head, it reads their mind, and determines which house that person is best suited for.
Hermione and Ron are sorted into Gryffindor, Malfoy is punted off to Slytherin the moment the brim skims his greased-back dome, but the Hat takes its time with Harry. It tells him he could be great in Slytherin, but after Harry begs it to put him anywhere but that, the Hat sorts him to Gryffindor to everyone’s delight.
The Sorting concludes and the feast begins, showing off more of Hogwarts’ magic with plates that fill themselves with food and the resident castle ghosts making a spectacular entrance to welcome the newcomers. John Cleese gets a fun cameo as Gryffindor’s ghost Nearly-Headless Nick, named so for the botched execution that keeps him from being considered for the Headless Horseman gig every Halloween.
As the students fill themselves to bursting, Harry asks Ron’s older brother Percy about a rather intimidating teacher seated next to Quirrell; while Harry was waiting to be sorted, he caught the man staring at him and got a sudden jolt of pain from his scar. Percy informs him that’s Professor Severus Snape (the very muchly missed Alan Rickman), head of Slytherin house and Potions Master, but he’s really had his heart set on Quirrell’s job for years.
From there the students are led past living paintings and up staircases that move on their own to their dormitories. Behind the painting of an otherwise unnamed Fat Lady lies the Gryffindor common room and dorms. Harry gets himself settled and we have a nice quiet moment where he sits with Hedwig and looks out the window at the moonlit mountains around Hogwarts. The serenity and hushed awe lends not only to Harry’s sense of peace before the bustle of school begins, but also a feeling of accomplishment: Harry has made it. He’s escaped the only world of misery that he knew and he’s where he belongs.
The first day of classes doesn’t fare well. Harry and Ron are late for Transfiguration and receive a mouthful from Prof. McGonagall after she demonstrates her Animorph abilities. In Potions class, the sinister Snape seems strangely eager to pick on Harry for questions he doesn’t know the answer to and criticizes him for apparently letting fame get to his head quicker than knowledge.
The next morning mail is delivered by owl to the breakfast table. A fellow Gryffindor, Neville Longbottom, receives a Remembrall from his grandmother; an ingenious invention which changes color if you’ve forgotten something. Unfortunately it doesn’t tell you what you’ve forgotten, which renders it completely pointless. Harry borrows a newspaper from Hermione after spying a familiar photograph on the front page, a picture of Vault 713 from Gringotts. Apparently it was broken into the day he and Hagrid went there but some time after they emptied it. The would-be thief slipped through security’s fingers, leaving Harry to wonder who would attempt the robbery and why.
Flying lessons takes his mind off the matter. Harry shows some great rapport with his broomstick, as does Malfoy. Neville? Not so much. The poor little chub gets taken for a wild ride around the courtyard before crashing to the ground. The instructor, Madam Hooch, threatens the students with expulsion should they attempt anything while she takes Neville to the nurse’s office. With no responsible adult around to temper things (a phase you’ll be hearing a lot of while you’re in Hogwarts), Draco finds Neville’s dropped Remembrall and makes some mean jokes at his expense. Harry demands he hand it over, but Malfoy takes to the sky and dares Harry to come after him. The two chase each other in the air for a bit until Malfoy tosses the Remembrall. Harry makes a spectacular dive and catches it in the nick of time. The kids cheer him, but they weren’t the only ones watching – McGonagall appears and demands Harry come with her.
As Harry’s thinking of how to explain his showing up on the Dursley’s doorstep for a second time, McGonagall escorts him to another classroom and plucks out a student, Oliver Wood. McGonagall proudly informs Wood that she’s found someone to fill in the much needed position of Seeker for Gryffindor’s Quidditch team. Word gets around fast that Harry’s got prowess on a broomstick and soon he’s the talk of the school.
McGonagall surprises Harry by having the Nimbus 2000, the hottest broomstick on the market, delivered to the breakfast table via Hedwig. Fred and George (Ron’s prankster twin brothers) are also on the team, and they assure him that nobody’s died in a Quidditch team in years, though the lingering head trauma that materializes years later is another story. It’s Hermione of all people that puts Harry at ease by showing him a Quidditch trophy on display engraved with the name “James Potter”; Harry’s father was a Seeker too.
On their way back to Gryffindor Tower, the staircase Harry, Ron and Hermione are climbing moves to a different floor. The kids discover they’re stuck in the forbidden third floor corridor. Mrs. Norris, the nosy cat belonging to child-hating caretaker Mr. Filch, discovers them there, meaning Filch isn’t too far behind. The three children hide behind a door and learn exactly why the corridor is off-limits.
Ron, Hermione and Harry manage to escape becoming hellhound treats and hightail it back to the dormitory. Hermione, the only one who kept fear from clouding her senses long enough, points out that the dog was standing on a trap door so it’s obviously guarding something (I believe I established exactly what in the picture caption, Hermione). Regardless, we get the best dialogue exchange in the entire movie.
Hermione: Now if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed before you come up with another clever idea to get us killed – or worse, EXPELLED!
Ron:…She needs to sort out her priorities.
On Halloween Professor Flitwick the Charms teacher (Warwick Davis) teaches the class a levitation spell which only Hermione is able to master. Since she’s partnered with Ron she can’t help but try to help him out though it’s clear how he feels about her “advice”. After class he makes fun of her with his friends and says it’s no surprise that a know-it-all like her is all alone. Little does he realize she’s been listening in and she runs off in tears. Speaking as someone who’s been the subject of similar conversations made behind my back, yeah, I can relate. It hits closer to home even more when Harry finds out from that Hermione hasn’t come to the Halloween feast because she’s locked herself in the girl’s bathroom and has been crying her eyes out. Then Quirrell bursts into the feast screaming that there’s a troll running loose in the dungeon before he collapses, and everyone flies into a panic.
Dumbledore calms the students down and has them sent back to their dorms while he and the other professors attend to the troll. Snape surreptitiously sneaks off alone. Realizing Hermione doesn’t know about the troll, Harry drags Ron off to find her only to discover it’s wandered into the bathroom she’s holed up in. The troll attacks her with a massive wooden club but Harry does his best to distract it by grabbing it and winds up on his shoulders. And while we’re on that topic…
I’ve stated in the past that I am not anti-CGI when it comes to special effects, which is still true. Yet in the late 90’s and early 00’s once Hollywood discovered that digital effects could be an easy shortcut to doing things that might take more time with practical effects, well, as Dr. Malcolm once said, they were so preoccupied with what they could do that they didn’t stop think about whether or not they should. There’s a reason why Pixar waited until 2004 to have a movie where all the main characters are human. Moments with human characters like Harry being shaken by the troll, several of the background players in the Quidditch match and the centaur Firenze might as well have a PlayStation 2 demo logo in the corner. They just got by back when these movies first came out, but fifteen plus years later they don’t quite hold up under scrutiny. Now when it’s a mix of CGI and practical, like certain closeups of the troll or the three-headed dog being realistic puppets, it’s more balanced. I would have appreciated more of that balance instead of the effects team throwing themselves fully into CGI at some parts. I’m glad Chris Columbus felt the same way because when production on the next movie began he worked his team double time to make sure the effects not only blended better, but the computer graphics alone were of significantly higher quality.
Ron comes to a solution by levitating the club like Hermione showed him out of the troll’s mitts and knocking it out cold. When McGonagall and the teachers arrive demanding an answer, Hermione prevents Ron and Harry from getting into trouble by shouldering the blame of her own volition, saying she wanted to take on the troll by herself and they saved her from her own foolishness. It’s during the exchange that Harry notices Snape’s left leg, which he’s trying to hide from everyone’s view, has been bloodied and mangled. Still, the kids come out on top and as newfound friends, because how you can you go through something like taking on a fully-grown mountain troll together and not become buddies after?
Finally the day of Harry’s first big Quidditch match rolls around. At breakfast who of all people but Snape comes around to wish Harry good luck, though he turns it into a passive aggressive jab about being up against Slytherin, who have been the top victors in Quidditch for a number of years. Harry has a startling revelation then; perhaps the troll was a diversion so Snape could try to get past the three-headed dog on the third floor. Remembering the package he and Hagrid picked up from Gringotts, Harry assumes that must be what the dog is guarding and Snape is trying to steal. The only questions remaining are what that package is and why it’s worth risking life and limb over.
The whole school turns out to see the Quidditch game. It’s a violent frenzy of balls and brooms zooming through the air. There are few times Quidditch actively plays a part in the plot of the books or movies, so I won’t waste time going through the specifics of how the game is played.
The only important thing to remember is that Harry must catch the smallest ball, the golden snitch, in order to win. It’s harder than it looks because not only does it move like a hummingbird on crack, not only are the Slytherins blatantly cheating and are never called out on it, but Harry’s broom begins violently trying to buck him off. You’d think that of all things would get a sensible person to call a time out and end this mockery of school athletics, but then I remembered the motto on Hogwarts’ crest:
Hermione and Ron spy Snape intensely staring at Harry and muttering quickly under his breath. Realizing he’s jinxing Harry’s broom, she sneaks behind the stands and sets Snape’s cloak on fire. In an effort to put out the blaze Snape loses contact with Harry and knocks over a bunch of the other teachers, including the hapless Quirrell. Harry succeeds in jumping back on his broom, accidentally catches the snitch in his mouth, and wins the game for Gryffindor.
After the match the three friends share what happened with a disbelieving Hagrid, who lets slip that the three-headed dog is his pet, Fluffy, and he knows exactly what he’s guarding but won’t share. But with every question the kids bring up, Hagrid can’t help but accidentally reveal an important hint punctuated with a grudging “Shouldn’t have said that.” One such hint includes what Fluffy is watching over is between Dumbledore and someone named Nicholas Flamel.
The Christmas season rolls around and Hogwarts is decked out in all its snowy splendor. Seriously, I think this alone is the reason why these movies get so much airplay around the holidays. Giant trees with levitating ornaments decorate the great hall, enchanted snow falls from the ceiling, even the ghosts roam the school singing spooky Christmas carols. It is literally a magical Christmas. Though this does beg the question as to why wizards celebrate secular holidays like Christmas and Easter if magic is a part of this universe. Is there a wizard church where they worship a magic equivalent of the Judeo-Christian God? Because let’s face it, the miracles pulled by various biblical characters would make almost too much sense if they were secretly wizards the whole time. Walking on water would be the result a simple levitating spell, multiplying fish and loaves of bread is duplication, and the plagues of Egypt? Jinxes and Dark Curses 101, bud. Go nuts with your theorizing.
Anyway, Hermione is heading home for the holidays while Harry and Ron will be remaining at Hogwarts (Ron’s parents will be visiting his brother Charlie, a dragon wrangler in Romania). Hermione encourages them to look up Nicholas Flamel in the library while she’s away, perhaps find an opportunity to sneak into the restricted section, which shows just how much of a bad influence her friends have had on her. Ron and Harry choose to continue their game of wizard chess, which is like real chess except for the fact that the pieces can come to life, move on their own, and even kill each other. Ron is something of an expert and takes some pride in doing something better than Harry for a change.
On Christmas morning Harry is delighted to actually have some presents for once. One of them, a gift from Dumbledore stating that it belonged to Harry’s father and advising him to use it well, contains a cloak that makes Harry’s body disappear when he wraps it around himself. Ron recognizes it as a rare invisibility cloak. First thing that night Harry puts it to good use and sneaks into the restricted section to find any scrap of information on Nicholas Flamel, though he runs into more trouble instead.
The unintelligible screaming of Billo summons Filch and Harry barely avoids getting caught by him and Mrs. Norris. But while escaping he runs into Quirrell being cornered into a compromising situation by Snape.
Snape warns Quirrell they’ll be having another chat soon to discuss his “loyalties” and Harry ducks into an abandoned classroom before things get too awkward. A large ornate mirror with some off Latin-ish words adorning the frame is propped up in the corner. Harry takes a peek and sees two people, a man and a woman, are standing behind him. Yet when he looks behind him no one is there. Harry realizes that these two silent strangers looking down at him with so much love and pride are somehow familiar. Tentatively, he asks:
And they both smile and nod in return, placing on his shoulder a loving hand he can’t feel.
Harry drags Ron from his bed to check out the mirror, but Ron faces a different sight. Instead of seeing his family, he sees himself as the favorite son of the Weasleys with all the accomplishments and trophies one could hope for. As winter break continues, Harry’s fascination over the mirror reaches near-Gollum levels of obsession and he sneaks out night after night to catch a glimpse of his family. It’s during one such visit that Harry receives an unexpected companion, Dumbledore. He explains that his creation, the Mirror of Erised, is capable of showing the viewer nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of their heart.
As uplifting as it seems to get a glimpse of what you truly want, there’s a downside to it. Some wishes, like Harry’s of being reunited with the parents he never knew, are nothing short of impossible. To be forever teased with the visage of something that can never be leads to torment. Torment leads to madness. Madness leads to fear. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate – you get the idea. Dumbledore informs Harry that’s why he’s moving the Mirror and urges him to not search for it. Following your dreams is one thing, obsessing over them so much that you forget to live is quite another.
Proceeding a pretty atmospheric transition with Hedwig flying over the grounds turning winter to spring, we find Hermione showing off an enormous book she picked up for “light reading”.
It’s in this book that she’s found the name Nicholas Flamel and who he is; a renowned alchemist, his most famous creation being the
Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone of Almighty McGuffin. Anyone who wields the Stone can turn any metal into gold and make themselves immortal. Nick himself has just turned 150, so it’s no joke. That night the Golden Trio confront Hagrid in his hut about what they know, and of course, he winds up spilling that all the other teachers have cast spells and challenges which only they know how to beat in order to protect the Stone from potential thieves.
Having a traitor in their midst is far from Hagrid’s mind at the moment as he reveals his newest pet to the kids: Norbert, a baby dragon in the middle of hatching from its egg. Unfortunately neither Hagrid nor the kids have long to coddle Norbert as they discover Malfoy spying on them through the window. He snitches on McGonagall who punishes them by taking 150 points from Gryffindor and issuing all three detention. Gee, it’s a shame they didn’t have anything that could have prevented this by making the kids INVISIBLE somehow, maybe with a CLOAK of some kind. Also, five points taken away and rewarded for tangling with a deadly troll, but fifty points each for being out after curfew? The Hogwarts point system is in desperate need of some reform, stat!
On the upside, McGonagall also gives Malfoy detention for being up and about after hours. It goes to show not even in the wizarding world do two wrongs make a right. Filch relishes in spooking the kids by regaling them with punishments doled out in the good old days, like hanging by your thumbs from the ceiling. What they’re asked to do makes them wish for that, however – join Hagrid at night in the Forbidden Forest, which is replete with dangerous creatures like werewolves, and search for some kind of monster that’s been running around killing unicorns.
The gang splits up with Ron and Hermione going with Hagrid and Malfoy and Harry with Hagrid’s cowardly dog Fang. But faster than you can say “jinkies”, Harry and Malfoy stumble across a cloaked figure floating partly off the ground and crouched over a dead unicorn sucking its blood like a vampire. Malfoy flees the scene but Harry is overcome by a sudden scar migraine from being in its presence.
Luckily for Harry, a friendly centaur named Firenze scares it off. Unluckily for Harry, Firenze leaves him with a big infodump:
• Unicorn blood can keep you alive even if you’re inches away from death…
• Buuuut unicorns are so pure that should you kill one to save your life, you will be cursed with a miserable half-life.
• There’s only one wizard in the world so cruel and desperate that he would choose to endure that kind of existence so he wouldn’t have to face death.
• Oh, and just a reminder, the Stone that’s currently under lock, key, and Fluffy and one of the professors is trying to get a hold of is capable of creating an immortality potion.
Harry puts two and two together and realizes Snape isn’t after the Stone to make himself rich and powerful. He plans on using it to bring Voldemort back to life. Before he can make out his will, Hermione reminds Harry that Dumbledore was the one wizard Voldemort’s always feared, so no one could hope touch him while he’s stationed at Hogwarts. Still, Harry’s scar keeps burning in a way Advil won’t fix, and he takes it as a bad sign.
Later Harry asks Hagrid about how exactly he got Norbert since most wizards don’t carry around eggs in their pockets unless they’re trying to hatch a 10 km Pokemon. Hagrid tells him he won it in a game of cards with a hooded stranger in the pub. They got nice and drunk and talked about how Hagrid’s looked after all sorts of magical creatures, including Fluffy and how he’ll fall asleep once you play him some music. Realizing Snape may now have all he needs to go after the Stone, the kids implore McGonagall to let them see Dumbledore and warn him. But she informs them that Dumbledore has just skipped school for an emergency trip to the Ministry of Magic. McGonagall takes the news that they know all about the Stone surprisingly well and sends them on their way.
With Dumbledore gone and Snape eyeing them with even more suspicion than usual, the plan is made to go down the trap door that very night and beat him to the Stone. The only obstacle in their way is Neville, who bravely stands up to them in order to keep Gryffindor from landing in more hot water. Hermione takes him out with a full body-bind spell and steps over his body like it ain’t no thang, which makes Harry and Ron very glad she’s on their side.
When they reach Fluffy, they find he’s already asleep thanks to an enchanted harp playing its sweet lullaby.
Snape’s already one step ahead of them but that makes them more determined to get there all the quicker. They succeed in getting down the trap door just as Fluffy wakes up. Their landing is cushioned by an oversized plant…which begins wrapping them up in thick, tight vines.
Hermione recognizes the plant as Devil’s Snare, one that will kill its victims faster if they don’t relax and continue thrashing about in fear. Maybe they should have named it Quicksandius animetentaculum. To prove her point, Hermione relaxes and falls through the vines to safety with Harry, then remembers the plant is vulnerable to a spell that shoots out sunlight and rescues Ron.
Let me explain for those who haven’t read the book: yes, Ron did indeed know how to beat the killer plant and it was changed to Hermione in the movie. This was done because the challenge she was supposed to triumph through, one involving a logic riddle with potions, was cut from the script. It wasn’t the most exciting test, so I can understand why it as removed, though it did showcase her greatest strengths – her ability to confront and conquer obstacles with knowledge and logic as opposed to relying solely on magic. But if they kept it as it was yet excised the potions riddle, then she would have nothing to do and Harry and Ron would be the ones coming up with the solutions. So this is one change I am totally fine with.
The next challenge is slightly less deadly. In order to proceed to the next room, they have to fly though a room full of winged keys and find the right one that fits the door. Harry with all his prowess as a Seeker makes short work of it even as all the other keys swarm after him.
Escaping the killer keys the trio find themselves on a giant chessboard where the pawns refuse to let them pass. Ron realizes they’ll have to play their way across as pieces in the game and takes up the reins as a knight. It’s his moment of shine and he plays as a master of the black and white checkered battlefield. John Williams’ score with its emphasis percussion and brass aids in upping the tension of this high-stakes game. How creepy the life-size chess pieces look doesn’t help matters.
The game comes to a head as Ron realizes there’s only one possible winning move he can make – sacrifice himself so Harry will be free to checkmate the king. And since this is wizard chess, it’s going to be a REAL sacrifice. Harry and Hermione beg him to find another way, but Ron knows that Harry’s got to be the one who makes it through to the end, no matter the cost. Fifty points to Ron for self-sacrifice AND self-awareness. Ron rides out on his knight horse like a soldier awaiting the slaughter, and the wicked Queen piece takes the bait with gusto, stabbing the horse through and leaving Ron sprawled unconscious on the floor. The game is still on, though; in spite of his friends’ urges to run to his side, they continue and finally emerge victorious. Heeding Ron’s words, Hermione stays to heal him and get a message to Dumbledore for help while Harry heads to the final chamber ready to take down Snape with all the deadliest spells in his first year knowledge – Lumos, Alohamora, Wingardium Leviosa, Jelly Legs Jinx, and if he’s feeling particularly cruel, a Tickling Hex.
But when he arrives, he finds two things there:
- The Mirror of Erised.
- Someone who is definitely not Snape.
Bravo, JK, I can remember the absolute shock I had when I got to this reveal in the book. The misdirection with Snape is brilliant; after all, nobody would suspect the stuttering pathetic little wallflower unless they were well aware of the twist or could read all the signs. The professor who goes out of his way to be mean and is apparently hiding something from Harry would immediately be the one all suspicions fall on.
Following the rules of the evil overlord handbook, Quirrell lays out his schemes up to this point:
- He let the troll in on Halloween as a diversion but Snape tried to head him off and got bit by Fluffy.
- Quirrell was the one trying to curse Harry at the Quidditch match and Snape was trying to save him. Look carefully and you can see him whispering to himself at that scene too.
- Always mistrustful of him, Snape tried to bully an answer out of Quirrell every chance he got, though it appeared as though he were trying to learn how to get to the Stone.
Quirrell faces the Mirror and can see himself holding the Stone but not how to get it. A sinister raspy voice commands him to “use the boy” which taken out of context sounds even worse than it already does. Harry’s one wish at the moment is to find a way to keep the Stone out of Quirrell’s hands without a thought to himself and he focuses on that. His mirror reflection winks at him and places the Stone in his pocket, and it appears there for real. It turns out wanting to find the Stone but not use it is how you free it from the Mirror. Harry lies about what he sees and is called out by the creepy voice, which insists over Quirrell’s objections that it speaks with Harry personally. Quirrell slowly undoes his turban. And even though I knew what was coming when I saw it in theaters, it still did a decent job scaring eleven year-old me.
The remaining bit of whatever passes for Voldemort’s soul latched on to Quirrell like a parasite, sustaining itself by drinking unicorn blood. The idea of having another soul trapped in your head feeding off your essence is in and of itself one of the creepiest things in the entire canon (even though “A Very Potter Musical” has kind of spoiled it for me by bringing up the question of how they sleep, share drinks and just manage to live together day by day in a very humorous manner.) The PC game managed to make it even worse by having Voldemort spin his head around to face Harry Exorcist-style. Had they put that in the film it would have been even more unleaded nightmare fuel. But Voldemort is desperate to return to his own body, and he’s well aware that Harry carries the key to his resurrection in his pocket.
So there’s nowhere for the boy to run, he’s trapped with the most powerful dark wizard of all time, yet Harry refuses to hand over the Stone to save his life. Voldemort tauntingly commends him on his bravery, saying his parents shared the same quality when they were faced with death. Then, in addition to the usual “we can rule together” deal, he makes Harry an offer no one could refuse – the chance to bring back his mother and father. The one thing Harry has ever wanted. They reappear in the mirror to further drive he can’t shake his desire. Yet there’s one major difference from their first appearance. When Harry initially saw them, they looked down on him with so much genuine love and affection it hurt. Here they’re not only at eye level with him due to where he’s standing both in the room and emotionally from his journey thus far, but they stare at him stoically, seriously, as if they know the gravity of the decision he must make and await his choice. While Harry contemplates, Voldemort makes one last attempt to win him over by sharing his twisted worldview:
There is no good and evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it. Together, we’ll do extraordinary things.
But after one more demand for the Stone, Harry knows what his choice is. He calls Voldemort out on his false promises, and his family vanishes from the mirror. The need to do what’s right in the present is far greater than any tempting desire from the past.
Quirrell literally flies at Harry’s throat to kill him, but reels in pain as Harry defends himself with his bare hands. Before their eyes, Quirrell’s hand crumbles to ash. Realizing he’s armed with some kind of magic not even Voldemort is aware of, Harry smooshes his hands all over Quirrell’s face and he disintegrates faster than Daffy Duck after facing Marvin the Martian. The Stone is safe, Harry’s committed his first murder, and all should be right with the world; but Voldemort’s furious spirit speeds through Harry as it escapes and the pain is so overwhelming that he passes out.
Harry wakes some time later in the hospital wing surrounded by gifts from well-wishers and attended to by Dumbledore. He updates Harry that word has gotten out about his showdown with Quirrell, Ron and Hermione are all patched up, he and Nicholas Flamel have decided that immortality is a burden that no man should bear and the Stone has been destroyed.
He also explains why Quirrell couldn’t bear to touch Harry; because his mother sacrificed herself to save Harry, that loving act left an indelible protective mark on him that no evil can withstand. On the downside, they left out the reason why Snape tried so hard to save Harry despite having such a hate boner for him (or at least what Dumbledore thinks is the reason at the time), and it’s a shame, really. It gets the ball rolling in developing Snape’s character beyond that one jerk teacher we all had in school. Both Snape and James Potter were in the same classes at Hogwarts and shared a rivalry not unlike Harry and Malfoy’s. It came to a head when James wound up saving Snape’s life one day, and apparently he looked out for Harry in order to repay that debt. As anyone who’s read the books and seen the other movies will tell you it’s MUCH more complicated than that, but I’ll talk more about it when we get to it.
Harry heals up in time for the end of year feast and it looks like Slytherin is about to coast into another House Cup victory for the eighth year in a row. But Dumbledore surprises everyone by dishing out some last minute points: fifty to Hermione for keeping calm and carrying on, fifty to Ron for making chess exciting, and sixty to Harry for his courage, leaving Gryffindor tied with Slytherin. Before the Gryffindors can wonder why Dumbledore couldn’t spare one more measly point, he floors the assembly by awarding ten points to Neville for having the nerve to stand up to his friends. Thanks to him Gryffindor wins, and not only do they celebrate in style but the entire freaking school (barring Slytherin) joins in.
Before you know it, it’s time for everyone to pack up for the summer. At the train station Hagrid gives Harry an album full of moving photos of his family and friends, and reminds him that the Dursleys don’t know about the rule forbidding magic outside of school so he’s got little to worry about until September. As they board the Hogwarts Express, Hermione remarks how strange it feels to be going home after so much has happened in the past year. Harry looks back at the castle where his life has completely changed, and says that he’s not going home.
I hate to keep using this cliche around this series, but there a kind of magic that comes with the Harry Potter films that is impossible to replicate. The first in particular is a perfect storm of quality epic moviemaking, music and fantasy, even if the dust is beginning to show in a few places. Still, it’s only a sign of better things to come. It’s a very faithful adaptation of the first book, almost to a fault, but there’s just enough changes and compressions made to create an engaging film that welcomes us into the wizarding world. I suppose the one nitpick I have is how many times thing ground to a halt in order to drop some needed exposition, though as the movies progress you’ll find I’m going to have the opposite problem.
The hype surrounding Sorcerer’s Stone the year before it was due in theaters was unforgettable; I remember people waiting for it the way fans would in the days before a new book would be released. Yet it couldn’t have come out at a better time. Caught in the immediate wake of 9/11, we were all in desperate need of a trip to Hogwarts. In those precious two and a half hours, we escaped the terror and confusion of the world we knew and lived in the shoes of a boy discovering wonder and adventure beyond his tiny cupboard. That flight of fancy not only bolstered our spirits, but it proved that year that The Boy Who Lived could hold his own against the big guns of literary fantasy.
Harry Potter is something I look forward to seeing a new generation of children grow up with. I’ve already begun collecting the big illustrated editions of the books so hopefully I can read them and pass them on to my own kids. It is timeless, it is fantasy, it is magic, and it will stay that way. Always.
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Caricature by Charles Moss