As the first notes of film composer John Williams’s famous score trickled from the screen, I was, for a moment, transported back to my high school years, when I played sick to lay in my bunkbed all day, the sixth “Harry Potter” book in hand. It’s a good feeling, remembering those childhood moments. Sadly, the nostalgia soon passes. As the movie starts, a realization blossoms over me: Every part of the Potter universe I love comes from the books, not the movies.
And honestly, why would anyone want to re-watch “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?” There are millions of reasons to delve back into the books. The Potter universe is idyllic (though admittedly less so as it ages), but formulaic as well. It’s, quite literally, like going back to school. You meet old friends (and foes), talk to your favorite teachers and go through a series of similar events. The books were successful because they put intimately likeable (and oftentimes relatable) characters through the hoops of normal high school — sports, studies, relationship problems, gossip and in more fantastical cases, trolls. We like things that are familiar, and the books not only reflect our own childhoods, but they also end up sharing some common tropes with each other. It’s a comfort food: When you read “Harry Potter,” you become a student at Hogwarts, a close friend of Harry’s, who shares in his successes and cries at his failures — the movies simply don’t have this magic, though.
I don’t presume to understand why the novels possess this unique skill. Perhaps it’s because of the time commitment of a book. You spend more time in the pages than in front of the movie screen, and thus develop a deeper connection with the characters. Or, maybe it’s because in the book, the characters take form in the mind, making them closer to you because they are, in a sense, inside you. A simpler (and less psychological) answer might be that J.K. Rowling’s strongest competence as an author comes from her quick and witty dialogue, which engages as powerfully as any writer I’ve read, yet doesn’t translate perfectly to the screen.
Of course, an adaptation not living up to its source material doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t good — I’m sure most people would agree that the “Harry Potter” movies are less memorable than the books, and that doesn’t mean anything when determining the quality of the films. My essential point is that without the books, the movies are nothing.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and all the following films survived because they were “events,” not because they offered anything substantial. It was safe, charming and corporate. Chris Columbus (“The Goonies”) directed like he didn’t want to piss anyone off. The story and actors hit their points competently, and the audience appreciated the things they’ve seen before.
After finishing the first film, I realized that I never needed to watch any of them again. It was nice to live through the wildness and the fever of the movies hitting theaters, but it isn’t something worth showing anyone ever again. I like movies that result in deeper debates than “I wonder why they left out Peeves?”
Eleven years? Has it really been almost 11 years? It seems that only yesterday, my ten-year-old self donned her favorite hot pink Harry Potter hoodie from the now-extinct Warner Bros. store at Somerset Mall and skipped off to the theater to see “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Nothing will ever compare to experiencing “Harry Potter” for the first time, but every time I watch the film, I am transported back to that very first viewing and the palpable excitement in the air.
It’s that immersive nostalgia that makes “Sorcerer’s Stone” such a joy to watch years later. Seeing Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as adorable children will never fail to tug at my heartstrings, since I’ve grown up with them as the films released and their careers evolved. I almost never fail to comment on how young they are, only to stop short when I realize that I was once just as impossibly small.
The performances aren’t exactly Oscar-worthy (especially in a year that was eclipsed to the Academy by a certain Fellowship), but this cast shines as a group from the very beginning. For me, they clicked the moment I saw Neville (Matthew Lewis). Lewis, with a pudgy face that would grow into something of a work of art, is so pitch-perfect a visual of the “round-faced and forgetful” Neville that viewers instantly plunge headfirst into the story.
From the moment he knocks down a door, it’s clear why Rowling herself felt Robbie Coltrane would be the perfect Rubeus Hagrid. Richard Harris portrays Albus Dumbledore with quiet humor and wisdom, the perfect mentor for Radcliffe and Harry, boys suddenly thrown into a world of wizardry and fame. And I’d be remiss not to applaud Alan Rickman’ Snape, who truly makes an entrance that to this day makes me fear landing in detention.
There’s also the fact that “Sorcerer’s Stone” itself is a film intended to introduce the entire world of “Harry Potter.” Director Chris Columbus directed every moment with full awareness of the importance of that task. The eclectic shops of Diagon Alley to the floating candles in the Hogwarts Great Hall to the vibrant colors and sound of Quidditch. These moments are crafted to take the viewer’s breath away with the magic of filmmaking and of J.K. Rowling’s elaborate universe.
As for the role “Sorcerer’s Stone” plays in setting up the narrative of “Harry Potter,” Columbus once again succeeded in conveying the importance of these characters and what happens to them. After years of griping as a fan over which scenes were altered or characters omitted (you were there in my heart, Peeves), I finally look back on “Sorcerer’s Stone” with the perspective of knowing the full Potter story. There, Columbus hits all the right notes.
I will always smile at the first shot of Harry in his cupboard; always giggle at Ron and Hermione’s first awkward encounter on the train. Visual effects may have come a long way in 11 years, but I’m still mesmerized by Quidditch, terrified of Fluffy the three-headed dog and unable to look away when Voldemort surrounds Harry with flames down in the depths of the school. And I will always, always feel my heart swell as Harry boards the Hogwarts Express saying, “I’m not going home. Not really,” because I know we’re not; we can always come back to where it all began.