Few film franchises have been more constitutive of the modern movie spectacle (and the digital age of cinema) than Harry Potter. The series is made up of eight movies spread evenly over a ten-year period, each a handsomely mounted production featuring a considerable cast of respected actors. With a collection of record-breaking bestsellers serving as a foundation, the consistently high box-office draw of the films was a foregone conclusion. Yet for non-loyalists of the book series, the adaptations’ densely plotted stories and long running times all but demand a general knowledge of the broader story. This, coupled with the critic-proof nature of such a popular series, perhaps suggests that the Harry Potter films are not worthy of serious critical attention.
But with each new movie, my growing feeling is that these films may coalesce into something rare in the lexicon of sequels and franchises. Whereas so many movie series slowly or abruptly abandon ambitious storytelling and/or filmmaking in favor of selling the brand, the Harry Potter series is marked by what seems to be a simple and persistent earnestness, as if all the parties involved—from actors to studio heads—wanted to do good work. Moreover, the films also evolve stylistically and aesthetically, each installment facilitating stronger maturation of storytelling and character. The result is a compelling series that defies traditional stereotypes of blockbuster moviemaking.
In this week-long series of commentaries devoted to the Harry Potter films, I will home in on notable aspects of each individual movie while maintaining a sense of the larger mosaic. Topics will range from thematic undercurrents and visual styles (I hope to show how the films develop a serious, even challenging visual language that both reflects and informs current traits of the modern blockbuster) and will also touch on more subtle or obscure details that deserve heightened focus. I am not interested in definitively deciding which parts are superior to others. I certainly am partial to certain installments, but the goal here is not simply to document the strengths and weaknesses of each respective film. This is a collection of personal reflections that will articulate why the Harry Potter series warrants more serious consideration.
Now that I’ve established the ground rules, let’s look at the first installment, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). It’s pleasant enough as an introductory episode but is somewhat challenging to view 10 years later. That is to say, I found myself incapable of ignoring the glaring contrast between the film I was watching and the more recent Potter entries. The players and most of the locations are the same, but the look and feel is entirely different. Despite establishing the characters and world that eventually develops over the course of the series, both this installment and its follow-up, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, now seem isolated from what follows (perhaps in part due to the dramatic changes brought by Prisoner of Azkaban). Nevertheless, this film along with its immediate successor is fascinating to see again, perhaps because it is so curiously detached from the wonderment and magic it seeks to conjure.
When I first saw Sorcerer’s Stone, I was lock-step in agreement with Roger Ebert that it was “a red-blooded adventure movie, dripping with atmosphere, filled with the gruesome and the sublime.” For years I defended the film against its detractors and encouraged more serious-minded moviegoers to see it. And though I experienced some of the things in Ebert’s description while watching it again, these sentiments more resembled a kind of channeled nostalgia than something I was actively feeling.
Some of the most interesting passages occur early on. After a short prologue swashed in campy mystery (punctuated by a long-bearded wizard and pointy hat-donning witch rendezvousing on a foggy night), the film settles into a cartoonish mood with the introduction of our 11-year-old hero (Daniel Radcliffe) imprisoned in suburban England. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs in a bright home whose walls are coated with hideous wallpaper. But it isn’t long before an increasing number of owls overrun the neighborhood to deliver young Harry his acceptance letter/s to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The animated tone of these introductory scenes, while bordering on irritating, is weird enough to keep the film from sinking, but afterwards Columbus regrettably tones down the silliness, with only a handful of characters serving to liven up the affair.
The goal is seemingly to create an atmosphere of innocence, discovery, and—as Columbus never allows you to forget—magic. He wants you to know this with every epic shot and every repetition of the now-famous musical theme. But despite these proclamations, the general aesthetic is banal. Every character, every significant action, is framed with staggering exactitude, to the extent of becoming suffocating. It’s worth pointing out that the movies that serve most clearly as narrative and visual influences for Sorcerer’s Stone—from The Wizard of Oz to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—have been framed and presented with similar directness. But with those works, the sense of the strange and incredulous saturate the viewer and unfold with less haste. By contrast, Columbus is always in a rush to get to the next point on the schematic: the next line of dialogue; the next shot; the next scene. This is a film charged with immersing the viewer in an entirely new world, and it is presented as if it were a soap opera. And when Columbus pulls back to give us the spectacle, the strain with which he attempts to elicit a big response is glaring. Consider, for example, the first reveal of the castle, accompanied by the requisite “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing in the musical score. It should be a monumental moment. All of the signifiers are present, but the effect is hollow.
The plot structure is worth looking at as well, because it unfolds in the exact opposite manner to how Columbus executes his visuals. The screenplay is so close to J.K. Rowling’s text as Columbus and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, have tried to cram in every detail of the book without much regard for the differences between cinema and literature. Thus, while the book reads briskly, the film’s depictions of our protagonists attending classes and walking the school halls prove tiring as the running time ticks up. Sorcerer’s Stone is often aimless. The plot eventually comes into focus and deals with the Dark Lord Voldemort’s attempted rise back to power, but Columbus and Kloves are in no real hurry to unveil the narrative. Consequently, the film never quite builds enough momentum for the story to take hold. This nonchalance regarding plot development may account for Columbus’ maddening and problematic visual approach. Perhaps he felt it necessary to frame his compositions in the most straightforward, concise manner possible, given that the screenplay afforded him little time to slow down. This is a shame, because there is so much to relish in the far corners of the compositions, but Columbus often smothers them with framing and editing that are pedantic and a plot that meanders.
Despite these criticisms, there are moments—sights and sounds—that burst through to fleetingly realize the potential so clearly evident beneath the mostly lifeless aesthetic. These range from Harry’s first sight of the busyness of the brilliantly designed Diagon Alley; a quick shot of a goblin using magic to put Christmas ornaments on a tree; and a sublime encounter with a noble, soft-spoken centaur in the Dark Forest late in the film. Taken in the context of the entire series, these brief moments serve to remind how a more ambitious narrative and aesthetic approach would eventually blossom and flourish.