I was a proper bookworm as a child, but few stories managed to capture my imagination like the Harry Potter series did. And so I was suitably excited when the film posters started appearing and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came to the big screen. I was 11 at the time, so watching it now is like a trip down memory lane every time.
We all know the story – growing up with his mean aunt and uncle Harry doesn’t know that he is actually a wizard. When he finds out on his 11th birthday a whole new world awaits him and he soon finds his home in his new school, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The first film is basically taking the book and bringing it to life on the screen – as adaptations go it’s very faithful. I’m not subscribing to the notion that “books are better”, though. They are simply a different medium. There is much more detail in the book series and many things that didn’t make it into the films, bet it characters, scenes or story lines. But that is okay, because we can revisit those by reading the books again. The films present us a different version to enjoy, as they are a different medium of storytelling. And I like that way in its own right – telling a story in pictures in a meaningful and memorable way in 2 ½ hours. That is art as well. And that’s why I love the Harry Potter books and films equally for very different qualities.
Part I has excellent screenwriting, direction, sets and general filmic language. It’s made to be enjoyable for both children and adults. There is great attention to detail and you get to appreciate that fully when you look at the film closely and again and again – there is so much more in the background than actual background and we probably miss more than half of the small things going on. The whole film works well together. The writing is really skilful, as it presents a taut narrative, but still leaves room for wonder and imagination. And the sets and scenery of course make the film visually pleasing and inviting – we all want to go to Hogwarts!
What I love about part I in particular is that sense of magical wonder. As Harry is introduced to the wizarding world, he discovers so many new things. And we go on that journey with him. The visual language is stunning and inviting, hinting at the whole new world, while only letting us in step by step. Quidditch for example – we get a first glimpse at a racing broom in Diagon Alley, then Harry has his first flying lesson at Hogwarts, later he gets a Quidditch rule briefing from Oliver Wood and finally he plays his first actual match. It’s a gradual build up and discovery. In The Chamber of Secrets Harry plays Quidditch – big deal. But in part I this is still new and special.
Now actually comparing book to screen, they actually got all the characters spot on in my opinion. Of course, they are not 100% like in the books and I still see them differently when I read the series, but the essence is there in the films. But apart from lifting Harry, Hermione and Ron from the page, the characters work perfectly together in the film on their own. So even if we have no prior picture of them, they become dear to us throughout the film, because the writing, storytelling and characterisation works in its own right, not simply as adaptation. Looking at the series, part I is the most “faithful” to the book in general, if you would like to call it like that. The later books need more “edits”, mainly due to length.
I have watched the film over 20 times, if not 30 by now… But it still captures my imagination. One of the big themes is that journey of discovery. But I think it’s also the character journey for Harry that I find compelling. He goes from a boy, who feels isolated and doesn’t fit in, to someone with a special destiny and a place to call home. Knowing where he belongs and finding friends for life is a beautiful story arch – one that we can all relate to. Finding the place where you belong is a very strong and relevant theme. The last dialogue in the film also tells us he’s arrived – he has completed his character journey for part I.
Hermione: Feels strange to be going home, doesn’t it?
Harry: I’m not going home. Not really.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a beautiful beginning to Harry’s life in the wizarding world. We see it through his eyes with a sense of wonder – but also a growing fondness and finally a sense of belonging. And it leaves us wondering – how will the next year be, now that Harry has found his home? It’s promising to be much quieter – but is it?