June 2, 2014
When a film series has achieved international recognition and enjoyed enormous commercial success, it becomes very easy to believe that its eventual standard was replicated throughout its history. The appeal of Star Wars, Indiana Jones and James Bond is so widely spread throughou... t our culture that the individual films begin to blend into a single entity; the notion of Star Wars as a very good thing makes us forget the shortcomings of the individual films.
As with each of these examples, it simply isn't the case that the Harry Potter series has always been of the highest quality. For all the praise it has garnered, especially for its impact on the British film industry, the series had a very shaky start. Watching The Philosopher's Stone now, there are times when it is hard to believe that we ever got as far as the seventh book being split into two lucrative parts. While it comes with the very best intentions, it is decidedly ill-disciplined and unengaging compared to later instalments.
The roots of this problem lie in the choice of director. J. K. Rowling's original choice had been Terry Gilliam, who was then coming off the back of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam's vision for the film was ambitious and every bit as fantastical as his work on Brazil, but the studio opted for Chris Columbus following the director's two-hour pitch to executives. Columbus' track record with family-friendly hits like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire went down much easier than Gilliam's history of quarelling with studios and his multiple (but undeserved) box office failures.
This decision, taken before any of the film had been shot, shapes the entirety of both The Philosopher's Stone and its sequel. It's the classic example of a studio playing it safe, putting a potentially lucrative property in a safe pair of hands, who will in turn deliver something which will offend the least amount of people and thereby create the widest possible market. Columbus' directorial style is an accountants' dream, and the worst nightmare of anyone who cares about proper fantasy filmmaking.
In my review of Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief, I spoke about Columbus' conservative approach to the source material and how this hurt the finished project. In both cases, he opted to stay extremely faithful to the original novels, personally going through the script with Rowling to ensure that all the minor details were intact. While attention to detail is always welcome, with Columbus it manifests itself in literally putting the page on screen, in a manner which makes the whole experience much less cinematic than it could have been.
There is evidence of this throughout The Philosopher's Stone, particularly in the many long scenes with our three main characters in the corridors of Hogwarts. These scenes feel for all the world like the actors were reading their lines directly from the book, without the adjustments being made for the visual language of cinema. Not only are these scenes a lot longer and more expository than they need to be, but they give the sense of a film crew fighting against the material; the camera chases after the story, rather than grabbing it by the scruff of the neck like a proper adaptation would.
Because the talky scenes feel so much like readings from the novel, the film doesn't flow especially well. All the more action-based scenes, like the quidditch match, the broomstick lessons or the wizard's chess scene near the end, feel like set-pieces which have wandered into what otherwise resembles a recital rather than a film. And because the dialogue is often flat, these scenes don't carry the weight they they need to carry; rather than building up to, say, the chess game, it comes out of nowhere and feels like a distraction.
By attempting to cram in every last detail of the book, Columbus has committed the ironic sin of gradually alienating a mainstream audience. While fans of the book may be impressed by how faithfully certain scenes are replicated, this approach results in a film which is altogether too long and too leisurely paced. With The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson sought to be as faithful as possible to J. R. R. Tolkien's work while acknowledging the need to keep the plot moving and make changes to keep casual fans interested. Columbus has neither the skill nor seemingly the desire to pull this off, appearing to settle for dramatic longeurs to avoid upsetting fans of the book.
One could argue that this film has to be slower than those that followed it, because it has to introduce and explain so many different aspects of the world of wizards. But at the time of its release, there was never a guarantee that the series would run its course: not all the books had been written, and the studio took a big chance on the three young actors - probably the biggest chance they took on the whole production. The Fellowship of the Ring may be the gentlest instalment in Jackson's trilogy, and it does have to set up a lot of things, but it's still a rivetting thrill ride whose dynamism pulls all its interesting ideas and themes to the fore.
Columbus' conservatism is also present in the visual sensibility. When pitching the film, he claimed that he wanted to make the scenes in the muggle world "bleak and dreary" while those in the wizard world would be "steeped in colour, mood and detail." He referenced David Lean's work on Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in his chosen cinematography, while comparing the colour palettes to those in Oliver! and The Godfather.
The thing is, you would never garner any of this from actually watching The Philosopher's Stone. The scenes in the muggle world look like a dodgy American take on what a typical British household might look like: for all the charm of the late Richard Griffiths, it still feels too chocolate-box to cut the mustard. While the film does have a loosely Dickensian feel, it is not the Dickens of Lean, with its bleak shadows, striking expressionist angles and emphasis on social inequality. It is instead the Dickens of many American versions of A Christmas Carol, in which all the edges have been taken off and even the least fortunate people look like they've been well-fed for years.
This overly cosy sensibility means that many of the darker or more gruesome qualities in the story aren't allowed to have that great an impact. Some of the CG effects are pretty good, such as the sorting hat or putting the face of Voldemort on the back of Professor Quirrell's head. But when they're being presented in the context of scenes filled with warm candles and goofy jokes, they either feel like bizarre intrusions or come across as silly and unthreatening. The film plays up the sentimental aspects of the book far too much, especially in the mirror scene with Voldemort and the bedside chat between Harry and Dumbledore.
In the midst of all this disappointing mediocrity, there are a number of aspects to The Philosopher's Stone which are enjoyable, either on their own terms or within the context of the overall story. The series' biggest asset from the beginning has been its cast, with each of the three main child actors finding their feet reasonably quickly. There are some obstacles in their way, with Hermione being far more irritating than she is in the later films, but the actors feel settled in their parts and at home in front of the camera.
The adult cast are equally appealing, for a variety of different reasons. Alan Rickman was simply born to play Severus Snape: resisting the urge to turn in another Hollywood villain performance, he instead uses his unusual delivery to keep surprising you about the character. Richard Harris is very capable as Dumbledore, as is John Hurt as Mr. Ollivander: while both parts are essentially exposition with extra dollops of whimsy, both actors manage to bring some kind of weight to their dialogue. The only weak link in the adult cast is Ian Hart: while his Quirrell is convincing (if annoying), he simply isn't intimidating enough as Voldemort.
The film is also pretty funny, perhaps because we have such a strong bond with the cast in the the first place. The running gags about Hagrid breaking things and telling people things he shouldn't have done are funny throughout, as are all the bad things that befall Neville Longbottom over the course of the story. The humour is played very broadly, with much of it being set up a little too obviously, but for the most part it still feels genuine in its delivery.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a mediocre first offering in the then-fledgling franchise. Despite having a strong cast and quite a lot of entertaining humour, it's ultimately far too cautious and literal an adaptation to pass muster as a properly cinematic outing. Its flaws become all the more painfully obvious as the series grows and develops, making all its decisions to play safe seem utterly ridiculous in hindsight. While not the worst instalment in the series, it's hardly the start that we wanted or deserved.