For America's Columbus Day weekend, here's a film by Chris Columbus. Oh, wait, that's a different Chris Columbus? Too late. We'll save our hommage to Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin in Goodbye, Columbus until next year's holiday. But this Chris Columbus is the fellow who beat out Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner and others to win the chance to bring J K Rowling's Harry Potter series to the big screen. For our weekend movie date, here's the film that launched the then very young Harry, Hermione and Ron into motion pictures - the adaptation of the first book in the saga, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone - or, for American readers, Sorcerer's Stone:
On its release in 2001, this was a huge film. I saw it in New Hampshire and I didn't get back till three in the morning. Nobody gets back from anything in New Hampshire at three in the morning. That's when you get up to be in time for hunter's breakfast at the local diner before a day in the woods. But the nearest movie theatre prepared even to concede the possibility of an unsold ticket told me my best shot at getting in to see the movie was their hitherto unprecedented 10.30pm show - and the only if the expected snowstorm started early and kept the non-diehards away.
10.30pm! Nothing in New Hampshire begins at 10.30pm except short-order cooks getting an early start on those hunter's breakfasts. But the flakes were falling, so we thought we'd chance it and drove an hour and a quarter and, snowfall notwithstanding, were lucky to get a seat at the back. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone broke box-office records in that opening weekend, pulling in more than $90 million. But forget that headline-grabber: these days, any old bit of junk can rake in a ton of dough on its first Friday and Saturday and be dead by Monday; only a few weeks beforehand, Pearl Harbor opened big, and was empty four days after its premiere. Yet the Hogwarts brand turned out to have decade-long legs.
The Harry Potter series is a monument to the great vitality of capitalism. The wonderful thing about real showbusiness - as opposed to, say, Iraqi showbusiness, where Saddam Hussein's musical (seriously - Zabibah And The King) turned out to be the non-surprise hit of the 2001 Baghdad theatre season - is that Oprah can make a movie like Beloved, command untold magazine covers and TV tie-ins, and the thing is still a dud. Meanwhile, some loser somewhere in Scotland is writing some goofy kid's tale on the back of paper napkins in a greasy spoon (or whatever - I always doze off round about the second paragraph of J K Rowling profiles) and five years later she lands a boffo movie - made entirely on her own terms!
Those who marveled that Warner Brothers hadn't gone in for a lot of promotional merchandise for the film were missing the point. The film is the promotional merchandise. It exists to protect and enhance Miss Rowling's franchise. For the benefit of those who've been holded up in a cave in Waziristan for two decades, I should explain that Harry Potter is an orphaned wizard who, after a few grim years living in the cupboard under the stairs of his aunt and uncle in Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, goes off to attend Hogwarts, a boarding school for young persons of a magical persuasion. One of the pleasant features of the Potter phenomenon is that it's not a safe hit. Indeed, Miss Rowling seems to have written without a care for the pieties of the age - as evident not just in the protests and pickets from American parents who say it encourages children to practice the black arts, but in all kinds of small, telling ways, such as the scene where Hermione wishes Harry a "Happy Christmas", a greeting now expunged from almost all contemporary films on the holiday season. In the US, some critics even bemoaned the movie's lack of visible minorities, although personally I thought Chris Columbus's camera tends to flaunt them somewhat ostentatiously in the reaction shots, rather in the way that at the Wimbledon final the Duchess of Kent always alights on the black ball-boy.
At this point, I should say I've never read any Harry Potter and I don't intend to start, on the same basis as Julie Burchill's refusal to visit America - on the grounds that so many other people already have. But a few years later my kids did make me listen to Jim Dale's audio books on long car journeys, and they assure me that the movie has almost everything the book has and in the same order. There have been none of the usual concessions - the girl has not been made Californian - and none of the unfathomable ones - the three-headed dog has not been transformed into a five-headed lemur. The British English has been left intact (waiting for "the post") and the cast looks like a Bafta awards ceremony where none of the American winners have turned up, leaving only the British presenters. Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Zoë Wanamaker, John Cleese, John Hurt, my old friend Fiona Shaw, all pass by for five minutes apiece, wreathed in beards, shrouded in cloaks or bearing severed heads. You half expect the film to have a formal credit declaring that "No Americans Were Used In The Making Of This Motion Picture" - and, indeed, it turns out that that was pretty much Miss Rowling's only demand: that every cast member be British and/or Irish. Warner Bros almost kept their end of the deal, but I see Chris Columbus managed to slip his daughter Eleanor in as one of the miscellaneous schoolgirls.
Miss Rowling's adaptors for the most part brought her world so persuasively to life that their rare lapses stand out all the more: The film's score is generic John Williams, the sort of swooping wallpaper he can do in his sleep for Spielberg, and I never quite warmed up to Harry's signature tune. Similarly, the scene when a large egg cracks and a baby dragon emerges looks too like the familiar computer-generated hatchings from Jurassic Park, Godzilla et al. For a moment, you're reminded that this is, after all, a fin-de-siècle Hollywood movie. Otherwise, Chris Columbus has created an extraordinarily detailed look that's both fantastic and yet has its own reality - exactly like an English public school, come to think of it, especially in your first term - a weird blend best caught when the dim troll rampages through the girls' bathroom and leaves "troll bogeys" on Harry's wand. The Quidditch match - played on broomsticks in a soaring turreted stadium with long-range views of a verdant, unspoilt England - is filmed with a marvelous panache and a darting, explosive rhythm, so much so that at one point when a ball comes hurtling through the hoops towards us I found myself ducking. I caught myself in mid-duck and tried to think of the last time I'd momentarily forgotten I was at a movie.
Yet, for all that, the film stands or falls on its three young players: Daniel Radcliffe's bespectacled Harry allows us the odd glimpse of his loneliness, but comes near to being upstaged by his chums, Rupert Grint as the snub-nosed tousled redhead Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as the bossy, brainy Hermione Granger. All three are familiar archetypes of English school stories - the orphan, the poor boy, the lonely swot - which makes it all the more amazing that they avoided getting morphed by Warner Bros into textbook cases of low self-esteem.
In the end, perhaps, the faithfulness is fine but limiting. Unlike many critics, I don't think this is a film for the ages like, say, Wizard of Oz. In that instance, four decades separated the film from the book, and thus the movie was free to be a transformative adaptation. One day, someone will make that kind of film about Harry Potter. It is Miss Rowling's book that is for the ages, and so we should congratulate Chris Columbus on a spirited adaptation that will be be only the first of many dramatic versions of The Philosopher's Stone.