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Hogwarts and all
Harry Potter hits the screen


Harry Potter andthe Sorcerer’s Stone
Directed by Chris Columbus. Written by Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. With Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, and Julie Walters. A Warner Bros. release. At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Potter patter

Hanging with Harry’s gang

NEW YORK — Like Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe is an 11-year-old British boy (at least he was when he made the film — he’s now 12) who has suddenly become famous and been told great things are expected of him, before anyone really knows who he is or what he can do. So you’d think he’d feel all the more kinship with his character, now that his leading role in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has made his face ubiquitous even before this Friday’s opening.

But no. " I can relate to Harry in other ways, but not that way. I’m loyal. I enjoy being with lots of people, but I also enjoy being on my own. I’m curious. I can stand up for myself. "

Radcliffe and the other stars and filmmakers, who’ve all gathered at Manhattan’s Essex House hotel for the latest in a series of Potter press junkets, are trying to act casual, but despite the boy’s denial, it may be impossible for the cast and crew to separate themselves or their movie from the enormous hype surrounding it. Certainly they feel the pressure of being cogs in a worldwide marketing machine whose success rides largely on their efforts, not to mention their responsibility to a mass readership as particular and fiercely protective of their fantasy world as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings fans.

Robbie Coltrane, who as Hagrid, Keeper of the Keys and Grounds at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, introduces Harry to his heritage of magic, calls the hype " insane. It doesn’t affect me at all. It’s bullshit. It’s just a lot of publicists making a living. " Nonetheless, he says, he was handpicked by author J.K. Rowling to play Hagrid, and he wanted to make sure the filmmakers would adhere to her vision " because the worst thing in the world would be to be in a crap Harry Potter movie. You’d rather be dead, wouldn’t you? "

These pressures hit home for Richard Harris, who plays Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts’ headmaster, at the London premiere a couple weeks ago. " I’ve never seen hysteria like it, " says the 71-year-old movie legend, looking extremely casual in a long red bathrobe and sneakers. " I’ve been to a couple Academy Awards and they were nothing compared to London. It was unbelievable. I turned to my ex-wife and said, ‘The hype may be too big. It can’t be as big as the hype.’ And the publicity took on a life of its own. Warner Bros. couldn’t control it. It was just skyrocketing. Coltrane says the same thing. We were all worried that they couldn’t pull it off. "

At the center of this snowball is Rowling’s book, which, like its three sequels so far, was a phenomenon well before Warner Bros. started to shoot the film. Coltrane, clearly annoyed with being repeatedly asked, " Why do you think Harry Potter is so popular? " , says he always responds, " Well, why do you think Shakespeare is so popular? Why do you think Dostoyevsky is so popular? Because it’s a precise vision of what it’s like to be a human being, regardless of your age. I really think that’s the secret of it, that children and adults can read it on the same level, and that’s not often true.

" Most children’s films are full of stupid adults and brattish children who are like, ‘Let’s get a Ferrari.’ Oh, fuck off. That’s not what children want, and that’s not what adults want. They want something deeper. What’s so encouraging about the success of Harry Potter is that it reflects the deeper feelings of adults and children. "

Staying faithful to the book’s spirit while making something that worked as a movie and didn’t run seven hours was the filmmakers’ ongoing challenge. " When I met Jo [Rowling] four and a half years ago, I promised to her I would be faithful to the books, " says David Heyman, the London-based Warner Bros. producer who bought the film rights. " As the books became more successful, the imperative became even greater. It made sense to use her as a source when she was willing to be a part of it. Jo never dictated to us what we should do. She was always there to counsel us. " However, he adds, her suggestions were almost always followed.

" Everything had to pass through her, every design, every change of script, " says Harris, who notes how rare it is for filmmakers to care what the author thinks. " Hollywood can do their own thing. Spielberg, in a typical Hollywood quote, said he didn’t want to do it [this movie] because there was nothing for him to invent. That meant ‘change.’ Fuck it. But he shouldn’t even want to change it. One of the guarantees that Chris [Columbus, the director] and David Heyman gave her is that they wouldn’t Hollywoodize it. She wanted an all-English picture. They gave her their word, and they honored it. She’s more than delighted. They’re two very honorable people, unlike most people in our business. "

" I ran into Spielberg after I got the job, " recalls Columbus. " He was sitting with Sam Mendes [the British-born director of American Beauty]. They were having dinner at this London restaurant. Spielberg said to me, ‘There’s only one person to play this role, and that’s Haley Joel Osment.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and I walked back to my table, and I felt an arm grab me, and I turned around, and it was Sam Mendes, and he whispered to me, ‘The kid’s got to be British.’ "

Still, Columbus notes, Rowling was willing to change or cut sequences from the book to make a workable film. " Jo was aware that there were certain restrictions in film. She was up for all that. There are anything from 50 to 100 things that are different [from the novel], but we kept it in the spirit of the book. "

Even so, he didn’t cut much. The movie runs two and a half hours, and he says that very little — Peeves the poltergeist, a few moments from longer scenes — ended up as cutting-room floor fodder for the eventual DVD.

Columbus isn’t a director you’d expect to avoid Hollywoodizing a story; he’s known for broad, sentimental comedy dramas like Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Stepmom. Still, all these movies are about kids with absent parents, about people who are forced to mature quickly, just like the orphaned Harry. " I think I’m obsessed by that. Ever since I saw The Godfather. The great thing about Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather II is he’s completely alone. I’ve always responded to material about people who lose their families or are in search of their families.

" I had been reading about myself over the last couple years getting all soft and sentimental, and I thought, ‘I’m not this guy.’ I started to get angry about it, and I wanted to get back to the types of films I was writing, pictures like Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes. When I read Harry Potter, I thought it was a logical extension of my writing career. Had I started to direct immediately after I finished work on the third Indiana Jones film, this is the kind of picture I should have directed. But I fell in love with comedy. So it wasn’t because I had done a movie like Home Alone with absent parents. It was because I wanted to get back to a darker, edgier, action-adventure/kids’ film. "

Emma Watson, who plays Harry’s friend Hermione, says of Columbus, " He is such a cool director. He is so nice. I haven’t worked with any others, but I’m sure he’s one of the best. " This is her first movie, but she’s already a pro when it comes to speaking to the press. So is Rupert Grint, who plays Harry’s friend Ron; he went from playing a fish in a school play about Noah’s ark to a starring role in a Hollywood franchise film. He’s already developed an elaborate signature for signing autographs, one full of ornate loops and flourishes.

Asked how many reporters they’ve been grilled by recently, Watson says, " Oh my God. " Grint: " I’ve lost count. About three million. "

Do they all ask the same questions? " Yeah, " says Grint, " but it’s cool. " Adds Watson, " And you can say exactly the same answers. So you don’t have to think. You can just stand there like a broken record. " She makes being interviewed sound like fun, not the drudgery that grown-up actors find it to be. Radcliffe, too, enjoys the attention. " This is actually one of the coolest bits. If I had to pick one [drawback], it’s writing the autographs. My name is too long. I’m going to try to work on it to get a quicker signature. "

And the perks of being a movie star? Grint: " What does perk mean? " But for Watson, it’s been travel. " We went to loads of different locations, which was really fun. We met interesting people. And we had really good co-stars, i.e., Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Zoe Wanamaker, Julie Walters. It was just a great cast. " Grint, now clear on what perks are, says, " For me, probably the sweets. " Watson groans: " I make this long, sobby speech and he says, ‘Sweets.’  "

The kids’ responsibilities are far from over. They’ve already started shooting the second Potter movie ( " It’s going to be fun, " says Grint, " I can’t wait to cough up slugs " ), and a third and fourth are in the works. Asked how the flying-broomstick scenes are shot, Radcliffe protects the investment. " I can’t say. I can tell you that we went very fast and very high, and it was a lot of fun. I really can’t tell you any more than that. "

The ongoing responsibility is the reason Harris balked at doing the role in the first place. " If I did one, I had to do them all. Now Robbie Coltrane doesn’t have to do them. I want to know why my agent screwed up. That kind of commitment to me is too much. I’ll be 80 or 90 by the time they do the last one. They’ll be carrying me out in a wheelchair. The papers got hold of the story. Every actor in the world wanted to be in it except me. My granddaughter read it, and she relishes the books. She called me and said, ‘Papa, if you don’t play Dumbledore, I will never speak to you again.’ So I said okay. "

Coltrane says his deal for movies beyond the second one hasn’t been fully " sorted " yet, but his only qualm seems to be Hagrid’s costume and shaggy hair and beard. " It was horrible. The make-up was sticky, sticky, sticky. The costume weighed about 140 pounds. But that’s the least of your worries. It looked good, that’s the main thing. " He adopts a fashionista voice: " It’s a fashion thing, the Hagrid look. Armani’s going with it for the winter. The leather jerkin, the leather boots, they’re everywhere. Up and down Fifth Avenue, simply everybody’s wearing them. "

He might not be kidding.

-- Gary Susman

As orphan fates go, Annie’s pales next to Harry Potter’s. What are a skinhead millionaire and a chat with FDR next to the discovery, at 11, that you’re a wizard, set down since birth for a place at that Eton of the occult, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Sound spectacular? Well, it is — though for this confessed Harry Potteroholic, in the eagerly awaited $127 million film it’s too spectacular. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, zealously monitored by Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling, has much to recommend it. The trio of British unknowns who play the key wizard students are terrific, as is the rest of the all-British cast headed by Richard Harris and Dame Maggie Smith. The Hogwarts settings are musty and magical. The relentless effects are impressive. And there is both soul and goofy-grin charm in the performance of Daniel Radcliffe as the wizard boy who survived the curse of the evil Lord Voldemort and bears the lightning-bolt scar to prove it. What’s missing, in this melodramatic adventure based on the first of Rowling’s meticulously imagined Harry Potter novels, are the parallel trains of ordinary and extraordinary, which are key to the books.

The Harry Potter novels, a projected series of seven following Harry through his wizard training (four have been published so far), are the sort of phenomenon that makes everyone sit up and resalute Gutenberg. Of course, some folks never stop saluting Mammon, so it would be fruitless to argue that Harry and his world might have been better suited to the connecting of individual imaginations with Rowling’s, like wands made from the same phoenix’s feathers. Books that capture the collective fancy the way the Harry Potter set have, selling some 110 million copies, do not escape becoming movies. At least Warner Bros. had to toe the line with Rowling, lest Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (already in production, with the same creative team) get made by some other studio. It was the Scottish writer who nixed Haley Joel Osment in the title role and insisted on a British cast anchored by adolescent unknowns.

The Harry Potter saga, for those who have spent the last five years in Middle Earth (your time will come), is a blend of Arthurian legend and very particular fantasy that mixes English prep-school experience with a matter-of-fact culture of wands and witchcraft, cauldrons and charms. Harry, famous since birth though he doesn’t know it until destiny arrives by owl post, survived a backfired curse that sapped the dark lord who’s terrifying the wizard world of his power. Raised by non-magical relatives in a manner that would make Cinderella weep, Harry is rescued by the call to Hogwarts castle. There he will find family and undertake a magical education fraught by peril as Voldemort hovers in the hope of a comeback and Harry can’t keep his nose out of intrigue. Intended for young readers, the books, with their quirkish world governed by a Ministry of Magic and enthralled by an airborne form of soccer called Quidditch, have made fanatics of readers of all ages, who await the next installment the way, well, the way they’ve awaited this movie.

The film begins promisingly, retaining the mysterious and eccentric prologue in which the infant Harry, his parents murdered, is delivered by wizard protectors to live out the sentence of his childhood on Privet Drive with — in the shuddering words of Maggie Smith’s Professor Minerva McGonagall — "the worst sort of Muggles imaginable." "Muggles" is wizard-speak for non-magical people like us, and Professor McGonagall is right in that Harry’s Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and cousin Dudley — spiteful, spoiled slaves of normality whose portrayal and comeuppance are among the film’s satisfying aspects — are about as bad as we come, short of criminality.

As the film begins, to the spooky tinkle of composer John Williams in a subtle mood (enjoy it, it won’t last), an owl soars over the shadowy suburb and Richard Harris’s richly robed and bearded Albus Dumbledore appears, summoning the flames from the street lights. A glowing ball flashes in the night sky, like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Robbie Coltrane’s massive and tender Hagrid the Keeper of the Keys and Grounds lands with a screeching skid on a flying motorcycle, bearing Harry in patterned swaddling. It’s then that Williams hits the storm pedal as the film’s title hurtles into view and later that things go a bit awry, Harry’s wizarding adventure coming to seem more like Star Wars, with whooshing broomsticks replacing intergalactic gadgetry, or the Indiana Jones series with a pint-sized hero. It seems that director Chris Columbus, who’s best known for the Home Alone films, once aspired to draw cartoons for Marvel Comics. And for all the effective marshaling of venerable settings and fanciful effects, too much of a Marvel sensibility infects the film.

On the one hand, Columbus would seem to comprehend that Harry’s journey toward belonging is the heart of the story. No little trouble was taken to enlist the now-12-year-old Radcliffe, who matches a laid-back awe, as Harry encounters the marvelous rudiments of his destiny, with an intense yet subtle longing for the roots he never had. But filmmaker Columbus distrusts the power of words at crucial junctures. Never is the film tackier than when it interrupts Hagrid hesitantly telling Harry his own story with a very non-magical horror-movie flashback to his parents’ murder by Voldemort.

Despite an unflagging attention to suspense and effects, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is faithful, in a necessarily shorthand way, to Rowling’s story. It’s better, though, before it gives itself over to the pursuit, by Harry and pals Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, of the mystery involving the sorcerer’s stone, a shimmering garnet slug with both alchemical and immortality-supplying powers sequestered beneath a maze of spells at Hogwarts. Take, for example, the film’s rendition of that magical marketplace Diagon Alley. We see Harry and Hagrid bustling through modern London (Hagrid looking drolly unlikely in his trademark beard and moleskin coat), then ducking through the divy wizard bar, the Leaky Cauldron, into a bustling Victorian bazaar. It’s as if they’d stepped onto a Dickensian street — augmented, of course, by the paraphernalia, from stately owls to magic wands, for sale in its dusty shops. Similarly, Gringotts, the fortress-like wizard bank managed by sternly bureaucratic goblins, is scrupulously, whimsically rendered. As for Quidditch, when the players finally mount their brooms and zoom above a cheering stadium, the game looks harrowingly fast and very nearly homicidal.

Even at two and a half hours, the film can’t include everything. There’s plenty of middle-school gross-out, but such Hogwarts staples as pumpkin juice and Peeves the poltergeist hit the cutting-room floor. And the movie gets rushed once Harry, Ron, and Hermione stumble upon the ferociously slobbering three-headed dog (not Cerberus but "Fluffy") guarding the stone and set out, Nancy Drew–like, to figure out what the treasure is and who’s after it. Some elements of plot may elude viewers unfamiliar with the book. But Columbus is less interested in the kids’ sleuthing than in its action-packed consequences, as the gutsy trio face knife-sharp flying keys and chessmen set on reducing one another to rubble before Harry meets his unexpected nemesis (in an encounter that’s cheesier and less chilling than it should be). For my money, the entire climactic sequence would be more effective if we hadn’t already watched so many things get bashed to bits.

The wizarding populace, however, looks wonderful, whether John Cleese, in little more than a cameo as Gryffindor House ghost Nearly Headless Nick, is wafting up through a platter of chicken legs or Warwick Davis’s diminutive Professor Flitwick is teaching from atop a tower of ancient-appearing tomes. And the casting is apt, young Radcliffe bolstered by Rupert Grint, who makes the book’s ganglier and more self-conscious Ron into a personable foil for the pensive Harry, and Emma Watson pert and feisty as the know-it-all Hermione. Not only does the bearlike Coltrane look perfect as Hagrid, the unkempt half-giant with an inadvisable soft spot for monsters — with his Northern England working-class growl and hairy tangle framing a Santa’s face, he is perfect.

Maggie Smith is resplendent in crooked witch hat as strict, sports-crazy Professor McGonagall, and Harris captures the sage twinkle of Dumbledore. Fiona Shaw, her long face pinched in fury or melting in distress at the untoward, brings a middle-class-Margaret-Hamilton quality to Aunt Petunia, her icy primness contrasting with Richard Griffiths’s apoplectic Uncle Vernon. Most surprising is Alan Rickman’s take on greasy, Harry-hating potions professor Snape. Not only did the actor’s slack hairdo and dark-eyed intensity connect me with the physical shape Snape had taken in my mind (Laurence Olivier in Richard III), but Rickman takes one of Rowling’s most odious, if non-lethal, baddies and imbues him with a quizzical mien that’s infinitely more interesting. Fortunately, this is no Robin Hood, in which Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham stole the movie from the prince of thieves. Harry Potter, his mantle of nobility resting comfortably on Radcliffe’s skinny shoulders, is an unconquerable adversary.

Issue Date: November 15 - 22, 2001

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