Flat Magic

Harry Potter is utterly transporting but not at all enchanting.

Many of those who have read and reveled in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter adventures will be relieved that the lavish new movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Warner Bros.) is one of the most reverent adaptations ever produced: The Bible has never been treated with such obeisance. Unlike Anne Rice, who made a nuisance of herself when the same studio, Warner Bros., cast Tom Cruise as the aristocratic vampire Lestat in her Interview With the Vampire (1994), Rowling insisted on approval of the director and actors; and she reportedly weighed in on details of color, the architecture of Hogwarts (Harry’s school for young warlocks), and the logistics of that crazed mélange of rugby, cricket, and broomstick-whooshing known as “Quidditch.” Aided by Rowling’s hovering presence and a budget estimated at $125 million (much of it going to special effects), director Chris Columbus and his creative team have made a movie that is utterly transporting. It is one thing, however, to transport an audience and another to enchant it. You need more than big bucks to cast a spell. You need the magic that comes from emotion.

As a Harry Potter addict—a onetime skeptic who devoured all four books in a week and then went into a state of panicked withdrawal (it was wretched to be a muggle again!)—I found the film mildly diverting. Columbus directs in a straight-ahead, family-movie style that seems at first in sync with Rowling’s brisk, no-nonsense prose. Colors are warm and resplendent; the turrets of Hogwarts’ castle stretch high into the azure sky; the composer, John Williams, ladles on orchestral awe. (The central motif is straight out of SwanLake.)

As Hagrid, the massive, hairy, Scottish demi-troll, Robbie Coltrane is as Hagrid-like as one could possibly hope for; and any film that features Richard Harris as a hoary head wizard, Maggie Smith as an imperious witch, Alan Rickman as a slinky sourpuss (underplaying beautifully), and John Hurt as a dithering wand-shop proprietor is guaranteed to be at least intermittently blissful—Masterpiece Theatre heaven. The three youths—Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson (smashingly Tory names, aren’t they?)—are picture-perfect and can act to boot. (The prepubescent Watson is absurdly alluring to those of us who always went for bossy girls; when she fixed her sharp brown eyes on Radcliffe and said, “Harreh, do be keh-ful,” my heart did about five somersaults.) The trappings are all there; it’s the feeling that’s lacking.

Consider the opening, in which Dumbledore (Harris) and McGonagall (Smith) encounter each other outside the Dursleys’ home, shortly before Hagrid arrives with the baby Harry. There’s a nice, simple effect when Dumbledore snuffs out the street lamps with his wand, and a wittier one when the shadow of a feline blooms into the shadow of McGonagall, who saunters into the frame. But after that the actors just stand in the middle of the screen and say their lines—giving you plenty of time to think about how fake Harris’ cottony beard looks, and how little sense of urgency Columbus has managed to evoke. Voldemort has murdered Harry’s parents and been mysteriously, violently repelled by the baby himself; the wizard universe—riven with plots and counter-plots—is now in an uproar. Why has so little of the tumult and anxiety—that mingled elation and grief—made it to the screen? If you haven’t read the book, you’ll have no clue that something momentous is at stake.

Ah, but most of you have read the book and can supply the emotion yourself. You might even prefer it that way—along with that school of classical-music lovers that champions conductors who don’t “come between” them and an established classic, who “serve” the music without distracting “interpretation.” Others, myself among them, consider interpretation an inevitable consequence of picking up a baton, and believe that choosing not to interpret is itself an act of interpretation—albeit a timid, unimaginative one. In cinema, in which the director is at very least a co-composer, the result of such reticence is even less satisfying. As a movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has no inner life—no pulse—of its own: It’s secondhand.

That was Rowling’s choice, of course. She might have gone with Terry Gilliam—or better yet, Alfonso Cuarón, who did such plangent work in A Little Princess (1995). Jean-Pierre Jeunet (his excruciating new gamine picture Amélie notwithstanding) would have built this universe from the ground up and found an original syntax—a cinematic syntax. But Chris Columbus is a deferential fellow: charming, well-mannered, a team player, a yes-man. I was introduced to him once, and he was effusively complimentary—even though I’d never written a nice word about his work. Rowling must have found him the ideal literary executor.

The irony is that he isn’t: For all his fidelity, Columbus misses the big emotional beats. He moves briskly through the opening scenes with the horrid Dursleys (Fiona Shaw gets a laugh when she refers to Harry’s dead mother as a “ffffffreak“) and shows a charmingly glancing touch with the insistent owl messengers. But the elation Harry feels when he embarks on his journey to Hogwarts isn’t there—we don’t even get to see the old-fashioned, red-and-black locomotive leave the station. Where is Harry’s sense of liberation? Where is his realization that after a decade of living under the stairs in a house of derisive muggles that he’s suddenly among people who share his peculiar gifts—and who treasure him?

The entrance into the Hogwarts dining room—with candles suspended in the air, with tables of young wizards reaching into the distance—is dazzling; but what does that matter when the Sorting Hat sequence that follows is such a bust? In the novel, it’s clear that the hat—which determines the students’ all-important dorm affiliations—speaks to each freshman privately, but Columbus muddles the issue, so that you’re not sure who’s hearing what; and the highly significant exchange about Slytherin (would Harry be better off with the cozy Gryffindors, or would he be spurred to greater heights by a house of overweeners?) is given no special emphasis. Columbus simply can’t get into Harry’s head. He doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s supposed to. Empathy isn’t an expensive special effect.

How’s the Quidditch match? Whiz-bang—but I couldn’t follow it, frankly. Other FX are more astonishing: the lethal swarm of flying keys, the staircases that continually rearrange themselves, the books that scream when they’re opened, the portraits that live but remain indelibly two-dimensional. It’s too bad they’re housed by such a square, Christmassy movie. If it was all you knew you’d have no idea that Rowling’s universe is such a subversively pagan one, that under all the starch and twinkle is a barely containable rage at the muggle world (and a fear of that rage to complicate matters). You’d have no idea from Columbus’ common technique—low-angle shots of sinister people, everything else in the center of the frame—of the demonic energy that went into creating Harry Potter’s world. Given her choice of director, it’s possible that Rowling has no idea either.