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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

I promised myself I wouldn’t review Harry Potter, even though it has been one of the most successful recent movies to hit the big screen, costing a cool $120 million which, however, still doesn’t match what got spent on The Lord of the Rings.  Now still playing practically everywhere, with its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, already made and awaiting a 2002 release, this very long children’s movie closely matches its very long multi-volume children’s book, except in its language where, after all, most of the charm presumably lies. 

As many of the adult aficionados of the book note, so much of what’s wonderful about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the quietly dry ironic humor of the descriptions—which is, I have to say, utterly absent from this film.  In fact, when we get to the heart of the quest, there’s very little language in it at all.  Instead,  the protagonists—Daniel Radcliffe as Harry; Rupert Grint as Weasley; and Emma Watson as Hermione (Granger)--are reduced to saying things like “yes, that’s right Harry,” or “I think those are flying keys.”  What the critics have been saying—that the Harry Potter movie refused box office risk by not deviating a wit from the book’s plot—is true enough, but that doesn’t seem to be its biggest problem.  At the moment when visual pyrotechnics are forced to give way before dialogue or verbal description, this movie falls flat and provides scant entertainment for one who hasn’t read the novel.

The first part of the movie is fun: many of the scenes are technologically well-crafted, and the story, as far as it goes, is entertaining.  What I’ll remember are, of course, the owls—real, not fake ones, gathered in flocks—which is not what owls do—outside the Dursleys, adoptive home of Harry Potter.  By the way, the appearance of owls has sent a panic wave through the ranks of the SPCA, whose representatives are begging children and their families not to go out and acquire these raptors as pets.  I also loved the little dragon, the living chess games, the Quidditch match, Cerberus, the flying keys, and the strange creature who sucks the blood of unicorns.  The centaur, on the other hand, was just way too goofy.

What I didn’t know about the Harry Potter story—at least the way screenwriter Steven Kloves and director Chris Columbus (of Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire) have scripted and staged it—is that it seems to be about race.  Harry is a wizard because his dead parents were; wizardry is transmitted genetically.  This is a carry-over from medieval romance, where the protagonist is often a noble whose lineage is unknown to him, but in whom everyone can easily detect the features of nobility.  So too then, it would seem, with wizardry.  Correspondingly, Harry’s adoptive family must be stupid and boorish, worthy of the film’s contempt and scorn, blatantly poor, blatantly lower-class, even if class turns out to be somewhat unreadable to the American audience. After all, romance, both medieval and modern, are in part about mystifying class and race with concepts such as beauty and magic.  And this theme continues throughout the movie, with the goblin bankers looking suspiciously like a familiar cultural stereotype, and the little Irish wizard-student forever mucking things up.  Folks tell me that, in the book, the question of mixed-race-ness arises (i.e.  some of the wizardlings are part muggle), but I guess this movie thought that would be too much for its audience to digest.  Maybe next time.

Ultimately, I think grownups should go see Harry Potter if they’re not going to read the books, because it’s important to try to understand what has captivated the single-digit crowd in this unprecedented manner.  And those who worry that stories about wizardry encourage dangerously  non-monotheistic approaches to the supernatural (or, in the words of some, satanism), might wish to focus on the way this movie reflects and reinforces the more mundane dangers of genetic determinism, a notion already rampant in our society.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001