Alert the media: for the first time in years (perhaps ever), we have an adaptation
of a fantastic novel that's actually faithful to the source material. Not only
that, but isn't painful to watch.
Here in the final weeks of 2001, a few denizens of Lewisville, Texas may have
not heard of the Harry Potter phenomenon, but the literate portions of
the world couldn't get away from our young wizard if they wanted to do so. The
series is an incredible cash cow for Scholastic, as readers go berserk over
the latest news about the upcoming fifth book. J.K. Rowling's ongoing yarns
have managed to infuriate the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, with both Robert
Sawyer and Locus editor Charles Brown bitching about how Harry Potter
and the Goblet of Fire managed to win the Best Novel Hugo without Rowling
stooping to suck up to the SF community.
And then we have the kids, young adults,
and old adults reading them over and over again: if drug dealers were to start
advertising campaigns, one of the most memorable would be "Crack: Almost
As Addictive As A Harry Potter Novel!"
Naturally, because of this fan base, a film adaptation of the first book, Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was viewed with a bit of trepidation. Actually,
a lot of trepidation, considering the reputation of director Chris Columbus,
former Spielberg protege turned sappy director of such saccharine successes
as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Considering how little of Isaac
Asimov's story remained in Columbus' adaptation of Bicentennial Man,
the worry was understandable: Hollywood isn't exactly known for faithful adaptations
of literary works anyway, and the track record with novels of the fantastic
No worries here. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is easily
the best line-for-line adaptation of a novel this side of Fight Club.
And this is no insult.
Again, only those residents of Lewisville wouldn't know the basic storyline,
about an 11-year-old orphan living with his aunt, uncle, and atrocious cousin
who discovers that things in life aren't all that they seemed at first. Being
on the wrong side of his spoilt cousin Dudley means that poor Harry has to dodge
every disappointment and flat-out cruelty coming his way. Not until a strange
invitation comes sliding through the mailbox does Harry realize that he has
a way out, and that way out is through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and
The telling point of any film adaptation is that, under most circumstances,
nobody's really happy with movie adaptations because the final images are nothing
like the images conjured up during the reading. What makes Harry Potter fascinating
to watch is that in many cases, the cinematic images are better. It's
not just that Robbie Coltrane was born to play Hagrid, the Hogwarts groundskeeper,
but that all of the other casting decisions were made with that same level of
care. Instead of standard exclamation about casting, as in "Oh, cool, we've
got [fill in the blank] to play [fill in the blank]!", the cast is well-balanced
enough that the performance comes first and recognition of the actor comes later.
This is especially true with the child actors playing Harry Potter and his first-year
friends and enemies: all are cast well enough that you can't conceive of anyone
else filling those roles. Even quick cameos featuring such well-known actors
as John Cleese as the ghostly Nearly-Headless Nick don't disrupt the flow of
Oh, and let us talk special effects. Most films of any type these days, especially
genre films, suffer from CGI poisoning. Lots of special effects for no readily
apparent reason other than because "Oh, this would be so cool." Hundreds
of hours of rendering solely so the director can shove the end result in the
audience's face and scream "LOOK AT IT! LOOK AT IT! AREN'T WE SO CLEVER!"
Subtlety is practically a dirty word when involving special effects, with whole
sequences of effects, even allegedly "background" effects (look at
Total Recall or any of the "remastered" Star Wars films)
with all of the delicacy of a baseball bat to the crotch. Due to the subject
matter and the fantastical nature of Harry Potter, the film should be
a terminal case of CGI poisoning, but while the effects are essential, they're
also pay-attention-or-you'll-miss-it surprises. Instead of oohing and aahing
"Wow, what a great effects sequence", the audience oohs and aahs because
we're seeing things that no human has ever seen before. Who knew that Chris
Columbus had it in him?
And here comes to the crux of the matter. For decades, directors and producers
of fantastic films rationalized the mangling of classic science fiction and
fantasy novels, comics, and even television on the rationale of "Well,
we couldn't adapt it in any other way and have it work."
many cases, some of these adaptations worked better (turning Starship Troopers
from libertarian masturbatory fantasy to inadvertent comedy was a stroke
of genius), but most fell under the aegis of "meddling". Roland Emmerich
and Dean Devlin couldn't come up with something as original as Godzilla on their
own, so their adaptation was an "improvement" that satisfied nobody,
especially the companies stuck with unsellable Godzilla merchandise.
Batman gets body armor, the X-Men get leather instead of Spandex, and Dune
actually get made TWICE, all in the name of "Well, this was our interpretation."
And why did they feel that the interpretation was necessary? No reason, other
than the fact that no matter how bad the adaptation, fans would go out and see
it anyway. The ongoing cry of "I couldn't stand it, so I only paid to see
it four times" is a mantra in ticket lines for genre films, and the only
time studio publicists or executives care what the SF community thinks is when
they have an utter dud on their hands and need to pitch it off on the only group
willing to pay for it.
(Just use the covers of SCI FI or Cinescape
as a guide to good films. If the movie has at least one big feature within,
run like hell, because the studio only went to either magazine, or Starlog,
because Entertainment Weekly and Time and Premiere laughed
in their faces when contacted about a cover story.)
Well, we're not talking about thousands of fans any more with Harry Potter:
we're talking about millions of fans. Millions of fans who won't complain about
how the casting stinks or the action sequences don't make any sense or the direction
only made sense if the entire production crew was mainlining curare. These fans
will just let everyone else know that a Harry Potter adaptation is garbage
and go back to the books, leaving the offending studio stuck with millions of
dollars in losses. With that sort of pressure, it's no surprise that no effort
was spared to keep the cinematic Harry Potter as faithful to the literary Harry
Potter as possible, because nobody had anything to gain by pulling a fast one.
With luck, someone in Hollywood will pay attention to this, and keep the dolts
who want to impress "my vision" upon movie adaptations as far away
from the studio lot as possible.
And that's the thrust of it. A lot of good actors, a lot of good situations,
and a lot of obvious love for everything that made the Harry Potter series as
popular as it is. With luck, not only will it help the fall 2001 movie season
erase the bad taste of Summer 2001, but just might remove the stigma of fantastic
films having lots of flash but not a whole lot of brain.