The Harry Potter fairytale (it is one both in our world and in the magical one) is so about the idea of heroism that it doesn’t have time for any. Harry’s a bit of a well-meaning lump. He’s always conveniently behind on the action (out of water just like us) and gets everything explained to him so carefully that you wonder what his grades were in mortal schools, much less magical ones. As in The Chronicles of Narnia, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world exists in space with our own: just as the Pevensies might have been considering Hitler when sizing up the white witch, Harry is likely familiar with gentlemen as vile as the unspeakably evil Lord Voldemort (shhh!) from his own history books. His royal darkness may be an aberration in a world of alchemists and pudgy gamekeepers and pointy hats, but in the real world? He’d be a footnote.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t actually about him, nor about Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). Ingeniously, it’s about what people have heard about Harry, and what they have thought of him since they heard his bedtime story for the first time (ingenious, because we are doing the exact same thing, even if we’re watching the film for the eighth time). Swathed in animal leather and hair, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), like a disheveled Santa who has taken up chimney sweeping, tells us the story. The dark lord was on his murderous rampage when he slaughtered the Potter couple, approached the crib where baby Harry slept, and disappeared. He tried to kill the baby, but something “stumped him,” he says. Hagrid is an antique body with a Norman Rockwell face: he lacks only the beer-foam in his lips to complete the merriment that he, like most adults in the magical realm, keep hidden for some undisclosed reason. They seem worried about each next day, perhaps because one of them might bring harm to Harry Potter. Harry is special, as he learns, when hushed voices follow him round the tavern, and careful eyes wane in disbelief, eyes who have seen fantastical creatures and lived to conjure fire from their fingers. He’s special because, of all Voldemort’s victims, “he’s the boy who lived.” The respect that Harry gets from his teachers, the cautious way they protect him from the shadows, has nothing to do with the boy himself, but rather, what his life means to everyone else. If he can live, and keep living, then maybe the villains won’t return.
Living is no heroic feat, and the film knows it. Harry is shown up in character by just about everyone he meets, including squeamish Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) who matures into a child’s idea of a hero, and the aplomb Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a stunning know-it-all, like a mix between Violet Beauregard and Nancy Drew. The children work well together; the whole of their playing around is greater than the sum of their talents. The school for witchcraft upholds its name: Hogwarts it is called, and it is just as uninviting. The kids are like orphans in a Dickensian prison, full of nannies and watch guards and terrible punishments for being tardy. Each “house” lives sequestered in fairytale towers and competes in a school-wide competition to receive the least punishment. “We could be killed,” Hermione chirps, contemplating leaving the dorms after hours, “or worse – expelled.” We never know what that means and don’t have to: we know it must be wittily horrific, with such persons on call as the well-meaningly curt Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, who wraps his lips around every word like it’s a delicacy he’s eaten so much that it bores him).
Early on, we get a glimpse of Harry’s upbringing under the mildly villainous Dursleys, his life in the cupboard beneath the family’s stairs. Then we seem to understand his blankness later: anything is better than home. His misfortune becomes comedically excessive as he endures his piggish cousin’s greed for child things and his bloated uncle’s unruly temperament towards anything the least bit magical. (It borrows quite a bit from Matilda here: Vernon Dursley is like the parental monstrosities of Roald Dahl by way of The Good Neighbors.) Harry endures a lot. In this first film, at least, he doesn’t protest too much.
This brings us back to heroism. Harry possesses none of the fairytale virtues: no great strength or speed or cunning. When they were handing out panaceas, the poor kid must have been grounded. His destiny follows him, as other people make it. (“She knows more about you than you do,” Ron says.” Harry’s reply is from someone losing to his identity crisis: “Who doesn’t?”) We are able to participate greatly in this story, particularly in those symbols of wonderment (those pointy hats and wands and baubles) that after being tired from overuse for centuries have somehow become elemental to the point of comforting. Everyone is wearing their own bedtime story in The Sorcerer’s Stone.
The wizard headmaster Dumbledore, for instance, Richard Harris makes positively numinous, speaking as paper crinkles, gesturing with the slow grace of someone underwater. His eyes sparkle with the old stories. We know everything about him at a nervous glance, and especially that we know so little about him. Harry trades the tradition of the sword for an oaken wand, given to him by Ollivander (John Hurt) in a scene of mythic levity. The magical mundanities are even better than the showdowns. The children face monsters and towering school teachers, but I prefer them shopping, unpacking, going to class. The magical realm is warm, lived-in, like a whole world constructed out of colonial cabins. Every place in the world seems to have a fireside.
The simplicity is the story’s best influence. It has an almost Amish reductionism in its approach to modern life: the children leave behind their vacuums and hair-curlers and PlayStations to come here, to learn quill pen calligraphy and the many uses for an enthusiastic broomstick. When we’re riding behind Harry’s back in his big quidditch game (they bat balls from flying broom-back, like a cross between dogfighting and polo) we have regressed in technology into a future of wonderment. It fits us like the copilot’s seat in Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing, a ship of such enthusiastic futurity that it can blow up a mechanized planet, and yet with the bolted down trappings of a taxi cab. The past can have the future within it, with the distractions cropped out. This is the great appeal of the Harry Potter stories: not what they invent, but what they omit.
The warm dining hall for instance, with its tumultuous walls and floating candles and visiting ghosts, is not something we are supposed to believe might be possible. We are asked to consider that it might always have been, with the right intuition. My memory of The Sorcerer’s Stone has the tint of an oak finish, a world of woodwork and smiles. Though the characters do not preface any great depth that might fill seven more films with conflict, here they are without any but the fears and hopes of childhood (even a monster, a brutish troll for instance, has the dumpy expression of a lost child). Chris Columbus is tapping his foot for almost three hours of upbringing in The Sorcerer’s Stone, tossing us nuggets of the universe (a bank run by goblin tellers, a forest haunted by a unicorn’s death) and carrying on with the quest of a little boy who hasn’t figured out his quest yet. What if you’ve lived your whole life, not knowing that you’re important? This is the question Harry asks now. The one he might end up with later will be: what if that was the most important thing about him?
It should become clear that Harry Potter will never do anything to deserve his own legend, but that’s okay. Will any of us? The Sorcerer’s Stone is only partly the story of a mystical object that can become whatever its owner wishes for most. The rest is the story of a book that acts the same way. This is a tale still being told, even though the books have finished. The first film keeps it simple, and scary, and smiling, and more than a little bit magical. In adaptations of youth novels, this is rarer than a unicorn, and much, much rarer than a hero. I'd take Harry's big grin over either of them. It's one of the things we have in common.
Cast & Crew
|Harry Potter||Daniel Radcliffe|
|Ron Weasley||Rupert Grint|
|Hermione Granger||Emma Watson|
|Albus Dumbledore||Richard Harris|
|Rubeus Hagrid||Robbie Coltrane|
|Severus Snape||Alan Rickman|