The Harry Potter fairy-tale is so focused on the idea of heroism that it doesn’t have time for any actual heroics. Harry’s a bit of a well-meaning lump. He’s always conveniently behind on the action, a fish out of water in his own pond, and gets everything explained to him so carefully that you wonder what his grades were in mortal schools, much less in the magical ones. As in The Chronicles of Narnia, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world exists in the same space and time as 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. The dark lord 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 (it's ingenious because we're doing the exact same thing). Swathed in animal leather and hair and hidden smiles, 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 family, 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 to themselves for some reason.
There's an undisclosed caution to the playing around in the Harry Potter world that arms it with irresistible mystery, as opposed to just magic tricks. These people seem worried about each next day, perhaps because their world is out of balance, fading from the map, or perhaps it's simply because one of those days might bring harm to Harry Potter. Harry is special, as he learns, when hushed voices follow him around the tavern, and careful eyes wane in disbelief when they see him, 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. They don't believe he's some kind of hero or savior. But 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 by just about everyone he meets, including squeamish Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) who matures into a child’s idea of a hero, and the inexcusably aplomb Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), a stunning know-it-all, like a mix between Violet Beauregard and Nancy Drew. I don't think little Watson deserves criticism but the part adapted from the book by screenwriter Steve Kloves seems too ambitious to turn a little girl smart enough to not quite fit in into someone so obnoxiously well-read that I can't figure out why she'd want to. But the children work well together; the whole of their playing around is greater than the sum of their individual talents. The school for witchcraft upholds its name: it's called "Hogwarts," and it's just as uninviting as that name, and just as curious. The kids are like orphans in a Dickensian prison, full of nannies and watch guards and mangy cats and terrible punishments for being tardy. Each “house” lives sequestered in fairy-tale 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 of that it bores him).
A note on the school houses: I believe it's ultimately beside the point of the story's intentions to make one house heroic, one villainous, and two non-existent. I think it's easy to place Hermione in Ravenclaw, Ron in Gryffindor, and Harry in Slytherin and I think that would have helped us, all the way back from the first book, really figure out the meaning of heroism in this little universe. The book and movie put them all in the hero house instead and that's just a little too easy, I think.
Don't misunderstand me: that works perfectly well in The Sorcerer's Stone, an unironic hero tale, a bedtime story that children might have written for themselves (it just doesn't work quite as well later). Here, director Chris Columbus gives us a glimpse of Harry’s upbringing under the mildly villainous Dursleys, his life in the cupboard beneath the family’s stairs, the life of punishment that a child would also imagine for themselves in such a story, as a justification for becoming a hero. We understand the plight of too many children today: this idea that anything is better than home, even school. His misfortune becomes excessive to the point of comedy, as Harry endures his piggish cousin’s (Harry Melling) greed for child things and his bloated uncle’s (Richard Griffiths) 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 fairy-tale virtues: no great strength or speed or cunning, no ability to meaningfully defy authority or change the course of his mistreatment. 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 for Rowling, familiar 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 an aerial dogfight 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 still has the bolted down rusty feel of someone's 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 an oaky finish, a world of woodwork and smiles. Though the characters don't imply any great depth, of the kind 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). Columbus taps 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 of centaurs 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. During The Sorcerer's Stone, it's one of the things he and I have in common.
Image is a screenshot from the film.