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01/12/2001. Contributed by Mark R Leeper

Buy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the USA - or Buy Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the UK

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A child persecuted by his foster parents discovers he is a great and powerful wizard. J. K. Rowling's fantasy (not just) for children comes to the screen in a very faithful 150-minute (not just for children) version.

CAPSULE: A child persecuted by his foster parents discovers he is a great and powerful wizard. J. K. Rowling's fantasy (not just) for children comes to the screen in a very faithful 150-minute (not just for children) version.

This is a family film that usually manages to be more intelligent than most adult films this year. It is proof that a film adaptation can be faithful and still be entertaining. Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)

Let me get out of the way a couple of objections I went to the film fully knowing I would have. First, I hate this title, dumbed down as it is for American audiences. The original title of the book was "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" not "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

"The Philosophers' Stone" was an object sought in medieval alchemy. It was a hypothetical substance with mystical properties like changing base metals into gold.

When the book was brought to America there was the assumption that Americans would find the title too esoteric so with one word change they could turn it into something from Dungeons and Dragons. The film has the original title in Britain.

Since said stone is only what Hitchcock would call "a McGuffin," I suppose this is only a minor complaint, but I wanted to get it out. I also lightly lament the filming of this book that has gotten so many children to read and use their imaginations.

It will now no longer be read by children (or adults). Instead children will for the most part hold the book in their hands and use the words to replay the film in their minds. That is not their fault, but it is inevitable.

Of course being fair it may also get them to read the other Potter book and that will still require imagination and reading skills. And it is probably a plus for the film that it is so accurate an adaptation. The film really is, for the most part, the book made visible.

The story, as every kid in my neck of the woods knows, is about a maltreated child. He is sort of a male Cinderella or Cosette. When he was a baby he was given to his aunt and uncle to raise. In this family he is used like a labor-saving device, but with not as much concern for his welfare.

On or about his 11th birthday, a mysterious letter arrives for him, in spite of the best efforts of his foster parents to keep it from him. It tells him it is time for him to learn wizardry at Hogwart's, a magical school of sorcery. He also discovers in the dark world of magic he is already something of a hero.

And so begins his first year at Hogwart's. Hogwart's is an education to the viewer not just in what wizardry school is like, but also in the English boarding school tradition that once was and some places continues to be. Students are put into competing "houses" that try to outdo each other in behavior and excellence.

As these things seem to go in stories, Harry's two best friends are people he meets on the train on the way to Hogwart's.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves (who also wrote last year's WONDER BOYS) adapted Rowling's book accurately and with pretty much the right feel. This is one film that shows magical sights on the screen but still lets the book drive the story instead of letting the special effects do it.

There are lots of ideas, some expanded, and many only hinted at, some that children will understand and others they will grow into. The wide screen holds a magnifying glass to the book, showing flaws as well as wonders.

For example, Harry has only just arrived at the school and he is given a position on his house's sports team. It would be severely understating matters to say his position is the most important on the team. The rules are contrived by Rowling to make Harry a hero and the other players almost superfluous.

It is as if the rules of basketball were altered so that there was also a side game of thumb-wrestling for a hundred bonus points. Toward the end of the film there is another such contrivance with a different competition.

Of course, Harry and his friends being heroes is much of the point. Rowling and actor Daniel Radcliffe conspire to give Harry very little real personality so that any reader or viewer can easily project himself or herself into the space.

Hence the viewer becomes the hero. Where Harry does have personality, it is much more that of an adult than a child. Harry is always polite to his elders and absolutely fair and loyal to his friends in just exactly the way that most children his age are not.

While the style of the book is flawless, and impressively well translated to the screen, the storyline is a little haggard. As mentioned, events are contrived to make Harry the hero. As he tries to solve the school's mystery, clues seem to just drop into his lap.

As a running gag, many clues are simply told to him by the hugely indiscreet gamekeeper Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane looking like The Ghost of Christmas Past). Meanwhile Harry and friends have to hold off an extremely nasty student who takes an early dislike to Harry. Most of these plot elements are cliche.

Visually the film is just about all you could hope for. There are only a few obvious fluffs. We have some gnomes with long spindly fingers, but when they grasp objects in their fingers they always use the next-to-last joint on the fingers. There are some places where the CGI effects are little obvious. A boy falling from a building looks like a computer image.

There is a "Christmas Carol" feel to the look of the hidden magic shops. This is mostly a matter of interpretation by production designer Stuart Craig, but it fits the book. Hogwart's is fantabulous as the anti-sinister boarding school with its huge vaulted ceilings, its drifting staircases, and its fog-shrouded forest.

And flying in everywhere are not the hackneyed bats, but owls who lend the place atmosphere and double as the wizardry world's messenger service.

Many of the support roles went to well-established actors. Of these definitely the most fun are Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. Rickman does not have a whole lot of breadth in the roles he takes, but he plays his one petulant personality to the hilt. Ian Hart from LIAM has a small role as a stuttering don. Surprisingly high billing for surprisingly little work goes to John Cleese. John Hurt has a small throwaway role.

People tend to ask me if films I review will be appropriate for their children. I must report that toward the end when the magic gets fast, furious, and a little sinister the four-year-old near me was frightened to tears.

She was also a bit frightened of Fluffy, a near relation to Cerberus. Some of even the older children were squirming at the some point in the two and a half hours.

But I suspect most of the audience will be back next year for HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (which begins shooting November 19, rushed so as not to let Daniel Radcliffe get too old for the role).

I'll give this one an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2001 Mark R. Leeper

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