December 2002

Liz Miller

hollywood madam

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

When I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by the obscenely rich J.K. Rowling, I thought it would make a great movie.

It was a long time ago.

Curled under the covers, my eyes wildly skimming through the pages, I stayed up all night following the adventures of Harry Potter, Boy Wizard. The story was rich and full of detail. Lines of dialogue made me laugh out loud. Delicate character moments such as Harry looking into the enchanted mirror and seeing the parents he'd never known were deeply stirring to me. Quidditch and the climatic battle practically demanded the big screen treatment. And I truly believed that the treacherous Snape was the villain - until the third act twist proved what an idiot I was.

It was just so... God help me... CUTE.

I'd purchased the book that summer on a whim, post-buzz and pre-phenomenon, and it was a revelation, a joy, a surprise. A few weeks later, I was in England, where the second and third books were in paperback. I devoured them like a starving man would a steak, and then when I found myself back in the States, it didn't take too long for me to pick up the doorstop that is the fourth book.

Goblet of Fire was a five-course feast, delicious but a bit too rich, full of plot points not digested immediately. In fact, all of the books are deceptively complicated, full of planted details that you'd never expect to pay off. Who could have guessed, for example, the complicated role that Ron's pet rat would eventually play? Or the rich backstory that explained why nervous Neville was so nervous? (Just nod along if you don't know -- or remember -- any of this.)

It was a good summer, the summer of 2000, full of magic and likable characters and Joseph Campbell gone very dark and British. But what I realized this month as I sat through the interminable Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second in the planned Harry Potter film series, is that it was also a lifetime ago.

I'll be pretty frank about the fact that I think Harry Potter as an adaptation does a lot of things wrong. Both the first and second films are so devoted to keeping the fans happy that they ellipse all the important character moments that we need to see. Of COURSE Harry, Ron and Hermione are friends. Of COURSE Harry and the rather, um, preening Draco Malfoy don't get along. So why bother explaining it again in the film, especially when there are so many special effects yet to be showcased?

What character moments are captured are made awkward and hamfisted by Chris Columbus's falling-anvil direction. If you know of a film directed by Chris Columbus with any semblance of subtlety, please let me know. Meanwhile, I'll be bemoaning a film series in love with its own CGI, to the point of devoting precious screen time to overly extended Quidditch matches and Big Giant Spider pursuits.

Because, yes, screen time is precious when the source material is so complicated. I love the energy of Quidditch, and think that the basketball-on-broomsticks matches are some of the best adapted parts of both movies - yet I would have cheerfully sacrificed them on the altar of character development. It had been a long, long time since I had read the Harry Potter books when I saw Chamber of Secrets, and here's the thing - I had forgotten why I even LIKE Harry. He spends the first scenes of the movie being surly and sulking towards his adoptive family, the only people who dare speak against him are very clearly Bad, he breaks hundred of laws and rules throughout the course of the film and is barely punished. Chris Suellentrop from Slate was right - he really does have everything.

Perhaps the most interesting moment of Chamber of Secrets is also the moment that deviates the most from the book - with a great deal of success. During a wizard's duel, Harry tries to keep a snake from attacking a fellow classmate in Parceltongue (snake language), a gift he wasn't even aware that he had. In the book, the incident is played out from Harry's perspective, and we share his alarm and confusion when his friends inform him that not only was he not speaking English, but it sounded like he was egging the snake on. In the film, however, we see Harry speaking a rasping, threatening gibberish, his eyes intense as he moves towards the snake. In both book and film, it's a moment that leads his class to suspect that Harry is behind the story's great threat, and it plays more effectively in the film because it gives Harry mystery. It gives him the faintest shade of gray.

By the end of the film, of course, Harry's redonned his glowing white aura via an simplistic moralizing by his professor about how the choices we make are what define us. But if that's true, than Harry is Mother Teresa meets Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, out to save those in need, but unwilling to play by the rules. He's like Batman. Only boring.

However, the fault for that isn't necessarily on Chris Columbus. What I didn't realize during my first eager read of Sorcerer's Stone was the realization of exactly J.K. Rowling was doing with the character of Harry. What exactly was missing from the book.

Many people have compared Goblet of Fire to the dark, downbeat Empire Strikes Back, and the Star Wars comparisons don't stop there. Harry Potter is, elementally, George Lucas's beloved monomyth - a young hero-in-waiting, whisked away to a magical world by a mentor figure to develop his potential. But that's pretty much all Harry is. Steve Kloves, the screenwriter of the first and second films, mentioned in an interview how difficult it was to write Harry as a character, for "all he does is WATCH." And that's because in the books, Harry is our eyes upon the world of magic - he's a thinly veiled cypher, a depository for our own hopes and dreams. He acts heroically and always makes the right choices because we, huddled with our paperbacks, want to believe that that's what we would do. That's what we want to think.

As noble as that is, it really doesn't translate to film very well, protagonist. We are Harry in the books, but film is mostly a third-person medium, and the filmmakers seem to have decided that adding too much about him - giving him the character flaws and changes that would make him a more interesting, sympathetic character - could damage the precious illusions that we've constructed. What do we know about Harry? He loves Quidditch, and is good at it. He's an average student, an orphan who misses his parents and yearns for some sense of family. There isn't much more to it. Luke Skywalker, at least, was a bit whiny.

The Quidditch is amazing. The cast has done brilliant things with the material. So much has gone into making the world of magic come alive - and yet in some way, it's still hollow, facile. I thought that Harry Potter would make a great film, and so far I've been proven wrong. But the film that finally explores what makes Harry fly - that could really work.