Friday, December 10, 2010

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Before I begin on my review of this first part of the series, I want to talk a little bit about the series as a whole and why I find it appealing. I was attracted to the stories originally because of the fantasy elements.. basically everything but the people in pointy hats waving wands appealed to me. In Sorcerer's Stone by itself, we get to see trolls, unicorns, dragons, ghosts, goblins, and centaurs beyond the magic users. While some of them don't always make the most sense based on established mythology(goblins are clever? that's a new one) I think J.K. Rowling takes those creatures and weaves them into the story very well. Her characters are also extremely vivid and strong individuals. None of them feel like carbon copies of the other - a certain set of twins excluded of course. You will love some characters and hate others depending on your own similarities and tastes. Beyond that, she's a master at setting up mysteries, both in each single book and over the length of the series as a whole. It's always important to me that stories with mystery or twists hold up on repeated readings/viewings, and you have to poke pretty hard to find them here. If you've been writing off this series for whatever reason (like, say, you used to work in a bookstore and had to work the day one of the books came out) and any of those elements appeal to you, I'd really recommend giving it another try.

Beyond a few minor changes, the book and film of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are nearly identical. It's a fairly short book and a fairly long movie, which equates to them being able to fit in nearly all the major points in the film adaptation. There are a few changes, but I'll get to them later. This story is nearly all introduction - here's this boy named Harry Potter, here's why he's special, here's the wizarding world he's now a part of, this is what going to wizard's school is like. It's all framed by this object the Sorcerer's Stone, and how Dumbledore, head professor at the school, is trying to prevent it from being stolen and used by the wrong person. This stone is actually the philosopher's stone a legendary alchemical object that has been used by various forms of fiction for a while now. Here, it grants unlimited wealth and eternal life.

This large amount of exposition is really normal for a book, so it doesn't feel the least bit strained and as this is a young adult novel, it's a very easy read. The only chapter I have a hard time with is the Quidditch chapter, because I simply don't care about any sport, imaginary or real. Everything else is told in an imaginative enough fashion to keep you entertained. The movie by comparison can seem to drag a bit. I think a child would be more easily caught up in it as seeing all these things come to life would capture their imagination, but it's possible an adult may start thinking "get on with it!" Of course if you're an adult who enjoys faithful adaptations, you probably won't mind it as much. I also realized while watching the movie again that at the time this movie was made, extra long movies were a bit of a trend. Sitting down to watch a two and a half hour movie (or sometimes even three hours) was pretty normal at that point. Yes folks, 2001 is now far enough in the past that we can recognize it as a past era and not now. It also means that if you sit down to watch this now for the first time, you're going to realize that the CGI is really awful.

When I first got into this series I was reading a forum discussion that I thought was safe, but ended up spoiling a major plot point for one of the books I hadn't gotten to yet. Given the many details and how attached you can get to these characters, I'm going to give a spoiler warning as early as possible, even for as simple a book as this one, to not ruin it for anybody. So, from here on there are spoilers.

A large portion of the changes from the book to screen are simply related to time constraints. A lot of the moments with the Dursleys get cut or smooshed together, but for the most part it works. They kept in Aunt Petunia's speech about Harry's parents, which is just so vile and cruel that I always want to strangle her when I hear it. The Dursleys take over the role of the wicked stepmother from fairy tales, but when set in modern times as this story is, they come off particularly horrifying.

Draco's role is shrunk down a bit, but Tom Felton really manages to embody the nasty little slimeball that Draco is that you still hate him appropriately. Looking back on the series as a whole, I was surprised to see Draco attempt to extend a hand of friendship to Harry. Of course even Voldemort attempts to recruit Harry, so I guess no one was assuming that he was going to end up on the side of the righteous just yet.

The changes result in Hermione becoming even more of a know it all than she already was. I remember when I first started this series, I really didn't like her. I think this was intentional, but I've also heard that Rowling considers herself to be most like Hermione, so it's an interesting choice to make your self insert so annoying from the beginning. Also, since they throw out the potions room at the end, I think her figuring out who Flamel is on her own works out ok. The only part I don't really get is Hermione showing Harry and Ron the trophy. I understand why they did it to move things along, I just can't see Hermione's studies going so far as to memorize every single trophy in the trophy room.

Speaking of their search for Flamel, the wizarding world's complete ignorance of technology is kind of ridiculous to me. They've been recruiting from the muggle world for long enough that there's no reason to not adapt and learn their technology. Most libraries had computer databases by 1997.

The change that really drove me nuts was the Devil's Snare trap. They had already shown Hermione doing her fire spell, so she could easily do it again, they could keep the same rhyme from the book and not have to completely make up a new spell. The leaving out of the potions challenge is also problematic. Hagrid tells the kids that Snape was helping to protect the stone, yet none of those traps/puzzles are particularly characteristic of something Snape would do.

Snape in general is a bit of a divided issue for me. In the books, Snape is a viciously cruel character. He repeatedly shocks you with his biased, unprofessional ways in which he attempts to make Harry's life miserable. He's still a jerk in the movies, but he's also Alan Rickman. With that hair, he's like an older Trent Reznor if he had kept his hair long, not lost his neck, and had an even sexier voice. I think he almost can't help but be at least a little charming, and in my opinion, the Snape of the books is anything but.

Quirrell, as a character, is a little too much the stereotypical villain, and I'll admit that making the wimpiest character actually be the guilty one is slightly expected. However, I think it's executed extremely well, with plenty of red herrings leading you toward Snape and yet just enough clues to prove that it was Quirrell all along.

Since this is my first time going through the whole series again all the way through, I spent a lot of time looking for early clues and any possible inconsistencies this early on.

Set up for future books:
1. I was surprised to see that Sirius, Aunt Marge, and Bathelda Bagshot are all mentioned here. I suppose it's possible she didn't know exactly how she was going to use them in future books, but it's pretty neat if she did know.
2. Hagrid tells Harry he's not allowed to cast spells, meaning she definitely knew how she was going to include him in Chamber of Secrets.

Possible inconsistencies:
1. The only one I could find was the mention that Harry's parents were once head boy and head girl. I can believe this with his mother, but since we find out later how much of a rebellious youth his dad was (and in one case, incredibly cruel) I find it hard to believe he got to be head boy any more than Fred or George would have ever been picked for such an honor.

Characters introduced in this book that I love:
1. Fred and George - As comic relief, I suppose it's natural to love them, but I really really do and even this early on they're given their time to shine. About the only complaint I could have about them is that there really is no way to tell them apart (barring the mean mean things she does to them in Deathly Hallows anyway.)

2. Neville - Is there any character who tugs at your heart strings as strongly as Neville? He starts out so timid and shy here and you can't help but be so proud of him when he gets to be partly responsible for helping win the house cup. Of all the characters I think he's definitely one of the ones who grows and matures the most, and I've definitely been cheering for him from the very first moment.

Chamber of Secrets currently ranks pretty low for me in the series. I'm looking forward to seeing if the revisit will change my mind.


  1. +JMJ+

    I just rewatched the movie with my little brothers. Oh, man, I know what you mean about the bad CGI! =S

    I had known that Rowling's favourite character was Hermione, but not that Hermione was also based on herself. Very interesting--especially since Hermione does come off as very annoying at the beginning! It reminds me of Jane Austen musing that nobody but herself would like Emma Woodhouse that much, and my own suspicion that of all her heroines, Emma resembled her the most.

    I like Neville a lot, too--more this time around. As I wrote in my "Reading Diary" entry for this book, I really wish he had become part of Harry's close circle at the end of Book 1, but as you hint that his role will grow further in the series, I will be content to wait and see. =)

    PS--Chamber of Secrets is possibly my least favourite in the series. =S I finished rereading it recently and couldn't think of anything to say about it! I'm looking forward to your own post about it.

  2. That's interesting about Jane Austen and Emma.. I've written characters with the knowledge that I was making them annoying on purpose to get a response from the reader, but the idea of thinking "I love this character even though no one else will" is a different matter. This also made me realize I've yet to actually read a Jane Austen novel and I really need to correct that.

    Chamber of Secrets has never been a favorite of mine either, though I'm enjoying it a bit more on the re-read. I'm sort of dreading watching the movie version though, which in my memory is fairly boring.


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