Resident fairy tale scholar Jessica Campbell, like many of us in our 20s, grew up with Harry Potter. Here, she takes a look back from the epilogue to the origin and reminds us of how they mirror each other, as well as how Harry Potter mirrors her own life.
I’m contrary by nature. That’s why I didn’t start reading the Harry Potter books right away just because everyone else in junior high was reading them. My best friend burned through two or three over the course of a single spring break, as I recall, but as good as that sounded, I held off. I was probably dividing my time between Nancy Drew and The Grapes of Wrath anyway (ah, the in-between years).
But one force was even more powerful in me than defiance: the sacrosanct supremacy of book over movie. Therefore, when I learned that the release date of the movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was imminent, I decided I’d better get on the bandwagon and read the book before going to see the movie. So I checked it out from the Salem Public Library and read it sometime in October of 2001. I liked it. It wasn’t life-changing, I didn’t read it in a single afternoon, and I didn’t immediately rush out to read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. But I liked it, and I went to see the movie.
The movie, similarly, was not life-changing for me, but I liked it enough to decide I’d keep going with the series. It took another year and a half for me to get to the second book and second movie. But then I read the third book, and suddenly I was sucked in. Devoured #4, devoured #5, waited with bated breath for #6 and #7. Went to opening night, or at least opening weekend, showings of movies 4-7b. In short, eventually became a classic Harry Potter fan. And if you know (or are yourself) a classic Harry Potter fan, you’ll understand why this review of Movie #1 is going to have a lot to do with Movies #2-7b, with Books #1-7, and with my own life. They’ve been swirling together for the past ten years, and I couldn’t separate them if I wanted to.
The first time I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, at age 14, I was old enough to find that some of the movie was a little overdone. The diabolical characters are awfully diabolical. The social dilemmas are pretty straightforward (obviously, Draco Malfoy is the wrong sort). A lot of the tension comes from the kids trying to get away from the caretaker, Filch; good for a little suspense, but not that interesting. Harry’s Muggle relatives, the Dursleys, are so horrible you can’t imagine people like them actually existing — and theoretically they should be realistic, if they’re supposed to be the foil to the “freaks” in the wizarding world.
But therein lies the key. For Harry, the Dursleys are the freaks. The wizarding world is the one place where he finally, finally fits in. Today, the most compelling thing for me about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the poignancy in watching this small boy (really — Daniel Radcliffe was tiny then) discover that the world has a place for him after all. Sitting in his dormitory with the other boys, or looking around at fans cheering for him on the Quidditch pitch, he is visibly astonished at being accepted. Hogwarts Castle may be enormous and daunting (moving staircases and all), but it’s as welcoming as Number Four, Privet Drive was hostile.
This was something that didn’t really register for me the first time around. I was still busy being impressed by waving wands, magic spells, and professors in long robes. And so, I suppose, was the rest of the audience. We all have our favorites among the movie adaptations, but I will say that the series did a good job of maturing in ways appropriate to the development of the book series. The first installment is for the audience, as for Harry, an introduction to the magical world of Hogwarts. A world where a talking hat placed on your head determines where you’ll live for the next seven years. A world where ghosts pop up out of the plate of drumsticks for a chat. A world with unicorns and cauldrons and invisibility cloaks. A world where you can wave a magic wand and make a feather levitate (as long as you say “le-vi-OH-sa, not le-vi-oh-SA”). It’s a moviemaker’s dream, really, because these are things that translate nicely to film. The magic looks cool, the castle is impressive, the John Williams score sets a mysterious and earnest tone. Although most of what’s good in the movie was originally something good in the book, I laughed out loud this time around at some of the visual touches in Hagrid’s cottage, especially Ron sitting uncomfortably next to a very big, very drooly Fang, and Hermione perched in a chair about seven sizes too big for her.
But in my book, all those nice touches wouldn’t have added up to a worthwhile series, much less a global phenomenon, if it hadn’t been for what followed. J. K. Rowling seems to have had an innate sense of the way mythology works (as a fairy-tale scholar, I applaud her for a number of very apt plot and characterization choices), but she got better at writing as she churned out the hundreds of pages in the series. She also, with the patience of a nineteenth-century novelist, let her saga unfold slowly, so that we, as well as Harry, had time to get used to each newly revealed piece of the ultimately stunning puzzle she had envisioned. Ideological issues, politics, (im)mortality, destiny, time, complex family relationships — she covered a lot of ground in seven books.
Today, in comparison to all that, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might look a little thin. But for me, it’s just the opposite. It frequently makes me want to cry, not because of what’s going on at that moment, but because of what I know will come. What the scar really means. Who’s going to make it to the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, and who isn’t. What Snape’s protection of Harry is really for. What acts of sacrifice and bravery these tiny kids are going to find themselves capable of, and just how strong those friendships forged on the Hogwarts Express are going to become.
It’s personal too, of course. It always is. But Harry Potter is more personal than most for me, and the element of time has everything to do with that. I’m part of the true Harry Potter generation; I was often just about the same age as the characters when the books came out. So I could usually relate to their academic and social struggles. But the series really came close to home when my father died. It happened between the release of the fifth book and that of the third movie. I went to the third movie with my mom the first Father’s Day without him. When I stood over his hospital bed and watched the numbers and squiggly lines on the machine grind to a halt, one of my first thoughts was, “I could see a thestral now.” I don’t mean to sound melodramatic. I considered not including this information at all, because this article isn’t supposed to be about me, it’s supposed to be about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But I can’t give my take on that without explaining how large the Harry Potter series has loomed in my mind, never more than at a time when I had no idea what to make of the world around me or my place in it. Like any myth or fairy tale worth its salt, it had room for me to insert my own experience. All my friends still had both their parents, but Harry didn’t. And that meant more than I can even begin to express.
So that’s why the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in which Harry stumbles on the Mirror of Erised (a magical mirror that reflects the deepest desires of the heart and therefore shows Harry standing between his parents) is infinitely more powerful for me now than it was before. This is another moment where the movie can do something the book cannot: alternating between a point-of-view shot of Harry looking in the mirror at the family of three, reaching up to touch his mother’s hand on his shoulder, and a shot of Harry from the side, reaching up to touch only his sweater as he stands in the room alone. The scene is powerful on its own, but it’s more profound ten years later, accompanied by the memory of Harry’s pilgrimage to his parents’ graves in Godric’s Hollow and of the sight of his parents’ shadows at the “Priori Incantatem” scene in #4 and the Resurrection Stone scene in #7. Accompanied, as well, by the knowledge that Richard Harris, playing the sympathetic Dumbledore, would only live through the production of one more movie. I’ll take this opportunity to say that Richard Harris is and always will be my Dumbledore. I never warmed to Michael Gambon because he never seemed to have warmed to anything in his life. But Richard Harris was perfect, especially the quality of his voice — it sounded old and wise and kind, and you always listened, even though he hardly ever shouted. His is the voice I hear whenever I reread that wrenching fifty-page passage at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in which Dumbledore finally tells Harry about the prophecy that seems to have marked his destiny.
My personal experiences of the later book and movie releases grew generally happier. The release of the fourth movie happened quite soon after I entered college, so a few new friends and I — all relieved to have found fellow Harry Potter fans — bonded over waiting outside for the midnight showing in the freezing temperatures of Vermont. I saw the final movie with some of the same friends in Boston this summer. Incidentally, Middlebury College, where I spent four sleep-deprived but phenomenal years, is the birthplace of collegiate Quidditch (and World Cup champion five years running!). My friends and I referred jokingly (sort of) to our senior-year dormitory suite as Gryffindor Tower and decorated it accordingly.
So when I sit down today and watch very small versions of Harry, Ron, and Hermione tentatively smiling at each other and becoming friends, I’m thinking about all that those three will go through together, but also about the development of sure-to-be-lifelong friendships of my own, and all we’ve gone through together already. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson all did just fine in the first movie, with varying degrees of confidence, and luckily for everyone, they all turned out to be competent actors pretty nice to look at. It’s rather fitting for them to seem so green in the first installment; the characters are green, too.
The adult actors are fantastic, of course. We saw plenty of British actors filter in and out of the series in bit parts over the years, but Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Julie Walters were the rock of this world from the beginning. And again, it was great to watch them in the first movie merely on the strength of their performances, but it’s so much more satisfying to watch it again today with the remembrance of Snape revealing his true colors, McGonagall defying Umbridge, and Mrs. Weasley snarling, “Not my daughter, you bitch!”
After all, the series is precisely about loyalty, about growth, about watching people develop over time. We all remember the nasty debates about the Harry Potter series’ supposed satanic project; I know several people who avoided the books and movies and compelled their children to do the same, fearing that the influence was sure to be an evil one. A number of my Catholic friends experienced something of a crisis when Pope Benedict XVI officially registered his disapproval of the series (fun fact: ultimately, Harry Potter’s reputation didn’t suffer a bit in their minds, and the pope lost a lot of ground). But so what if they’re reciting spells and waving magic wands? It’s a story about a boy who wants a family. A boy who learns that love triumphs over everything else, even death. This, incidentally, is why I’ll defend the Epilogue of Book 7 to the day I die: it is vital that it’s dramatized for us that Harry gets a family of his own. We’ve known since the Mirror of Erised that this was the object of our hero’s quest.
On the whole, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is infinitely more satisfying now than it was ten years ago. The special effects don’t strike me as intolerably dated (while I’m not a visual effects connoisseur, I am a detail person), and because it’s a true fantasy, there aren’t any disorienting pop culture references to remind us that it’s been a decade since the script was put together (by the brave soul Steve Kloves, who took on adapting all the movies but #5). On its own, Sorcerer’s Stone would have been an entertaining fantasy story. But in light of the ten subsequent years of awaiting the book releases, watching the child actors grow up, and experiencing whatever it is we’ve all experienced in a decade’s time, it’s the best kind of story: a simple one with a great deal of gravitas behind it.