It’s been 14 years since the movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released. Does it hold up to scrutiny when you watch it as adult, or does it flounder? Was it good then, and is it good now?
And does the fridge horror involved in knowing most of its plot points all along ruin the movie?
Well… yes and no, to virtually every one of those questions. I actually first read the books as a young adult, not a child, as I started on them in college (some time between 1999 and 2003, in other words), so I never read them, or saw the movies, with the uncritical eyes of a child. Although I was in fact a fairly critical child.
I don’t remember when I watched the movies, but I have seen them all at least once, so this will be at least the second time through for me on all of them, third or fourth in some cases.
It’s been years. The actors playing Harry, Ron and Hermione literally grew up while they made these movies, and it’s strange to see Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as tiny little children again. They are awfully cute, but they’re wonderful actors as well, which struck me for the first time as I watched Harry have a very earnest conversation with a snake.
The actors, then, are part of the movie that still work, and beautifully so, for the most part.
Another thing that works, astonishingly well, is the movie’s score. Most people would probably recognize it on hearing it – John Williams wrote it, so of course it’s fantastic. It lost the Oscar for Best Original Score to some movie nobody’s heard of called “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Shame they had to go up against each other.
But then there are things that don’t work quite as well. Case in point:
Oh my god, Dumbledore, you can’t just leave a baby on a doorstep! That baby has a full head of luxuriant black hair, it’s well out of the “moves as much as a sack of flour” stage! What if it rolls over onto the sidewalk? What if it rolls into the street? Are there coyotes in England? Do we know?
Knowing how the story ends, and knowing information provided by the author also give us two more tidbits about Dumbledore we may not have initially known for this scene:
- Dumbledore is gay. That doesn’t really have any bearing on anything at this point, and I can’t remember if it ever does, in the movies.
- Dumbledore is planning to essentially sacrifice Harry to get rid of Voldemort. I can’t remember if he had that plan all along or only for the last few books, but it kind of gives you a whole different perspective on the lovable old bearded school principal, doesn’t it? Who knows what evil lurks behind the beards of men? Well, we know, don’t we.
And then there’s the way the books are graduated in reading level, starting out by being written for young children and slowly moving into the older children/adult reading level. While it was a creative, fun idea, it translates into some tone problems in the movies.
For example, the Dursleys:
They’re not characters, they’re caricatures, at least early on in the books and in the movies too. This doesn’t work quite as well as the series starts to create more shades of gray in a more grownup landscape, and so if you’ve read to the end, on the rewatch they just seem… unlikely and silly. No one could be that bad in real life, could they? Well, maybe, but they’re also played for laughs. To me they don’t work.
And the other victims of tone in the book are the Slytherins. You can get away with totally evil characters when you’re writing for second-graders, but older age groups aren’t accepting of one-note, one-dimensional villains. You can only watch someone tie a victim to the train tracks so many times before you start to wonder why on earth they’re bothering.
Then there’s the fridge horror in the series. Fridge horror is when something that seems normal or innocuous becomes terrifying or awful after the fact, usually after you’ve thought about it a bit. There’s a more in-depth explanation on TV Tropes.
There’s a bit of fridge horror in knowing that after Hagrid puts a pig tail on Dudley with magic, Dudley has to have it surgically removed.
There’s a lot more fridge horror in this scene:
See all that beautiful, delicious food?
Yeah, slave labor created that. Hogwarts runs on slave labor.
Lest you think I’m somehow making this up, it’s completely true – house elves made the food, and house elves are basically slaves. Slaves keep Hogwarts running on a day-to-day basis.
And even more disturbingly (at least from a certain point of view) most of them are happy to be slaves. There’s a whole genre of literature out there now decried as horribly horribly racist, in which black people who were slaves in the American South were portrayed as being happy to be enslaved, and that parallel is enough to cause this scene to be nauseating even on a good day. Even though you don’t see any of the house elves doing the work.
And Harry and his friends don’t find out that house elves are doing that work until they’ve been at Hogwarts for four years.
I noticed a host of other small things on this rewatch, including, but not limited to the following:
- Harry is called The Boy Who Lived. He really ought to be called The Boy Who Lived and Got Credit For It Even Though His Mum Did All the Real Work.
- I was really hoping Neville would turn out to be the real savior from the prophecy. He had a more interesting character arc than Harry did. (Sorry, but he did.)
- Hermione is such a nerd, and she’s that wonderful rare thing, a female bossy nerd. But it’s always very clear that her bossiness is kindly meant – noting that people should get their robes on before the train gets to Hogwarts, or telling them they have dirt on their nose.
- The movie is super slow. I thought that the first time I saw it, and I still do think that.
It’s not that it’s setting up the universe, either, it’s just a lot of unnecessary fluff. We don’t need to see Harry ruminating as he stares out the window, for example. On the other hand, it does give us more of a chance to luxuriate in the music, so there’s that.
- Modern muggle-born students would have such a hard time going without the Internet that I think wizards must have some sort of equivalent.
- Madame Hooch has rad porcu-hair.
- I still suspect the Sorting Hat’s real algorithm is “put people in the House they want to be in.”
- I’m pretty sure all children caught wandering the halls at night are taken to the terrifying forest of terrifying terror “for a chore,” just to frighten them into not doing that again.
- Gryffindor winning the House Cup is still highway robbery.
Seriously, if the heroes of the story weren’t Gryffindors everyone would be so mad right now.