Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Cover Story (NST)
Hats off, Harry!
By Sharon Nelson
THIS goes out to all Potter fans who refuse to watch the film on principle: Don't be so blitheringly mule-headed.
Yes, Hollywood is particularly adept at turning gold to flaking-off gilt, and yes, the hammy Home Alone are no great testament to director Chris Columbus' ability. But since you believe in magic, believe that some of it was at work here. If previous Hollywood releases are anything to go by, the bigger the hype, the bigger the let-down. Not so with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which is a beautifully-rendered piece of work, as fine as if it were outlined by a feathery quill and filled in with all the colours of enchantment. In short, as you would have no doubt heard or read by now, it stays remarkably close to the book, no mean feat since J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Bloomsbury, 1997) simply fizzes with witchery. Rowling, a struggling single mother at the time, shot to fame and wealth with this first of an anticipated seven Harry Potter books. The arrival of Harry changed children's reading habits worldwide -- he has been translated into every conceivable language, including Persian. In the initial euphoria, CNN reported in its health segment that kids the world over were turning away from computer and television screens to read about the boy wizard.
The story goes like this: Harry is an orphan who lives with his mean, repulsive relatives, the Dursleys. The Dursleys relegate him to a cupboard under the stairs and the misery of his life is untold. Until, that is, his 11th birthday, when Harry finds out that he is, in fact, a powerful wizard and a household name in the wild world of magic. He gets accepted into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and, like all interesting people, quickly makes good friends and deadly enemies. Soon, he finds himself the main player in an Arthurian quest -- to recover the Sorcerer's Stone and more importantly, to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands. Rowling's writing is replete with visual drama and wonderful quirks, all spectacularly captured in the 2 1/2-hour-long film. From chocolate frogs and feasts that magically appear, to the power of unicorn blood and the danger of flying high, you get the sneaky feeling that someone stole into your imagination and took what was there. The casting, essential in a story where each character is described to a T, is as precise as a pinprick. Daniel Radcliffe, the boy who plays the title role, was decided upon after eight months of casting calls during which tens of thousands of Harry-hopefuls were weeded out. Though the search for his two best friends - the large-nosed redhead Ron Weasley and bushy-haired know-it-all Hermione Granger - was by no means as exacting, there is definitely a welcome onscreen chemistry between Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. The rest of the cast, stunningly talented and no doubt dramatically expensive, deliver the sterling performances expected of them. Richard Harris plays wise and kindly Albus Dumbledore, Maggie Smith the no-nonsense Professor McGonagall and Robbie Coltrane, the gentle giant Hagrid. Particularly outstanding is John Hurt's dry, sibilant Mr Ollivander, the person who sells Harry his wand. Columbus shows a sharp eye for what translates well into film. One of the main strengths of the film is that it does not try to be the book. As good book-to-film-makers (think Merchant Ivory, Lasse Hallstrom) know, pregnant moments in writing often come across as damp squibs of emotion on film. Take, for example, the scene in Mr Ollivander's shop. In the book, Harry needs only hold a wand for Ollivander to fathom its unsuitability. On the screen however, the scene is modified to be slightly more energetic. Harry's wand-waving goes awry and the sense of chaos is only heightened by Hurt's raised eyebrows and an understated "I don't think so". Another sign of a thoughtful production is Alan Rickman's Professor Severus Snape. In the first book, Snape is Harry's sworn enemy, cast in the mould of the teacher-bully who picks on people because he can. But readers learn in later books that Snape is not all he is cut out to be. Without the luxury of hundreds of pages, Rickman's sardonic, proud and threatening Snape conveys all the complexity of a character who is by turn cruel, misunderstood and a bitterly-reluctant good guy.
Rowling's heavy involvement in the film configuration of her beloved novel (she only liaised with one person in the whole of Warner Bros whose job description was the Harry Potter Gatekeeper) paid off tremendously.
Given the care that went into the making of the film, one cannot help but wonder why the promotion locally was so - come on, let's say it -- soggy.
Earlier this year, insiders in Warner Bros Malaysia promised a bewitching lead-up to the release which included, a ride in a train dressed up to look like the Hogwarts Express, a Harry Potter buffet and a costume party. None of this happened and the reason this is worth the grumble is not because journalists missed out on a palmful of freebies. No, promoting Harry Potter matters because it would have been the ideal tool for drawing children into the magic world of the written word, ESPECIALLY in a country which is not known for its devotion to books. As it was, there were grave errors on the invitation - "veune" for "venue", for one - a dismal representation of a writer who nearly won the Whitbread.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is by no means a perfect film. In remaining so loyal to the visuals and the text, the filmmakers seem to have neglected the emotional muscle which gave the book its luminosity. The reason that millions of children, from Iran to China, let Harry into their hearts is that he is really, astoundingly ordinary. His is a flame of grief that never gets put out no matter how many friends he has, or how much better his life gets; and if you think that children don't understand these things, then you're seriously kidding yourself. Radcliffe's expressions however, range only between impassive and in bright moments, a sweet, sweet smile. The Harry that we all fell in love with gets angry, breaks rules and is too curious for his own good. Most of all, he is no stranger to the searing pain that lives within all of us, the loneliness and yearning which is burnt into our very beings.
The film-makers chose to work around that, rather than with it. In doing so, they missed out a large chunk of what makes the book enduring.
Still, the film is full of spellbinding moments loving depicted - in a word, magic.
* The writer can be contacted at

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