Harry Potter


"The Education of Harry Potter"

Reviewed by Mike Hertenstein

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)
Directed by Chris Columbus; starring Daniel Radcliffe, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman; screenplay by Steve Klowes based on the novel by J. K. Rowling

The tumultuous education of junior wizards and sorcerers' apprentices has long been the subject of "coming of age" stories; adolescence is when we discover we're not the helpless creatures we've always known ourselves to be, but rather beings of tremendous power and potential - the primary struggle becomes suddenly whether we will use our power for good or for evil.

British novelist J. K. Rowling has given this perennial theme definitive treatment for this generation in her ongoing Harry Potter series, with four of a projected seven volumes in print, one for each of Harry's years at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. The books have sparked a mass culture mania not seen since the last noisy British invasion, and not least among the byproducts of the mania is the fact that kids worldwide are READING like little maniacs.

Luckily, the first of the Harry Potter films arrives three numbers behind the printed volumes, so - despite the warnings of one group of naysayers (and they are many) - the movie will no doubt spike sales of the novels and encourage even more maniacal reading.

After viewing the film a week in advance of its North American release, I came home to find the neighborhood camped on my lawn (figuratively speaking) waiting for my office to (figuratively speaking) issue a statement. The thing my rightly concerned neighbors and fellow Potter fans wanted from me immediately was an answer to this question: "They didn't WRECK it, did they?" And so I begin with the joyous report that, No, they most certainly did NOT wreck it. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone gives us nearly everything we loved about the book in cinematic form, with terrific young and veteran actors, stunningly imaginative sets, great special effects, and a marvelous score by that master of consistency, John Williams.

The next breathless question from the gallery was, inevitably, "Did they change anything?"

People mean a couple things by that question, the first being "Do the movie images match those I saw in my head as I read the books?" Of course, everybody's head is different, although mythic imagery tends toward universal types seemingly stamped into our very being. The most important factor is whether the director is attuned to those types: and yes, as far as I was concerned, director Chris Columbus got things about 99% right. The main trio of child actors was dead-on: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emily Watson are perfect as Harry, Ron Weasley, and Hermione. (Though the kid who played school bully Draco Malfoy is not quite what I pictured.) Richard Harris is flawless as Albus Dumbledore, the Gandalf-like headmaster of Hogwarts. Maggie Smith as Mrs. McGonagall seemed a tad uncomfortable in her witches's hat. And Alan Rickman, of course, WAS Professor Severus Snape even BEFORE he was cast in the film (which made me think it was an unfortunate false note to dye his hair so artificially black).

No complaints here about the depiction of the locations: Diagon Alley, the magical shopping district invisible to the eyes of non-magical people (Muggles) was perfect, and Hogwarts was even better than I'd imagined. Indeed, the Wizards' school location afforded opportunity for one breathtaking magical vista after another: the improbably-towered castle looming up above the lake, the dining hall with the transparent roof, lighted by millions of floating candles or jack-o- lanterns on Halloween.

To TV critic Neil Postman's famous complaint about image-based media, "You can't do philosophy with smoke signals," my response has always been "No, and you can't do sculpture on the radio, either." And let me tell you, you can't even begin appreciate Quiddich until you see it on the big screen. Outlandish action sequences such as the wizards' favorite broom-flying sport prove that the moving frames of image-media can be worth a thousand words. I wish this sequence could have gone on longer. It reminded me of those goofy games that made such splendid climaxes to the original Flubber films, but, alas, here Quiddich is abbreviated and stuck in the middle.

Which leads me to the second part of my answer to the question, "Did they change anything?", to which I reply, "Yes, but as far as I'm concerned, THEY DIDN'T CHANGE ENOUGH!" Don't get me wrong. I'm not sneaking in a snide comment about my views on either the writing quality in the Potter novels or the alleged nefarious occult content of the stories. As it happens, I'm generally pleased with the quality of the writing and I think the occult-cops have bigger problems than not knowing the difference between a film and a book, among them not knowing the difference between fact and fiction.

No, the reason I wished director Chris Columbus had been a little less faithful to the novel on which the film was based was the reason we've been talking about: movies are different than books. They're structured differently, and we perceive them differently. Books work from the inside out, creating the illusion of external reality. Films do the opposite, going from the outside in to create the illusion of an inner life. Thus, while the novels give us access to Harry's thoughts all along the way, a film has to stop and let him either speak his mind, or give us a clue to what he's thinking or feeling by letting him react, or better still, make choices: especially moral choices.

The first act of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is so busy paying obligations to "must-do" scenes and characters - not that I'm complaining, for I don't have any suggestions as to what might have been cut - that we don't get any real down time with Harry to find out what he's like until forty minutes or so into the movie. Wonder and awe take a little time, and poor Harry doesn't get much of a chance to linger in either before he's whisked to the next attraction.

Snape is even moreso a casualty of the breakneck pace: in the book, the Professor's character unfolds with great subtlety and shadow, but there's no time for such luxuries in a film with so many obligatory moments. The sad irony is that even though we finally get to see Snape embodied at last, Alan Rickman doesn't have the leisure to be Snape, at least in this first film, in the way we know he was born to.

Things settle into a better rhythm once Harry gets to Hogwarts and is allowed to interact with the other kids there. Considering the load of expectations, I think Mr. Columbus did a Herculean job in creating a fine film that never had a chance of being judged properly according to ordinary cinematic standards.

The "problem" of course is the prolific imagination of Ms. Rowling, who seems to have no end to imaginative invention - which is why the Potter books will always have something more and different to offer than the films, and why kids will keep on reading them.

The trick for these Harry Potter films (the second began shooting the same week the first opened) will be to allow directors to indulge in the things live actors and visual realizations can add to the magic, without causing viewers to think they're being cheated of detail from the book. This will take tremendous discipline from the directors and studio bean-counters, as well as an audience that understands the act of translation is a matter of give and take, and too literal a touch can, in fact, work to kill the magic.

Of course, the larger part of the customers for the Potter films might not be sophisticated enough to understand this aesthetic reality.

That last observation which brings us to the third question I was asked after seeing the film, "Can I take my little kids?" Parents will want to know there's a little blood, some spooky imagery, and a baddie who meets an effects-laden doom, so they might want to consider keeping kids younger than eight or so home - if they can.

The only real concern I've ever had about the Harry Potter books in general has been that the characters occasionally stoop to the level of Home Alone in a certain sadistic pleasure in wreaking vengeance on characters who, admittedly, deserve it. Fairy tale justice is always harsh, but somehow it makes me cringe in a contemporary realistic setting, and I've wished Harry and friends displayed a little more Christian charity, even toward obvious dopes and cads like Dudley Dursley and Draco Malfoy. My concerns in this area only increased when I learned the director of Home Alone was helming the Harry Potter film. The good news is that Chris Columbus seems to have been cured of his taste for Macaulay Culkin-type kids, perhaps by the experience of working with Macaulay Culkin. The kids in Harry Potter, while retaining a normal impish edge, never stoop to the Home Alone level in their treatment even of enemies.

Critics make much of Harry's rule-breaking. And while I, too, am uncomfortable with the easy resort by Potter kids to fibbing as a means of covering their various shenanigans, I recognize that most of their behavior fits into that tradition of schoolboy rule-breaking of which Huck Finn is the prime exemplar. I also understand that within the grammar of myth, especially myth involving young people, the adventure lies outside the established order, and you may have to break some rules to get there. Finally, much of Harry's rule-breaking, it should be noted, involves the principle of disobeying a lower law to keep a higher one - not to say he's Rosa Parks, but who could criticize Harry's violation of the no-fly rule to broom his way over a bully and stand up for his friends?

For those with ears to hear, any lingering doubts about the solid moral structure of the Harry Potter cosmos are swept away by the speeches at the climax of this first film. The series' Darth Vader figure - Lord Voldemort - is so evil that most of the other characters won't even speak his name, referring to him as You Know Who. In his final (at least in this film) showdown with Harry, You Know Who delivers a load of You Know What: "There is no good or evil, there is only power." This postulate may be fundamental at most schools these days, but at Hogwarts such a view still marks the one who holds it as unredeemable and deserving of the most irrevocable punishment. This is according to an even more fundamental ethic, that of fairyland: which, studio bean-counters and would-be directors take note, is the single most critical element one must be faithful to in adapting a fairy story.

Of course, we all know we haven't seen the last of Harry's nemesis, who is - as in the case of Luke Skywalker - linked in disturbing ways to our hero. For we understand that Harry's education at Hogwarts involves, like Luke's under Yoda and Obi Wan, facing a dark side that is within himself: this is the main battle in the journey of all heros, aka "growing up".

It is a momentous change, becoming an adult. Yet in our contemporary culture, adolescence is a passage unmarked by rite. For most of human history, in most cultures, the one-way gate from child to adult was guarded by ceremony - a series of tests, climaxing in ritual death and rebirth to a new mode of being. Mircea Eliade, a more reliable guide to myth than the more popular Joseph Campbell, has spoken of the central role of initiatory rituals in primitive cultures, and the ways initiations are camouflaged in a society still more "primitive" than we like to think. Imaginative rites of passage, says Eliade, feed a deep, unchanging human need. Thus, for many of our current generation, Harry Potter's initiation at Hogwarts will be their own.

But it's not just adolescents who need a symbolic arena within which to test moral dilemmas and work out their unconscious longings and fears. All of life, says Eliade, is a series of initiations. (And, most interestingly, classic Hollywood film form is so close a match to the initiatory ritual pattern that one screenwriting book actually uses Campbell's "Journey of the Hero" as a template for structuring films.)

Thus, the cinema, along with all of the symbolic arts, represents a waking alternative for human beings' primary figurative testing ground, dreams. In a dream, the ordinary rules of causality are suspended: human beings fly, change identities, appear and disappear - all the things we feel a need to rationalize when they appear outside of dreams by employing the one metaphor that seems to come the closest to naming the experience: "magic." (True, some fairy stories maintain fiction's necessary "suspension of disbelief" by the more literal devices of technology; science fiction is powered by magic under another name.)

Whatever name we use, this violation of the ordinary rules of causality is critical for both myth and dreams. And since myth is generally deemed to be as critical for human existence as dreaming, we must conclude that a need to experience that which we inevitably name as "magic" is hardwired into our very nature.

The origin of this kind of magic - for those truly interested in the origins of things - is not in the occult, but in the symbol-mongering human spirit. The experience in question involves the use of power, and the moral value of power has always been neutral: the moral valuation is a measure of whether the power has been wielded for good or for evil. Thus, there have always been good and evil wizards in fiction. And while the witch once was primarily associated with evil, the last century has seen in some instances that symbol evolve (as symbols do) into a synonym for fairy. (It is instructive to recall that once upon a time, it was the fairies who were regarded as the fearsome and malignant beings within popular cosmology.)

All that is to say that Harry Potter is to the "real occult" what Fred Flinstone is to real anthropology - and what the Lucky Charms leprechaun is to the ancient Celtic god Lugh. If the Potter critics were consistent, they'd give us charts connecting sugary stars and moons to ancient Babylonian symbology. But critics fix on just such surface phenomena - in the case of Harry Potter, terms like "divination" - without a clue as to what's going on below the surface. What is going on below the surface of the Harry Potter stories - to use Tolkien's phrase - "is at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician." Meanwhile, the laborious and scientific efforts to divine the secret evil origins and meanings of a fairy story like that of Harry Potter is (along with End Times "prophecy") the closest contemporary equivalent of "divination" I'm aware of.

Jeremiah Films in particular is making a heroic effort to perpetuate The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in their Pythonesque connection of Harry Potter's thunderbolt scar to the Nazi SS. What makes such efforts less laughable than genuinely scary is the real connection they make with the tradition of Medieval witch-hunting, an even more scandelous tradition of religious ignorance - one accompanied by violence.

But such is the world we live in - as if kids didn't know that already these days. We can play Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful only so far, trying frantically to keep our kids from learning about a darkness on all sides which we ultimately can't protect them from. A smarter strategy involves introducing kids to the reality and power of "the Dark Arts" within the safety of symbolic arenas like books and films: there really IS a Boogey Man, but rather than explain in grown-up detail just how un- beautiful life can be, it makes more sense to present imaginative stand-ins like Tolkien's Saruman or Rowling's "You Know Who" along with positive models like Harry Potter to show us how even kids can stand against the darkness.

Four books into a projected seven-book series, Harry has had his ups and downs learning to deal with his own emerging powers and an outside world that gets scarier all the time. Yet he's not doing too bad, considering. And while you gotta believe he's gonna turn out okay in the end, chances are there will be some difficult, even agonizing, moments between now and Harry's graduation from Hogwarts. One can easily imagine what a happy ending that will be - yet bittersweet, too, like all graduations, in knowing that this part of the hero's journey is finally over.

Meanwhile, some of us will (figuratively speaking) thank our lucky stars that the movie version of that story is a few years behind the books, and as long as sales for either don't fall off (and only a very bad wizard would predict that) the education of Harry Potter will be a part of our lives - and our own ongoing education - for the foreseeable future.

Thanks to Cornerstone Communications