Feature: The Magic Begins
The magic started in 2001 with the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorcerer’s Stone for our American friends), but before the movie was even released an amazing vibe had gathered. With Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Griffiths and Julie Walters all signed on to the film, it looked like producer David Heyman had accumulated the Best of British on screen.
Behind the lens was US Director Chris Columbus, who was riding high on the success of child friendly films like Home Alone. His choice was a safe one and it was this that proved to have the greatest effect on the first two movies: they were both undeniably safe. Columbus showed a reverence to the original texts that has been missing from the later movies. It is fair to say that the highly condensed formats of the first two books meant that it was not difficult for him to do this, only having to cut superfluous detail like The Midnight Duel and The Deathday Party. All the same, his determination to convert the books in to light hearted family adventures (aka Box Office Gold) was extremely successful (financially, if not artistically.)
Heyman was also responsible for bringing on board the trio of actors who would portray the lead characters throughout the series. Whilst a lot has been made of their individual acting talents, what he has managed to do is produce three actors with stable enough personalities to last the franchise ten years and eight movies: a somewhat remarkable feat in three actors who had to spend their puberty dressed as wizards.
However- for everything they did right, they did a lot wrong. Stuart Craig’s production design was magnificent (the foundation for the entire series and a revolution in itself), however Columbus was determined not to digitally alter the surrounding and this has left the film curiously lacking in atmosphere. It is rare to criticise for a determination to avoid special effects, but in the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, there is an element of visual predictability that was not banished until the arrival of Alfonso Cuaron. In addition to this the acting from the kids is a long way short of perfect (then again they were only 11 at the time) and the script from Steve Kloves leaves a lot to be desired (indeed it’s remarkable that, on the basis of this first effort, he is still on script writing duties as of Deathly Hallows.)
Still if you’ve got the biggest selling children’s fantasy series of all time and you’re looking for a jump off point for your franchise, this isn’t a bad place to start. Certainly the fact that it ranks in the top 10 highest grossing films of all time and has spawned (unlike so many of its fantasy siblings) seven sequels in the space of ten years, means that it is the yardstick against which all other children’s adaptations will be measured.