By Oliver Lyttelton
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone debuted in U.S. theaters on Nov. 16, 2001, launching a wildly successful, much beloved eight-movie franchise. And yet, in retrospect, the common wisdom holds that the series had nowhere to go but up from the Chris Columbus-directed screen adaptation of the first J.K. Rowling book. Sorcerer’s Stone has a lower Metacritic rating than any subsequent Potter film except the second — Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, also directed by Columbus — and regularly lands at or near the bottom of many critics’ ranked lists of the franchise.
Accordingly, Columbus’s efforts commonly get minimized. But while it’s hard to argue Sorcerer’s Stone is a great movie, let’s give credit where it’s due: Columbus planted seeds that would bear fruit in the series’ future, and for that he deserves gratitude that he’s too often denied.
Columbus wasn’t the first choice to direct Sorcerer’s Stone, in which the young orphan of the title learns he’s a wizard, travels to magic school Hogwarts, befriends classmates Hermione and Ron, and discovers an evil plot. Steven Spielberg flirted with the project before ultimately passing on it. Columbus landed the job with a track record of very popular family films: He wrote Gremlins and The Goonies, and directed the Home Alone films and Mrs. Doubtfire, among others.
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’: Watch the ‘Fluffy’ Scene:
Echoes of Columbus’s big hit movies reverberate in Sorcerer’s Stone, but unfortunately that’s not always for the best. The film’s worst moments come when it veers into the broad, shrill slapstick that Columbus deployed so well in Home Alone, for example, particularly in the opening scenes at the Dursleys’ house. It sometimes feels like Columbus isn’t quite giving his young audience enough credit — later, more complex films in the series would show that as a miscalculation.
Beyond that, the action sequences lack thrills (think about the dull wizard chess game late in the third act); the pace is sort of turgid; the script is faithful to the book to a fault, and thus leans too heavily on exposition; the effects can seem rubbery even when compared to other blockbusters of the time; and some of the performances are mannered and uneven, perhaps understandably given the young, inexperienced cast.
And yet there’s also so much that Columbus did right. Start with the casting: The first faces we see on screen are as good as it gets — Richard Harris as Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagal, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid — and from there we add Julie Walters, Richard Griffiths, John Hurt, and John Cleese all putting their considerable talents on display. These pros lend gravitas to the film, and to the series going forward; many of them would have much meatier material in future movies.
Meanwhile, Columbus oversaw the crucial casting of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, as well as the other young actors. If the top-line trio are a little stiff in the first movie, they all grew and grew as performers across the series, and have done impressive work since, whether it’s Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man, or Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Columbus’s instincts have been more than vindicated.
Columbus also did a beautiful job establishing the world of the stories on screen. Rowling had insisted that the books’ U.K. setting be maintained for the films, and though Columbus and screenwriter Steve Kloves are American, they capture the quintessential British eccentricity of Rowling’s work, with a sprinkle of wit, a sense of Arthurian magic, and an almost Dickensian feel to the characters. Columbus was particularly inspired by David Lean’s Dickens adaptations Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and it shows.
That the surroundings feel cohesive and well thought out speaks volumes for the incredibly detailed and gorgeously realized production design from Stuart Craig. The look of the film Columbus pursued with director of photography John Seale — a drab, muted reality before the colors explode and pop in the more magical elements — proved to be something that was sustained across the franchise. And it sounds as good as it looks: John Williams’s Harry Potter theme is as indelible and iconic as anything he composed in his signature scores for Star Wars, Superman, E.T., Indiana Jones, and others.
Much of the crew that Columbus assembled, as well as the cast, stayed for the entire series. Craig, for instance, designed all eight Potter movies, and now returns for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the extension of the Potter universe arriving in U.S. theaters this weekend.
Columbus himself has acknowledged the flaws in his films while defending the decisions. “If we weren’t that faithful, there wouldn’t have been an eighth movie,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011. “You could have added cheerleaders to Hogwarts and all the nonsense that was talked about and we would be sitting here talking about remaking the first movie, as opposed to the series, so I think faithfulness is a really important thing.”
There’s no question the series would achieve its greatest highs after its original director handed over the reins — the tightly woven plot and sense of wonder of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the blockbuster satisfaction and teen movie heart of Goblet of Fire, the moving and powerful conclusion of Deathly Hallows Part 2. You certainly don’t have to love Sorcerer’s Stone to give the film, and its director, respect for how well he set up what was to come (though maybe not in Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets… ).
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’: Go back in time for a peek behind the scenes: