J.K. Rowling, the Cinderella of British kid lit, claims to be delighted with the movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. And why shouldn't she be? Director Chris Columbus, writer Steve Kloves and the folks at Warner Bros. have spared no expense in translating Volume One of Rowling's projected seven-volume series to the big screen. If nothing else, The Sorcerer's Stone shows what money can buy in contemporary Hollywood: sets that we mere mortals couldn't even dream of if Rowling hadn't planted the seeds in our imaginations, and special effects that make Merlin look like a piker. Alas, what money can't seem to buy is a decent script. If this installment is any indication, the filmmakers are determined to cross every "t" and dot every "i" in Rowling's manuscripts. She must be extremely flattered, but the result is a sprawling series of episodes that fails to cast a spell. This is what happens when you turn Harry Potter over to muggles, I suppose.
Having read only two-thirds of The Sorcerer's Stone, I may not be the best judge of Rowling's work. I found it competent at worst, enchanting at its best ' especially those wonderful Anglo-Saxon names, like Gryffindor and Slytherin and Quidditch and Dumbledore. Rowling combines an Austenian wit with a Dickensian feel for good and evil, and she's not afraid to raid the storehouse of Anglo-American myth, from Beowulf to Star Wars. But in The Sorcerer's Stone, she was so busy taking us on a guided tour of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where the young Harry first learns he's meant for great things, that she neglected to include much of a plot. And by hewing so closely to Rowling's text, the movie quickly loses focus, its themes blurring as well. Even the eponymous stone, which doesn't get mentioned until well into the second hour, seems like a glorified afterthought ' the last, if not quite least, of Harry's Herculean labors.
Columbus, who was chosen to direct because, of all the candidates, he had the most hits under his belt (from Home Alone to Stepmom), seems congenitally incapable of bringing a scene to life except in the crudest ways. (Only the Quidditch match, which all of us were waiting for, truly soars.) And he's managed to waste a veritable bevy of British actors, from Richard Harris, who seems less Dumbledore than Bumblebore, to Maggie Smith, who gives us a Miss Jean Brodie well past her prime. Alan Rickman, as Professor Snape, slithers nicely. And John Hurt has a brief moment as the storekeeper who sells Harry his first wand. But only the children are given much screen time, and they don't quite know what to do with it. Daniel Radcliffe, who looks right and sounds right, nevertheless fails to capture that curious blend of sadness and gladness that makes Harry Harry. But don't blame him. Like the rest of us, he's trapped in a movie that's turned its back on the most powerful magic of all: storytelling.