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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone: Harry Potter begins screen saga

Harry Potter is no longer mere alphabets in the English language. He is a three-dimensional moving image. The Scottish single mother, Rowling's hero is now Chris Columbus's screen icon.

As "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" opened during Autumn 2001 in most parts of the globe -- in Japan as well where I was then a Fellow of The Japan Foundation researching into contemporary Japanese cinema (I lived in Tokyo for most part of the six-month Fellowship from August 2001 to February 2002) -- to packed theatres and overflowing cash boxes, its success can perhaps be attributed to Rowling, a woman in her thirties who wrote her first piece of fiction in a cafe, because she could not afford to heat up her home.

"The Philosopher's Stone" brought her fame and fortune, and the subsequent adventures of little Harry that she penned firmly established her as a writer of repute, and got children hooked on to the printed pages, distracting and diverting them from television and internet.

Rowling may or may not be a great writer -- she has been accused of plagiarism, but what is more disconcerting is that Harry  Potter is a mishmash of Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll and so on -- but she is a shrewd peddler.

First, she never called herself by her full name: Joanne Kathleen Rowling. Instead, she chose to abbreviate the first two words into just J.K., because she felt that a woman writer might not hit it off with boys, her target readers.

Second, she is said to have bullied Warner Brothers not to let  Steven Spielberg helm this film, not to allow American actors play the parts, and to have it premiered in London, not in Los Angeles, which has been the traditional opening point for the studio's pictures.

Rowling perhaps forgot that the money -- all of $ 125 million -- was American. And so was the director.

But Columbus proved to be the proverbial "Mary's Little Lamb", when he said that he would treat the text as reverentially as he would a Shakespeare !

Indeed, Columbus' "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" is a Siamese twin of Rowling's first work. Or, almost, because the director must have had problems compressing all that verbiage into 150 minutes.

Critics will be quick to point out that some of the important passages do not linger long enough on the screen, though the film's visual lushness -- which includes the imposing Oxbridge colleges and the magnificent Gloucester Cathedral -- enslaves a viewer so completely that he is hardly inclined to miss Rowling's descriptions.

Even then, I often found Columbus's effort to be a flash of lightning which revealed but hazy shadows. In many ways it is typically Hollywoodish, not quite British cinema. The movie is so stylised that it bounces off your heart. It unfolds in such a tearing haste that it appears cold and soulless, a term that I had also used for Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge". Surely, Rowling failed here.

Another area where Rowling slipped, despite her stick and watch policy, was Columbus' characterisations. An hour into the film, I began to wonder who the hero was. Was it Daniel Radcliffe, playing Harry Potter ? No, I did not find him impressive enough to fit that slot.

It was Emma Watson, as Hermione Granger -- a girl who forms one of the three legs of the wizardly trio at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft that Harry attends -- who was an absolute jewel. She was intelligent, saucy, bossy and cool; she stole the show, undoubtedly. Even Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley was far more splendid than Daniel.

Was it a case of miscasting ? Was it faulty scripting ? Was it a question of wrong emphasis, with the camera failing where the keyboard succeeded. Rowling's Potter is by no means overshadowed by his two friends.

Even Hogwarts' headmaster, Dumbledore, does not exude the power and punch that Rowling's old man does. Richard Harris, who plays the part, was reluctant to step into portals of the institution. Perhaps, he knew he was not suited, but Columbus (and Rowling herself) persisted only to goof up.

Warner Brothers plans six more Harry Potter movies, the last will probably be delivered in 2007, and Radcliffe is to play in each one of them. One hopes that a better script -- rather than a subservient director -- will help Harry outclass his two pals on the screen.

Otherwise, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" has a certain magnetism that comes from what is essentially a Dickensian plot of an underprivileged child ultimately finding happiness.

Harry is an orphan, his wizard parents having been murdered by the evil Lord Voldemort. He is now seeking the Philosopher's Stone, which will give him immortality. But Potter comes to the rescue of mankind: whisked away from his miserable surroundings on his eleventh birthday to Hogwarts -- to study wizardry -- the boy proves that he has the magical qualities that the school knew
he had. If it had "deposited" him with his ill treating uncle and aunt (termed muggles, because they are ordinary and dull people), it was merely to buy time till he reached the right age to fly on a broomstick, to use his wand and to, of course, to play Quidditch, a dangerous, high speed ball game.

Young Potter does all these and save the stone too, which is finally destroyed. No point in making men live on forever. But Rowling herself has attained some kind of permanence: six more of her works are to be frozen on frame. And she has not even completed her fifth, while screenwriters are already digging into her third, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban". They are sure to have a problem when they reach number four, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", which is 600 pages long !

Also, Warner Brothers plans to have the same cast, though not the same helmer. The children age by a year between two tomes, and the major has to be quick or the kids will look older than what they should. Sure, Warner and Rowling need all the sorcery and voodoo to pull this off.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated December 28 2001)

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