Harry Potter Casts a Magic Miss-le


By the time its opening weekend is through, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will have broken several box office records. This will be helped along by the fact that the film opened in many theaters at a minute past midnight this past Thursday. Luckily, I was one of the few (relatively speaking) to get a ticket. Should you see the film? Yes. Did I like the film? Well, that's another story altogether.

One of the reasons I dislike the Harry Potter books is that they're overly formulaic, falling back on stereotype and precedent to sort of string together a series of events that compose a story. As a writer myself, I realize it's somewhat hypocritical of me to say such a thing. All writing is partly plagiaristic; whether one borrows a name, an image, or a phrase, there's always a point when something one person writes becomes part of someone else's work. At its very core, language itself is plagiaristic. These words you're reading right now were used by someone else, countless times, perhaps in a similar context.

The reason I mention this is because you may have read in the news that J.K. Rowling has been accused of plagiarizing the work of another writer; Harry Potter, some allege, is based off of another spectacled young man named Larry Potter. That's neither here nor there, and I'm in no position to argue that point either way; I have not read the "original" material. For that reason, to simply sit on a pedestal and claim that Ms. J.K. Rowling is a plagiarist is not only foolish, but impossible, and I won't do that here.

What I will do is point out that this Hollywood retelling of the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone story recycles plenty of cliches, images and scenes from other films. This in itself doesn't make the film bad; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Most people will probably love the film because it's so vanilla. For me, that's reason to dislike it.

The film opens with a baby being left on a doorstep, his forehead marked with a magical sigil. This in itself is giving religious groups nightmares, as they're all claiming that such things are signs of evil magic and Satanism, and that Harry Potter is turning young children to witchcraft (I don't know about that, but I do know that there were two ten year old girls in sweatshirts and culottes standing in line, each of whom had a little jagged magical sigil on their foreheads. The work of Satan? Nope... just some glitter and a little glue).

But I digress. Little Harry Potter is immediately marked as being a powerful child with a great destiny ahead of him, and to protect him he's given to a family of Muggles (i.e., ordinary people). When the time comes for Harry to accept his destiny, his family refuses to let him go, but after some convincing by a friendly giant he's "allowed" to join the other budding wizards at magical college.

The remainder of the film chronicles Harry's first year at magic school, with all the usual pitfalls and a few unusual ones as well. For example, Harry immediately makes an enemy from another "House" on campus (the equivalent of a co-ed fraternity of sorts), and much of the film involves the two of them glaring and trying to get the other in trouble. There's also the array of strange and scary teachers, one of whom is actually Harry's greatest enemy in disguise. How a college full of the world's most powerful wizards couldn't figure it out is beyond me, but then Yoda couldn't foresee that Anakin would grow up to be Darth Vader either.

To reveal more about the story would be either pointless or spoiling the surprise, and you'll be able to get plenty of that from other reviews anyway. But I will take a moment to dwell on that Star Wars connection, because it's there for anyone who wants to see it.

Star Wars, of course, is not a wholly original work (nothing truly is, as I mentioned earlier); it's based on a variety of sources, from the Japanese film The Hidden Fortress to Norse mythology (one of the god Loki's nicknames is Skywalker--Loki Skywalker sound familiar?). And as Joseph Campbell has pointed out in his study of mythology, even Star Wars is just another retelling of the story of the hero; his trials and tribulations, his friends and enemies, his refusal of the call, gradual acceptance, journey into danger and eventual triumph. It's a retelling of myth, which is why it's so successful; everyone immediately understands the story, and can get on with enjoying the way in which it's told.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone accomplishes the first half of that equation, without a doubt. The comparisons to Star Wars and myth in general are all blindingly obvious: Harry's receiving his wand is analogous to Luke getting his lightsaber; Harry's most trusted mentors are old, bearded wise men, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi or even Merlin; there's even the required "call to the dark side" which eerily echoes the Emperor's tempting Luke in Return of the Jedi. Harry Potter even seems to take things to the next level, mirroring events that took place in The Phantom Menace; I won't discuss exactly what, since I hate spoiling films, but let's just say that there's a certain sequence that had me thinking I was watching the Pod Race all over again.

Certainly, the young actors in this film are much better at their jobs than young Jake Lloyd was in Episode I, and that's a good thing because they get most of the screen time. The adults in the story all drift on and off the screen more or less randomly, serving in most cases only to drop a hint to Harry and friends, and in several cases only to allow people who've read the books to say "Oh, yeah, I remember him/her from the book!" The overall scenes serve pretty much the same purpose, taking us from one event to the next without any real sense of building tension. How exciting can a movie be, after all, when it's about going to school, even if the school is a magical one?

I can certainly overlook the potty humor, which is, of course, present in spades here: snot, spittle, bad breath.... At least there wasn't any passing gas or stepping in "poodoo." I can even overlook the fact that the acting, while fairly solid, won't get anyone nominated for an Academy Award. This is, in the end, a children's film, and a fantasy at that, and it's not supposed to be Oscar material.

What I cannot overlook is the fact that the story itself, and the characters within that story, do not "come to life" for me. Certainly, the Harry Potter stories, this movie included, do contain the traditional mythic elements that have made past stories and movies so memorable and great. But in the past, such stories have also added new elements and twists, taking things to a new level or showing them in a slightly different light. Here, the story struggles to get above stereotype, and when it does manage to break free it winds up pulling itself down the other side and winds up right back where it started.

Harry's adoptive family are a bundle of stereotypes, from the weak-willed stepmother to the abusive stepfather and the fat, piggish stepbrother. Just what we needed: another fat joke. Even Hermione (her name is pronounced at least seventeen different ways in the film) becomes a stereotypical token female in her own way; in steadfastly avoiding the "weak, submissive female" stereotype, Rowling instead gives us the stereotypical smart-assed little shrew, who runs around showing up all the other boys time and again. Of course, when they make fun of her, she shows her true colors and runs off to the bathroom to cry. The boys don't cry in this film. But then, they're boys.

Fantasy (and the larger basket of Science Fiction) succeeds or fails on its ability to show us new and exciting things, fantastical things that we haven't seen before. Harry Potter fails to do that. Somehow, despite the fact that almost everyone in the film is a wizard, there's very little magic going around. Oh sure, there are plenty of little spells and broom-riding incidents and big magical creatures and cats with glowing eyes. But there's no magic.

What I mean by "magic" here is that sense of wonder, of discovering a piece of the unknown, of finding something fantastical and incredible. Harry knows he's a wizard almost from the start, and from then on in it's just a matter of wandering through hallways and bumbling along until destiny finds him and slaps him in the face. There's no sense of magic here; it's almost like the Midichlorians in The Phantom Menace. Harry is a wizard because he's a wizard, and he's going to be great because he's destined to be great, and he will be like his father because his father was great, and a wizard. There are no surprises for Harry, and because of that there are no surprises for viewers or readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

That said, I must reiterate that most people will probably adore this film. From a distance, I myself will readily admit that it's a good film. This is everything that the Dungeons & Dragons movie tried to be, and failed. It has good acting, an understandable storyline, and characters that you don't want to see horribly killed. But at the same time, it leaves one wanting more. It breaks no new ground, and in another month when Fellowship of the Ring is released, you'll be asking yourself the same question everyone else will be asking:

Harry who?

Proving that I'm not entirely on crack with my assessment, here's a review from sfgate.com:


"...the animated fairy-tale parody (Shrek) has some of the very qualities "Harry Potter" sure could use -- economy, a distinctive style and sharper wit, to be specific."

"We may keep waiting for this movie to jack it up to another, more scintillating level, but mostly it keeps chugging along."

To be honest I thought the movie was brilliant, but then I like the books. I don't think a lot of the faults you mentioned are bad, just because a story sticks to a lot of the concepts inherent in its genre (what makes that genre popular) is not a bad thing.

Also, in the books, a lot of those stereotypes (as you call them) are there to be stripped away slightly in later books. The character of Hermoine has reasons for being like she is, and this is revealed in later books.

Anyway, I thought it was great. The problem I have is people are too cynical. This movie is brilliant, and delightful. It could have been an absolute disaster, but they did it very well.

As for the pod race and the Quidditch game - what a load of crap, if we included this as argument we'd not being doing any exciting racing like scenes since Ben Hur.

Hear, hear Ian!I have to agree that I feel it is Aeon's cynicism getting in the way of enjoying either the books or the film. The books (and film) were written for children.

What does that really mean? That means that the Harry Potter books may likely be the first introduction to this genre that many of the kids have had. So, as an introduction for children into the genre of fantasy, the use of basic stereotypes are apt. In fact, they are somewhat necessary.

I've read a great amount of fantasy throughout my life, and have gotten rather bored with it. Why? It's formulaic, and the same stereotypes are reused over and over. So, why then do I enjoy the Harry Potter books? They ARE fresh.

They [books and film] don't have a new take on the standard characters, they don't even follow all that different of a plot line. What they do have is a pure and innocent sense of fun and adventure. Rowling isn't trying to retell the standard myths by being the most 'gritty' or even 'realistic'. She is retelling our [humanities] collective myths by being unabashedly unoriginal. What she is does, instead, is make the myth run again. I don't care that the plot is formulaic. I don't care that Harry is destined to be a Hero and we know that he will have to survive and meet his challenges over seven books. What I do care about, is that it fun to read the books. Fantasy is once again fun, and not a game of 'which formula will the author use today? A, B, or Z?'.

Stop analyzing and just enjoy. That is the only goal. Enjoyment. As adults, we may not have the same sense of wonder as children. That's understandable, we've read everything from Piers Anthony to Robert Zelazny. The children haven't though. As an Uncle to three nieces, do I want my nieces to discover fantasy through Ms. Rowling or through Tolkein as I did?

Tolkein was fine for me, but I think I would rather have my nieces really enjoy what they are reading for the first time. I was already a bibliophile when I picked up The Hobbit, so reading Tolkein just turned me onto fantasy. My nieces may not be bibliophiles to start out with, so I would rather they enjoy the first experience.

Aeon, I agree with many of your opinions and rants. We seem to be roughly of the same age and outlook. Yet in relation to Harry Potter, I really have to say. "Turn off your brain and just enjoy yourself."

As far as Lord of the Rings, your right. In a month my attraction to the Harry Potter movie will most likely fade with what looks to be a very faithful rendition of a beloved book. But I'm an adult. The children won't forget Harry. They'll just meet Frodo and think about how cool he is and how much he is like Harry. As far as I am concerned, that will be just fine. As long as there are future consumers of fantasy, I don't care where there love is based from.

$1.20 US for the movie in China. I won't pay $8.00 to see it in the theaters to those fat cats, after all I used to work in one. I know what goes on there, LOL. It broke the records only because the marketed it 1 whole year in advance. The had been marketing it before I quit the theater job!

Wow! $1.20 for a pirated CD with a movie filmed with a handicam, copies of which feature bad audio and the audience walking in front of the screen? Boy, I sure feel like a chump watching it on a big screen with that theater-quality sound...

My big gripe with the Harry Potter movie was that it seemed totally superfluous. I loved the books and didn't despise the movie, but I walked out wondering why this movie had to be made in the first place (beyond the obvious answer that it's making its creators a metric assload of money). Apart from the Quidditch game, there was nothing in the movie that really made my jaw drop, nothing that stimulated my sense of wonder, nothing that set it apart from a million other movies that I could be seeing. The books were, in my eyes, intriguing and inventive, retelling an old story in an interesting new way. This movie was not.

Besides, isn't one of the incredibly cool things about the Harry Potter books supposed to be that they're finally encouraging kids to turn off the TV and (gasp!) read a book? A fantasy novel, nonetheless? Now that there's a movie it seems like a lot of the series' initial charm is gone, transferred onto just another big Hollywood moneymaker. The movie didn't destroy the books, but I can't help feeling like it'll lure a lot of kids away from them and thereby overshadow any benefits it may have had.

At any rate, my ultimate reaction to the Harry Potter movie was a resounding shrug, which is the *last* reaction that fantasy should ever get. And I was absolutely *dreading* this movie and how it would almost certainly destroy some great books, so maybe that's at least worth something...

Ahem. Ahem. Do you KNOW how many people are reading the books because of the movie!? This certianly is NOT killing off the books. Granted, it's mainly turning people onto the books because the sort of people who cough "Muggle!" complain about it, but it is introducing THE BOOK to a lot more people. End of rant.

The movie was made for the fans. Pure and simple.

If you are a child who has not read Harry Potter, the Media Machine will make sure you see it. Then you will read it.

If you are an adult who has not read Harry Potter, the Media Machine will make sure you see it. Then you will complain about it.

I, thankfully, am an adult who has first read, then seen Harry Potter. I liked the movie. It was worth the money I paid to see it, simply to see some of the characters I've come to know and love cast for real life.

(For what it's worth, I'm of the opinion that Daniel Radcliffe (...I think that's the name of the boy who played Harry...) did a terrible job at acting the part, but oh well.)

Watching Professer Snape flit ghoulishly about the screen was incredibly fun. Alan Rickman fit the bill perfectly.

Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid the Hogwarts Gamekeeper was immense, in size as well as "fun."

As previously alluded to the ah, "broom-riding" "pod-race" scene was very fun to watch.

Ground-breaking? No. Earth-shattering? No. But a treat for the fans? Decidedly yes.

Ah well. C'est la vie. I guess you just have to do some things in life in a certain order.

good stiry and suitable for children

I thought the movie was ok. It was nice to see a fantasy movie that wasn't crappy and had some decent special effects and pretty good acting, but that's about as excited as I can get.

There was nothing beautiful and wonderful like the scenes from Lord of the Rings, nothing that made me fall into the story and believe that the magic was really happening, the fantasy place really existed. It was too blah, to simple and easy.

The Harry Potter version of the Pod Race was just so-so. What bugged me is the fact that a game is made where some of the participants just sit around doing nothing for most of the time, only to suddenly win or lose the game instantly with one "score". Bad concept for a sport if you ask me.

You actually thought this movie would appeal to the adult part of your brain?

Oh boy...

It was made for children!

I won't get into the it copied what from where because I agree that if you look long enough, most stories have already been told somehow.

But still, I would have had a good buzz from that movie 20 years ago, much more than from Never ending story or Legends, oh boy.

I didn't find the acting too bad, although I think I saw it translated.

The boy who does Harry made me think of many of my shy friends when I was that age, so I believed him.

But then I went in there with the adult part of my brain off, or at least dimmed. Just like I will when I see Spider Man (well I'll "crank my brain up" to teenager, maybe). Although I don't mean that you get smarter as you age, just more critical and picky (usually).

Saying this movie is stereotyped and childish is like saying that, Ali is too violent, that Godzilla was too unrealistic or that Scarry Movie was gratuitous. Of course they are, they were meant to be. Just like… you get my drift?

C ya at the movies.

Oh and yes, the fantasy loving adults will almost forget Harry Potter, till the next time they have to bring their children or nephews to the movies next year. Just like the adults of the 70's and 80's thought everyone would forget Star Wars.


Haven't seen the movie. Haven't ever read the books.

But incidentally, this seems to be the primary reason why I'll never do both. Harry Potter seems to be way too bland and lacking in unique-ness to even begin to attract my attention. Some people say, "but they're so well written and they don't dumb-down the language so both children and adults can enjoy them!"

That might be true, but the same could be said of the Great Gatsby (which most children in public schools in the United States are required to read)... and that fact didn't alleviate the sense that the story was without a point. It had no real message. It was pure vanilla. And that seems to be the case, from all the questioning of Harry Potter fans I've done, with Harry Potter as well.

Feel free to contradict. :)

The Great Gatsby was as entertaining and tasty as unflavoured, raw, plain Tofu (when I read it back in the 80's).

Harry Potter seems that way to me, but then I'm not the target audience.
I've watched some of the TV shows and movies I used to love when I was 10 and under.

Oh boy! Besides Dungeons and Dragons and Captain Harlock (Albator pour les francophones) the rest was prety lame.

Goldorak, Tranzor Z, Capitaine Flame and Ulysse 31 were so lame when I watched them over again, that I've been forced to reconsider my opinion of today's kid shows.

Maybe the shows don't get worst, it's that we've lost the capacity to enjoy them (we've grown older plain and simple).

But then again, maybe not.


Hi there! You all really over analyze things! The books are fun and the movies are very faithful to the books so far. If you are that critical of the books and movies then don't read them, dont see them and don't bother!

Sam, I have to agree with the Gatsby thing. It was so awful that I decided "Hey, a "D" is still passing." So, the second Harry Potter movie gave me fits. Although not a bad movie, it did have one thing that I couldn't stand. The basilisk was a snake. Correct me if I am wrong, but basilisks are lizards. I have not read the book, but I assume that the same is true of it. Why do they call a giant snake a basilisk, why? Before someone yells at me, it is not original, it is wrong. Creating your own giant fantasy snake monster with a name you came up with is original. Cutting of a lizards legs is not.

End of rant

No contradiction here. I, too, have neither read nor seen any Harry Potter books or movies.

Just didn't seem interesting enough to me.

Different interpretations of the same thing with your basilisk here. Remember, medusa in Clash of the Titans was half-woman/half-snake, but in other greek mythology stories, she's a whole woman (who is having a really bad hair day!). Also, the luck dragon in The Neverending Story looks more like a Chinese dragon than your more "standard" DND dragon.

I guess it could be considered the artist's interpretation, which gives us the differences.

Here is a really complete history of a basilisk: http://webhome.idirect.com/~donlong/monsters/Html/Basilisk.htm

I was determined to avoid what I thought an over-hyped pop phenomenon; had no interest in reading the books at all. Then my mom gave them to me for Christmas one year. So I read them. The first two were entertaining enough in their way, but the third one was actually a pretty good read. And they kept getting better. My wife, who devours fantasy books at a terrifying rate and keeps asking for more (she's long since depleted the material I can honestly recommend as 'good'), was an instant fan.

I'm not much of an evangelist. I'm not going to tell you how much you're missing. But I will say that the books are better than you might credit, and that 'vanilla,' to my mind, is an unfair and not-terribly-accurate criticism.

The first two movies suffered from Chris Columbus' overblown Hollywood hackery. The third installment, directed by Cuaron of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame, was much, much better.

Some books for your wife...

The Memory, Sorrow, Thorn Trilogy by Tad Williams

The Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust

Shogun by James Cavell (sic)

The Wolf's Hour and Stinger by Robert McCammon (not fantasy)

Green Rider by Kristen Britain

These are some of the more obscure but still excellent books that I've stumbled across. If you want more than let me know.

"The more I study, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I know. The more I know, the more I forget. The more I forget, the less I know, so why Study?"

Thanks for the recommendations, Calamar!

We're both Tad Williams fans - I recommended Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn to her early on in our relationship. She adored it. Somewhat at random, my mother-in-law gave me a full-tang bastard sword (forged in India, and sharp as all get-out) for Christmas one year: I named it Kvalnir after Isgrimnur's blade. As I don't have much call to kill anyone, it sits in a closet, only to be taken out from time to time for a sanding and a polish...

I've read some of the Brust - never thought to pass it on, but with your recommendation I will.

I've never really thought of Shogun as obscure. There was that miniseries in the '80s and all! ;) But I still haven't gotten around to reading it. It's currently at slot #4 on my to-read list...

I haven't heard of Green Rider or Robert McCammon - might want to read those myself.