Watching the Harry Potter series of films has been a really wonderful experience for me, not just because these are delightful stories taking place in a deeply compelling world, but because Harry Potter is to my kids what Star Wars is to me. This is the epic story that defined their notions of heroic myth. It is something they have grown up with, something they have cheered and cried over, and it will be part of them forever. It is one thing to see such a thing take root in oneself. It is quite another to see it take root in your children. For that alone, these movies will always have a very special place in my heart.
That said, the first installment of this series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or the Philosopher’s Stone, for those in the UK)—is easily the weakest. It is the Phantom Menace of the Harry Potter saga, the one where the gears weren’t quite turning as they ought to, where the players weren’t quite fitting into their roles yet, where the stakes weren’t quite established, and where the big moments weren’t quite earned.
When I first saw this movie, I was put off by how it spent so much time introducing things, meandering through an obviously enormous world full of potential, but without telling much of a story within it. We spend that first movie much like Harry does, looking around in amazement, jaw slightly open, trying to make sense of a strange new world into which we have suddenly entered. It feels like a guided tour of Hogwarts. Not a lot of drama there.
Nor is there, really, with Harry himself. We sympathize with the kid who has been dealt most unfairly, but before long, we see his remarkable turn of fortunes. He’s not just some kid under the stairs, he’s a wizard! He’s not some pauper, he’s rich! He’s not just some Hogwarts student, he’s the boy who lived! Of course, he belongs to the most valiant house in the school. Of course, he’s the favored student of Albus Dumbledore, the greatest headmaster who ever lived. Of course, he’s an instant varsity player of Quidditch.
What keeps this movie from becoming a hollow exercise in wish fulfillment is that all Harry really wants is the thing he cannot have—his dead parents back alive. He doesn’t know what to make of all this sudden attention, reverence and good fortune, especially since his folks had to die for him to get those things. And with all this comes a kind of expectation that what has propelled him to early fame—his defeat of the evil Lord Voldemort—will somehow keep Voldemort from returning…or defeat him again if he does.
Through Harry’s bewildered eyes, we try to make sense of the Wizarding World, knowing that whatever we learn here, it will only be the tip of the iceberg. This is a world of magic, but nothing comes easily within it. Harry’s wealth, fame and favor count for nothing, really, and he must work for everything he will need to make it through the rest of the saga.
We see this in a great scene where Harry is obtaining his wand from old man Ollivander, the wand merchant (played with delightful weariness by John Hurt). The wand picks the wizard, not the other way around, and the first few wands Ollivander hands over to Harry show just how badly magic goes awry when the craftsman and the tools are not in sync. Only when Olivander gives Harry a wand that carries with it a dark and weighty significance—the only wand that can cancel out Voldemort’s own—do we see Harry’s magical talent bloom. He now has what he needs to begin his journey, but he has no clue how long, difficult, and dangerous it will be. When you see this scene again, having viewed the rest of the series, there is a bittersweet quality to it. Harry’s wonder-driven innocence is ending right before his eyes, and he doesn’t even know it. The audience, however, does.
You’re a wizard, Harry Potter. Congratulations…and good luck. You will need it.