The Trouble With Harry

Has there ever been a big- budget movie adaptation as faithful to its source as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"? Acutely aware of how beloved J. K. Rowling's children's books are--and what a gold mine such a franchise could be for corporate giant AOL Time Warner--Team Harry has bent over backward to cram everything everybody loves about the book into its two-and-a-half-hour movie, being careful to invent as little as possible. It's all here, from the tape on our hero's oval spectacles to the cluttered splendor of Diagon Alley where 11-year-old Harry goes shopping for the magical school supplies required at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to the grayish gunk that emanates from the giant nose of a fallen, full-grown mountain troll.

Director Chris Columbus and writer Steve Kloves (who are already in production on the second installment) worked in close collaboration with Rowling, and their respect for her vision is clearest in the uncannily apt casting. Who could imagine a more perfect fit for the sinister Snape than Alan Rickman, who brings a mesmerizing mixture of menace and drollery to his scenes. Hard to complain about Robbie Coltrane's incarnation of the sweet, mammothly uncouth Hagrid, or Maggie Smith's grasp of the tart but concerned Professor McGonagall, who doubles as a cat. Richard Harris has a sage delicacy as Hogwarts School's revered CEO, Albus Dumbledore, and John Hurt lights up his one, fine scene as Mr. Ollivander, seller of magic wands.

That these distinguished veterans hit their marks is no great surprise. It's the casting of the three children--Harry and his Gryffindor House co-conspirators, Ron and Hermione--that is the movie's greatest coup. His eyes dancing with intelligence, Daniel Radcliffe is a mercifully unsentimental Harry Potter, likable and inquisitive but slightly aloof, his self-possession the necessary defense of an orphan raised by hostile Muggles. Redheaded Rupert Grint brings just the right note of clownish affability to the nerdy Ron Weasley, while Emma Watson delights as the brainy, supercilious but always game Hermione.

Fidelity, however, is a virtue more crucial to marriage than movies. There are good reasons why filmmakers think it necessary to reshape the books that inspire them. Columbus's "Harry Potter" has many delights, but the magical alchemy that the book seemed to achieve so effortlessly eludes it. The movie gets most of the book's events in, but loses much of the lightness and charm of Rowling's vision. It's overstuffed. The plethora of special effects--some dazzling, some clumsy--make "Harry Potter" at times resemble a generic Hollywood horror movie. That three-headed dog that stands guard over a treasure was better left to the imagination; the slimy tentacles that encircle the three kids are too reminiscent of "Star Wars" and "Aliens."

Columbus stays true to the tale's English flavor, but he can't resist the Hollywood temptation to pump everything up a notch, starting with the overly broad awfulness of Harry's adopted family. The Quidditch game--a kind of aerial hockey played while flying on broomsticks--seemed perfectly clear on the page; on screen it's cluttered and confusing, utterly lacking in schoolboy lyricism. The biggest offender is John Williams's bombastic score, which smothers the action with inappropriate grandiosity. It's selling the movie, not supporting it.

"Harry Potter" is at its best in the Diagon Alley sequence, where Stuart Craig's deliciously detailed sets, Judianna Makovsky's rich, mysterious costumes and some truly spooky goblin/bankers combine to transport us into an enchanted Victorian dreamscape. The movie is beautifully designed, but it is often shot in a drab and muddy manner, a surprise from a cinematographer as gifted as John Seale. (My guess is a certain murkiness was mandated to prevent the computer-generated satyrs and ogres from looking too artificial and silly, a ploy that only partially succeeds.)

For the series to be as transporting as we all wish it could be, certain hard choices have to made: at the risk of angering its fans, sacrifices have to be made to whip these wonderful books into svelte cinematic shape. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is a valiant first effort. The proper ingredients are all in place. What's needed is a wizard who can make it all levitate.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's StoneWarner Bros.
Opens Nov. 16