When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s, depending on how British you’d like to be) was released in US theaters on November 16, 2001, it was to say the least, a very big deal. The books series, already 4 books deep by this point, was selling millions of copies all over the world, and was singlehandedly credited with inspiring a new generation of readers. Kids were really excited to see this movie, and parents were excited to take them. I had only been 4 when the series started, so I missed the initial explosion and hadn’t read the books by this point, but the movie was a big deal and so I had to see it. My mom, thankfully, told me I was only allowed to see the movie if I read the book first. Thankfully again, I relented, and I suddenly became an avid book reader, breezing through all the released books in quick succession, and getting more interested in other fantasy novels in the anticipation for the next releases. Ultimately, the movie broke the record for opening weekend US grosses with 90.3 million (a number that seems small for that record now) and broke more records all over the world. In the twenty years since we’ve gotten 7 more movies, all massive hits, plus two (slightly less beloved) spinoffs. There are toys, costumes, amusements parks, and apparently a tv show in the works. It started a YA boom that led to other generation defining franchises like Twilight, Hunger Games, and a ton of very expensive attempts that never took off (everyone remember the final Divergent film that was going to be shunted to TV and then just… never happened?) The books were hits, sure, but it stands to reason that none of that would have happened if this movie didn’t work. And for the most part, it did.
The main complaint about the first movie is that it feels too much like a visualization of the book, moving through story beats rather than creating a cinematic narrative, and that’s fairly accurate. The movie has a bit of an episodic feel, introducing various subplots and comedic detours that don’t always stick the landing, but it feels oddly appropriate that the movie that “inspired a new generation of readers” talks to those kids in a way they recognize and understand. And the real highlight of the movie, as with the book series, is the world building, something it would have been a shame for the film to lose. Rowling really does have a way of creating a detail that stays in the memory; it’s a lot of fun to hear the characters say out loud “Platform 9 ¾”, “diagon alley”, and “bertie botts every flavored bean”. The sets are all grand and imposing, dwarfing the pint-sized leads, and living up to the Hogwarts kids crafted in their heads. And the adult cast, filled with absurdly over-qualified British character actors with enough Oscars, Tonys, Oliviers, and BAFTAs between them to fill a Gringotts vault, all breath real life into the eccentric figures of Rowling’s series (those casting choices would prove to be the smartest decision they could’ve made, as the performances only get deeper and more thrilling as the films mature with their audience). Everything about the world feels very lived in and specific, full of the same detail that Rowling put into the book.
And as the film moves through its story beats, checking off all the major moments from the novel (Harry becomes a quidditch seeker, saves Hermione from a Troll, etc. etc.), there is some effectiveness in the novelistic structure, as key moments for the three leads will come back to help them in the final climactic journey to find the titular sorcerer’s stone. And while Harry’s underdog status doesn’t totally hold up (yes, he has a tragic backstory and wears glasses, but he’s also rich, famous, and apparently a natural athlete), it’s still a lot of fun to see the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry through his muggle-raised eyes, and it makes a lot sense why a generation of kids managed to see themselves in him (and waited eagerly for Hogwarts letters that never came – unless that was just me…)
A quick aside here to say that despite all the controversy around Rowling and some of her views, it’s nice to see that many still do seem to find themselves in these movies. I won’t go into those views, that’s far more complicated than I could address here, other than to say it does stand out to see moments like when Fiona Shaw’s (frankly abusive) Aunt Petunia spits out words like “freak” and “strange” about Harry and his kind with such obviously understood to be villainous scorn. It makes one wonder how far that understanding really goes for Rowling.
Now back to the movie. Chris Columbus directed the first two films, and it kind of feels like it was made by the guy who directed Home Alone. The movie has that same, just a kid against the big bad world fun to it, and a similar practical trickery. And if Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson don’t have the same preternatural ease on camera as a young Macaulay Culkin, they’re all still well-cast for their parts, and likeable young actors (and the adult cast picks up the slack well). The clear stand out of the young cast in my estimation is Tom Felton, who’s not in the movie much but seems to know exactly the kind of bully Draco Malfoy is from his first second on screen. The standout of the adult cast must be the late great Richard Harris, bringing just the right level of wisdom and mischievousness to Dumbledore (a lot of diehard fans say that Harris’s take on the character is much closer to the book Dumbledore than his replacement Michael Gambon’s, which is kind of true, but I do still love Gambon).
Having rewatched the final movie in the series (my household does not count the spinoffs) just a few months ago for a retrospective on its 10-year anniversary, it really is quite jarring just how different the movies not only look, but feel. Everything from the tone, the lighting, even to the color palette is like a different franchise altogether. That change really doesn’t begin until the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is when Alfonso Cuaron came in and many say brought real artistry to the franchise, which is probably true. While the Sorcerer’s Stone looks appropriately grand for the magic of Hogwarts, it still can’t help but look like a kids’ movie (although I do think there’s something charmingly tangible about the movies slightly lo-fi 2001 special effects). And while it certainly brings up some weighty themes, like power and duty, and is surprisingly unafraid to be honest about the life and death stakes, it doesn’t have quite the same depth as the later films in the franchise. But again, that feels appropriate, that the movie would be made on the terms of those that made it possible in the first place; the kids who loved the books,
Because like it or not, those kids made Harry Potter something special, and now it’s his world and we’re just living it. While the franchise doesn’t have quite the same world dominating clout today of say, the Marvel movies, an argument could be made that Harry Potter helped popularize youth focused genre storytelling and so-called “nerd-culture in a way that made the MCU possible, for better or worse. Modern fandom as we know it today kind of cropped up around this series. And it all started with this movie, about the Boy Who Lived (another killer phrase). And is it a movie, or a book come to life? Well, probably a bit of both. But if it gets this many kids to read and fall in love with magic, it could be a lot worse.
Warner Bros released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters on November 16, 2001.