I recently rewatched the first Harry Potter movie known in America as the Sorcerer’s Stone, everywhere else as the Philosopher’s Stone. This was my first time watching it as an adult, the first time I tried watching it though a critical lens. As a kid I never got into the Harry Potter books, actually I never really got into reading in general as a kid so my nostalgia for the series is entirely cinematic (except for that one time I tried listening to one of the books on audiobook but I don’t remember anything about that). I think that puts me in a unique situation. I’m not looking back through the movie for the scenes cut for time, or the characters not fully realized in the film. I’m looking back at the movie as a movie. And it’s a pretty good movie.
Maybe due to the subject matter of the first book or maybe the younger target audience the movie has a delightfully light tone that faded as the series went on. This light tone is supplemented by a pacing that seemed to be made for TV. The movie is a series of vignettes with noticeable pauses between them almost designed for commercial breaks. This might sound like a criticism but this structure allowed tension to rise and fall in small intervals that made the movie more relaxing than your normal action/adventure fare. It’s almost a slice of life film but it still manages a coherent through line that pays off well at the end.
The movie is also perfect wish fulfillment for an 11 year old and this is where I have some problems with it. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is utopian fiction. J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is a vision of what a perfect society might look like to an 11 year old, especially a less privileged 11 year old. Harry begins the series as an outcast detested by his adoptive family. He’s abused, neglected, and antagonized. His time with his muggle family was designed to feel familiar in one way or another to victimized children. Harry’s pre-Hogwarts existence is the dystopia to the Wizarding World’s utopia.
The problem is that J. K. Rowling’s 11 year old’s utopia is quite…narrow. The Wizarding World could have been anything but the thing it ended up being is more similar to the muggle dystopia than I think many would like to realize. Once Harry learns he is a wizard he is taken to Diagon Alley where he is given a list of essentials to attend Hogwarts. Harry realizes he hasn’t any money and tells Hagrid he can’t buy the supplies. Here Hagrid could have said anything. He could have said that children don’t need to worry about money since the Wizarding World understands children shouldn’t have to pay for school or the supplies necessary for it. He could have said that the Wizarding World is a post-money civilization and necessities are free. Its a utopia after all! But instead he takes Harry to the bank where he learns his parents left him a large inheritance.
This is what I mean by narrow. The utopia seems to only apply to Harry. Harry is a nobody in the muggle world but he is world famous in the Wizarding one. Harry has no friends in the muggle world but is quick to make ones in the Wizarding one. Harry is meek and unathletic in the muggle world but is the youngest Quidditch player in 100 years at Hogwarts. This isn’t a utopian society it is a utopia for one. The second the viewer looks away from Harry, empathizes with characters besides him, the Wizarding World looks a lot less fun.
Take for instance the sorting ceremony. Based solely on the information provided in the first film it seems like being sorted into a house other than Gryffindor or Slytherin destines you to a life in the background. Or the problem of school supplies. If Harry didn’t have his inheritance would he be admitted into Hogwarts without supplies? How many great wizards were unable to attend Hogwarts due to their inability to gather the money needed for supplies?
You’re probably thinking that the Wizarding World can’t be a perfect utopia and still be the setting for a story with conflict and high stakes, but I think it certainly can. The ultimate antagonist of the series is Voldemort who can still exist within a utopian framework. Voldemort exists outside society and wants to destroy it so he can have more power. This is a perfect theme for utopian fiction. In a utopian society power would be spread out evenly and there will always be a desire from some to gain more than their fair share. Voldemort is the personification of this forever present danger to utopias.
This all might sound nitpicky, but it’s important because it limits the imagination of children who look to Harry Potter for a vision of the utopian school environment, the perfect childhood. Instead of a generation of children who saw Harry Potter and knew a society could exist where poor students don’t need to worry about school supply costs they instead grew up wishing they might one day get a sweet inheritance like Harry got. Instead of seeing a world where every child is treated with the respect and dignity Harry received in the Wizarding World they realized that being famous and having a prophesy about you is the only way for adults and teachers to treat you with respect.
To be fair to J. K. Rowling the Wizarding World still has many universal utopian aspects to it. Food at Hogwarts seems to be plentiful and free. Children are given a great deal of freedom. And the school teaches cool stuff like magic and potions instead of boring stuff like calculus. But too much of the utopia doesn’t extend beyond Harry and perpetuates an individualism that hinders society’s progress to a more universal utopia for everyone.