Movie Recap: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Welcome to the first in a series of scholarly examinations of notable films, analysing the themes, structure and impact of the landmarks of cinema.
To put it another way, I’m watching Harry Potter and making jokes about it.
We begin with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where JK Rowling kicked off her epic saga with little more than a pile of Roald Dahl books, an audacious dream, and a vague idea about child abuse. In America it’s called “The Sorcerer’s Stone”, because if Americans encounter a word they haven’t heard before, they get cancer.
The movie begins with Dumbledore, the gay Gandalf, and Maggie Smith wandering down a street and saying cryptic things. They are interrupted by Robbie Coltrane on a flying motorbike. This is Hagrid, the hairy giant who does, I don’t know, stuff around Hogwarts I guess? His duties throughout the series seem extremely poorly-defined and he definitely has a lot of spare time on his hands, but at least one of the tasks assigned to him is delivering babies to Dumbledore, which he does here, and Dumbledore sets the baby on a doorstep. Maggie tells him the people who live here are terrible Muggles, but Dumbledore is all, “Hey, that’s why we chose them — Harry will be safer if he grows up among abusive morons.”
Also, this is the first use of the term “Muggle”, which I bet JK regretted using once the series started getting, you know, serious. Along with a lot of other Dahlish words she dreamt up. By movie five or six, anyone saying “Muggle” really sounds like they’re being aggressively flippant.
But anyway. Harry is now, I think, eleven? And it’s his cousin’s birthday and he is working as a slave for his aunt and uncle, who are the worst people on Earth and make him sleep under the stairs. So good call Dumbledore, on the whole “keep him safe by making his life worth living” plan. For cousin Fat Boy’s birthday, the family has gone to the zoo and for some reason taken Harry, who they hate more than anything, along.
This gives Harry the chance to find out that he can talk to snakes. This doesn’t seem to faze him at all — in fact from now on pretty much everything that happens to him after he finds out a wizard will be greeted by Harry with a greater sense of shock than the discovery of talking snakes before he knows that magic is a thing. For good measure, Harry releases the snake and traps his fat stupid cousin in its enclosure using magic, which again doesn’t seem like a big deal to the kid.
Naturally Harry gets in trouble and his uncle shoves him under the stairs and tells him there’s no such thing as magic, which is a pretty pointless endeavour, as we’ll see — next scene Harry’s getting letters and his family won’t let him read them. They have really suss faces too, so you know the letter is something serious. I mean you know that anyway because it’s Harry Potter — guess what, the letter is from Hogwarts and Harry’s a wizard. Sorry if that’s a spoiler.
The letters keep coming and owls are hanging round the house like Tippi Hedren lives there and Harry’s uncle is developing PTSD from the stress of burning all the letters that keep arriving. I don’t know why he bothers, because he knows exactly what’s going on. But still he keeps making the effort, even when buried up to his neck in mail, going to the point of taking the whole family away to some kind of scary tower on an island. I don’t know whether he rented the scary tower, or it’s just one the family keeps for just such an emergency, but there they are, hiding from the letters, when oh look, here’s Hagrid, the Big Friendly Giant, breaking down the door and scaring the shit out of everyone and telling Harry he’s a wizard and giving him a poorly-spelt birthday cake.
Harry takes the news — both about being a wizard and the cake being poorly-spelt — relatively calmly, though not quite as calmly as he took the talking snake. Harry and Hagrid are both pretty angry at the aunt and uncle for not telling Harry all about his wizardy status, but I feel like it should be noted that they were protecting him. In fact, as will be evident later in the saga, the Dursleys are pretty much the only people who make a genuine and serious effort at keeping Harry safe. Everyone else is fairly determined to hurl him into harm’s way at every opportunity.
Also, the entire POINT of sending him to live with the Muggles was that they had nothing to do with magic, so it’s hardly fair to get pissed at them for not discussing magic around the dinner table.
Of course, there was no need to make him live under the stairs, but in a way the fact the Dursleys are terrible people makes them more admirable. After all, it’s easy for a good person to do the right thing: it must’ve been quite a wrench for them not to just drown Harry in the bath. You can see how committed they are to the task when they try to stop Hagrid taking him — they hate this kid, they loathe him beyond all measure, and today all their troubles are to be ended, but they’re so devoted to their duty they still want to save him from the hideous and deadly world of magic.
They fail though, because Hagrid gives them tails, and he takes Harry to Diagon Alley, which…c’mon, JK. He meets Professor Quirrell, who stutters, meaning he’s either going to turn out to be evil, or be horribly killed. Or, of course, both.
Diagon Alley is a kind of cross between Middle Earth and Dickensian London, and features many witches and wizards and children looking at brooms in shop windows and saying, “Wow, look at it, the new Nimbus 2000!” to make sure all the other children, who know already what they’re looking at, know what they’re looking at. There’s also a bank, staffed by goblins, close relations of Yoda. The bank is where Harry’s vast fortune is kept — by lucky coincidence Harry happens to be rich, which will solve a LOT of potential plot problems moving forward. It’s also where a mysterious thing in a little bag is kept. Hagrid takes the mysterious thing and tells Harry not to talk about it, which is extremely suspicious and makes you wonder why Harry trusts this creepy beardy weirdo.
It is now time for Harry to visit John Hurt’s wand shop, to buy a wand. Here we learn the nature of wands. Or at least we see some wands doing some wacky stuff and making a big mess, and the vague, never-fully-explained behaviour of wands is first semi-demonstrated. It turns out that if a wand upsets drawers or breaks vases, it doesn’t like you; but if the wand glows golden and blows your hair back, it does. Also it turns out that Harry’s new wand is the twin wand of Voldemort’s, although we don’t know he’s called Voldemort yet: John Hurt just tells Harry that he’s the one who gave Harry his scar, but won’t tell him his name, which is a real dick move.
A quick talk with Hagrid and a flashback to Voldemort killing Harry’s parents reveals that Harry is “the boy who lived”, one of the most unimpressive nicknames anyone’s ever had. Throughout the series, living will continue to be Harry’s only talent.
Anyway, it’s off to Hogwarts! First of course we go to Platform 9 3/4, which is where the Hogwarts Express leaves from, specially designed to weed out anyone insufficiently tolerant of the unbearably twee. At the station, Harry meets the Weasley’s, England’s ugliest family: Mrs Weasley, the acclaimed character actress; Ron Weasley, the gaping idiot; Fred and George Weasley, the twins who can’t act; Percy Weasley, who is unimportant at all times; and Ginny Weasley, who Harry will bang one day. The Weasleys help Harry run through a wall and he gets on the train, a remarkably archaic mode of transport for wizards, especially when you later see the myriad more efficient methods of travel that are available.
On the train, Harry and Ron attempt to develop diabetes and Ron introduces Harry to his pet rat, who will later turn out to be a) not a pet rat and b) a colossal plot hole. Whilst the boys stuff their horrid little faces, Hermione shows up to look down her nose at them.
Later on, Hermione will turn out to be a great character and a wonderful role model, but at this early stage she is an insufferable little prig who not even losers like Ron and Harry would ever hang around in real life.
When the train arrives at Hogwarts, Hagrid is already there, proving my point about inefficient transport. He takes everyone to the castle, so I guess that’s his job too. This is our first look at Hogwarts, and it looks…like a big castle in a movie. Which I guess would be impressive if it was real life and you’d lived your whole life under a child abuser’s stairs.
Inside the castle waits Maggie Smith, who explains the Hogwarts system of houses, and that the job of deciding who goes in which house is left up to a hat. The children stay silent, not wanting to get in trouble for pointing out what a stupid place this is. While they wait to get sorted, Draco Malfoy rears his ugly Aryan head, and makes some perfectly reasonable points about how awful and poor the Weasleys are. Despite this, Harry is incredibly rude to him, and he may have blown his chances of being friends with Draco for good.
In the Great Hall, the students come forward one by one to put on the Sorting Hat and be told which house they’re in by the voice of Leslie Phillips. Hermione goes first and is sorted into Gryffindor. The Gryffindors all clap and cheer at this, because they haven’t met Hermione yet. Draco gets sorted into Slytherin, because he’s evil and as Ron explains, Slytherin is for evil children, a dangerous way of organising things on Hogwarts’ part, but there you go.
While the kids are being sorted, Harry gets a migraine, something that always seems to come over him whenever he looks at Alan Rickman.
The Sorting Hat goes on sorting, putting the good kids in Gryffindor and the evil kids in Slytherin and the kids nobody is interested in in Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff — this last being the comedy house. When it’s Harry’s turn the Hat tells him Slytherin would be good for him, but Harry begs like a snivelling little creep and the Hat puts him in Gryffindor to shut him up.
Then all the students pig out and meet the ghost of John Cleese.
Boring Percy leads the new kids to the Gryffindor dormitory, up the constantly moving stairs, a special feature of Hogwarts that seems to have been designed purely to make things hard for the people who live there, with no practical benefit whatsoever. I mean, I get that it’s a magical building, but aren’t wizards capable of building some stairs that just stay still?
To get into Gryffindor’s inner sanctum you have to say a password to a painting of an ugly old woman, a security measure that seems only slightly more useful than the stairs. Harry puts on his pyjamas and sits on the windowsill of his dorm, stroking his owl (not a euphemism) and singing the opening number from Annie in his head.
First day of school, and Harry dutifully gets told off by Maggie Smith and also by Snape, who has risen to a surprisingly lofty position in the teaching world given he seems incapable of speaking to children in anything but an ominously threatening manner. Every single word Snape says carries with it the unspoken addendum: “I AM GOING TO MURDER YOU”. As such he is obviously a villain, no doubt about that whatsoever. Just you wait and see.
There is also Harry’s first flying lesson, with flying teacher Zoe Wanamaker, later to disappear completely as a result of wanting too much money. Hogwarts is no place for workers’ rights. Zoe completely fails to tell the children how to fly, but most of them seem to be able to do it anyway, except for Neville Longbottom, the comic relief, whose every waking moment is pain and suffering and who is therefore hilarious.
It’s while Professor Wanamaker is taking the comic relief to hospital that Harry and Draco have a dramatic broomstick confrontation, similar to the confrontation between Ginger and Tiger Kelly in the Ginger Meggs movie. During this, Maggie Smith happens to look out her window and notice that Harry is extremely good at flying despite never having done it before and having no idea what he’s doing. This leads to the most terrible of consequences, as we are now introduced to the darkest and most horrific aspect of the Harry Potter universe: quidditch.
I can’t even express how awful quidditch is. It’s horrible. It’s disgusting. It’s a vile, nauseating offence against every possible notion of human decency. There are literal war crimes that I detest less than quidditch. I can confidently say that JK Rowling not only knows nothing about sport, but that she actively hates it — nobody without a deep and abiding loathing of sport could ever have invented quidditch.
Here’s the thing about quidditch: both teams battle to get the ball through the goals, and to stop the other team doing likewise, with ten points scored for each goal. So far, so good — like broomstick soccer, basically. BUT then there’s the Golden Snitch, an element that JK introduced to quidditch to make sure it really was the worst thing anyone’s ever thought of. When a team’s Seeker catches the Snitch, their team gets 150 points, and the game is over. IT’S OVER.
In other words, every part of the game apart from the Golden Snitch is completely pointless. The captain of Harry’s team even admits this when he shows the Snitch to Harry and says, “You catch this, Potter, and we win”. So it’s all a big fucking WASTE OF TIME, isn’t it? It hurts me physically to think about this stupid goddamn game. Damn you to hell for quidditch, JK Rowling. As Christopher Hitchens would say, quidditch poisons everything.
Anyway while I was thinking about how much I hate quidditch, Harry and Ron and Hermione got lost and met a giant three-headed dog. Later on Ron and Hermione get in a spat in feather-lifting class, little knowing that years later they will totally do it.
That night Professor Quirrell runs into the hall screaming and then faints because there’s a troll about. Dumbledore tells all the children to go to their rooms, so naturally Harry and Ron, the most irritating students at the school, run off by themselves, worried about Hermione because she’s been in the toilets all day crying. They could’ve just gone to a teacher and told them about Hermione, but these are two brave, annoying, stupid boys, so they run off and confront the troll, which has Hermione cornered. Hermione hides in a stall, which is a futile gesture as should be perfectly obvious.
The troll is supposed to be scary, I guess, but actually it’s just a big goofy-looking cartoon. If Harry pulled its face off it’d probably turn out to be Old Man Withers, owner of the abandoned amusement park. It’s not all that hard to defeat either, as evidenced by the fact that Ron, a halfwit eleven-year-old who doesn’t know how to use a wand, manages to overcome it.
The children are in big trouble — as punishment for almost being murdered, Hermione loses “house points”, which as punishments go, is like a slap on the wrist to a man with no arms. While Maggie Smith is berating them, Harry notices that Snape has a cut on his leg, which is extremely suggestive — did Snape let the troll loose? Or did he just walk into a coffee table?
Next day is the day of the big quidditch match, which is enough to make you vomit. To mark the occasion, Harry receives a brand new broomstick from a secret admirer. The broom is a Nimbus 2000, which you’ll remember is the one that Basil Exposition was orgasming over earlier on.
The game begins, and it’s every bit as awful and nighmarish and revolting as every quidditch game ever. Everyone involved in putting this on screen is hopefully very ashamed of themselves. And all those fuckwits who go around playing “quidditch” in real life — you should be ashamed too. Take a long hard look at yourself.
The game is commentated by an over-excited kid who will one day play Magnitude in Community. Much like all those movies where a school basketball or hockey game has a commentator for no discernible reason, this commentator exists only to explain to the audience what the hell is going on, as it’s unlikely anyone would know otherwise.
It’s also notable that the quidditch game takes place above a beautifully manicured grass field, which seems like a waste of resources for a game that is played entirely in mid-air. Except when a player gets knocked out, I guess, but then it’d be more appropriate to cover the field with mattresses or something. The people getting knocked out in this game keep falling onto dirt anyway.
Suddenly, for the first time ever, something interesting happens in a quidditch game. Harry’s broom starts having some kind of epileptic seizure. Hermione notices that Snape’s lips are moving, so obviously he is jinxing Harry’s broom: this is the sort of thing Snape would definitely do because as we know, Snape is a villain. Hermione comes up with a brilliant plan: she will set fire to Snape’s robe. It works: Harry’s broom rights itself and he is free to continue the dreadful game to its pathetic conclusion. Which he does by, duh, catching the frigging Snitch. Hooray for Harry and fuck quidditch.
In the aftermath of the big quidditch clusterfuck, the intrepid three twits talk to Hagrid about how Snape tried to murder Harry. Hagrid tells them they’re a bunch of dickheads. The kids ask Hagrid about the big dog they saw. Hagrid tells them to shut their dumb necks, then accidentally says “Nicolas Flamel”, and wanders off to drink moonshine.
For Christmas, Harry receives an invisibility cloak and a cryptic note. It could be that in future, this cloak will prove useful in some situations. In fact it’ll prove useful in almost all situations, but only in some of them will Harry remember that he has it.
The first situation the cloak proves useful in is the investigation of Nicolas Flamel, which requires looking him up in the library, because these wizards have mastered magic but don’t know how to get the internet put on. Looking up Flamel almost gets Harry caught by Filch, the school caretaker who hates children for no reason at all. While Harry romps about being invisible he also happens to see Snape and Quirrell having a disturbing encounter in a corridor, which serves to confirm the fact that Snape is without doubt a big fat villain.
At this point the director decided it was time to really slow the movie down and give everyone a chance to catch up on some sleep, so Harry walks around and finds a mirror, in which he sees his parents. This is quite startling for him as you might imagine. He shows Ron, but Ron sees himself as head boy and quidditch captain…goodness me what a mysterious mirror this is! Harry sits in front of it for a while, waiting for an elderly gay man to come tell him what it is. Which Dumbledore does, arriving to tell him that the mirror shows the person who looks into it their deepest desire, making it one of the world’s most impressive and most useless mirrors.
Nek minnit, Hermione shows up with a big book to tell the boys that Nicolas Flamel was the discoverer of the Philosopher’s Stone — hey that’s in the name of the movie! Hermione deduces that the horrible dog is guarding the Philosopher’s Stone. Where would Harry be without Hermione? He wouldn’t know anything, but on the other hand his life would be a lot more peaceful.
Visiting Hagrid to take advantage of the giant’s narratively convenient habit of blurting out important plot points apropos of nothing, the children meet an inconsequential dragon and get in trouble for wandering around in the middle of the night — along with Draco, who was wandering around in the middle of the night himself so he could dob on them. Their punishment is fifty house points — which seems ridiculously excessive — and being forced to go into the woods with Hagrid in the dark — which seems like reckless endangerment.
As usual, young children venturing into a dark forest with a gigantic yokel turns out extremely well. Hagrid shows just how good he is at taking care of kids by splitting the group up and sending Harry and Draco off by themselves. This leads to the discovery of a dead unicorn and a terrifying figure in a black cloak who is about to kill Harry before he is saved by a badly-animated centaur. The centaur explains some important plot points to Harry and then pisses off to await developments in CGI technology.
Back at Hogwarts, the twits have figured out that Snape is trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone to bring Voldemort back to life, because Snape is a big villain. Hermione reassures Harry that he is safe as long as Dumbledore is around, a claim that will become increasingly untrue with every instalment in the Harry Potter series. Running once again to Hagrid, the children confirm their suspicion that Hagrid is a moron who has fucked everything up by telling everyone he meets everything he knows about everything.
The twits rush to tell Dumbledore everything — an impulse that arrives far too seldom in these stories — but Dumbledore isn’t there. They could, of course, tell Maggie Smith everything, that seems like a pretty sound idea, but their thinking has not advanced to that stage yet, so they just run away and bump into Snape, who talks creepily to them. The situation is urgent, so they run off to find the Philosopher’s Stone, a task that will require solving a series of slightly difficult puzzles and then a boss battle. But first they stop off to paralyse Neville Longbottom, whose life continues to be an unending hell on earth.
The three-headed dog is asleep, lulled by a magic harp. To be honest it’s not a very good guard dog. As they open the trapdoor, the harp stops playing and the dog wakes up, but they dive down the hole in the nick of time, suffering a terrible fall but managing to be completely unharmed.
After getting past the dog, the children are grabbed by a bunch of slimy rooty tentacley things a bit like the trash compactor in Star Wars, which Hermione defeats by remembering something she read in a book, like the infuriating little swot she is. Next up, a bunch of flying keys, and really what the hell kind of place is this. Harry fights off the angry flying keys in a scene that would be dramatic if it weren’t so incredibly silly, and catches the one key that will unlock the door, by using his amazing Seeker skills — you see how quidditch comes in handy? Not worth it though — Harry would be better off dying down there.
In the next room is a giant chess board, which is great because Ron was playing chess before and he’s really good at it even though in every other respect he’s a total cretin. The chess pieces guard the next door and can only be overcome by playing chess because whoever set up all these defences thought they were being so bloody cute. If Ron doesn’t play well, all the children will be killed, which will destroy this film’s chances of getting a PG rating, so I don’t think we need worry really. Ron wins via the power of montages, in the process sacrificing himself, but not really. I mean he’s not dead or anything. I feel like if he were dead, it’d give this whole movie a lot more meaning, but there you go.
Harry goes on alone, after telling Hermione to look after Ron — no explanation as to how she’s supposed to do this — and to get a message to Dumbledore. It’d be pretty smart to wait for Dumbledore to come help before going on, but Harry has a sort of funny feeling, and in this world, sorts of funny feelings are the only guide anyone needs.
And so Harry gets to the boss battle, where he meets…
Oh my God who saw that coming? Lots of people I bet. Even if they hadn’t read the book. And can you believe it, Snape was trying to protect Harry all along! At the quidditch game, he was doing a spell to fight Quirrell’s spell! Snape…not a villain? How is this POSSIBLE? And yet it must be true, because Quirrell goes through the whole plot before moving on to the trying to kill him bit.
It’s not really Quirrell’s fault, though — he’s got a face in the back of his head telling him what to do? That can happen sometimes — I read about a guy who was born with a face on the back of his head. I don’t think it gave him orders, but it pulled faces and smiled and stuff. Pretty creepy. The weird thing is the face in the back of Quirrell’s head has a nose, but in the later movies, Voldemort has no nose. Continuity guy dropped the ball.
Quirrell makes Harry look in the stupid mirror, and Harry sees the Philosopher’s Stone, but he says he sees himself winning the house cup, but the back of Quirrell’s head knows he’s lying, so they have to have a fight.
Wait, Harry HAS the Philosopher’s Stone now? When did he get that? I think I missed a bit. Or did he magically get it from the mirror? There’s been so much laboured exposition in this movie it seems unfair they breeze past a big deal like that.
Anyway the back of Quirrell’s head offers to bring Harry’s parents back to life if he gives him the stone, but Harry, who has one of those nasty, untrusting natures that tells you he’s probably a very dishonest person himself, doesn’t believe him, so instead he wrestles with Quirrell a bit and then kills him, and then Voldemort turns into smoke and flies through Harry’s stomach and out the door. And that’s that, really.
Harry wakes up in hospital, where Dumbledore visits to give a fairly glib and unconvincing explanation of what just happened with the stone, and say some unsettling things about love and Harry’s skin. Dumbledore then steals some of Harry’s lollies and leaves.
Finally, at the end-of-year dinner in the Great Hall, everyone puts on their stupid hats and Dumbledore announces that Slytherin has scored the most points and therefore won the house cup — an unlikely outcome if you ask me, considering that everyone in Slytherin is completely evil and would struggle to embody the ideals that Hogwarts seeks to uphold.
But THEN, Dumbledore pulls a total Matt Preston on everyone, and says that Gryffindor has got a bunch of extra points for Hermione being smart and Ron being brave and Harry sort of, just, being there, I guess, and Neville Longbottom for pain and suffering.
And so, like the Junior Masterchef winner who got eleven out of ten, Gryffindor comes over the top and wins the house cup and Draco Malfoy is left there in his stupid hat looking forlorn just like he deserves. Everyone except the Slytherins throw their hats in the air, which is going to make it really difficult to figure out which hat belongs to who when they pick them up.
And then, Harry gets on the train to go back to his hateful, abusive family, and everything is fine.