Late at night, on Privet Lane in Little Whinging, two Professors from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) and Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), together with groundskeeper half-giant Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), bring the orphaned infant Harry Potter to his remaining relatives, the Dursleys. The idea is to keep him safe in obscurity, which happens to many a hero in fantasy.
Ten years later, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is living in the cupboard under the stairs, unloved and unwanted by his Muggle relatives, Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths), Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw), and bully cousin Dudley (Harry Melling). Harry, visiting a zoo with them, converses with a giant snake and accidentally makes the glass enclosure vanish, threatening Dudley. The snake slithers away with thanks, and the Dursleys are horrified. As Harry’s wizarding powers are now beginning to manifest, the Dursley’s home is inundated with letters from Hogwarts, brought by owls or simply appearing by magic through the mail slot or the fireplace. The Dursley’s take Harry to a distant island to keep him from learning about his destiny.
But Hogwarts’ half-giant groundskeeper Hagrid appears and informs Harry that he is a powerful wizard and has been accepted by Hogwarts. He is taken to Diagon Alley to obtain an owl named Hedwig, and to be chosen by a wand. It seems Harry’s parents James and Lily Potter were killed by the evil Voldemort, but Harry survived and became the Boy Who Lived.
He enters King’s Cross Station, where the Hogwarts Express departs from the invisible 9 and ¾ platform. He meets the redheaded doofus Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), the way too smart Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson) and the arrogant, bigoted, wealthy, cruel Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton). Everyone assembles in the Great Hall, where the first years are sorted by the sorting hat (voice of Leslie Phillips) into one of four houses—Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin—named after the founding wizards of the school. The sorting hat wonders if Harry should be in Slytherin with Draco—he is a parseltongue and speaks to serpents, after all—but Harry begs to be in Gryffindor with Ron and Hermione. Harry can fly on broomsticks and joins the Quidditch team. The potions master Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), head of Slytherin House, dislikes him immediately. Leaving their rooms at night—strictly forbidden—Harry, Ron, and Hermione discover a huge three-headed dog, which Hagrid calls Fluffy—guarding a trapdoor. Ron and Harry save Hermione from a giant troll. They believe Snape has tried to open the trapdoor. It appears that Snape tries to ruin Harry’s Quidditch game, but he wins. At Christmas, Harry receives his father’s invisibility cloak. Exploring the school with its use, he finds the Mirror of Erised, which shows him his parents. Learning about an attempted robbery at Gringotts’ Bank, they figure out the object hidden behind the trapdoor is the Philosopher’s Stone, which turns any metal into gold and gives immortality. Figuring that a robbery is in progress at Hogwarts, they put the guardian Cerberus to sleep and go through the trapdoor.
There are many obstacles and in the end Harry is alone. He finds Professor Quirinus Quirrell (Ian Hart), the Dark Arts Defence Professor, who says he is behind the Troll invasion and the Quidditch spell that nearly killed Harry, and that Snape was actually trying to protect him. The face of Voldemort is on the back of Quirrell’s head. The Philosopher’s Stone eludes Voldemort and goes to Harry, because he is the only one who doesn’t want it. Harry has been protected by the spell of his mother’s sacrifice for him. Gryffindor wins the House Cup and Harry returns to Privet Drive for the summer. The Dursley’s are terrified of him, and he does not tell them that under-age wizards must not cast spells.
The Harry Potter series of books, famously scribbled in coffee shops by single Mom J.K. Rowling, and the brilliant movies inspired by them, are worldwide phenomena, and if you are a fantasy fan, you probably know everything about them. The movies are a feast for the eyes and ears. I particularly love the details of everyday life in Hogwarts: The stairways that move like an animated Escher print, the paintings on the walls that move and chat with the students or demand passwords or go off for a nap and leave the frame empty, the lit candles that float in the air over the banquet tables, the mail brought by owls, the bizarre snacks and candies, the ghosts who greet the students, like the wonderful Nearly Headless Nick (John Cleese) who longs to join the Headless Ghosts but—alas—his killer failed to finish severing his head from his shoulders.
Steven Spielberg declined to direct and did A.I. Artificial Intelligence instead. He wanted to set the story in an American high school, anyway. Rowling wanted Terry Gilliam to direct, but he was not approved, fortunately. I can’t see a clash of two minds like Rowling and Gillian being anything but disastrous, frankly. In the end, Chris Columbus directed, and he was wonderful. He desperately wanted the job. His daughter learned to love reading because of the novels. He worked on the script till 3:00 AM every day, tightening it up, for free, impressing the hell out of Warner Bothers, who had never heard of anyone in show business doing anything for free.
Daniel Radcliffe’s father refused to let him play Harry Potter, but the producer ran into the man in a theatre audience and convinced him to allow it. Rowling and scriptwriter Steve Knowles insisted that the caste be entirely British and Irish, ending up with possibly the greatest collection of actors in the British Isles. Richard Harris didn’t want to play Dumbledore, but his grand daughter threatened never to speak to him again if he didn’t do it. Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, and Maggie Smith were insisted upon by J.K. Rowling. Richard Harris had trouble remembering his lines and Daniel Radcliffe asked for help with his, just to give him practice.
The landscape and architecture of the U.K. are like characters in the film. They wanted to film in Canterbury Cathedral, but the Dean refused such a pagan project and they filmed in Gloucester Cathedral instead, where Dean Nicholas Bury was a fan of the books. Newspapers were inundated with charges of blasphemy and there were threats of mass protests to stop the shooting. One protester showed up. The American version was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on the assumption that Americans are dumb, and some dialogue had to be re-done. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and Nick Dudman, who worked on the Phantom Menace, did the creatures, along with Industrial Light and (appropriately) Magic. And John Williams wrote the score. Sometimes things just work out.
Dumbledore is Bumblebee in Old English. To understand Filch’s loneliness, David Bradley rented an isolated Irish cottage and lived there for a month with his cat. He later played William Hartnell, the First Doctor Who. Dragon’s blood makes a good oven cleaner. Three owls played Hedwig: Ook, Sprout, and mostly Gizmo. The cauldron in Professor Quirrell’s classroom was actually 500 years old and came from Elizabeth I’s kitchen. J.K. Rowling wrote down the names of the four Hogwarts houses on a barf bag during a flight. This was Emma Watson’s first role. The Hogwarts Express was a 1937 4-6-0 Hall Class steam engine, number 5772, of the Great Western Railway. The movie cost more than The Fellowship of the Ring and made more money. It received three Oscar nominations, seven BAFTA awards, a Saturn Award and eight other prizes. It spawned at least seven other movies and a small library of non-fiction books.