November 11, 2001

Wizardry Practiced on a Wizard


I recently asked a couple of connoisseurs how the movie version of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" might be better than the book.

"Some parts will be scary. Some parts will be shocking," said my son, Luc, who is 7.

His friend Max, age 8, said: "The pictures. The actors. It'll look more realistic."

In that case, even if it doesn't straddle so-called serious ideas and fun with as much exuberance as J. K. Rowling's book, this movie will be good for American culture.

The book has already done its part, as we know from innumerable articles informing us that Potter fans throng to bookstores in extraordinary numbers. At least 60 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 17, a study found, have read at least one of the four books in the series. Presumably, the other 40 percent have at least purchased a Harry Potter backpack or a Harry Potter lunch box or a set of Harry Potter "glitter quills."

Harry is a hero for our times: all promise and not much fulfillment yet, secretly suspecting that he is superior to his enemies but unwilling to unleash his aggression toward them fully, capable of courageous impulses yet ceaselessly worried about others' perceptions of him. He is, of course, an orphan. "Which is really good," Luc pointed out, "because he can sneak out at night with his friends, and also when you don't have parents you get to be the main person."

It is the rare kid who doesn't know Harry's back story: his parents, attractive husband-wife wizards, were murdered by a wizard so spectacularly evil that in the jittery, gossipy world of wizards, witches, trolls, ghosts, goblins and their apprentices he is known as "He Who Cannot Be Named."

Baby Harry got away with only a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.

A decade or so later, as our story opens, he is living with his toxic uncle and aunt and their obnoxious offspring, Dudley, none of whom have magic powers and all of whom relentlessly mistreat him. Harry is constantly admonished to be as "normal" as his relatives, but, in a fit of pique at being their whipping boy, he occasionally levitates this or that in the house or lets a python out of the zoo. He is relieved to get confirmation of his "specialness" when a letter arrives advising him that he has been admitted to Hogwarts, the celebrated wizard school.

It is Hogwarts, I believe, that will flow permanently into the cultural stream when the movie opens on Friday — at least on the basis of the previews and the publicity shots, one of which includes a scene set at Harrow School (Churchill's alma mater) in which Harry's friend Hermione shows off her wand- wielding for her professors and classmates.

When Harry arrives at Hogwarts, his story's resemblance to that of Batman or Superman recedes, and its evocations of ancient European folklore and classical mythology, of C. S. Lewis and Charles Dickens begin. It also very specifically starts to reveal the chassis of a literary tradition prized by film buffs of all ages: the boarding school or prep school tale, which has been so successfully adapted to film as to qualify as a cinematic sub- genre.

"Zero for Conduct," Jean Vigo's ironic and droll movie about the schoolboys who rebel against their demoniacally oppressive wardens, has been beloved by both film fans and filmmakers since its release in France in 1933. It served as the inspiration for "If," the darkly delicious Lindsay Anderson movie from 1968 that starred the thenceforth iconic Malcolm McDowell (and caused many thousands of us to go right to the record store and purchase "Missa Luba," a Congolese mass sung by a boys' choir on the soundtrack).

The film "Zero for Conduct" also inspired François Truffaut's "400 Blows" (1959), still one of the wittiest, most beautiful films ever made about the tenderness and misery of young boys.

Some of the movies center on children ("Another Country"); some star teachers ("The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"); and there are many variations: "Tom Brown's School Days" and "The Winslow Boy"; "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Dead Poets Society."

In part, we are drawn to boarding school movies because the world of children materializes on screen "realistically," to use Max's word, which means that they often deal with adult themes (just as in real life). Boarding school movies have explored many of the most controversial political themes of the last century, ranging from the abuse of power to every manner of prejudice. And of course many have evoked the perplexing sexual questions generated by combining the intimacy of dormitory life with the erotic power of the siege-survival-detention dynamic. "Mädchen in Uniform" (released in Germany in 1931), in which a sensitive girl at an all-female boarding school falls in love with one of her teachers, was one of the first films to portray homosexuality.

This is the rare category in which movies are often as good as books they are based on. Witness Peter Brook's "Lord of the Flies" (1963), as unforgettably eerie as William Golding's 1954 book, in which a band of boys stranded on an island reinvents the system of rules, ferocious competition, bullying and abuse of privilege that characterized every "good" school.

But back to contemporary reality: if you don't count secondary education, it's been a while since we've had a really rousing school movie. The glut of teenage comedies in the last few years has left us few memorable educational environments. The better movies have tended to be very broad in their depiction of school life; "Rushmore" (1998) comes to mind, as well as the wonderful academy for mutants of "X-Men" (2000). So presumably, a generation or so of under-age moviegoers really have no idea of what a boarding school is like or that there is a tradition of boarding school films (especially since so few young fans are willing to watch black-and-white movies.)

Given the quality of the Rowling books, it doesn't seem so crazy that the movie may do some justice to this tradition despite the fact that, unlike some of the somber works named above, it is not a film for adults about children but a film for children about children. Part of Ms. Rowling's tremendous achievement is to have addressed the substantial questions and grave themes of those older movies while ingeniously recasting them into characters, action and play of language accessible to most 8-year-olds.

Hogwarts is a school like no other, by and for wizards, but like any school it is a voyeur's delight: a closed environment from which there is no (or little) escape, a microcosm in which to watch children and adults interact, at their best and worst. "I'm writing about shades of evil," Ms. Rowling has been quoted as saying. If the movie does its job half well, the goings-on at Hogwarts will not only offer high-tech Halloweenish good-and-scary; they will also remind us of the traumatic shock experienced upon the realization that one's various enemies have become allied; the temptations of group-think; the inevitable success of vain and charming hustlers; the perennially exasperating reality of dumb hero worship; and institutionally sanctioned collective sadism, class injustice and bigotry, to say nothing of the disproportionate importance of sports, as evidenced by the obsessive attention paid to Quidditch, the magic soccer-croquet- hockeylike sport that entails flying on high-tech brooms after red Quaffles or black Bludgers or a golden Snitch, or whatever. The magic practiced and taught at Hogwarts can easily be viewed as a heightened version of the wishes for omnipotence every young child (and many an adult) experiences when confronted with the prowess of his seniors and betters.

Beyond the occasional inappropriate crush, the most important psychological component that's absent at Hogwarts is sex, though one supposes it would be too much to expect American filmmakers to march in bravely where Ms. Rowling and her British publisher have feared to tread and include the homoerotic and heteroerotic subtexts that are unfailingly woven into the social fabric of an authentic school situation.

But let's not quibble.

Do the filmmakers get carried away with special effects and equipment? The previews flaunt plenty of both, and this will undoubtedly make thousands of boys and girls quite happy — and more power to them. Lots of magic-world techno-bombast need not distract from the text's subtlety and delicate edge. As to whether the movie will respect the finesse with which Ms. Rowling leads Harry in and out of his multiple magic- normal realities, we must rely on the efforts of the screenwriter, Steve Kloves, who has done fine work in the past with grown-up themes in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Wonder Boys," and the director, Chris Columbus, whose movies include the successful, albeit worrisome, "Home Alone" and also the considerably funkier "Only the Lonely." Ms. Rowling has been singing Mr. Columbus's praises, saying that he "really gets the book" — so we may be allowed to hope.

WHAT is certain is that millions of children totally get the book, and this has led many adults to fear that there is more at stake here than in the usual "family" movie. But it's possible that we underestimate children when we worry that movies will damage fantasies generated by reading, especially a book they love so well.

And it's not as if today's 6- and 7- and 8-year-olds haven't already been indoctrinated in favor of literacy.

"It won't be coming from our own imaginations," my son, Luc, acknowledged when I asked what might be worse about the movie than the book. "At least while you're watching, it's hard to keep it separate."

And afterward, do you then smoosh together the images from the movie with those you had already made in your mind while reading the book, or do you keep them separate?

"Separate," Luc announced categorically.

What Max worries is "that it'll look too scary or too sad."

"Like, in the book," he said, "there's the murder of the hyppogriff." (He was referring to a creature with the head and winged torso of a giant eagle and the hindquarters of a horse.)

"No!" Luc said. "That's not in the first book. It's in the third."

Well, that's good. We have a little time to work on that. In the meanwhile, the kids can see the first Harry Potter movie and they'll decide later whether they're willing to sign up at Hogwart's for another term. By then, one wonders, will they still believe that the murder of a hyppogriff is the scariest thing that can happen when you put a group of children together and give them magic powers?  

Marcelle Clements's most recent book is "The Improvised Woman" (W.W. Norton & Company).

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company