The very first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or “Sorcerer’s Stone” for its release in the United States, where audiences were assumed to be unfamiliar with this alchemical term) is now re-released after 20 years, into a rather different world. Sadly, the actors who played the original Dumbledore, Snape, Uncle Vernon and Mr Ollivander – Richard Harris, Alan Rickman, Richard Griffiths and John Hurt – are no longer with us. The Harry Potter franchise itself is still a colossal commercial entity, an IP Shangri La, although its creator JK Rowling is now at the centre of an acrimonious gender politics debate – undreamed of in 2001 – and the world of children’s and YA fiction, which she almost singlehandedly revived all over the world, is strongly policed on just these issues.
It’s amazing and poignant to remember the sheer excitement of that HPATPS premiere in November 2001: I myself called it an “old-fashioned pre-September 11 news event”. Harry Potter emerged into cinemas as we were still all stunned by 9/11, but yet to see the retaliatory “war on terror”. This film, emerging four years after the original novel, marked the birth of a new consolatory pop culture myth, to rival Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, and the circumstances of its own arrival became mythic, from Rowling’s own early poverty to the snapping up of film rights.
Warner Bros had gambled on three cherubically young actors to carry the series through their own adolescence to its finale: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Emma Watson as Hermione and Rupert Grint as Ron. Opinions on the acting may divide here, and it was admittedly Robert Pattinson (playing Cedric Diggory in Goblet of Fire), who had the real career staying power. But I can’t think of these characters played by any other actors: the thought of the stories being remade or re-adapted with a different cast is heresy. I even grew to like Grint’s very broad, goofy acting, in which he was encouraged by director Chris Columbus at the outset. Radcliffe’s bespectacled moon face looks heartbreakingly unformed.
In the film we see Harry Potter coming to terms with his messianic purpose: he is released from his Dickensian incarceration in the Dursley household and sent for his first term at Hogwarts with its public-school/Oxbridge traditions. Harry learns how to play quidditch (like Tom Brown learning rugby) and he and his three pals are sorted into their various houses; they encounter the formidable teaching staff, including Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart) and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) and then meet the challenge of a deadly assault on Harry.
And it’s still a very entertaining and spectacular movie, with a rush of nostalgia to go alongside the exhilaration of fun, even though some of the “flying” effects during the big quidditch match aren’t quite what we’re used to in 2021. “Wingardium Leviosa,” says the earnest, wide-eyed Hermione … and the story is airborne again.
• Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is released on 29 October in cinemas.