At Thanksgiving dinners everywhere, people will be discussing director Chris Columbus's big screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling's breakthrough children's book. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a big, clever, fast-paced adventure.
Columbus's movie adaptation broke the box-office record set by The Lost World: Jurassic Park, earning $90.3 million in one weekend. (Potter opened on more big screens simultaneously than any movie ever.) Some even predict Titanic may sink as the top box-office grosser of all time as Potter flies up the charts faster than Harry on his broom.
Ahh … the broomstick. There's the problem. Many religious media critics are troubled by the popularity of the franchise, believing it glorifies witchcraft. Others argue that, with proper guidance, children will understand that this magic is just make-believe, representing the powers and abilities that we can use for good or evil in our daily lives.
Those who discovered the joy of reading before the arrival of Potter probably recognize the influence of many imaginative greats—T.H. White, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, and Lewis Carroll, to name several.
The Potter books are unique in that Rowling's style, aimed at kids, appeals to all ages in this hurried, sound-bite culture. Kids love the perpetual humor, and grownups find Rowling easy to read and compelling. Age-old mythical formulas seem fresh again. It is unlikely you'll ever find a college course in Harry Literature 101, but we owe Rowling some thanks. Who would have thought that in the Nintendo age we'd see schoolkids waiting in line to buy a book?
A Moving-Picture Book
Many credit Harry Potter's book success to Rowling's chuckle-a-minute style. Much of the book's narrative wit was certain to be lost in a narrator-less film. Still, with extravagant sets, elaborate costumes, and scenes from almost every chapter, the movie is gaining a good deal of praise … at least for its technical strengths.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Columbus translates Rowling's vision to the screen with both loving care and sharp awareness of the qualities that have made the Potter stories so immensely popular."
Critics at the U.S. Catholic Conference call it "vividly imaginative," but admit that "the film overreaches in including so much, and a stronger editing hand should have been used to trim the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film. Disappointingly, some of the clever nuances from the book don't come through in the film. Harry's miserable home life, which was vibrantly written, is forgettable here."
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) writes, "The movie's pace is surprisingly stately. This becomes somewhat of a problem near the film's conclusion, as … Columbus goes for dread instead of excitement and ends up with a rather boring last reel." But he recommends it in the end. "I suspect that Harry Potter is appropriate for any child above the age of seven or eight. Anyone older than that will be charmed."
Peter T. Chattaway (Books & Culture, B.C. Christian News) at the Film Forum/Chiaroscuro Message Board reports, "Strength—it respects its source material, almost to a fault. Weakness—it respects its source material, almost to a fault. It is very obviously a transcription of the book, and not so much an interpretation of the book, as it arguably ought to be."
Critics at Movieguide lavish praise on the technical aspects of the film. "The production values … are excellent and state-of-the-art. The movie almost perfectly depicts the fantasy elements from the book." But they add, "There are several digressions in the middle of the story, which take away from the plot involving Harry, the villain Voldemort, and the sorcerer's stone. The story finally gets back on track toward the end, but by then, it's almost worn out its welcome."
It is indeed quite a long haul. (My review is at Looking Closer.) Near the end, Professor Dumbledore opens a ceremony saying, "It's hard to believe that a year has passed!" and I heard a few chuckles in the audience. The matinee began at 1:40 p.m. I checked my watch, only to realize that the Stone named in the title was not even mentioned until 3:30 p.m.! Perhaps the movie should be renamed The Many Expressions of Harry Potter. The film introduces us to a vast cast of characters and important magical objects, and for each one the camera zooms in on Harry's reaction—puzzlement, happiness, semi-wicked glee, astonishment. Harry is so busy reacting that we don't get to know him. That's too bad.
In the books, Harry taps into our longings for identity and family. In the hands of a director with greater vision, Big-Screen Harry could have done the same thing. But the movie's in too big a hurry. Harry is reduced to a wide-eyed cipher, looking about at characters far more interesting, witty, and surprising than him.
And what a colorful crew they are. Most enchanting of all is Hermione, the brainy girl who befriends him. Her cocksure attitude makes her a big-screen cousin to Princess Leia. She's played by Emma Watson, one of many young talents making an impressive debut here. Veteran actors John Hurt (Alien) and Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest) almost steal the movie with brief but vivid scenes and over-the-top delivery. And it is uncanny how perfectly the character of Hagrid fits Robbie Coltrane—he's burly, brusque, and prone to blunders, and he brings the film much-needed energy and personality.
But these fine performances are nearly buried by Columbus's predictable direction and an overbearing, relentless soundtrack. Columbus's style is not distinct; he's content to resemble Spielberg, slow-zooming toward every gaping youngster. (It's then that you remember, ah yes, he directed Home Alone.)
Potter brings out the worst in composer John Williams. His overdramatic, redundant themes are catchy, but they're just variations on his earlier work: Schindler's List (the main theme is only a few notes different), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and, above all, Hook. At times the music drowns out action and even dialogue.
Still, there are enough good laughs and enthralling environments to make this film worthwhile. Steve Kloves' script highlights the wit of each character. Gorgeous sets are decorated with delightful details even in shadowy corners. People in the portraits on Hogwarts' walls move, just as they do in the book, and some are hauntingly beautiful. The children have good chemistry. I look forward to seeing them grow up in the sequels … which, by the way, are already being produced.
Will watching it lead your kid into the devil's clutches?
The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom reports that J.K. Rowling's books were the most frequently challenged books in the United States last year. The references to spells and curses are stirring up many conservative communities; some have even hosted book burnings in church parking lots.
The conservative Traditional Values Coalition issued a press release titled Is Harry Potter a Harmless Fantasy or a Wicca Training Program? Its supporters are encouraging a boycott of Sears and Coca-Cola for posting Potter-related ads.
But practitioners of Wicca deny any connection, according to Focus on the Family. "If somebody wanted to pick up the book and do the things in it, it wouldn't be witchcraft," says a Wicca practitioner.
Religious-media critics have a variety of opinions about the magic in Harry Potter. Michael Elliott recommends something different than a boycott. "Forbidding our children to see the film will not protect them from the influence exerted upon them from this cultural phenomenon. We must … be open and honest with our children regarding the negative attributes of the wizardry which the Harry Potter world depicts as being so appealing."
Preview's Paul Bicking doesn't think the film "will lead children to occultism and demon possession, but it could open the door, and we aren't supposed to lead them into temptation either."
Focus on the Family's Lindy Beam argues, "No matter what the essence of Harry's magic, the effect of it is undoubtedly to raise curiosity about magic and wizardry."
"What could be the consequences of placing the clay of young minds on Harry Potter's wheel of fantasy?" asks Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight on the Movies). "I recommend that you resist this 'Pied Piper' and skip it."
Movieguide's critics are the most aggressive naysayers. "Theologically and morally, the [story's] occult, pagan worldview … is abhorrent. The bottom line … is that God abhors witchcraft no matter how sweet and subtle it is." They join others in recommending a video that has been aggressively marketed to churches—Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged. The program presents connections between Harry and the real-world occult, even claiming that the lightning-bolt scar on Harry's forehead is a satanic symbol. Producer Caryl Matrisciana says, "These books are engaging in pagan discipleship. … and turning children away from the biblical principles and God's protection."
Author Mike Hertestein (Cornerstone) once co-wrote a book about how fearful Christian communities can fall victim to hysteria and hoaxes. He writes off this inflammatory video as "an effort to perpetuate 'The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind'. What makes such efforts less laughable than genuinely scary is the real connection they make with the tradition of Medieval witch-hunting, an even more scandalous tradition of religious ignorance—one accompanied by violence. Harry Potter is to the 'real occult' what Fred Flintstone is to real anthropology." He remarks that Harry's magic, "to use Tolkien's phrase—'is at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific magician.'"
"I heard the same complaints about Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the Jedi Knights, and Walt Disney's Fantasia when I was a kid," testifies Peter T. Chattaway, "but none of these things ever got me interested in the occult. This is partly because I knew they were all fantasy, and they never pretended to be anything but fantasy." He highlights the film's usual helpful lessons—"It takes bravery to stand up to your enemies but even more bravery to stand up to your friends; evil isn't always as obvious as you think it is; sacrificing yourself for the greater good is a good thing; and, perhaps most important of all, it is better to be loved than to know all the tricks of wizardry." In his review at CanadianChristianity.com, he adds, "If anything, the movie tones down some of the book's potentially occultic elements, and with them, Rowling's implicit criticisms of the occult."
The U.S.C.C.'s critics discredit objections to the stories' fantasy elements. "Parents concerned about the film's sorcery elements should know that it is unlikely to pose any threat. Harry Potter is so obviously innocuous fantasy that its fiction is easily distinguishable from real life. Parents and children can enjoy this fetching tale in the same spirit of the time-honored tradition of sorcery in Eastern Literature, such as the magical figure of Merlin in the Arthurian legend. And the film ends with a very upbeat, positive message about sacrificial love. Sorcerer's Stone is a magical adventure few would want to miss."
At CultureWatch, the focus is on how rewarding conversations might result from raising Potter-related questions. "Why do you think the Harry Potter series is so popular? What does it say about what kids are feeling about their place in the world?"
What the Apostle Paul Might Say
What critics say is one thing. What the Bible says is something else. Scripture offers an excellent example of how to respond to popular cultural phenomena.
"Zeus was considered a demon by certain early Christians," explains David Bruce at Hollywood Jesus. "They protested Zeus, destroying his images and statues. They burned books about Zeus and warned others to avoid Zeus. Yet the Apostle Paul's approach to Zeus was very different. Standing before the Council in Athens, Paul said, ' . …For in him we live and move and exist. As one of your own poets says, 'We are his offspring' (Acts 17:28)."
Zeus was actually worshipped by people in Athens, celebrated as a real god. Harry Potter is perceived as a fiction. Surely, if Paul approached the cult of Zeus as a corrupt belief that could be discussed and used for God's glory, then we can approach Rowling's storybooks with the same patience and discernment. Rather than burn books, let's open them and help young readers see what is true and false within them. Parents, lead by example. Bruce concludes with a passionate plea: "I fear too many Christians will participate in a Harry Potter/Zeus witch-hunt. Use Harry Potter for the glory of God, just like Paul used Zeus for the glory of God. Please! Let's end the insanity. Enough already."
Deuteronomy 18:10-12 does give us an exhortation: "There shall not be found among you anyone that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination. … or an enchanter or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard. … For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord." Clearly, practicing witchcraft is a sin. If you find your children pursuing a serious interest in the occult, this curiosity probably stems from more than just the influence of a book. Why do kids relate to orphaned Harry so much? If they find Voldemort's villainy appealing, you have to wonder why. But I have yet to hear of any children who, after reading Harry, have done anything more unusual than start reading more books.
To break down the distinction between active worldly witchcraft and the childlike imagination that can mature into great faith discredits the storytelling traditions that have influenced our understanding of good and evil for centuries. Merlin is a wizard—should we burn The Sword and the Stone and the other Arthur legends? No people in my neighborhood have jumped out a window believing that they'll fly like Peter Pan if they "think of a wonderful thought." In South Carolina's The State newspaper, editorial writer John Monk suggests, "You might as well say Gone With The Wind teaches young readers to be slave owners, or Treasure Island entices children to be pirates."
By fourth or fifth grade, most children can distinguish between Shrek and the real world, between Veggie-Tales and vegetables. While you read to your children, you can make sure they understand the important thing in Harry Potter is not the way spells work, but what sets brave Harry apart from proud Malfoy and power-hungry Voldemort. Pay attention as Harry responds to the devil's temptations. It is the Darth Vader-ish villain who snarls, "There is no good and evil; there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." Harry bravely disagrees.
The gulf between the religion of real witchcraft and the use of symbolic magic in storytelling is vast. Rowling's fantasies, like The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Lord of the Rings before them, give readers a whimsical language for discussing the forces at work inside them and around them. Harry's magical gifts are symbols, metaphors for mysterious things in the real world, invisible powers like creativity, love, hate, humility, pride, generosity, and selfishness. Science fiction does the same thing—just exchange magic wands with lightsabers or laser guns, magic brooms with the Starship Enterprise or pod racers, spells with secret codes in The Matrix.
Approach your movies and your storybooks the way you approach Thanksgiving dinner. There's a lot on the table—you can stuff your face with some of it, but you've got to be careful with others. Sure, it's conceivable that someone could choke on a bone. Should we skip the turkey out of fear and settle for a plate of mashed potatoes?
Happy Thanksgiving. Chew your movies carefully.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Earlier Film Forum postings include these other movies in the box-office top ten: Shallow Hal, Heist, Monsters, Inc., K-Pax, 13 Ghosts, The One, Domestic Disturbance, and Life as a House.
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