The main question to be asked of any book to screen translation is this: 'How much of the story has been changed?' With such a hugely popular tale as Harry Potter, the answer to this question becomes paramount to the film's success.
Well the fans can breathe a sigh of relief: the plot of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone remains virtually intact. There are only two major changes: the storyline involving Hagrid's pet dragon Norbert is substantially shortened, and there are slight changes in the denouement, of which more later. However the movie is not flawless. The main problem is that there is so much packed into the book that not all of it could ever be translated into a two and a half hour film. Therefore, while all the main plot points of
the book are retained, much of the background: the magic classes and the interactions between Harry and his teachers and friends, apart from Ron and Hermione, fail to appear. This is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, it gives the film the impression of being rushed as the characters race from set piece to set piece. Secondly it may mean that the film will not stand up to repeat viewing. For many fans of the books the thing that keeps them re-reading, even once they know the plot, is the attention to detail that Rowling pays to her world. Every character, every class has their own nuances and happenings. This necessary condensation also means that the audience can only come to know four characters properly: Harry, Ron, Hermione and Hagrid. The three central children turn in fantastic performances. Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is nicely understated, particularly in the tricky emotional scene with the Mirror of Erised. He manages to capture the essence of Harry, while at the same time allowing the fans projection of Harry to remain in the film. Emma Watson (Hermione) also fits her part fabulously. The only faint problem is that the early dislike between her and the two boys does not really feature.
However, this is probably not the fault of the young actress, as when given the chance she turns on Hermione's smug, snotty attitude to perfection. Ron, however, is the star turn, and Rupert Grint is quite simply fantastic. He swallows up the part and becomes Ron, regularly bemused but never less than enthusiastic. His array of expressions is vast, and he takes full advantage of the brilliant lines he is given - particularly in relation to Hermione ('You can be a little scary you know. Brilliant, but scary', is a personal favourite) However, the other children fade slightly into the background. Draco Malfoy becomes a sneering class rival, without present the depth of familial bitterness to Harry and his friends that appears in the books. Harry's Gryffindor friends are similarly reduced. Fred and George Weasley, Ron's fantastically entertaining prankster brothers appear infrequently, though the young Phelps twins playing the parts sparkle when given the chance.
The hapless Neville features in only a few scenes, removing the poignancy from his bravery in standing up to Harry, Ron and Hermione at a crucial moment. Meanwhile Neville's role as the butt of the majority of unfortunate incidents is transferred to Seamus Finnegan, the hapless comedy-Irishman of the piece who seems to spend most of his scenes getting covered in smoke.
The adults also suffer from the lack of opportunities for character development. Maggie Smith's McGonnagall in particular is little more than the extended cameo. Harris' Dumbledore is robbed of many of his most amusing lines, and at the end of some of his most profound, while Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart) barely registers until the end. Only Snape and Hagrid amongst the adult characters really survive intact. Rickman brings the complexity of Snape, possibly the most interesting character, perfectly to life. However with class scenes reduced he doesn't really get the chance to show his irrationally personal dislike of Harry. Robbie Coltrane, as Hagrid, is wonderful. He carries off his huge stature with ease, and yet never appears to be anything but loveable. One of the best images of the film has to be Hagrid wandering around his giant hut in an apron and oven gloves and overseeing the hatching of 'his baby' Norbert the dragon. The sight of this huge bearded man saying: 'Bless 'im, he knows 'is mummy', of a somewhat unattractive little green dragon is endearingly comic.
It is impossible for me to comment as to whether the film is a good introduction to Harry's world for someone who has not read the books. I can say, that as a fan, there are a few little niggles in the plot, particularly the fact that Harry's owl, Hedwig, is never named in the film. However, the only plot change of any real substance is the change to the ending. The suspense builds up nicely as the three children go through the trapdoor to try and save the Philosopher's stone. One of the protections - a potions logic problem devised by Snape - is missing as they work their way through the series of problems, but this does not affect the plot too much. The giant chess game is one of the highlights of the film, as Ron takes charge and shows that he can be as brilliant as his friends can. Grint performs brilliantly, particularly in his expression of fear as he prepares to perform the penultimate move of the game. The problem is the denouement in front of the Mirror of Erised. With the character having had so little screen time many of the hints suggesting the identity of the villain are lost on screen. The action of the scene is also changed substantially. One of the major mysteries of the novels is why Voldemort wanted to kill Harry Potter when he was a baby. This is set up in the first book, and a large part of this falls in the final scene in the dungeon. Unfortunately, this does not appear on screen, and so it does not seem as if Voldemort as any particular personal reasons for wishing to kill Harry.
The appearance of Voldemort himself is also problematic. As a shadow and a voice he carries plenty of menace, but when his face is revealed he immediately ceases to be unduly frightening. In the end this scene suffers primarily from its clarity. In the novel the scene becomes blurred as we are taken through it in Harry's mind, and then ends with the reader unsure of it's outcome. However in the film, Harry's triumph is complete, and so Dumbledore's aid is not required, nor is it shown that Harry still has a long way to go until he can face Voldemort alone. Following on from this Dumbledore's scene of explanation with Harry in the hospital wing is necessarily cut short, and so the full depth of Dumbledore's knowledge and wisdom are not revealed.
Despite this, the film is a joyous event, and the real star is the special effects. 10 years ago, making a film like this would have been an impossibility, now the fantasy comes to life in every possible way. Diagon Alley appears as Dickensian London, full of narrow streets, randomly positioned and designed shops selling everything you could want, a riot of colour and activity. Hogwarts is a magical blend of castle and cathedral, fitting into its surroundings perfectly. The interiors of Hogwarts are a dream: dark, gothic, warm in the Gryffindor Tower, and bleak in the dungeons. Hagrid's hut is a masterwork - everything built on a large scale for the huge figure, so that when the children sit in the chairs they appear dwarfed. The magic is just that - magic. Hermione's feather hangs on invisible strings, the photos move as if they are second-long video clips and McGonnagall's transformation from cat to woman is effortlessly smooth and sudden. Even the three entirely computer generated creatures: the centaur, the troll and Fluffy, the three-headed dog, merge almost perfectly. However, the pièce de resistance is the Quidditch match. This is where Columbus' direction, generally restrained to simply telling the story, fully takes off. The pitch appears almost as a medieval arena, surrounded by tall walls and towers draped in hangings and flags. The players fly around the pitch at extreme speeds, ducking, diving and swerving. It is a more brutal game than may be imagined from reading the books as players actively try to knock each other off their brooms. It is a blur of colour and action, accompanied by one of the best tracks of John Williams' score.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is ultimately one of the year's most entertaining films. Despite the nit-picking that the fans will certainly undertake over what was left out, everything that made it on to the screen works wonderfully. Harry's magical world is enticing and seductive, while Rowling's exciting, action packed plot translates to screen wonderfully, thanks to Steve Kloves' mainly faithful script. All the acting is superb - even if some characters don't get that much screen time. Above all, the movie makes you feel with Harry as you journey through his adventure with him. However, it remains to be seen whether the appeal of the film endures once the plot is known and the initial awe has faded.