To paraphrase the tagline used by the eighth and final Harry Potter film, it all started here.
Audience members who couldn’t tell Hagrid from Hermione were first introduced to the wizarding world of J.K. Rowling through Chris Columbus’s 2001 film adaptation, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Needless to say, the world went wild for Harry.
As the magical franchise prepares to bid farewell, we’re using this week’s “When Can I Watch” column to revisit the series’ earliest step, when an 11-year-old boy learned of his destiny and ventured to Hogwarts on an astonishing journey that would forever change our cinematic lives.
So let’s try on our Sorting Hats, hop on the nearest Nimbus 2000, brush up on the rules of Wizard’s Chess, award Gryffindor 50 points for bravery and figure out when you can watch Harry Potter with your kids.
The Discussion: Books or movies?
Given the choice, you naturally want to use the existing films to introduce your kids to the Harry Potter series. This site isn’t called Books.com, after all. (Though there has to be a counterpart somewhere who’s currently writing a “When Can I Read With My Kids” column on the Harry Potter franchise, right?)
Another reason why you’ll want to start with the Harry Potter films is because that no matter your child’s age, the first two films are appropriate. Columbus and his creative team faithfully recreated Rowling’s text on screen for both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, meaning you can give your son or daughter a crash course in all things Potter in a sliver of the time it would take to read the books.
As with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), the audience is warming up to the intricate wizarding world, so the magic on screen in Stone remains basic and the threat level posed by the still convalescing Lord Voldemort is low. It wasn’t until director Alfonso Cuaron arrived at Hogwarts, and brought the savage Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) with him, that the Potter film series darkened and matured (welcome changes, both).
Granted, the question of book-versus-movie might be moot. If your children are old enough, there’s a very good chance they’ve already digested Rowling’s seven novels, which traced Harry Potter’s steps from assaulted infant to triumphant savior of the wizard community. But if you are just now introducing your kids to the Potter universe, it’s something you have to weigh.
P.J., our seven-year-old son, reads at a level beyond his age. One girl in his first-grade class made it through the Sorcerer’s Stone novel (with her parents’ help) during the school year. Our plan, for now, is to watch the first two Potter films with the boys so P.J. can visualize the characters, the environment, and the magic on display. Then we’ll dive into the books, which forever will be waiting for future generations of Potter fans.
Red Flags: Elements That Must Not Be Named
There are precious few red flags in Columbus’ first effort, thanks to the Harry Potter franchise taking baby steps as it transitioned from page to screen.
Sorcerer’s Stone and, to a lesser extent, Chamber of Secrets are the closest these sorcery-laden films come to accessible, action-tinged family entertainment. Part of that has to do with Columbus’ handling of the material, though most of it is credited to Rowling’s early narrative, itself. Her protagonists are young first-year students wading into the shallow end of the wizarding pool, and Columbus’s films follow their lead.
Sorcerer’s Stone coasts along on a few key themes we’ve run across in past columns, from the bullying of slick-haired Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) to the danger that comes with standing up to wicked forces in order to do the right thing.
Brendan, our 3-year-old, was a little scared of the lumbering troll that is unleashed in Hogwarts (though he laughed along when Harry’s wand ends up in the troll’s nostril). Dame Maggie Smith also freaked him out a little because, even at age 3, he understands that most witches are bad and that wide-brim hat she sports makes her look like she belongs in a coven.
And then there’s Voldemort, who -- we know -- will become much more of a menace as the series moves on. But here, he’s just … well, a face. Under a turban. Living on the back of Professor Quirrell’s head. And yes, it’s as disturbing as it sounds. Prepare your kids in advance so they think it’s cool, not creepy.
Green Lights: Casting the Boy Who Lived (and Those Who Lived With Him)
Where to begin? Chris Columbus made a number of inspired choices in the early stages of the Harry Potter franchise. And without them, in all honesty, we might not be talking about this franchise a decade later. Producer David Heyman, speaking to journalists at the red-carpet premiere for The Deathly Hallows: Part 2, said the creative team was “standing on the shoulders of Chris Columbus,” and it’s not an exaggeration. He helped create a cinematic template that would set Harry Potter down a vibrant path.
And yet, just about everything that Sorcerer’s Stone does right is handled better in subsequent films, from the requisite (and thrilling) Quidditch match to the standard, elaborate ending sequences that always finds our Scooby Gang of Harry, Ron and Hermione outing a villainous Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.
But casting is the brightest Green Light I can point to when it comes to Sorcerer’s Stone, because it’s here that we first meet the characters we’ll come to care so deeply about. And it’s not just the perfectly selected trio of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson. It’s Matthew Lewis as the simplistic Neville Longbottom. It’s Felton as the oily Malfoy. It’s the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore. And it’s the brilliant Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, perhaps the most crucial character to Rowling’s story arc outside of Harry Potter, himself. As the Sorcerer’s Stone director, Columbus had a hand in casting this truly magical ensemble, and deserves proper credit for his work.
Talking Points: Muggles, Mudbloods and Orphans … Oh My!
My boys ask a lot of questions as they watch sci-fi or fantasy films. Brendan, our 3-year-old, constantly asks if characters are “bad guys.” He’s obsessed with identifying villains. P.J., on the other hand, runs the gamut with his questions. He knows what he’s watching is fiction, yet he’s still trying to figure out how it connects to our reality, and it’s so entertaining watching him bridge the gap between common knowledge and the fantastical events he sees on screen.
Both boys loved the moving portraits on the walls of Hogwarts. Quidditch was an instant hit, as was the life-sized game of Wizard’s Chess Ron had to play in order for Harry to be able to advance.
Despite all of the wizardry on display, though, P.J. focused on the fact Harry lost his parents – as I pretty much assumed he would. We paused the movie and had a great discussion right after the scene (beautifully handled by Columbus) where Harry sees his parents in the Mirror of Erised. We talked about what we would see if we could look in such a device.
If your children are getting ready to start school or are moving to a new school, Harry’s journey to Hogwarts also can help them understand the excitement and trepidation that comes with meeting new friends, learning new skills and, of course, encountering new challenges while being away from home.
Each year at Hogwarts unlocks new levels to Rowling’s fascinating characters, and I can tell you that the minute Harry waved goodbye to Hagrid at the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, my 7-year-old son was ready to go right back to the magical school and embark on the next adventure.
There’s very little that’s inappropriate in the first Harry Potter movie, and young kids will be enchanted by flying broomsticks, invisibility cloaks, magic candies and young Harry’s adventures in Hogwarts. My 7-year-old devoured the film, while my 3-year-old paid a passing attention to the action but drifted during the dialogue that established and expanded Rowling’s universe. Because Harry is 11 in Sorcerer’s Stone, I’ll split the difference between him and my oldest son and say kids around 8 or 9 are perfect for the film. Progress through the subsequent films, and visit Rowling’s books, at your own pace, but please let me know how it’s working in your home.
Previous “When Can I Watch” Columns:
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Back to the Future
Superman: “The Movie
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Indiana Jones series
The Star Wars Saga