Friday, November 8, 2013

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's [Sorcerer's] Stone

1997, British hardcover Bloomsbury edition from 2000, American paperback Scholastic edition from 1999
J. K. Rowling
American edition illustrated by Mary Grandpre
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's [Sorcerer's] Stone
Original and purchase prices unknown
Philosopher's in good shape although worn dustjacket, Sorcerer's falling apart

In some ways, this is one of the hardest books I've had to review, because I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, both books and movies.  I didn't start out that way.  In 2000, I decided I could no longer ignore the hype, so I read the first book.  I thought it was OK, but it was basically a British school story with magic in it.  Later, I decided to give the second book a shot, and it clicked with me more.  So I went on to read the other two that were out at that point.

And then I was in the lobby of a movie theater, some point in 2001 it must've been, and the monitor was showing trailers.  (That was a fairly new thing in itself, a way to pass time in the refreshments line.)  And I watched the trailer for the new Harry Potter movie transfixed.  Specifically, the nighttime shot of Hogwarts made me think "It's like Oz!"  I felt like suddenly, in my early 30s, I'd been given back the wonder of the Oz series.  And then when I saw the movie, I liked the books more than before.  It just built from there for the last dozen years.

But how to write about this book somewhat in isolation?  By definition, you can't be objective about your opinions.  Although as a fan, I get a kick out of lines about "young Sirius Black" and Snape's ability to read minds, they don't pay off in this book.  And to be honest, on its own terms, it really is a British school story with magic in it.  The best part of the book is actually roughly the first third, before Harry gets to Hogwarts, the stuff with the Dursleys and/or Hagrid.  It wasn't until my second or third reading that I realised the Roald Dahl meets Sinclair Lewis satiric tone of the first chapter, with Vernon having "a perfectly normal, owl-free morning."

Not that it's not nice to meet Ron, Hermione, Neville, etc., but we don't really get to know much about them in this book.  (For instance, some of Ron's funniest moments, like "She needs to sort out her priorities," are only in the movie.)  And I'm not entirely happy with Neville's arc here.  He learns to stand up for himself, including to his friends, but he gets frozen by Hermione for doing so!  And he's apparently forgotten by Hagrid and the others (including Rowling) in the Forbidden Forest.  But he wins ten points, and Gryffindor gets the House Cup, so we're not supposed to mind.

There are some other clumsy moments, like characters seeking information that they obviously know, like Mrs. Weasley asking which platform they're going to.  (She could've said, "Here we are, Platform Nine and Three-Quarters," for instance.)  Or what about Harry's dream that he forgets by the next morning?  I realise that the story isn't entirely from his perspective, but Rowling could've handled the inclusion of the dream better.  

It's very much a kids' book, with the characterisation kept simple.  When Dumbledore answers Harry's questions at the end, we're not supposed to think with hindsight, "You damn liar!  You're even lying about not lying!"  We're just supposed to take the answers on the level that Harry does.  

As a kids' book, it works well, flaws aside, because it taps into not just the fantasy of magic but fantasies of friendship, sweets, animals, silliness, and simple triumphs.  I can't say that Grandpre's illustrations are that memorable, except for how they carefully don't give away plot points.  They get the job done, and they're better than the post-Neill Oz illustrations.

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