The film that brought the wizarding world to life — from Hogwarts to Hedwig to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named — is now 20 years old.
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” premiered on Nov. 16, 2001, four years after the series’ first book hit the shelves.
Seven books, eight movies, multiple theme parks, millions of book sales, a Broadway show and several spinoffs later, the beloved franchise has left its mark on millions of muggles. It has influenced everything from popular culture to children’s literature to classroom curriculums.
To celebrate, we’re dusting off our Pensieve to revisit NPR’s coverage of the very first movie.
NPR’s critic called it a “copycat” of the book
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan offered a mixed but overall positive review, focused on the movie’s extreme loyalty to the book.
“Like hulking NFL offensive linemen signed on to safeguard a valuable quarterback, every Harry Potter hire was made with an eye toward ensuring that hordes of fanatical fans won’t be disappointed,” he said on air.
Turan described that as both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he said, “woe to those who would mess with that story.” On the other, even an impressive replica doesn’t leave much room for risk-taking, objection or celebration.
Still, he applauded the moviemakers for building a visually magical world and paring down the lengthy book without resorting to cliches or clunky dialogue. And he praised the leading trio of child actors as “excellent” (though mistakenly referred to Ron as Fred, and also saved his highest compliments for Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid).
“Despite its copycat nature, what finally saves ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ is what created it in the first place: [Author J.K.] Rowling’s exceptional imagination,” Turan concluded. “At those moments when the film allows us to share in Harry’s wonder, it lets us recapture our own.”
It resonated with kids and parents, too
Critical acclaim isn’t everything, of course. What did young Potterheads make of the movie?
The late NPR correspondent Margot Adler spoke to a bunch of kids and their parents as they left a Manhattan movie theater. She found that most loved the movie, but loved the book more.
“I like the book,” one young viewer said. “It explained more.”
“I thought the book was very detailed and the movie was very good but it sort of just quickened it a little too much,” said another.
Not everyone agreed.
“I like the movie better,” offered a viewer. “It was kind of cool to get to see all the things you kind of imagined.”
And many surveyed were impressed with the visuals: the wizarding chess game, the living pictures on Hogwarts’ walls, and the actors bringing characters to life. One parent said Dumbledore looked exactly as expected, while a youngster said they had pictured Snape totally different.
Some viewers weren’t impressed with the music though, and Adler noted that made sense: Most people didn’t have music in their heads as they were reading the book.
As for parents in the audience, Adler said, the most common reaction was a sense of relief “that whatever Harry Potter the movie was about, whether it succeeded in portraying this or failed at portraying that, it was not going to do that thing that so many parents feared.”
“It would not destroy the tender plant that the Potter phenomenon had helped cultivate,” she explained. “Their children suddenly sitting on the sofa reading for hours, the family coming together, reading aloud.”
If you’re in the mood to take a spin even further down memory lane, listen to another piece from Adler: the first story NPR ever aired about Harry Potter, on All Things Considered in 1998.
Among other gems, it includes a quote from a bookstore manager marveling at having sold “hundreds” of copies, and Adler’s (accurate) prophecy that the word “muggle” would take off.
This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.