Potty about Potter

Harry's here, specs and all, long-awaited and long-debated!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has been the most hyped film production of recent years, and possibly, for its millions of younger devotees, in living memory. The bespectacled Harry is the latest literary pin-up, which just goes to show thatlooks aren'teverything.

And the most amazing thing is that the whole adult world has been drawn into the hype. Adults buy the four Potter books for the children and won't hand them over until they've finished them themselves. OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but the obsession of the kids has clearly rubbed off on the grown-ups. Critics agree, as well, that whatever the literary value of the Potter novels, the positive thing is that there is now less of a divide between children's and adults' literature. What's more, young children and teenagers are reading more, and that's good news for the book business.

The London premiere in November was attended by the good and the great, apart from the few too scared to fly after September 11. Coming so soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, however, is contributing towards making Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone not only a commercial but also a sociological success. On the one hand,
a commercially successful film is reflected in confidence in the economy, and on the other, in these times of increased terrorism and war people benefit from the escapism proffered by the fantasy to take their minds off the political troubles. Not only that, the traditional battle between Good and Evil - in which Good prevails - gives people a strange sense of security. These factors combine to produce an irresistible buoyancy. Some have even compared it to the effect The Beatles had in America in 1964 (and the 60s in general) after the assassination in 1963 of President John F. Kennedy had rocked the world so badly.

The Potter phenomenon creates this buoyancy and feeds off it. Many have argued that the marketing of Potter paraphernalia is cynical and exploitative. It will be an unnecessary stress on parents' pre-Christmas pockets, while it is feared children are wasting their money on useless toys and gimmicks that fall apart in no time at all and fail to provide the promised magic and excitement. Children even complain that the spells don't work! Let's hope it doesn't make them cynical, too.

British publishers Bloomsbury, who bring out the Potter books, are perhaps guilty of that in Britain, but who is making all the money from the film? Hollywood's Warner Bros., of course. Advance sales alone paid for the entire production and more besides, and box office takings for the film's first weekend were the largest ever recorded in the States. Warner Bros. put up the money, admittedly, but apart from that it is almost entirely a British production. It will be hailed as a great success for British cinema, proof that we are up there with the best. Of course we are, and apart from Christopher Columbus, its American director, everything about the film is decidely British. The settings - the locations and the studios - are British, and the actors are nearly all from this side of the Atlantic. They include some of the best character actors British cinema has to offer, from Robbie Coltrane and Richard Harris to Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. JK Rowling, the celebrated author of the Potter books, thankfully has enough clout to be able to resist the Hollywood studio bosses and insist that Harry be played by an English boy rather than an American. It was a wise decision.

But still the lion's share of the profits will go back to America. The only benefit Britain gets is in the sequels, which keep the studios working and the actors happy. Work on the second film already started in November. There's one big difference, though. Harry's voice has broken, so he'll sound a little more mature this time around. Well, he is a wizard after all.

So what of the film itself? Expectations were high - some schools even booked whole cinemas to go and see the film en masse - and thankfully it delivered the goods. England's film guru Barry Norman praised it highly, in particular the acting. Not only the stars performed as you would expect but Harry and his two sidekicks were perfectly cast. The book transferred brilliantly to screen. Jonathan Ross, presenter of BBC's Film 2001, was also effusive about the acting and pointed out that fears that the film, at two and a half hours, would be too long for children, proved unfounded. Nine out of ten.

The film's success has been judged by the fear factor. Children love to be frightened and mostly they were. Beware, though, it's just too scary for the under-eights. And as for your roving reporter, well, I left England before I was able to get a ticket.

- John Edmondson