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Seventeen years ago to the day, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone burst its way onto our cinema screens, changing our Muggle world as we know it.
For children and adults everywhere, the film represented so much more than its depiction of teenage witches and wizards attending a school of magic and learning to fight against the dark arts.
It allowed people to dream of possibilities beyond their imagination – showing children that resilience, love and friendship were the strongest possible combination of traits to have.
Grab your Time-Turner because we’re travelling 17 years into the past to watch the trailer:
Released in 2001, Philosopher’s Stone hit screens four years later than its book counterpart, and many audience members had already become accustomed to the Wizarding World through J.K. Rowling’s words.
But for many, the film complimented the book series, bringing to life the intricate lives of the characters and the magical ways of Hogwarts in ways which simply weren’t possible for the books alone to do.
So what was it about the first film that really made such an impact and why are we still talking about it nearly two decades later?
First of all, the film tackles a wide range of issues that other children’s films at the time didn’t necessarily touch on. From bullying to orphancy, celebrity to child abuse, the Philosopher’s Stone left no stone unturned and encouraged people to face these issues head on.
We spoke to Dr Marta Cobb, a member of the International Medieval Congress and Teaching Fellow at the University of Leeds, about the film’s focus on sometimes difficult topics.
She told UNILAD why she thought the series was so successful:
I think [its success] is largely due to the way J. K. Rowling has adapted ancient themes and stories and given them a more modern twist, infusing them with lessons that are crucial to today – such as the importance of tolerance and the dangers of discrimination.
The films are also unafraid to tackle dark subjects, such as the reality of death, the dangers of celebrity, the corruption of government.
One of the main issues the first film touched on – to be explored in a much greater depth throughout the later films – was the perception of the class system, in particular the distinction between pure-bloods and Muggle-borns.
Although the highly derogatory term ‘mudblood’ is not introduced until Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, there is still a very clear divide between the different ‘classes’ of witches and wizards in the first film.
As the students arrive for the first time at Hogwarts, Draco Malfoy makes a snide remark about Ron’s clothing, saying he can tell straightaway he’s a Weasley because of his red hair and hand-me-down robe – suggesting that even pure-blood status doesn’t matter if you’re working class.
He then turns to Harry, holds out his hand and says:
You’ll soon find out some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don’t want to go making friends with the wrong sort. I can help you there.
Here, Harry faced a very clear choice. He had grown up with nothing his whole life, but had suddenly found himself with more money than he’d ever known after his trip to Gringotts. He could have easily chosen to abandon Ron and work his way up the social ladder with the help of the Malfoys.
But he doesn’t take Draco’s hand. Instead, he brushes him off, telling him that he can tell ‘who the wrong sort are’ for himself. From that moment, alliances are formed and Harry and Ron become firm enemies of Draco’s – showing viewers that friendship and loyalty is so much more important that social class, and always will be.
But perhaps the thing that stuck with me the most when watching Philosopher’s Stone for the first time was its portrayal of female characters. As a young girl watching the film, I was able to look up to a female role model who – for the first time – was similar to me in terms of personality and mindset.
I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was a bit of a geek at school; I loved reading and was always revising months before exams to make sure I achieved the best possible grade. So for someone like Hermione to not only feature but be one of the main characters was game-changing for me.
Her determination to do well at school was a huge source of conflict for her throughout the entirety of the film because it meant that she sometimes had to compromise between her studies and her fierce loyalty to her friends.
And despite her now-famous saying:
Now, if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed, before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed. Or worse, expelled.
… she still ended up going with Harry and Ron to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone from Voldemort’s grasp. And let’s be honest, the two boys would definitely have died if it wasn’t for Hermione.
Without her knowledge, the trio wouldn’t have been able to get past the Devil’s Snare or the potions riddle that prevented them from moving any further. This was reinforced when Dumbledore awarded 50 points to Gryffindor for Hermione’s ‘use of cool logic in the face of fire’.
Hermione – although admittedly a bit of a know-it-all – gave young girls like me the inspiration they needed to be confident in their endeavours, encouraging them to trust their own instincts and not to be ashamed of their desire for a good education.
It’s easy for someone to dismiss the films as just another money-making franchise without actually ever going to see them. But that’s just it – without seeing them, you don’t get to understand just how powerful they really are.
Professor Marion Heather Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures at University of Exeter – where J.K. Rowling herself attended – states that Harry Potter made an entire generation more ‘socially-aware and politically engaged’.
She told UNILAD:
The students I’ve taught for the last 5 years or so really owned Harry Potter as a generation, and the books and films mean a lot to them. [They] helped them… integrate in groups of fans, think about issues like bullying, discrimination, gender politics, the media, and the social issues of their lives.
These are some of the most important books and films of the last quarter of a century! It’s a big claim, and some people will think it silly, but if you are under 30 or you had kids during the last 25 years, you will know what a huge influence the series had and still has.
Professor Gibson continued:
It made millions for the British economy, brought readers and viewers together across the world, and changed the lives of not only readers but also publishers and film-makers… that’s what a great cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter does. We should value literature and film more because look what it can do.
And it’s true. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone made more than £16 million on its opening weekend in the UK alone, surpassing this in the US by making more than $90 million.
According to Business Insider, the Harry Potter franchise is the third most successful movie franchise of all time, bringing in more than $8.5 billion (approximately £6.6 billion) in the box office.
And although the first film wasn’t the highest grossing – that would be the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – it was the one which introduced the Wizarding World to us on screen for the first time.
UNILAD spoke to Jack Naven, 25, an aspiring writer and filmmaker from Manchester, who believes that Philosopher’s Stone tends to be under-appreciated and looked down on because of its dated effects.
He agrees that the film has its downfalls, stating:
Do I think it’s the best movie ever? No. It’s not even close to that, nor is it close to being the best Potter movie, but I can only recall a couple of occasions when I walked out of the cinema feeling that blown away. I just had never really seen anything quite that mind blowing before.
Despite this though, he still recognises that the film is one of the most important in his generation, saying it broadened his horizons in ways he couldn’t have imagined.
He said the film directly impacted his life, saying:
I would say that the biggest impact Philosophers had on my life was it directly impacted, more than anything else, what I ultimately wanted to do with my life.
My goal and being a writer and a filmmaker definitely comes down to how entranced I was by the world of Hogwarts as it appeared on screen and the plots, characters and universe Rowling came up with.
Ultimately, the film taught a generation of children that love and friendship hold so much more importance than superficial things like social status – hence why Gryffindor wins the House Cup over Slytherin towards the end of the film, a house known for being power hungry.
To quote the ever-wise Dumbledore:
If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love… To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
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