Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - Adapting a book into a film and its consequences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 25 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 Literary Criticism versus Film Criticism

3 Characteristics of fictional and filmic sources

4 Comparison of the book and the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

5 Turning popular literature into film

6 Conclusion

7 Works Cited

8 Appendix

1 Introduction

When adapting a book into a film, different decisions have to be made concerning the narration, tense, point of view, and other formal devices. (Cf. Whelehan 1999: 9)

This essay examines the differences and similarities between the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and its film adaptation. It points out problems that occur when transposing a text to screen, and raises the question of the film’s authenticity towards the novel.

Firstly, different critics are going to be scrutinized to get a better understanding of the discrepancy between literary criticism and film studies. Secondly, the characteristics of each medium shall be pointed at, combined with possible arising advantages and disadvantages. The following section evaluates the fictional source Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone versus the filmic source, asking the question of the primary importance of the origin text. For a concise analysis of book and film, I provide a sequence protocol and chapter record in the appendix. Lastly, I want to consider the issue of popular culture, and examine the question of the demand of popular literature to be turned into a film. The focus of examination will always be the first Harry Potter book and film version, although some references to the later volumes are made. Yet, it would go beyond the scope of this paper to consider all written and filmic sources of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

2 Literary Criticism versus Film Criticism

We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. […] This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience – it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.

(Leo Tolstoy 1908, quoted in Spiegel 1976: 162)

The twentieth century is the beginning of the era of the motion pictures. Since the Lumière brothers had shown short film sequences with their cinématographe in Paris in 1895, the new invention could not be stopped. (Cf. Monaco 567) The main film ‘Cinema’ – the new medium of time had started. Leo Tolstoy has sensed its significance already in the early years. He is aware of its advantages over the novel and the possibilities that this new technology presents. (Cf. Whelehan 1999: 5)

Yet, not everybody was of the same opinion as Tolstoy. In fact, film adaptation were then, as well as nowadays often frowned upon and seen as inferior to the fictional source. The changes, which have to be made when transferring a written story into an audio-visual medium, are not seen as a necessity, but as weakness of the film medium. In her book Adaptations – From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, Imelda Whelehan points out different criticism on film adaptations, which I am going to scrutinize. Gabriel Miller criticizes that a filmic source reduces the characters of a book to a simple psychological condition, as film cannot successfully show dreams nor memories. He believes that film cannot stand comparison with a novel’s complexity. (Cf. Miller 1980: xiii) Miller shows a lot of prejudices against motion pictures and perceives the novel as ‘high’ art. His opinion reveals the unawareness of a film’s audio-visual but also linguistic means to represent a narrative in a moreover realistic way.

Other critics, like Bluestone, understand the differences between filmic and fictional sources in their dissimilar techniques of communication. They determine the distinction of the two media for their different aims, emphases, priorities and ways of production. Bluestone explains:

The reputable novel, generally speaking, has been supported by a small, literate audience, has been produced by an individual writer, and has remained relatively free of rigid censorship. The film, on the other hand, has been supported by a mass audience, produced co-operatively under industrial conditions, and restricted by a self-imposed Production Code. These developments have reinforced rather than vitiated the autonomy of each medium.

(Bluestone 1957: viii)

However, some contemporary critics are not anymore influenced by either literary nor film criticism. They moreover examine the interdependency of novel and film. They argue that twentieth century written narratives also use filmic devices, and that these writing tendencies convey a lot about the cinematic trends (Cf. Cohen 1979: 1; Wagner 1975: 26). This aspect points out the correlation of successful film adaptations intervening with the success of the novel.

Nowadays, it is very common that popular films influence the popularity of the literary text. Sometimes the novel is only made famous through the realisation on screen. Here, the question comes up how this works out with the first Harry Potter film version. Does the film help to make the book even more famous? How many people had not known the Harry Potter books before watching the film, and how many have bought the novels after watching the adaptation? Of course, there has been lots of advertisement about it before the film was released, and I suppose no one has managed to not hear about or spot a glimpse of the books.

Yet, only certain people had read the novel before seeing the film. When asking fellow students in class, the result was well balanced. Half of the people had read the book, half had seen the film, but only a few had done both. People’s preferences play an important role and do explain this reaction. Some favour reading, others prefer going to the cinema, and some like to compare both media to each other.

For this reason it is interesting to ask which media has been consumed firstly. It has been done research on the consumption of novels and films. The results are striking. Many people have bought the literary text after watching its adaptation on screen, perhaps for reasons of authenticity to the original, or only of mere interest. It can be argued that a filmic reworking makes a novel more popular. However, it is also documented, that often the literary versions were purchased, yet, not actually read, or never finished. Here, the question comes up, if filmgoers find the origin text inferior to the filmic source (Cf. Whelehan 1999: 18). If this assumption turns out to be true, then literary critics have a good reason to worry and feel hostility against film adaptations, as there is a trend to prefer films to books. Especially in the modern youth culture motion pictures are ranked higher than written texts. This issue is resumed in the discussion of popular culture in the last chapter. Prior to that an exposition of the advantages and disadvantages of films and novels is essential.

3 Characteristics of fictional and filmic sources

When comparing a novel to a film one discovers differences as well as similarities. Both are narrative forms, one written in a linguistic mode, the other produced as audio-visual communication. In movies the audience follows the pictures on screen, one has to look for the camera movements and try to decode the film’s devices. It is closely framed and very much concerned about how the audience is going to react. The visual sense is challenged. The pictures are easier believed and more convincing for the viewer, as the structure of a film, the change of scenes, and the mixture of sentiment and experience is very close to reality and how we perceive the world with our own eyes. These images can be read multiple, as pictures say more than a thousand words.

On the other hand, a text in a novel is only perceived in one way, it is read from left to right (at least in the European writing system). It attempts to inspire the visual reactions of the reader and influences the imagination of the reading audience. Yet, the difference of a written narrative is, that every reader constructs his/ her own pictures to the story, everybody creates an own ‘film’ in his/her mind, concerning the appearance of the characters, the setting, the properties. An author writes a novel by using literary devices, a specific point of view(s). The book can combine different modes of narratives and focalisation, and can involve different tenses in the plot.

The crucial significance of these two sources is, that every medium has its own codes and devices, which have to be understood, i.e. decoded by the recipient. They are both a form of art, the novel being more fictional, and the film, although often showing fiction, being perceived as more realistic. When transferring a story from one medium into another, one has to bring up the capacities typical to each form. When turning a book into a movie, the filmmakers have to make decisions of what they think of being important and of priority. They change the story by giving the appropriate form to the film medium.

The necessity of these changes is often not realized, but disapproved of. There exists a tendency of prioritising the origin over the resulting film, and critics, as well as normal film viewers, measure the movie’s achievement in its competence to show all the main values of the origin text. (Cf. Whelehan 1999: 3). However, one has to acknowledge that novels and films both take and give advantages to each other, as Robert Richardson claims that ‘literary criticism and film criticism can each benefit from the other’ (Richardson 1969:3).

Concerning the transformations of a written narrative into a visual one, Geoffrey Wagner differentiates between three types of adaptation. The transposition, is a novel directly adapted into a film, without any major alterations. In a commentary, the original text is changed in some ways, regarding the main concerns of the filmmaker. An analogy is a film adaptation where the story is totally altered; often only the title of the film gives reference to the origin text (Cf. Wagner 1975: 222f). The film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, is an adaptation that lies somewhere between a transposition and a commentary. The film shows the core meanings of the book, yet, there are some minor changes done in the course of the story, or concerning the complexity of some characters. A closer look at the alterations provides the analysis of the novel and the movie.



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Technical University of Braunschweig – Englisches Seminar
Harry Potter Philosopher Stone Adapting British Popular Culture



Title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - Adapting a book into a film and its consequences