As far as Harry knows, his parents were killed in a car crash when he was an infant, and he’s stuck with his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley. Like a modern Cinderella, Harry sleeps in a closet and waits on his relatives hand and foot while his pudgy cousin Dudley is spoiled rotten. But as Harry’s 11th birthday approaches, all of that changes. A gentle giant named Rubeus Hagrid shows up to inform Harry that he is a wizard by birth and invite him to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
At Hogwarts, Harry finds much of what his pitiful life has lacked. Close friends. Bits of his own family history. Magical skills. Recognition. And a starting position on the Quidditch team (think airborne soccer)—an honor unheard of for a “first-year.” But he also gets a few things he didn’t bargain for, including a mystery and a ferocious three-headed dog named Fluffy. Most formidably, he finds he’s the object of renewed hatred from the evil Voldemort, who killed his parents. Harry meets the challenge head-on and faces off with this villain so wicked other wizards won’t even speak his name. Voldemort gets what’s coming to him, but you can be sure he’ll be back in the sequels.
positive content: Two prominent teachers at Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall, are some of the finest authority figures to grace a kids’ movie in quite some time. Professor McGonagall is stern and a stickler for rules. But rather than scorning her, Harry and his friends like and respect her. Dumbledore proffers wise advice and teaches common sense. He becomes like a father to Harry, comforting him when he misses his parents and taking time to talk through his questions and problems.
When Harry is being assigned to one of Hogwarts’ four houses, the “sorting hat” assesses his character, then applauds him for having “courage, talent, not a bad mind and a thirst to prove [himself].” During the course of the story, it becomes clear to Harry that—just as Lucifer was once a high angel—these talents could just as easily have landed him in the malevolent Slytherin house as in the noble Gryffindor. His own human potential for “going bad” bothers Harry until Dumbledore reminds him that he asked not to be put in Slytherin and teaches him that choosing the good over the bad makes all the difference.
The evil acts of dark-side wizards—such as killing a unicorn for its life-giving blood—are denounced. In addition, lines spoken by villains expose dark-side philosophy, which is then refuted when the scoundrels are defeated. For example, one of Voldemort’s followers says to Harry, “There is no such thing as good and evil. There is only power and those too weak to seek it.” Harry swiftly and strongly opposes both this villain and his sentiments.
When Harry discovers that it wasn’t a car crash that killed his parents, he also learns that his mother actually died saving his life. Dumbledore instructs him on the importance of sacrificial love, telling Harry, “love leaves a mark that lives in your very skin.”
Harry, Ron and Hermione go on an Indiana Jones-like adventure, solving puzzles and dodging obstacles to unravel their mystery and find the sorcerer’s stone. One leg of the course is a life-sized chess game in which captured pieces get smashed by their opponents. As an accomplished chess player, Ron gets to call the shots, and in a heroic act, he sacrifices his knight (and gets injured in the process) in order to save Harry.
spiritual content: The big debate about Harry Potter, of course, is whether its magic is of a spiritual or mechanical nature. More on that follows, but for now, magical elements are listed here as “spiritual content.”
Before he discovers he’s a wizard, Harry accidentally dissolves the glass over a snake cage at the zoo. This begins to make sense to Harry when Hagrid comes to take him to Hogwarts. The giant asks, “Did you ever make things happen that you couldn’t explain?” The light comes on for Harry—his mysterious power comes from being a wizard. Hagrid makes Dudley grow a pig’s tail. Doors open Ali Baba-style to a series of taps from Hagrid’s pink umbrella (which also happens to shoot fire). Harry and friends get to the platform for the Hogwarts Express by walking through a brick wall in a London train station. On the train, Ron tries to put a spell on his pet rat to turn it yellow. Other spells are of similar sort, spoken in Latin and intended to make changes in the physical realm. Harry and his friends take classes in Potions, The History of Magic, Defense Against the Dark Arts, etc. Their school supplies include robes and magic wands which they purchase on a magical street called Diagon Alley. When Harry goes to pick out a wand, he finds that it is the wand that instead “picks” him. Wandmaker Mr. Ollivander tells Harry that the wand he was “destined for” is “brother” to the wand Voldemort used to kill Harry’s parents and give him his scar. At Hogwarts, the ceiling in the Great Hall is “bewitched” to look like the night sky. Staircases move under the influence of permanent spells. The school celebrates Halloween with a huge banquet, but it also celebrates Christmas in the same way. The dormitories are supervised by silvery-gray ghosts. The head of Harry’s dormitory is Nearly Headless Nick, who died 500 years previously in a botched decapitation.
Missing from the movie (and at no great loss) is the one class that, in the book, came closest to mentioning supernatural contact—Divination. Also missing is a particularly troublesome line in which Dumbledore says, “To the well-organized mind, death is just the next great adventure.”
All the villains in The Sorcerer’s Stone are practitioners of “The Dark Arts.” Their spells come in the form of curses and are used to harm other wizards. Foremost on the dark side is Voldemort, who uses a death curse to kill Harry’s parents and to try to kill Harry.
Also very troubling is the overarching idea that Harry is “rescued” from a miserable life by a bunch of wizards and witches. Of course, there are two ways to see this. Viewers who bring to the movie a background in Christian fantasy may see it as somewhat similar to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia—a magical world far more exciting and “fitting” for the human spirit than the plain physical world. On the other hand, there’s the likely interpretation that Harry is being “saved” by witchcraft, a disturbing idea to say the least. The immediate emotional impact of film makes the concept even more dangerous, because passive thrill-seekers won’t necessarily ponder and process it as they might while reading a book.
sexual content: None.
violent content: Uncle Vernon never hits Harry, but he treats him roughly at times. He also tries to shoot at Hagrid, but the giant bends the end of his shotgun. Scenes that flash back to the death of Harry’s parents are short and discreet, showing only a flash of light and Harry’s mom falling to the ground.Hagrid kicks down a door when he comes to retrieve Harry from the Dursleys. (He then apologizes and puts it back in place.) One student gets caught on a runaway broom, crashes into a building and falls, breaking his wrist. Ron accidentally gets hit in the nose with a broom handle. A huge digitally animated troll smashes up a school bathroom and tries to hurt Hermione. A wand up the nose (gross!) distracts him and his own club eventually knocks him out. A Quidditch match turns ugly and Harry is nearly knocked from his flying broom. Ron, Harry and Hermione get trapped in the clutches of a vining plant with a vicious will of its own. The chess scene is intense, with many shattering chess pieces. Ron gets forcefully knocked to the ground.
Because watching film footage takes less time than reading pages, Harry’s final battle scene is actually shorter in the movie than in the book. Thankfully missing is a lot of Voldemort’s dialogue in which he repeatedly instructs a follower to kill Harry. Still, the scene is intense, and for young viewers, scary. Things look grim for Harry at first, until he discovers that his mother’s love has placed a seal on him that makes it impossible for his enemy to touch him. (Instead, physical contact causes his foe to be charred to a crisp.) The evil wizard Voldemort leaves the building in a dramatic and somewhat frightening rush.
crude or profane language: There’s a line about someone falling on his “a–.” Ron once exclaims, “Bloody hell!” Also: three misuses of God’s name and one use of “d–n.”
drug and alcohol content: On several occasions, Hagrid talks about visiting a pub. He enters one and the bartender says, “The usual, Hagrid?” to which Hagrid replies, “Not today. I’m on official Hogwarts business.” One student tries to turn water to rum, but fails.
other negative elements: Though it’s arguably played down from the book, Harry and his friends sometimes break rules with impunity. For example, Harry is told not to fly on his broomstick; he does it anyway (albeit for noble purposes) and ends up being rewarded with a starting spot on the Quidditch team.
conclusion: Aside from the exceptions noted, Harry Potter the movie is quite faithful to Harry Potter the book—a smart move on the part of filmmakers, who knew any significant departure would quickly alienate the target audience. The masterfully made film offers virtually no surprises. That leaves us dealing with the same questions that have been lurking since the first copy of J.K. Rowling’s book rolled off the press. Is it fantasy magic or occult magic? Does the distinction even matter?
These questions are both difficult and worthwhile. Fantasy (not just “make believe,” but a rich literary tradition with extensive principles and precedents) has made use of wizards and magic for centuries. Even Christian fantasy has employed “good witches.” Sometimes it has been as clear-cut as Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, sometimes not. Christian fantasy fans contend that such tales have a powerful ability to convey truth and that real-world rules don’t apply in fantasyland. Well-respected Christian author Chuck Colson explains that Harry’s magic is of an entirely different nature from real-world witchcraft: “Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but they don’t make contact with a supernatural world.”
Similarly, Wren Walker, a practicing witch in Clearwater, Fla., and co-founder of the Witches Voice, an umbrella group for witches and Wiccans worldwide, insists that Harry Potter could never be an instructional piece for real-life witchcraft. “Spells tend to be more like prayers for most Wiccans and witches that practice it in the religious sense,” says Walker. “We don’t use ‘abracadabra.’ If somebody wanted to pick up the book and do the things in it, it wouldn’t be witchcraft.”
Richard Abanes, author of the book Harry Potter and the Bible, disagrees. While Rowling insists her stories are imaginary, she “admits she has been studying witchcraft to make the books more ‘accurate,'” Abanes told Crosswalk.com, which reports that Rowling also claims a significant minority of the sorcery appearing in her books is “material that was once believed in Britain.” “What she fails to mention,” Abanes says, “is that the vast amount of the occult she borrows from historical sources still plays a role in modern witchcraft.”
Such debate within the Christian community (and outside of it) will continue to rage. But even if Harry Potter‘s magic isn’t of the occult, it still carries with it serious dangers. First, Rowling’s stories—unlike Lewis’ or Tolkien’s—are neither a Christian allegory, nor do they subscribe to a consistent Christian worldview. And second, we live in a culture that glorifies and promotes witchcraft and the occult. No matter what the essence of Harry’s magic, the effect of it is undoubtedly to raise curiosity about magic and wizardry. And any curiosity raised on this front presents a danger that the world will satisfy it with falsehood before the church or the family can satisfy it with truth. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone definitely raises those curiosities. That, accompanied by violent and scary scenes, a few mild profanities, and hints at moral relativism should be enough to keep families from shouting hurrah for Harry.