That Old Black Magic

In case you haven't noticed, the Harry Potter phenomenon has just gotten bigger. Much bigger.

The record-breaking success of the first film based on J.K. Rowling's books means that hundreds of millions more people across the globe will be introduced to her colorful characters and world of wizardry. The lucrative merchandising tie-ins guarantee that images of Harry's world will be branded into our consciousness for at least the next decade. This is probably the largest film franchise ever, perhaps even bigger than the Star Wars and Jurassic Park series.

Is the to-do over Harry Potter good or bad for the culture?

Orthodox Christian believers disagree among themselves about the answer. Many judge the Harry Potter books to be a skillful continuation of the established genre of children's fantasy entertainment which includes such classics as Grimm's Fairy Tales, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

Others view Rowling's sympathetic treatment of witchcraft and the occult as dangerous. They consider the magic depicted to be a flirtation with manifestations of evil, a flirtation devoid of spiritual peril — the overall effect of which is an encouragement to young minds to dabble in the “dark arts.”

The movie version of the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, won't change anyone's mind. Its morality and cosmology are identical to the book's.

Director Chris Columbus (Home Alone) and screenwriter Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys) remain true to the book's spirit in a literal, leaden way. Most of the key characters, plot points and magical devices are retained, but without the visual equivalents of Rowling's verbal inventiveness.

The filmmakers efficiently give cinematic expression to the book's clever pastiche of different genres. The first scenes update the conventions of 19th-century novels about the sufferings of worthy orphans found in the works of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and others.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) believes his parents were killed in a car crash. He's being raised by a nasty aunt and uncle (Fiona Shaw and Richard Griffiths). He sleeps in a closet-like room under the staircase and waits on his relatives like a servant.

On Harry's 11th birthday, Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), a gentle giant who looks like an outlaw biker, informs him that he's a wizard by birth, like his parents. He's taken off to study at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a tongue-in-cheek, gothic version of upper-crust British boarding schools like Eton and Harrow.

Rowling's literary model is Thomas Hughes’ early 20th-century classic, Tom Brown's Schooldays. Only in her version, the house supervisors are ghosts, the massive staircases are always in motion because of perpetual spells, and the subjects taught all relate to magic.

In this environment, Harry is made to feel for the first time like he belongs. Friends of his own age and supportive teachers surround him. He also learns that his parents were killed by the evil Voldemort, a wizard who gave himself over to the dark side and is a sworn enemy of Hogwarts.

The movie makes us experience, through the eyes of these pre-adolescent students, the wonder of the different kinds of magical skills they are acquiring. We watch them act out primal childhood fantasies about having a special calling and a power over the physical world around them. Particularly thrilling is the class in broom-riding in which the students soar through the air. Harry also excels at the Hogwarts game of Quidditch, an imaginative, airborne cross between a medieval jousting tournament and the contemporary sports of basketball and soccer.

In the last third, the movie turns into an action-adventure detective story with kid heroes in the style of Goonies, which Columbus wrote. Harry and fellow housemates Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) discover the fabled philosopher's stone is hidden in the main building's attic and that the evil wizard Voldemort wants to steal it for his own nefarious purposes. The magical object is guarded by a ferocious, three-headed dog, and only these three apprentice wizards can save it.

The fallout from the Harry Potter phenomenon may be more damaging than the book or movie themselves. Neither Rowling nor the filmmakers intend a satanic or occult agenda. It's all just meant to be fun.

Meanwhile, special care is taken to establish a strict moral code of good and evil at Hogwarts. The headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), even tells Harry about the importance of sacrificial love, saying it “leaves a mark that lives in your very skin.”

Nevertheless, the widespread dissemination of the Harry Potter iconography raises troubling questions. Rowling's books borrow much from Tolkien and Lewis in their presentation of witches and wizards who can be either good or evil. But unlike these models, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone isn't a Christian allegory, nor does it assume a Christian worldview.

Its cosmology is derived from the currently popular works of Joseph Campbell (Hero with a Thousand Faces), a Jungian scholar of psychology and myth who treats all religions as potent sets of symbols of equal value. This is a spiritual equivalent of moral relativism in which, by definition, no belief system can be judged better, or truer, than any other.

The results of this kind of metaphysical romp can be unsettling. Wicca, or the practice of witchcraft, has recently been declared a legitimate religion by certain of our courts. In this context, the movie's depiction of “good witches” as positive role models could move Wicca's abominable practices further into the mainstream, something all orthodox Christians would abhor.

Christians well-grounded in the faith will probably be able to experience the movie as pure entertainment. But parents will want to make sure their young children don't leave the theater with a wrong — and incomplete — message about the occult.

John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.

------- EXCERPT: For good or ill, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is true to the book it dramatizes