Me first! No spoilers past this book unless otherwise noted (and hidden). And here's a little bit of my history with this series:
I got the first book from my grandmother. I had no idea what it was, but it was (and still is) a paperback edition. From there on I got the next two, also before they got super huge. From book 4 on I remember reading them all in a 24 hour period, usually a Friday into Saturday or Saturday into Sunday. I do remember one book (four, I think) being released while I was at summer camp. I had to avoid spoilers as those around me read and I played tennis or whatever. It was horrible. I've read all of them at least three times with 1, 3, 4, and 5 being the most read. I have an idea of which ones I like better now, but that might change this time around. And that, as a good person once said, is the baggage I bring to this endeavor.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Written by J.K. Rowling, Read by Stephen Fry)
I must have read this book five times. And then listened to it read by Jim Dale twice. This is the first time after reading the last book, though. It's not as well written as something like As I Lay Dying (or even The Giver or the Alice books) but it does build the world fantastically. Rowling isn't really a great writer, but she is a good imaginer, and for that reason I'll always go back to these books. For example, this time I caught a little thing that opened the world even wider. Hagrid says that he got Fluffy, the three-headed dog, from a Greek fellow. Hmmm. Reminds you of a certain guardian at the gates of Hades, doesn't it? This act of bringing in other cultural myths (following in the Anglo footsteps of unicorns and the like) spreads the world wide open. Anything and everything is a part of this story, and that's pretty great. And (BOOK 3 SPOILERS) very early on mention is made of Sirius (Hagrid borrows his flying motorcycle) which is cool on second (or seventh) read.
However, Rowling also binds herself to a couple of things that don't work as well. The school year thing is cool and all, but by the later books (except 7) I begin to suffer a bit of what I like to call the House Syndrome. In any given episode of House you can pretty much set your clock by the turns of the plot. At fifteen minutes the patient will suffer a further complication, by minute 45 House will have an epiphany brought on by some outside source which will save the patient from certain death. Harry Potter, too, has events like this. The most glaring to me is the early scenes outside of the magical world. She starts this book with a pretty awesome segment about the strange celebrations that break through the magical world into the Muggle realm when Voldemort is banished. Here we are slowly introduced to both the way that the magical world separates itself and the Dursleys, those horrible family members. In later books we get a better sense of these characters, and there is one moment of true development in this book (when Mrs. Dursley talks about how her sister got the Hogwarts letter there is a hint of jealousy, which is nice), but they are also very one-note. It's just not fun, past those first couple of paragraphs, until Hagrid shows up. My other area of criticism comes in the form of Hermione. She's not the issue but the way that Rowling writes her relationship to Harry and Ron and their eventual union is really hacky. "There are some things that you can't get through without becoming friends with those that helped you" or however she puts it sounds really odd to the ear and is just lazy. Here is one section where the movie does it better with a few glances.
I've written too much now. I still enjoyed this book, and Stephen Fry's reading of it. His voices aren't as good or distinct as Dale's, but the feelings he gets at are great. His yelling really makes me feel uncomfortable, I wanted to take the headphones out of my ears whenever he did so. What a great performance!
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Directed by Chris Columbus, Written by Steve Kloves)
I ended the last segment talking about Stephen Fry's strong performance in the audiobook and the performances are arguably the best part of this film. As a movie it has enough magic to make it recognizable as a Harry Potter film (and I'm not talking spells here) but where later films bring out strong emotions, the only time I really got excited in this film was when an excellent actor was on the screen. Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid is freaking perfect. He's so sincere that even the stretchiest of streatches for the character comes off without a hitch (here I'm thinking of the dumb moves he does telling a certain hooded character how to calm Fluffy) and, since he is the vehicle of our first introduction to the real magical world, he's got a lot of 'splainin to do. Again, it's Coltrane's performance that makes our journey into this world as smooth as it can be.
The two main teachers, McGonagall and Snape, are also perfectly cast. Maggie Smith is super-awesome, both authoritarian and gentle. She's believable as a person that just transformed from a cat and as a mother-figure looking out for her three rowdiest kids. Alan Rickman, introduced to America in the great and wondrous Die Hard, gives us one of the only moments that is perfect in this film. His introduction sends chills down my spine still, after all these years. Later on, Snape is arguably the best character in the entire series, and it all starts here. Just watch (at 2:16, other times have spoilers for later films, watch at your own risk).
Other standouts include John Hurt (!) as Olivander and Richard Harris as Dumbledore. I was really surprised to see John Hurt as Olivander and I can only hope that he comes back for the later books when his character returns. He was just perfect. I'm sure we'll get into the argument as these go on as to who was the better Dumbledore, though I don't really have a horse in that race at the moment. I like Harris a lot, but he isn't given much to do and Kloves even takes out some of the humor present in the book version of the character. To me, Dumbledore is a guy that you can tell has it all together but you don't know if he knows that he does. If that makes any sense. Richard Griffiths is also fun as Uncle Vernon and brings some more humor to the role that I didn't particularly enjoy in the book. The dude that played Quirrel isn't nearly up to these standards, though, and his later replacements get it way better. The kids are fine, and they grow to be good actors but now they just do a workman's job.
Some of the direction was odd, here. I liked that there were a lot of shots where elements of the strange Hogwarts architecture creeped in around the edges and even took up a majority of the frame at times. The strange zooms I didn't like as much. A zoom is a good tool at invoking a mood but it seemed to be used at random in this film. And there were a bunch of shots that I thought could have been executed better. And the decisions to change things from the book made little sense, at times. But still, it's not a failure of a film, just not as good as it could be (or will be). For a movie about magic it is kind of flat, with only the super great score and performances lifting it above average.
Mayhaps I am being overly critical towards these works. I don't actually dislike them at all. There are just parts that get better as Rowling and the directors and actors improve. I didn't watch the movie over and over again like I reread the book, and I think that's very telling, as they are practically the same things. In these early books there's not as much material and as such they can put most of it on screen. Only a few scenes are cut and those that are mostly don't hurt the film. The smaller changes are what I don't like as much. Remember that part about Fluffy being Cerberus (or at least related to him)? In the film Hagrid gets Fluffy off some Irish guy instead of a Greek one. It's a change that only detracts from the world instead of adding to it. And changing the way Harry wins the first Quidditch match is an odd choice, too. Instead of Harry being lucky, he ends up profiting from a dumb move. It, too, is a small change, but it says something about this character that is quite different from the character in the book. So, as an adaptation, I think it's just OK. It's not horrible, but it isn't great, either.