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[whitespace] 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'

Something About Harry

One adult reader first fell under the sorcerer's spell thanks to the richness of the accents in the Harry Potter series--can the movie live up to the imagination?

By Sarah Phelan

I first fell under Harry Potter's spell while driving the freeway. To be honest, I wasn't intending to actually listen to the audiocassette of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which I'd given my stepson for Christmas.

My evil plan was to slip the tape into the deck while driving the two-hour commute between his mom's place and ours, then enjoy uninterrupted daydreaming as my stepson, mesmerized by the story, forgot to ask "Are we there, yet?" every five minutes. The plan worked like a charm but like most diabolical schemes had an unforeseen side effect: I, too, became bewitched.

Hooked from the moment I heard Harry's Muggle relatives declare themselves "perfectly normal, thank you very much," I drove three times round the block when we got home, just so I could hear what happened in Chapter Six, mysteriously titled "Platform Nine and Three-Quarters."

And the minute the kid was safely tucked up in bed, I resumed my listening, intent on tracking the progress of Harry, the boy with the lightning-bolt shaped scar, during his first year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry--a year full of invisibility cloaks, hairy giants and hatching dragon's eggs.

Having grown up in England, I at first attributed my interest in this children's book to nostalgia. Not that I'd ever attended a boarding school (a privilege largely reserved for the rich or the orphaned), nor had I ever encountered any wizards--which probably goes to prove I'm a Muggle of the worst order.

No, what I fell in love with was the myriad of British accents, most of which sound nothing like the queen's. Like a football fan downing a pint of Guinness, I drank up Hagrid's West Country accent, Mrs. McGonagall's Highland brogue and Malfoy's nasal sneer--all perfectly rendered on the audiocassette tape by actor Jim Dale. So it was that when the sun rose the next morning, I'd devoured the Sorcerer's Stone--and was thirsting for more.


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I was not alone. Since hitting the shelves in 1997, 120 million Harry Potter books have been sold, and they have been translated into 47 languages and read by children--and adults--worldwide. Last year Harry Potter books hit China in the biggest printing since the Communists came to power more than 50 years ago.

As it happens, copyright pirates beat the state-owned publisher to the bookshelves, meaning it may take some serious Hogwarts magic to sell off the "official" copies. The thought of the Chinese lapping up tales about a British school that teaches the History of Magic and Transfiguration was mind-boggling, like hearing that Mao Tse Tung had renounced Communism and was studying the occult.

My friend Karen, who to me is about as American as you can get, says she first developed Harry Potter syndrome when she bought a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for her children. Standing at the bookstore checkout, she read a couple of pages, then couldn't put the book down. As she bounced about on the Stairmaster at her neighborhood gym, she ended up sweating all over the pages she couldn't stop turning.

Legend has it that Harry Potter's creator--Edinburgh-based author J. K. Rowling--was unemployed and living on welfare when she began jotting down ideas for Sorcerer's Stone on scraps of paper while sitting in a cafe watching her infant daughter nap. What's certain is that all her stories have been instant successes--and that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will be ranked a bestseller before it even reaches bookstores for its proposed publication date in mid-2002. The movie version of the first volume will flood the nation's movie theaters this Friday.

Why the continued adult interest in stories originally marketed for the action- and adventure-loving 8-13 set? My Stairmastering friend says Harry's entry into a magical realm via leaky cauldrons and train platforms reminds her of her own childhood favorite--C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which the mystical realm was accessed through said wardrobe. So is it the quasi-religious element, the eternal battle between good and evil, that attracts? My friend frowns, citing "delightful original writing" and "adolescent British humor" as reasons why she's a fan.

In other words, blame it on the earwax jellybeans. But as Harry Potter candy (watch for Chocolate Frogs as well as Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans), not to mention toys, posters and stickers, hits stores this fall, will adult audiences become jaded--and thus immune to Harry's silver screen magic?

Critics always argue that it's harder for a well-loved book to make the transition to film than it is for a blockbuster movie to succeed as a book: when you read the book first, you conjure up images, which may not coincide with the style of the images projected in the film.

But the cost of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--well over $100 million--suggests that Hollywood is betting otherwise. Analysts predict the film will put $1 billion in the pocket of Warner Bros., which paid Rowling $500,000 for the rights--before the first book was even released in the United States. (Rowling received $2.5 million and a percentage of the profits for the first four books.)

With a running time of 2 hours and 30 minutes, Sorcerer's Stone is expected to create a visual universe with the blockbuster appeal of Star Wars. True, we've got Lord Voldemort instead of Darth Vader, and magic wands instead of laser beams, all of which make it sound as if the world is getting medieval on our ass. Which it is. In the wake of Sept. 11, Harry Potter may be just the escapist fantasy we need.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opens Friday just about everywhere in Santa Cruz County. In Watsonville, it will even be available with Spanish subtitles, say the owners of the Fox Theater on Main Street, who have managed to obtain one of the rare two-language prints.

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From the November 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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