Harry Potter and the …: Mixing Words, Mixes Meaning in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE
24 August 2014
In steering away from the shot, scene, sequence, or stylistic reactions this blog typically takes, this week’s piece hopes to investigate something a bit different for Chris Columbus’ 2001 fantasy adventure Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The film, adapted from J. K. Rowling’s immensely successful Harry Potter series, stays very close to the text. Cinematically, the film plays it safe, perhaps too safe to sustain a lengthy or detail oriented analysis. Therefore, to depart from the norm, the focus of this reaction will be a change made in the American book, and subsequent film, from its UK counterpart; in the UK the first book in the Harry Potter series, as well as the film adaptation, are titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, yet the American book, and adapted film, are titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Scholastic, the American publisher for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, explained the change. According to them, the term philosopher has a different connotation in America than in the United Kingdom. What this really means is the term philosopher, in America, is less attractive to readers than in the United Kingdom. Sorcerer, however, is attractive to American readership and reasonably synonymic to philosopher (a stretch, but the assumed ideology of Scholastic). Thus, a change was made; Americas only know the first book in Rowling’s magical series and the first film of the series as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Yet, even synonymic words have their own respective significance; however similar sorcerer is to philosopher (debatable), the two words are not the same, and changing the title does change meaning.
To begin, the philosopher’s stone is a well-known myth (perhaps better know in the UK), and it directly relates to alchemy, a philosophy dating back to before the Common Era which had a tremendous impact on chemical science. In short, alchemy looks for material perfection and spiritual enlightenment. Put another way, alchemists sought the philosopher’s stone (an object with the power to turn invaluable or less valuable metals into silver and gold), use the stone to change materials, and then extract the elixir of life from the center of the stone for spiritual enlightenment.
Alchemy also emphasizes metaphor and symbolism. For example, alchemists once believed the philosopher’s stone was a tangible object, but they also realized its figurative significance; the creation of a stone that could produce greatness and then allow people to achieve their Great Work, or complete enlightenment, is a metaphor for the human experience; people are creations that have the power to produce greatness and, perhaps, achieve enlightenment in the end, according to an alchemist philosophy.
All that said, when Scholastic published Rowling’s book with the title Sorcerer’s Stone, for the simple sake of better appealing to American audiences, something significant was lost: alchemy and the meaning it offers the Harry Potter series.
Because alchemy is deeply metaphoric and symbolic, and Rowling understood that, she uses a reference to alchemy and its prize symbol, the philosopher’s stone, be figurative herself and communicate something about her protagonist: Harry Potter, through the course of this series, is created, produces greatness, and eventually achieves enlightenment. It is a brilliant juxtaposition Rowling explores in her initial novel of the series. Yet, it is changed, and therefore meaning is lost.
Even though the American text and film discuss the Sorcerer’s Stone as through it is the Philosopher’s Stone, it is not. The name change robs the novel and film from a purposeful allusion to replace it with something meaningless; there is no Sorcerer’s Stone myth; barring this novel and film, there is no such thing as the Sorcerer’s Stone.