October 22, 2015


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition. By J.K. Rowling. Illustrated by Jim Kay. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $39.99.

     It is hard to accept that it has been the better part of a generation – 18 years, since 1997 – since we first met Harry Potter, “the boy who lived,” and were first immersed in J.K. Rowling’s astonishingly vivid world of magic and muggles through Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (unfortunately retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for American consumption, losing some resonance and sense of real-world history through the change). Once ensconced in the consciousness of young readers and adults alike – Rowling’s books were extraordinarily rare in their ability to bridge very large age gaps – Harry and his cohorts never went away, becoming societally ubiquitous through seven books, eight feature films, spinoffs and Web-based sequels and expansions and a great deal more. The visual elements of Rowling’s books were always important to their effectiveness: Jonny Duddle did the British children’s editions, Andrew Davidson the British adult paperback versions, and Mary GrandPré the U.S. editions published by Scholastic. But as fine as these illustrators’ works were, they were incidental to the story Rowling told, not integral to it. Now that the Harry Potter books are affirmed as modern classics on the level of the works of C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, perhaps even J.R.R. Tolkien (three other British authors known by their initials rather than their full names), it is possible to envision them with illustrations that pervade the pages from start to finish, drawing upon and expanding the textual elements and turning the series into something lying somewhere between graphic novels and traditional illustrated books.

     This can work only if the illustrations are exceptional ones, and those by Jim Kay most assuredly are. Kay does darkness particularly well, hinting even in this earliest and least-dark of the novels at some of the demonic depths that will emerge later. The spiders in Harry’s under-the-stairs cubbyhole, which emerge from a very darkly tinted scene to walk across the next page, are just one example of foreshadowing here (whether intended or not). For that matter, Hagrid, although a decidedly good and at times a comic character, shows in Kay’s illustrations as a great bear looming over everyone and everything he encounters, a coiled mass of power just waiting to erupt. Kay is simply brilliant at capturing visually the essence of characters such as Draco Malfoy (thoroughly chilling as a handsome but deeply cold preteen) and Albus Dumbledore (more careworn, older-looking and somewhat more cerebral than when seen elsewhere). The ghosts that appear before the Sorting Hat does its duty are genuinely chilling here, and the hat itself, a kind of patchwork Easter bonnet, is simultaneously hilarious and more than a touch scary: a long green feather protruding from it looks disturbingly like a Lovecraftian tentacle. Even more doom-shadowed is Severus Snape, the first view of him showing him so dark – in front of a wall of many mysterious objects and potions – that he seems more background than foreground, more an absence than a presence, and all the more intimidating as a result.

     Nor is it only the characters that are beautifully interpreted, or reinterpreted, here. The first sight of Hogwarts makes it far more chilling than Rowling’s prose describes it as being. Hagrid’s hut is a burst of color and cheer, but faintly ridiculous – just the sort of place where Hagrid, who is faintly ridiculous himself, belongs. A two-page, black-and-white spread of “Newt Scamander’s Guide to Trolls” provides a surprising level of amusement in the midst of the otherwise scary sequence in the girls’ bathroom: Kay includes “Inside a Troll’s Mind,” where there is a little bit of room for “kittens” and even less for “keep thinking it’s Tuesday,” and also shows a “trollwig,” known to “feed on troll earwax.”

     Harry, Ron and Hermione look only a little like the characters as seen in the original novels, whether British or American, and even less like their portrayals in the eight-film sequence. But they look remarkably like themselves: Kay has done a wonderful job of envisioning them as rather gangly, still-finding-their-way-in-life preteens, a jumble of nerves and awkwardness with their magical powers and all-too-human bodies barely beginning to develop. Kay has also done simply splendidly in letting his imagination roam into visual areas that are not crucial to the story but that enhance it significantly. There is, for example, a gorgeous full-page display of dragon eggs “from ‘Dragon-Breeding For Pleasure and Profit,’” from the prickly, bright-red “Chinese Fireball” to the large, pineapple-like “Ukranian [sic] IronBelly.” All these illustrations and many more – and, on pages without illustrations, blobs of color that could be anything from paint spatters to blood – make this illustrated version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone an experience not to be missed by existing and all-new Rowling fans alike. At the end, when Gryffindor’s triumph over Slytherin is affirmed, the main impression left by Kay’s illustration is of how young the principals of the story are, how little they know of what lies ahead for them and their world, how little they understand that the darkness they have faced and overcome in this first book is but a small foretaste of what will envelop them in later volumes. Kay has done something remarkable here: he has not improved Rowling’s material so much as enlarged it and re-envisioned it, putting his own stamp on the characters, the world they inhabit, and the trials they endure. The Harry Potter books are deservedly acclaimed as modern classics; their illustrated versions, if Kay continues to produce them at a level this high, will deserve the same designation – at a different place on home and library bookshelves.

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