Depending on one's point of view, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone will be a harmless 2 1/2 -hour flight of fancy, or it will open the gates to eternal damnation.
Judging by the phenomenal success of the books by J.K. Rowling, most people consider Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to be whimsical amusements. So far, 116 million Potter books have been sold in 200 countries, translated into 47 languages.
Fans of the bespectacled young wizard have been counting the days until their fictional hero hits the silver screen on Friday. And when the $125 million movie arrives, box-office records are likely to tumble.
Harry Potter is scheduled to open at a record 4,000 theaters in the United States, and it will be released in 130 foreign countries and in 40 languages, the most ever for a Warner Bros. movie.
Some Christian leaders and religious groups are warning that the movie, assuming it is true to the book series, is not just innocent entertainment.
“The concern is that these books are placed in a culture that glorifies and markets witchcraft, sorcery, and Wicca - things that from a biblical perspective are harmful,” said Lindy Beam, youth culture analyst for Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Robert McGee, a psychologist and author based in Merritt Island, Fla., was even more alarmed.
“I think we're going to lose tens of thousands of our kids to witchcraft. And they don't understand that there is a spiritual world out there and it will suck them in. Once they start using spiritual powers, the spiritual powers will start using them.”
The books tell the story of young Harry, an orphaned son of powerful wizards, and his adventures at Hogwarts, a prep school for wizards. In the stories, characters learn to cast spells, mix potions, fly on brooms, and pursue various other magical acts.
Mr. McGee said the Old Testament book of Leviticus states: “Do not practice divination or sorcery,” and the 18th chapter of Deuteronomy describes witchcraft, casting spells, interpreting omens, consulting the dead, and being a spiritist as “an abomination to the Lord.”
“What is it about the word `abomination' that we don't understand?” he asked.
Mr. McGee and author Caryl Matrisciana collaborated on Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged, a video that churches are being urged to show to their congregations and youth groups. The video has been broadcast locally several times on WLMB-TV/Channel 40.
“An adult reads these books differently than a child would,” said Mr. McGee, known for his best-selling book The Search for Significance. “A child gets more involved. The movie will be very destructive. It's going to give kids images. The younger the children, the worse it's going to be for them. They're going to get hacked off at somebody and they're going to want the same power as Harry the wizard.”
Wren Walker, a practicing witch in Clearwater, Fla., and co-founder of the Witches Voice, an umbrella group for witches and Wiccans worldwide, said the Potter books offer a lighthearted view of witchcraft and wizardry.
“They really don't have anything to do with a `capital w' witchcraft as practiced by a large number of people,” Ms. Walker said. “It's something more to do with a `small w' witchcraft, which can be done by any other religion.”
Although most movie details have been shrouded in secrecy, the type of sorcery that Harry Potter conjures up in the books is “shooting sparks over this and levitating over that,” Ms. Walker said.
“Spells tend to be more like prayers for most Wiccans and witches that practice it in the religious sense. We don't use `abracadabra.' If somebody wanted to pick up the book and do the things in it, it wouldn't be witchcraft.”
Ms. Walker laughed about reports that a group of British witches had protested the movie last summer because there were scenes in which young Potter rides a broomstick the wrong way.
“Most of the witches I know ride SUVs,” Ms. Walker said. “I prefer a bucket seat myself.”
On a more serious note, she said the “main bone of contention” among critics of the books is that they portray witches and sorcery in a positive light.
“We have had the full, gory witch in fairy tales for centuries,” she said. “They never wanted to take the witch out of those, because the witch was the bad guy. Now there are witches and wizards who are heroes of the stories, and it's a little hard for some people to make that mind shift.”
Mr. McGee agrees that Harry's heroic image is one of his major complaints.
He said that the books are clearly not a “how-to” guide to witchcraft, but they portray witchcraft as beneficial and desirable.
“Harry Potter has become what is known as a rune, a symbol that stands for something,” Mr. McGee said. “You see that, one, Harry Potter is a child like you or someone like you; two, he's a child that accesses and utilizes witchcraft, and three, he's a child that's held in high regard. By extension, the child concludes that utilizing witchcraft is not a negative.”
Dismissing Potter's spiritual activities as “harmless fantasy” is “an intellectually vacant argument,” he said, because parents take great care in shielding their children from exposure to all things harmful, whether it's violence on television or pornography on the Internet.
Focus on the Family's Ms. Beam said there is concern that the movie could lead young viewers to wonder about witchcraft, and the information is readily available on the World Wide Web.
“Any time kids see stories about magic and things like that, it's exciting and they get curious,” she said. “And they're in a culture now where their curiosity can translate into action much more easily than when I was a kid and watched Wizard of Oz.
“A kid could easily get on the Internet and go searching for Wicca. If you've got questions, you can get answers and how-to's online from Wiccans and those who participate in witchcraft. The information is at our fingertips.”
Mr. McGee is troubled that religious leaders are failing to teach their congregations to recognize witchcraft when it is right in front of their faces.
“Pastors are more of an irritant to me than Rowling is,” Mr. McGee said. “God is not shy at all about His view of witchcraft. It's crazy that we're even having a discussion about it.”
Ms. Walker said that even if the Harry Potter movie leads to children “play acting” as witches, it doesn't mean they will become involved in witchcraft.
“When I was growing up, there were a lot of cowboy shows. People in my generation bought cowboy hats and toy guns. But I didn't grow up to be a cowboy. And I don't think that these kids will grow up to be witches.”
Ms. Beam, who had not seen the movie at the time of this interview, will be writing a review for a Focus on the Family web site, www.pluggedinmag.com. Their policy on reviews is to describe a movie's contents without recommending whether or not to see it.
“We realize that different families deal with entertainment in different ways,” she said. “We will tell you what is in it so you can deal with it according to your standards.”