The American edition of the first Harry Potter book’s title only changed one word, but publishers found it vitally important.
The Harry Potter franchise has been going strong for almost 25 years now, despite a multitude of controversies. Some of those issues arose when adapting the books into movies — many fans still finding fault with some of the things that directors and screenwriters chose to change and remove — and others came from fan demands for better representation and issues with both the stories and their author’s viewpoints. But, as some fans know, even adapting the books for publication for an American audience came with a small conflict.
In Britain, and the majority of the world, the book detailing Harry’s entry into the Wizarding World and his first year at Hogwarts is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but Scholastic publishing head Arthur A. Levine was concerned that American readers wouldn’t be drawn to that title. Philip W. Errington explained in his biography of series author J.K. Rowling that the publisher wanted “a title that said ‘magic’ more overtly to American readers.” Levine suggested titles like Harry Potter and the School of Magic, but Rowling refused them. The issue proved to be with the word “philosopher,” which isn’t inherently mystical. Rowling eventually suggested changing the title to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and that’s what Scholastic went with.
Contrary to Levine’s concerns, the idea of a philosopher’s stone does have roots in mysticism, specifically Western alchemy. For centuries, alchemists sought this mysterious substance, “also called ‘the tincture’ or ‘the powder” according to Britannica.com, believing that they could use it to turn base metals into precious metals such as gold and silver and also to cure illnesses and even bring about immortality. The historical idea of the philosopher’s stone didn’t actually describe a specific item, as in Harry Potter, but the singular Philosopher’s Stone in Rowling’s book did share the properties of the alchemical substance.
Alchemy and the philosopher’s stone often feature in fantasy stories nowadays. While in the past alchemy was more academic, even verging on scientific, it’s now used almost interchangeably with magic and witchcraft. This more fantastical interpretation goes as far back as some of H.P. Lovecraft’s earlier works and features in pieces by authors like Umberto Eco, Terry Pratchett, and Dean Koontz. Even Nicolas Flamel, a famous French author and philanthropist historically associated with alchemy, was fictionalized long before Rowling, most notably in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Despite all that, Levine was convinced that American audiences wouldn’t connect to a title including the phrase “philosopher’s stone.” The title of the book, and any mentions of the object, were therefore replaced with “sorcerer’s stone” — both in the book and in the American release of the film. Actors actually shot two versions of every scene that referred to the stone, one saying “philosopher’s” and one saying “sorcerer’s.”
Rowling agreed to this change, but during an interview on Red Nose Day in March 2001 — half a year before the release of the first film adaptation — she admitted that she felt some regret about it. She explained that since she was a budding author, she was more concerned with pleasing the publishers who’d agreed to work with her than anything else.
As the film’s twentieth anniversary approaches, it’s interesting to look back on the Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone debate. The publisher’s concern seems misplaced — the original word clearly didn’t keep children in other countries from reaching for the book — but it was ultimately a harmless conflict that reflects market concerns more than creative ones.