These are the chapters in which Harry is first introduced to the Wizarding World. Hagrid shows up to tell him he’s a wizard, they go shopping for school supplies at Diagon Alley, and he rides the Hogwarts Express for the first time. In these chapters, nearly all of the most important child characters are introduced. Harry meets Malfoy in Diagon Alley, the Weasleys at Platform 9 ¾, and finally, both Hermione and Neville on the train. By the time we get to Hogwarts, we already know the kids who will have the greatest impact on Harry’s time there. And the ways in which we meet them are very significant.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I’m usually one of those people who say “the book was better” whenever there’s a change, but I actually prefer Harry and Malfoy’s first meeting the way it is in the movie. “I think I can tell the wrong sort for myself, thanks” is one of my very favorite moments. It’s not quite the same in the books, where Harry and Malfoy have already met before, and Harry has already come to the conclusion that he does not like this boy who reminds him a little too much of Dudley … in both versions, Harry chooses Ron as a friend over Malfoy, but in the movie, it feels more like a real choice. In the book there’s no question what he’ll decide.
However, I still feel like that first conversation between Harry and Malfoy is important, and not having it takes something away from the movie. It’s Harry’s first real encounter with the darker side of the wizarding world, and he doesn’t really know that yet, although he does react to Malfoy’s smug and entitled attitude with instant dislike. But lines like “I really don’t think they should let the other sort in … I think they should keep it in the old wizarding families” hint at the reason so many people supported Voldemort, an idea that will be explored much more in future books, especially Chamber of Secrets and Deathly Hallows. It’s also the first mention of school houses and quidditch, which of course will also be very important later on.
The next people Harry meets are the Weasleys, who will become sort of a surrogate family to him during his time at Hogwarts. The Weasleys are instantly likable. You don’t know anything about them yet, really, but they’re eager to help Harry, and their warmth and kindness are a stark contrast to the Dursleys. It’s no surprise that Ron becomes Harry’s best friend and that the Weasleys keep showing up again and again. The way they’re introduced tells us they will.
When we first meet Hermione, she seems a bit obnoxious, but she’s also going around helping Neville look for his toad. This act of kindness toward someone who is at that point a stranger to her points to her really being a good person despite the bad first impression. It’s easy to believe she would become friends with Harry and Ron, because although their personalities clash, their hearts are all in the right place.
Perhaps the most startling difference from the movie is that Harry has to return to the Dursleys for a whole month before going to Hogwarts. This makes sense if you know that his birthday is July 31 and that the Hogwarts Express leaves on September 1. Still, the scene where the Dursleys drop Harry off at the train station is all kinds of disturbing. It’s obvious they don’t believe there’s any such thing as Platform 9 ¾, but they’re perfectly happy to abandon him at the barrier between Platforms 9 and 10. (Then there’s the question of why Aunt Petunia wouldn’t know about Platform 9 ¾, when her sister went to Hogwarts. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)
There’s all kinds of foreshadowing in these chapters. Or maybe, rather than foreshadowing, it’s just that we see glimpses of things that are very familiar once we’ve read the whole series. For example, Bathilda Bagshot and Newt Scamander are both listed as authors of textbooks Harry needs for school. Hagrid admits that he was expelled from Hogwarts but refuses to say why. He also mentions that some of Voldemort’s supporters came out of “trances” when he was defeated (first mention of the Imperius curse?), and Ron tells Harry the Malfoys were only pretending to be “bewitched” and “didn’t need an excuse to go over to the Dark Side”. The first thing we learn about Gringotts is that “Ye’d be mad ter try an’ rob it”, which – seven years later – is exactly what Harry and his friends have to do.
Then there’s this easily-overlooked line: “Hagrid wouldn’t let Harry buy a solid gold cauldron, either (‘It says pewter on yer list’)”. First time around, this doesn’t mean much, but can you imagine Snape’s reaction if Harry had shown up in potions class with a solid gold cauldron!?