Harry Potter & the Prisoner Of Azkaban shows what movies can do that books can’t.
by MATT STOKES | JULY 12, 2017
One of the best things about the Harry Potter books is that they are long. Long with several dozen o’s, as in looooooooooooooooooong. To read a Potter book is to go through a school year at Hogwarts, to live in the world of feasts and Quidditch matches and stressful exams, all of it a distraction both welcome and a little annoying from the central story of Harry versus Voldemort. That scope is often lost in the Potter movies, and by necessity—there just isn’t time in a 2.5-hour film to check all the passage-of-time boxes.
But what’s really great about the books’ length is that hundreds of pages per volume are dedicated to older wizards delivering history lessons to each other and exposition to the reader, each detail enriching and complicating the larger story. This works very well on the page, but it’s the opposite of cinematic, and every time the movies have Harry and co. slip on the invisibility cloak to overhear Professor McGonagal say the most stunning and revealing bit of information at just the right time, it’s… clunky.
The Harry Potter movies are fascinating because of how they evolved from whimsical and episodic Home Alone-esque adventures helmed by Chris Columbus (director of the first two) to the dark and propulsive entries by David Yates (director of the final four). Yates transformed the franchise into something more akin to a prestige television show, an efficient and sturdy vehicle long on entertainment but without a real stand-out individual entry. You could easily expand Yates’s Potter movies into an HBO series, where Professor Slughorn’s remarkable remarkable monologue about his pet fish wins Jim Broadbent an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor In a Drama.I)Seriously, Broadbent in Half-Blood Prince might be the single beset performance in the whole series, and I didn’t even notice him until watching that movie for the tenth time.
But sandwiched between the two eras of the Harry Potter films are Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the most singular movie in the series, directed by the franchise’s one true auteur, Alfonso Cuarón; and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a more-poorly executed version of what Yates would do with the remainder of the series.
Prisoner of Azkaban is often cited as a movie fan favorite, and with good reason. It has some of the weirdest sequences of any of the movies, such as the students battling the boggart while listening to swing music, Alan Rickman leaning heavily into Snape’s over-enunciating, and everything involving the Knight Bus. It was also a dramatic departure from the first two, more kid-oriented films whose centerpieces were John Williams’s score insisting how magical it is to eat at a buffet.
Azkaban isn’t a perfect movie, and in chopping out so much background information it loses much of what makes the book one of the best in the series. The confrontation between Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew must be really confusing to viewers of this movie who haven’t read the book—they barely have time to explain what’s going on in a sequence that in the book occupies 100 or so pages. But books are a better vessel for delivering information, and movies are often better at things that can’t be said well with words.
The best scene in any of the Harry Potter movies or books is in the Prisoner of Azkaban movie when Harry and an unconscious Sirius are attacked by dementors. All seems lost until a silver deer emerges from the woods to help them. In the book, Harry explains that he thinks this is his dead father, returning to the world to save his son and best friend. He knows it’s a ridiculous thing to say, but he can’t otherwise explain it. He decides this in real time, in the book saying, “Prongs” (his father’s nickname). In the movie, however, something much more interesting happens.
Cuarón doesn’t have Harry awkwardly announce, “I think that that deer over there is the spectral reincarnation of my late father, here to rescue me!” He lets the music and visuals do the work, suggesting to the viewer what Harry intuits. Reading the books and knowing the history of Harry’s family and the larger world of magic only enhances the power of the moment. It’s impossible to put into words, which is why it’s the rare instance where a Harry Potter movie does something the books cannot.
Harry Potter & the Prisoner Of Azkaban
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Remus Lupin: David Thewlis
Sirius Black: Gary Oldman
Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Peter Pettigrew: Timothy Spall
Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Prof. Trelawney: Emma Thompson
Hagrid: Robbie Coltrane
Draco Malfoy: Tom Felton
Released: June 4, 2004
Domestic Box Office: $249.5 million
The Other Movie
Harry Potter Movie Rankings
- The Prisoner Of Azkaban (2004)
- The Half-Blood Prince (2009)
- The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010)
- The Order Of the Phoenix (2007)
- The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011)
- The Goblet Of Fire (2005)
- The Chamber Of Secrets (2002)
- The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Harry Potter Book Rankings
- The Goblet Of Fire (2000)
- The Prisoner Of Azkaban (1999)
- The Order Of the Phoenix (2003)
- The Half-Blood Prince (2005)
- The Deathly Hallows (2007)
- The Chamber Of Secrets (1999)
- The Sorcerer’s Stone (1998)
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SEPTEMBER 23, 2017
What other movies have we been reconsidering?
Footnotes [ + ]
|I.||↑||Seriously, Broadbent in Half-Blood Prince might be the single beset performance in the whole series, and I didn’t even notice him until watching that movie for the tenth time.|