To celebrate the launch of Adapt That and the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them all in one whirlwind week, we are writing two Harry Potter-themed posts in a row. Never fear, Potter-uninitiated, we have much more varied analyzing yet to do!
One afternoon in 2002, Alfonso Cuarón was just sitting down to lunch. He’d recently agreed to direct one of the most highly anticipated films of all time: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He was the new man at the helm of a budding billion-dollar franchise. Although they’d performed well, he knew the previous two films’ criticisms cited a too-meticulous clinging to the source material and an insistence on childlike wonder at the expense of character development. What would he do to change this?
Most critics agree that with Cuarón at the helm, The Prisoner of Azkaban rose to become one of the best, if not the best film of the franchise. They aren’t wrong. Cinematically, the film soars. Sweeping camera shots give momentum and a lingering instability to the story. Visual motifs of clocks and glass provide character insight and foreshadowing. A shift to a more muted palette indicates a gradual darkening of tone, perfect for the third installment to an increasingly mature series. Cuarón’s Azkaban succeeds as a film largely because of its atmosphere, the most visually distinct of the series.
Book-readers reliably hate it.
Well, what do readers love about the books? The most devoted often mention their love for the lifelike, nuanced characters that grow and change, but also how interwoven the entire series is as a whole. Details from the first few books become significant plot points later on. Fleshed-out minor characters ground the series in reality and can occasionally provide major revelations. Each emotional connection between Harry and another person or place is unique and intentional, and it’s a loss to miss even one of them. Screenwriter Steve Kloves gives many such connections the axe, forcing him to resort to less satisfying resolutions in later installments.
As the first Potter film to deviate strongly from the source material, The Prisoner of Azkaban succeeds the most because it’s not working with already-cut material. The story stands on its own—nothing really comes back into play from it (unlike in the books), except for the casting of newly-introduced characters. Lupin and Trelawney serve their purpose for this film, but barely show up later. Wormtail’s escape to Voldemort carries no real weight, given the massacre of Peter Pettigrew’s fate in The Deathly Hallows Part I. And of course this third installment marks the introduction of a fan favorite and extremely integral character: Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black. He too receives a the flat treatment, acting as more of a surrogate father-figure (which we already had in Arthur Weasley) than a devil-may-care, rebellious, cool uncle who connects Harry to his parents and helps him understand his emerging dark side.
While these missteps impact the later films tremendously for the worse, most of the full-force character assassination occurs in movies 4-8, so Azkaban manages to sneak by without being held to the precedent it set by what it added or omitted to the films’ characters.
Despite all that, Cuarón’s style gave the series something cruicial for any adaptation: its own voice.
In the first two installments, Columbus invites the audience to explore Diagon Alley and Hogwarts along with Harry. The classic theme booms and boils as we descend onto the Great Hall at Halloween during Harry’s first year. A summer later, we revel dizzily in the view as the flying car rocks back and forth, returning our heroes to the romantic arching halls where they belong. They’re great for what they are: movie adaptation of books that undeniably belongs in the children’s section.
Cuarón’s Wizarding World slaps the audience across the face like surprise chili pepper in a chocolate bar. It’s creative. A bit dissonant. And a tad rebellious. It works, although those who already thought chocolate perfect might find it distasteful. The funk Cuarón brought to the franchise invigorated the story’s screen presence. In Azkaban, the story knows its medium—film—and makes use of it.
It gives us shots we didn’t know we wanted to see, like flowers freezing as dementors approach Hogwarts. The whomping willow shaking off show. A panning shot of Hogwarts eventually settling on Harry’s face, framed in a clock. Dumbledore’s “If one only remembers to turn on the light” candle speech. The Hogwarts chapel choir.
In a scene towards the beginning of the film, Harry sits down to breakfast at The Leaky Cauldron with the Weasleys and Hermione, having finally been reunited with all his friends after a difficult summer. Mr. Weasley asks for a word, then takes Harry aside and tells him that Sirius Black wants to kill him.
Cuarón stages their conversation in an intriguing manner. Harry and Mr. Weasley talk on the right side of the screen in a less-populated corner of the pub. Understandably, they isolate themselves from listening ears as Mr. Weasley divulges information others would rather Harry did not know. Why not continue to pan over right and keep that conversation isolated? Why continue to include the rest of the group in the shot?
To emphasize how separated Harry has become from them.
Nerdwriter and Kristin Thompson observe that Cuarón gradually walks Harry away from his friends, separating them visually, before finally centering on Harry’s face alone as the shot ends and he’s left to contemplate his very perilous situation. Cuarón then goes on to visually remind us of Harry’s isolation. He’s framed in a giant doorway as Ron and Hermione leave for a Hogsmeade field trip with the rest of their class. He walks though an expansive forest by himself. He muses in the middle of a valley-spanning bridge all alone, far away from the castle. We even see the theme of isolation emerge in a joyful way, as Buckbeak flies Harry across the Hogwarts lake and grounds.
The Chamber of Secrets, which perfectly captures the spirit of the book and hits most every plot point, seems uninterested in such visual nuance, and focuses more on duplicating the original children’s movie, I-love-magic adventure romp feel than considering what its characters might be feeling.
This difference is key to understanding why The Prisoner of Azkaban received the second-highest critical rating of the Potter series on Rotten Tomatoes: Columbus gifts his viewers an experience in J.K. Rowling‘s universe, not his own.. Cuarón’s breathes on its own. To those who haven’t already read the books—and in filmmaking we must assume an uninitiated audience—what will be more enjoyable? A movie with creative visuals that newly catch the eye. One irresistible to watch. The Prisoner of Azkaban succeeds as an adaptation because it tries something new and prospers from being its own thing, breathing energy into a series which formerly coasted on J.K. Rowling’s coattails.
Photos: Warner Bros.