Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Possibly the reason so many regard Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as the best film in the series is because the film stands on it’s own, totally independant from the book of the same name. As I read through Prisoner of Azkaban this past week, and having watched the film a month or so previously, I was struck between the similarities between the two works, but was even more aware of the differences.
This film may be one of the best adaptions of a book to the screen that has ever been done. Every change that the director, Alfonso Cuaron, made between the book and the film is done in such a way to play to the strengths of film as a medium. I imagine when the film came out, many hardcore fans were angry about some changes, but it’s undeniable that they work really well in the context of a film. For example, in the book, Professor Lupin will not let Harry Potter battle the boggart, believing the creature would take the form of Lord Voldemort and freak everyone out.
But in the film, Lupin deliberately lets Harry face the boggart in front of the rest of the students, which takes the form of a Dementor, which Lupin immediately disposes of. By this point the final actor and look of Lord Voldemort had not been decided for the film series, so this scene understandably had to be changed. In the written medium, you can refer back to a character that the audience is familiar with but has never seen; in film, however, most of the audience would be lost if this never seen before figure all of a sudden showed up to scare Harry. The Dementor, which had been established earlier in the film and collectively were the “big bad” of Prisoner of Azkaban, fit the scene better.
(Side comment – Why, in the flashbacks in later films, when Voldemort kills Harry Potter’s parents, why does he look like he does post-revival? Shouldn’t he just look like a normal, if evil, human? His pasty skin and lack of a nose are a result of him losing his powers and almost dying, not as a result of him exploring Dark Magic. I hope that at some point in the film series we get to see Ralph Fiennes sans makeup as Voldemort/Tom Riddle.)
When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I think I had already watched the film version in that initial introduction to the world of Harry Potter. My memory is spotty back then; I do remember that the first film I saw in the theatres was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. My initial impressions of the book version of Prisoner of Azkaban was not very favorable. Sure it was entertaining, but there was nothing in it truly about Voldemort; in my young naiveté, I thought this was akin to having a Star Wars movie that didn’t have Darth Vader in it, or a rock album without a single guitar. It felt like a stepping stone to something more important; filler; a bottle show.
Over time, however, my view of this chapter in the Harry Potter series has changed, possibly for the better. Thematically, the introduction of Sirius Black is what is needed to push Harry Potter into committing himself to the fight against Voldemort. It’s the calm before the storm, as well as the maturing of the characters and the audience along with them. Harry is so excited that he has a real family member now, this godfather he knew nothing about, who is incredibly powerful, dangerous, and the coolest uncle anyone could want. Harry, for the first time in the series and at the end of this book, is incredibly happy.
This happiness is what makes the death of Cedric Diggory and eventually Sirius Black so hard on the character and the audience. JK Rowling knew what she was doing as she plotted out this series and wrote this third book. And myself, in my young stupidity, didn’t trust her to deliver. I’m very glad to have been wrong.
This book and subsequent film may also be when most readers and audience members fell in love with Alan Rickman playing Severus Snape. Easily my favorite character in the film series is Severus Snape, and Alan Rickman is masterful in the role, although I understand fully well why some older viewers can’t get over the Die Hard connection (which leads to some humorous talking during the movie moments). Rickman brings a humor and menace to Snape that is missing from the books, yet the film Snape gets fewer lines than the book Snape. Prisoner of Azkaban contains some great character moments for Snape that I wish had been filmed, but I understand why they weren’t; audiences would have gotten confused or viewed it as cheesy if all of a sudden Snape was incredibly angry and hateful toward Potter without first establishing the reasons why. Later films aggravated me even more with how little Snape there was, but I’m thankful for what is there.
I’m not entirely certain if Prisoner of Azkaban is the best film in the series, and I’m going to hold off on declaring what I think the best book of the series is until I’m done reading them through, in case my opinion and reasoning changes. I think it’s one of the best films in the series, and a superb book to film adaptation. There is a sharpness to the film that others are lacking, but that may be simply because of the contrast between the first two films. I think the later films have a more artful cinematography to them that I personally find more appealing, especially the almost Jedi-like “lightsaber battles” between Voldemort and other characters (the strands of magical energy arching around), but there are still some beautiful landscapes and moments in this film. It’s also the first film that seemed to open up Hogwarts more to the audience, establishing new areas that became stables in later films.
I’m really curious now how the video games that accompanied these earlier Harry Potter films play. I know the games have a mediocre reputation, yet there were a few gems early on. I’m especially curious how the handhold games on GameBoy Advance were. And of course, I’m looking forward to playing through Lego Harry Potter: The First Four Years when I get the chance.
How about it? Anyone interested in playing some Lego Harry Potter with me? Let’s geek out and enjoy ourselves!