Jun 21 2011 2:53pm

Rewatching the Potter Films: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

To be perfectly honest, the movie I was most worried about rewatching for this series wasn’t Chamber of Secrets, my least favorite one the first time around, it was Prisoner of Azkaban, my runaway favorite. This was the movie that established movie canon as parallel to book canon in the Potterverse, whether for good or bad (I’ve had huge arguments over the significance of the Marauders’ Map’s authorship and even, though this turned out to be a moot point when we saw where J.K. Rowling was going with this in the books, the color of Harry’s oft-remarked-upon eyes). When it came out, I loved it, and ranted to anyone within earshot about how great it was.

A few years later, still only having seen it the once, I got into the Marauder’s Map argument with a huge fan of the book—which I too had read maybe a half-dozen times—and started to wonder: was the movie as good as I’d remembered it? Or was it an adaptation by a filmmaker more concerned with looking cool than staying faithful to the books?

The answers to those questions are a) yes and b) well, kind of. Prisoner of Azkaban is a wildly engaging, suspenseful, extremely well-crafted movie that with the exception of a bit of a pacing hiccup about two-thirds of the way through—which is soon righted—is flawless escapist entertainment. Of all the Harry Potter movies, Prisoner of Azkaban is the most welcoming to non-hardcore devotees, primarily because of the changes (and there aren’t nearly as many as I remembered) are all in the service of making a compelling movie. Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial fluorishes aren’t exactly unobtrusive; a number of them are totally just showing off and the fact that it seems like Harry’s never flown before makes no sense when you stop to think about it. But while the movie’s going on, most of those fluorishes help establish and then deepen the mood and atmosphere.

Prisoner of Azkaban has always been one of my favorite books in the series too. The way J.K. Rowling took a character referenced in passing in in the first book—in the context of being a good enough friend of Hagrid’s that he lent Hagrid his flying motorcycle—and introduced him as a feared villain immediately had me questioning absolutely everything. I thought it was by the far the funniest book, and something about it being the only one in which Voldemort doesn’t appear gives it a lightness even the first two lack. Even little things like it being the only time celebrated Quidditch player Harry Potter wins the Cup were nice.

Of course, there are more important story elements in Prisoner of Azkaban. It introduces Remus Lupin, third Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in as many years, and the first to not be an evil twit. But, he’s also a werewolf, which complicates things. Cuarón seems particularly fascinated by Lupin’s otherness, telling actor David Thewlis, playing Lupin, that he saw Lupin as gay. This turned out not to be the case in the books, but it’s a provocative allegory, and indicative of the measured irreverence with which Cuarón approached the material.

This results in a movie that, while eliding a number of the details from the book and flat-out omitting others, is coherent enough that it doesn’t require multiple readings of the book to understand. It also, in a nice bonus, clocks in at only a hair over two hours, not counting the truly epic closing credits (which, all kidding aside, are rather nicely animated). The movie loses a lot (if not all) the book’s engaging lightness, which I think is due to the movies being at least three years behind the books, and the influence of the current tone of the books at the time of each movie’s production. Since the first movie didn’t go into production until Goblet of Fire was in bookstores, and Prisoner of Azkaban hit theaters some months after Order of the Phoenix hit shelves, the gradual darkening of the books’ tone impacted the movies’, making Prisoner of Azkaban rather dark indeed and genuinely scary in places.

Prisoner of Azkaban is, by far, the best-acted movie to date in the series. While Dan Radcliffe has a couple clunky moments emotionally—mainly due to his shouting, which is always a little awkward, he’s much better when he chills out a bit—he has many more that are wonderfully candid, as do Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (one thing I didn’t notice until Prisoner of Azkaban: each member of the Weasley family, seemingly, has an accent from a different part of the U.K., which is funny, but I guess redheads don’t grow on trees, and neither do dialect coaches). A lot of this is due to Cuarón having his young actors due actual character work beyond reading the book: the kids all seem like real kids, not just wearing nametags that say “I’m [x] character with [y] characteristics in the book, none of which are on display in [z] movie!”

As for the grown-ups, new arrival David Thewlis does a fine job as Lupin, though I can never shake how different he is than my initial visualization of Lupin (and wishing they’d casted Mark Rylance, but oh well, sands of time). Gary Oldman, though, is absolutely perfect as Sirius Black: every scene of his is a master class in acting. Perhaps the biggest thing that jumped out this rewatch was how much Gary Oldman packs into every single line reading, and how much is conveyed even in the briefest interactions with Radcliffe’s Harry.

The fact that turning the series over to Cuarón led to the lowest-grossing movie in the series (a mere three-quarters of a billion dollars; what a pitiful flop) meant that subsequent entries would feature less wild auteur experimentation. But there will always be Prisoner of Azkaban, bold, independent, irreverent but not disrespectful toward its source material, a very fine movie indeed. Will the next installment, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, continue in a similar vein, or will it, as the producers promised, be a return to greater fidelity to the books? Find out Thursday in the next installment of this rewatch.

Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Jack Stark
1. Jack Stark
This was the first HP movie that I saw, and I hated it. I can't exactly pinpoint why... It simply was apparent to me that there were huge chunks of the story missing.

I gave up on Harry Potter then, until one lazy summer afternoon at a beach house which lacked any form of entertainment EXCEPT the fourth book. That book, and, later, its movie, turned me into a fan.
Chris Palmer
2. cmpalmer
This is my favorite of the movies as well. I think bringing in a fresh, bold director was a great idea and I thought Cuarón did a great job.

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to watch Y Tu Mama Tambien and I'm totally shocked that someone in Hollywoodland saw that and said, "That's who should direct the next Harry Potter movie!"
Jack Stark
3. mutantalbinocrocodile
I hated this movie too. . .but I know why. It's the same problem I've had with pretty much all the HP movies, but to a higher power. It's NOT FUNNY. Harry Potter without laugh-out-loud moments is just beside the point. It's the humor more than anything that makes the Good Guys and their world so intensely worth fighting for.
Jack Stark
4. zenspinner
Well, just to keep the hated it/loved it pattern going, it's by far my favorite of the movies too. The book purist in me lamented the stuff they left out, and the special effects re Lupin could have been better, but as a pure piece of art that stands on its own, I really loved it. I hoped the rest of the films would go in this direction, but alas, I think for subsequent movies we got the worst of both worlds...good book sections omitted for no good reason, while the rest was too literal. POA was almost poetic in its realization and I just wish there'd been more poetry in the rest.
Jack Stark
5. Smaug's Li'l Brother Puff
Azkaban is by far and without doubt the best movie of the series. (The only thing I don't like about it is what a whimpering puss they made out of Draco Malfoy. Truly embarrassing, that.)
Katie McNeal
6. Katiya
I couldn't leave it alone, I guess, the pattern would be broken! I also hated this movie, though on subsequent viewings I have grown to simply dislike it. But that is probably more about my dislike of things that seem to be there simply because they can be. The obsession with MUSIC in this movie seemed odd to me, the Knight Bus too quirky, the random floating Dementor scenes overplayed. I also didn't like that Harry's Patronus, a major plot point of the book, was only vaguely stag-like, but now I'm just quibbling.
Richard Caywood
7. rcaywood
This was, to me the movie that was a low point in the films. As a stand alone suspense film it was very good, but it was the one that took the magic away. It could have been set at any boarding school and been the same film. The biggest departures were in the details described in the books that Cuaron took out because he didn't 'like them.' He got better acting out of everyone, but where were the house robes, the wizarding clothes and colors? Where, in short, was the wizarding world that Rowling so painstakingly described in her books? It was decisions like these that made this my least favorite movie of the series. Expecially since a majority of the Hogwarts' students came from wizarding families and would not know how to dress like fashionable teenagers (see Draco and most of Slytherin). Clothing was one of items that JKR used to effect the distance and change between the muggle and wizarding worlds. Yet this movie completely removed that aspect of the books. And apparently gave the subsequent films license to do likewise, especially with the dress robes and Yule ball scene in Goblet of Fire. Leaving these things out showed a tremendous lack of respect for the source material to me, leaving them in would not have impacted the storyline and made the film franchise more 'magical'. This film made me disillusioned with the movie series to the point that I didn't any of them in the theater and was hesitant to even see them on DVD later.
While I have disagreements with the timeline, plot details and backstory (or lack thereof) decisions made for the film, I can understand why they were made and look past them for the most part. But to so abruptly change the visual look and setting made me want to use obliviate on myself or Cuaron, depending on the day.
Jack Stark
8. AndrewB
As a novel, PoA is my second favorite novel (Just behind DH). As a movie, PoA is one of my least favorites. For me, it seemed that this movie deviated the most from the book.

I also did not like the effect of Cuaron's images. For example, the use of the clock.

I also did not like the look of Cuaron's werewolf. I thought that the look of Lupin's werewolf was the worst that I have seen. When it comes to werewolves, I have thought that they should be almost identical to that of a regular wolf. (Or at the very least the minor differences that JKR indicates in the OotP.) Lupin's werewolf did not look very "wolfy" (for lack of a better term).

Jack Stark
9. helbel
I maintain PoA is the best book. It is also the best film. But the film is the worst adaptation of the book.
Birgit F
10. birgit
The book is one of my favorites, but I hate the movie. It's the only one I never rewatch (I watched the DVD once to see if it was better in English than in German, but it wasn't).
Andrew House
11. housephd
As someone who has been watching the movies without seeing the books, this was by far my favourite when it first came out, and I think it still is. It works on its own, as a movie, and works perfectly well without all the "missing stuff" people complain about.

I also thought it was a relief that the films had moved past the "Golly gee, we're in WIZARD school" stuff that ate up a lot of time in the first two movies. (Sadly, they returned to this in the fourth film, which was a virtually incomprehesible mess to someone who hadn't read the book.)

I have since read the first three books, and the third book actually had less oomph for me than this movie did. My dislike of the fourth movie has prevented me from moving on to the fourth book just yet....
Jack Stark
12. zenspinner
Housephd, I hope you go ahead and read the book - PoA was my favorite of the movies, but GoF was my favorite book. Soooo much better than the movie, IMO.
Jack Stark
13. Gardner Dozois
By far the best of the Potter movies, in my opinion. By far. The only one I enjoy watching again when I blunder across it while channel surfing. GOBLET OF FIRE was a disappointment to me by comparison, and I didn't like ORDER OF THE PHOENIX.

The darkening tone probably also of necessity engenders a change in audience demographics. When the first two movies came out, they were presented as children's movies, kids movies shown at Christmastime that families went to as a group. The theater would be full of kids in the five-six-seven age group, or even younger. I myself went to the first one with my young grandchildren. Now, there are almost no young kids or family groups in the audience--when I saw the last one, the audience was largely composed of people in their twenties and thirties. They're not "holiday family movies" anymore--now, they're dark-hued supernatural thrillers, appealing to a different demographic. I suppose this was inevitable, as the books themselves darkened.

One of the things that I liked about PoA was that there were still moments of wonder scattered through here and there among the (very) scary stuff. The initial hippogriff flying scene was wonderful, as good a depiction of sheer joy as I've seen on the screen.
Jack Stark
14. sofrina
i don't quite crown a favorite for book or film, but POA is the leading contender in both categories. the novel has so many dramatic twists and reveals i lost count of how many times i said "but that would mean-/ no way!/ are you serious?!/ SCANDALOUS!!!" the payoffs are so rich. but the movie wins in a whole other way. as an adaptation, i hate it. on first viewing, it was like reading a few pages in a book, skipping ahead a few chapters to read a few more pages and so on. very, very light on the plot. the story has no grounding which makes logical errors like hermione's wolf call stand out even worse than in the book. (if a werewolf only responds to a werewolf's call, how could it mistake a human voice for that?)

my second viewing was in a near-empty imax theater and that was quite a difference. the thing about the music and the zaniness is that it throws the viewer back in their seats. you're along for the ride wherever the knight bus or buckbeak or the time turner are going. it reconnected me to a sense of childish wonder in the most exhilarating way. it isn't silly for harry to revel in that first ride on buckbeak. he can't go hands-free on his broom. he's never ridden over the lake and the entire grounds before. that ride was awesome!

cuaron made a real effort to ground the story with some realism, at least. the students still wear uniforms, but they look like real kids. they're untucked, ties loose, etc. but when they're out of class, they wear casual clothing. since it was the first time, this was certainly jarring but at least it makes sense. the book notion that wizards have no idea how to wear clothes or even know the difference btw sleepwear, undies and outerwear is ludicrous. you cannot read that and take it seriously. wizards do not live on their own planet. they don't have a separate country. they can't not know better. wizards make the case themselves that they cannot afford to be exposed. so how can they arrive at the end of the 20th century with not the basest clue about muggle society? since then the movies have shown the adults in some semblance of reasonable clothing. antiquated and weird looking, but no one's sporting a nightgown over a raincoat.

some of the more twee aspects of the story are just insupportable nonsense. look at COS, how can this be the first time harry learns what mr. weasley does for a living? he and ron have been roommates for a year, plus the older weasleys are in their house. he learns about bill and charlie's professions but not the dad's. a lot of the info harry takes years to learn should logically have come to him in the first year.

but i rate this movie very high because there is adventure around every corner making you want to leap into action as much as the kids do. and at the same time there's so much bittersweet heartache for harry. the only gifts he is given that aren't taken away are the patronus charm and the marauder's map.
Jack Stark
15. Michael D'Auben
PoA was possibly my favorite of the books. It was the last of them with a truly "happy" ending (including to my everlasting diappointment DH) and then was followed by a steady decent into darkness through the rest of the book series.

On the other hand, it was probably my least favorite of the movies, and that was entirely I think due to Cuarón, who leached much of the "magic" of the HP universe out of the story for me. While the movie has its highlights (Gary Oldman's performace probably being the most notable) the jaring stylistic changes from the earlier two movies, the heavy-handed "time" theme that was constantly thrust in the viewers face (that stupid giant pendulum in the school still makes me roll my eyes), and the generally poor pacing of the movie make it, in my opinion, one of the weakest of the movie series.
Jack Stark
16. I love the twins
My mistake on my previous post. In the classroom scene with Prof. Lupin & Harry with the boggart appearing as a dementor, the scar on Harry's forehead is on the left side. In the next scene when the students are going into Hogsmeade, the scar is back on the right side of Harry's forehead.
Jack Stark
17. vsthorvs
I just rewatched it, and have very mixed feelings about this movie. I loved the Lupin scenes, and the last half hour of this movie other than the Firebolt scene were brilliant. The pacing was much better than the first two movies, and I didn't feel like we were missing anything dire other than humor, despite a couple of attempts.

But why does Harry cast lumos in the first scene when ten minutes later in the movie, (this movie, so don't try to argue for a separate canon) they mention that he's prohibited from using magic? Why do they end with that ridiculous Firebolt scene, when Harry's broom had served a minor in every sense of the word part of the movie? And why couldn't that scene in Hogesmeade where Harry learns that Sirius was his godfather have been done like they did in the books instead of that really awkward forced horrible scene in the movie?

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