Mar 11 2014 10:00am

Harry Potter 3 is a Better Alfonso Cuarón Movie than Gravity

Deservedly cleaning up at the Academy Awards and elsewhere, Gravity is a correctly praised film. Its compelling heart-pounding narrative drive is as relentless as the tone of the film is comfortingly sweet. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and in IMAX 3D and nowhere else. I loved the movie a lot and get pissed by those who dismiss it and/or snub its real-life inspirations.

And yet. I can’t help but feel that this is not Cuarón’s best film, in an all-around-kind of way. If Gravity is some kind of enraged dementor hovering in to deliver the death kiss, then my patronus here is definitely Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban. Or as I like to call it: a more watchable, better written, more complex and multi-layered film than Gravity in (almost!) every single way.

To paraphrase John Cleese speaking in a documentary on the making of The Holy Grail, the problem with filmmakers is they’re overly concerned with the medium of film. Paradoxical? Not really. Cleese was arguing for a kind of minimalism which he enjoyed on the Monty Python television show, which was replaced by meticulous attention to detail in the cinema incarnations of the show. The simple version of his argument is this: who cares how good the fog looks! Was the joke funny?

Now, if Cleese (and me) had it our way, most TV shows and movies would likely have the production value of a Monty Python sketch or a 1970s episode of Doctor Who. Because the more plain and bare (cheap?) the cinematography is, the more accurately the story can be judged. Or, to migrate a Han Solo sentence into a different context: hokey camera tricks and snobby lighting are no match for a good story at your side.

So, is there no truth in the beauty of filmmaking itself? A film like Gravity—one with totally flat characters who posses downright convenient storytelling traits—should really only be judged on its merits as piece of cinema art; a marvel of how the sights and sounds and immersive properties can engage us on a visceral level. Or at least this assessment of Gravity seems to be the dominant thinking for how to correctly love the film. Everyone knows Gravity isn’t a great script, but that’s not the point, right?

Well, visual science fiction has a long history of having totally shitty production values which can and should be overlooked in favor of great stories. There’s a reason why Star Trek and Doctor Who have remained stuck in the culture for as long as they have, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the realism of their camera work or the total immersion in “another world” à la Avatar. A reductive way to respond to the argument I’m presenting is that the world has a place for all of this stuff, and that Gravity isn’t “supposed” to be a “serious science fiction movie.” But, I’d argue that it’s this same kind of permissive thinking that allowed the Star Trek franchise to be hijacked into a (very entertaining!) mindless and totally illiterate shadow of its former intelligence. To say something is good “as a film” leaves out the fact that the characters, dialogue, and conception of the story are part of the process of making a film. The actual filming is, duh, super-important, but it’s just context.

And if you were to put the script of Gravity in another context, say an old episode of The Outer Limits or something, no one would really care that much about it. Again, I can hear some of you (and maybe even part of me) scream “That’s not the point!! Don’t you get it! It’s about a sensory experience! Leave the crappy dialogue alone!” And for the most part, I do agree with that statement, but it bothers me because this filmmaker—Alfonso Cuarón—has made other films with great dialogue and more memorable characters than this one. I won’t bother boring you with how great Y Tu Mamá También is, but it’s sufficient to say that it’s nearly perfect. But what about the third Harry Potter film? Why did Alfonso Cuarón not get praised by the mainstream movie-appreciators for this one? I think we all know the answer. It’s a fantasy film, which is part of a series, and there weren’t any famous actors in it. Plus, magic and wizards can’t win that kind of mainstream praise, right? (Wait. What about Return of the King?)

Let’s be really unfair here. Ready? Good. All the characters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are more interesting than the people in Gravity. The performances are all more nuanced. The characters go through changes, and the changes come from within themselves, not entirely from outside conflict. Hermione Granger doesn’t gain strength or perspective from a male character, she’s fine on her own. The solutions to the various conflicts require not only bravery, but also ingenuity. The fantasy concepts are both complex and easy to understand. The relative goodness or badness of all the characters is muddy, grey, and not always what you want it to be. Most of all (assuming you hadn’t read the book) it’s unpredictable and exciting.

What about Gravity? It can’t win over Harry Potter Tres on any of those counts. Not one. Its totally predictable. The characters are all from generic stock, their choices are generic, and the solutions to the conflicts—though presented well—aren’t that dynamic in terms of actually having everyone do different stuff as the movie goes on. Is it fair to say Prisoner of Azkaban better because it’s a more diverse and dynamic film? Probably not. Intentional minimalism can win every single time. I mean nobody thinks Sharknado is better than Waiting for Godot. But, if we want to get into the big time praise that big movies deserve, Gravity—despite its visual effects—isn’t near as good of a movie as the fantastically directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Apparently, in terms of character conception and development, Cuarón didn’t learn as much from J.K. Rowling and screenwriter Steve Kloves as he could have. Gravity doesn’t suck, but it is a little cliché on paper. Both films are solid, but Prisoner of Azkaban is so much better on paper it’s not even funny.

 And guess what? Prisoner of Azkaban is a visually impressive movie, too.

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com. His patronus is either Owen Wilson or Miranda July. He loved Gravity and particularly liked it when George Clooney called his name.

Kit Case
1. wiredog
Well, visual science fiction has a long history of having totally shitty production values which can and should be overlooked in favor of great stories.
OTOH, there's 2001, which has both a great story and great production values. And 2010, which has a pretty decent story and great production values. Hasn't aged as well though.
2. slemay2003
I couldn't agree more.

I take part in a yearly Harry Potter fest, and I always look forward to Prisoner. A friend and I would constantly argue as to what was the best of the series, and I always thought this was the best. It had style, and an amazingly well crafted arc.

Her argument was that it wasn't like the others. It was very different. and therefore didn't belong.

Either way. I loved it, and I'm glad I wasn't the only one who thought so.
3. olethros
Discussing Cuaron SFF films without even mentioning Children of Men is borderline criminal.
Christopher Bennett
4. ChristopherLBennett
Prisoner of Azkaban was the first Harry Potter movie I liked, the first one to get away from the soulless literalism of the Chris Columbus adaptations and bring some artistry to the series. It wasn't so fixated on duplicating the letter of the text and therefore managed to capture some of its spirit and energy for the first time. If anything, I'd say it's the first two films that are the odd ones out, because the rest are all stronger.

As for Gravity, it was an amazing spectacle, but it got to the point of ridiculousness when the worst possible disasters kept happening time after time after time, as if the space debris were actively hunting down Sandra Bullock and determined to stymie her at every turn. It was basically a big dumb action blockbuster brilliantly camouflaged as an intelligent hard-SF movie.

The problem with Hollywood is that, for whatever reason, modern feature directors seem to have no regard for the written word. The idea that "if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage" doesn't seem to have much currency anymore; filmmakers are more focused on the visual and the visceral and the sensory and the technical, and see the scripts as just a means to those ends rather than the foundation of the whole exercise. It's such a contrast from television, where writers are the primary creators and masterminds.
5. seth e.
olethros @3 - In fact, Children of Men, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and A Little Princess are all better than the Harry Potter. But out of the movies Cuaron has made that isn't any of those movies, Prisoner of Azkaban is definitely one of them.
6. spockagain
The biggest problem I have with this article is the fact that out of all of Cuaron's films you could have picked to be the best, you choose to go with The Prisoner of Azkaban? Here is the deal, if that was an original story that Cuaron made up and shot, then sure it would have been one hell of a story. However, it was adapted from a book, and it fell far from doing its original source material justice. I find it very difficult to say that Cuaron did a great job with TPoA when he had an incredible story already laid out for him, and he failed to capture the magic (pun intended) that was there. So I have a hard time comparing the two movies and saying that TPoA is a far better movie since the story just wasn't a fantastic as it alread was. Gravity on the other had was an enterly original effort, and the special effects were used in this movie as a way of telling the story, not just as pretty background peices. In a sense the effects created other characters in Gravity. Sure there was the human cast, but then there was the overwhelming endlessness of space, and the ever looming threat of the debris. So, I just don't agree with what you're saying. Could (should) TPoA have been a better movie? Absolutly. But I just can't say that it was.
Shelly wb
7. shellywb
I hated the first two Potter movies. They were so concerned with the letter of the books they forgot the spirit and fun. I wasn't going to bother with any more but a friend had seen the third and dragged me to it. I was blown away, and to this day it's the only one that I've bought on DVD (though I've not see the last 3). It was so magical and the characters were brought to life in a way I didn't feel they had been in those first two films.

Honestly, while Gravity was an amazingly shot film, the plot itself was a bit laughable and annoying. I felt like it was a story told by a guy about a cliched blond in space- I know she wasn't actually blond, but like my husband said, "It must be Monday because she forgot all her training." The male is calm and rational and she's hysterical and does stupid things even though she's a scientist and engineer, and it's the male spirit who gets her back on her feet when she just wants to give up and makes sure she gets home.
Holley Mayville
8. hwmayville
Sharknado is totally better than Waiting for Godot.
9. ASG
@1 Well, 2001 -had- great visuals in its day and was an inspiration to many great films that followed it. However, it really does not hold up in my opinion. The HAL-9000 segment is amazing but the rest of the movie is not good in my opinion. It's a good example of a movie that lived off of its visuals. They were great 50 years ago, but now you can't carry 10 minutes of a film with only visuals of spaceships and space stations moving around.
10. Russell H
@7 The first two Harry Potter movies remind me of those exquisitly detailed model railroad layouts that some people build in their basements. Once they're set in motion, you marvel at how "lifelike" all the little towns and cities look, how the trains snake their ways along the curving tracks, over the bridges and through the tunnels, and ending up right where they're supposed to be, but it's hard to have any strong emotional feeling about it beyond, "Wow, it looks almost like it's real."
11. helbel
I maintain the film of PoA is the best HP film, but the worst adaptation of the book.
Christopher Bennett
12. ChristopherLBennett
@10: What I disliked most about the Columbus movies was how they took the magic of the books and made it prosaic and ordinary. The prime example: In the books, Hogwarts's internal geography changed invisibly when nobody was looking, so that the same hallway or staircase might lead to a different destination on a different day. That was mysterious and surreal and magical. But in the movie, there was no mystery because we were shown outright that the staircases simply rotated. And without mystery, where's the magic? It's like a stage magician showing us the trapdoors his assistant uses to sneak out of one box and into the other.

Sure, one could argue that the shifting topology of the book was hard to depict onscreen, but it has been done before, for instance in Doctor Who's "Castrovalva." It wouldn't have been as visual, but it wouldn't have sacrificed the concept for the sake of spectacle.

I felt similarly about the way the wall opened into the archway to Diagon Alley. The bricks unfolding and creating an opening was a neat effect in its way, very well-done for what it was, but it was ultimately just mechanical, without the book's sense of space or reality itself being altered. A clever trick, but not very magical.

@11: When you say "worst adaptation," how do you mean it? If you mean it failed to capture the essence or meaning of the story, that's one thing. But if you simply mean it was the least faithful to the exact plot of the book, I'd have to disagree with that as a valid definition of "worst." An adaptation to a new medium should change things, should restructure and reinterpret the story to be better suited to that new medium, and should use that process of reinterpretation to find something new in the story that the book doesn't convey on its own. The problem with the Columbus movies is that they failed to do that -- that they only cared about copying the exact plot beats and didn't capture the spirit and meaning of the story. A good adaptation is one that changes the plot details as necessary to convey the same spirit and meaning in a new way.
13. hoopmanjh
Another shout-out here to Children of Men, which I just rewatched. But I agree that Azkaban was orders of magnitude better than the Chris Columbus paint-by-numbers films.
Genevieve Williams
14. welltemperedwriter
Prisoner of Azkaban is the only Harry Potter movie I genuinely like, largely for reasons already stated.

But "no famous actors"? Really?
15. Friend to Fwiffo
It's interesting to read an article I completely disagree with in every way except one: that Gravity is not the best Cuaron film. That is clearly something that Children of Men, A Little Princess, and Y Tu Mama Tambien need to fight it out over. (I lean towards Little Princess.) I personally feel the first half of Great Expectations is better than either of the movies mentioned in this article. I like both of them a lot, especially Gravity, but I expect more from Cuaron because he's really shown that he can make something near-perfect.
16. BDG
A couple things, you just criticised a visual medium (like the entirety of it) for being visual (and you called it!) is just silly. The star of Gravity was space not Bullock or Clooney, and the movie showed us the terrify aspect of space...and this was always true that's why it won a bunch of visual and sonic awards and wasn't nominated for best screen play, it was a visual story. Unlike HP3 which was an adaption of a written work.

Second is the laughable notion is it didn't get nominated because it was a fantasy film. Return of the King is one of the three films to gain 11 Oscars and was released a year before. Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind won best original screenplay that year. Sure Fantasy and Science-Fiction have had a tough time at the Oscars but that doesn't mean they're completely ignored to the point that HP3 was snubbed because of its fantasy.
Christopher Bennett
17. ChristopherLBennett
@16: But there's no reason why a visual medium can't have solid storytelling and characterization as well. It's not a zero-sum game where you have to choose one and sacrifice the other.
j p
18. sps49
I disagree with many comments here.

Prisoner of Azkaban may be the tightest and best of Rowling's books, so why is there surprise that many find it the best Harry Potter movie? But Cuaron made a serious mistake, as far as I am concerned- he put the students into sweatshirts. Hollywood types always place directors over writers and expect directors to screw with the story, whether needed for the adaptation or not. But when depicting someone else's creation, movies should recognize that the source material is better than any ideas they have (else they would be filming that), and should be respected. One consequence here is a movie that changed the look and feel from the preceding films in the series, and I believe that is wrong.

Y tu Mama Tambien was a movie I thought was great- until the very end. The ending threesome and downer reveal left no desire to watch it again. I do not know how true this is to the source material, though. Cuaron did make the film look good. A director should be able to make a movie look (sound, feel) good and pace it well. One shouldn't make arbitrary changes that affect the story for no other reason than that they can (Osgiliath, anyone?)

I always expect Hollywood to bring me a movie that looks good, has a good story, and good characters/ portrayals. NO movie should be based on just special effects, and if they make money anyway, wouldn't a bit of money spent on story make a pretty movie a real classic that sells even more tickets?

I also say Chris Columbus made excellent movies for those who read the books first. He may have been the last director that could, as the books kept growing in size.
Birgit F
19. birgit
I like the third HP book but can't rewatch the movie. The early movies are very close to the books and some of the later movies leave out so much that it's hard to follow the story if you haven't read the books, but those movies are still better than the third.
Christopher Bennett
20. ChristopherLBennett
@18: "movies should recognize that the source material is better than any ideas they have (else they would be filming that), and should be respected."

I disagree completely. The point of an adaptation is to adapt. That word means to change in order to fit new circumstances -- in this case, a new storytelling medium and a different creator telling the story. The job of an adaptor is to bring one's own vision and interpretation to the work. Just slavishly copying it would be pointless, because the original work already exists and any attempt you make to mimic that creator's style will be inferior to what the actual creator can do. The goal is to create something in your own style, your own voice, that is inspired by the original work and conveys its essence and meaning in a fresh way that complements the original rather than merely copying it. At the very least, it's about merging your own vision with that of the source material's creator and thereby finding a fresh approach to the material.

"I also say Chris Columbus made excellent movies for those who read the books first."

Again, I feel just the opposite. I did read the books first, and that's why I disliked the Columbus movies -- because I knew how completely the films failed to capture the feel and spirit of the books despite their slavish imitation of the story beats. Azkaban was the first film that felt to me like its director understood the books on more than a superficial level. What mattered wasn't what the characters were wearing or what exact lines of dialogue they spoke; what mattered was the feel of the universe and the setting, the sense of mystery and wonder and quirkiness. Cuaron was the first director to get that right.
B. Dowdle
21. Lancer
I am sorry, but did ANY OF YOU READ HP3??!! If you did, then you know that HP3 Movie was THE WORST MOVIE IN THE SERIES PERIOD!!

I mean how do you change everything and still be considered a part of the story and books?? I will NEVER support this director, and will Never see Gravity because of this director!

The only Director worse than Cuaron is Shamalamadingdong!
Christopher Bennett
22. ChristopherLBennett
@21: But that's just it. It's not part of the books. The book is part of the books. The movies are their own distinct works that are inspired by the books. The word "adapt" means "change." It's supposed to be different and new -- otherwise why even bother to make it?
j p
23. sps49
CLB- would you approve of changes that would not be compatible with later books in a series? If so, we will have to just disagree, if not then we differ on how much a source can be changed.

I might be biased against directors because changes are often gratuitous and, in my perception, worse than the original work.
Christopher Bennett
24. ChristopherLBennett
@23: "would you approve of changes that would not be compatible with later books in a series?"

Yes, if that's what serves the movie version of the story. They are not the same thing. If you want something just like the books, the books are already there. They aren't going anywhere. The purpose of a screen adaptation is to create a second, complementary work that engages with the concepts and characters of the original in a distinct way. If that means substantially altering the narrative into a new story that heads in a very different direction, then that's fine, as long as it's the right direction for that particular incarnation of the concept, and as long as it's well-done in its own right. Seeing two different versions of a story taken in two very different directions can be intriguing, because it lets you explore multiple possibilities and see the idea from multiple angles. It's certainly a lot less repetitive than just seeing a visualization of a story you already know.

Some of the best adaptations ever have been profoundly altered from the source. The Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk series only took a couple of things from the comics and changed everything else -- even the main character's first name -- but today, Hulk fans regard it as a classic and Hulk comics and movies pay homage to it all the time. The Bryan Singer X-Men movies take enormous liberties with the characters, storylines, and chronology of the comics, but they're acclaimed as some of the best superhero movies ever made. Heck, Blade Runner is profoundly altered from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but Dick actually said the movie was a better story than his book.
25. Megs
@ 14: "But 'no famous actors'? Really?"

That's my gripe as well (otherwise, @Ryan, nicely put). Even if we don't count the kids or the actors who aren't well known outside of the UK, there were Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, and Julie freaking Christie.
Robin Goodfellow
26. RobinGoodfellow
I agree with the article, but I have to say "there weren't any famous actors in it" is an absolutely bizarre statement to make about a franchise as star-studded as the Harry Potter films. I assume what you meant is there weren't any famous American actors in it.
B. Dowdle
27. Lancer
CLB & others...When a Book is turned into a Movie, you want to see that Movie be as close to the book as possible because YOU LOVED THE BOOK. So if the movie isnt like the book then you get mad, especially if the changes made are not good or completely different from the book. I understand it is an adaptation but there are acceptable ones (Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, Game of Thrones) and Unacceptable ones, (HP3, Starship Troopers, Eragon)
Christopher Bennett
28. ChristopherLBennett
@27: "When a Book is turned into a Movie, you want to see that Movie be as close to the book as possible because YOU LOVED THE BOOK. So if the movie isnt like the book then you get mad, especially if the changes made are not good or completely different from the book."

No, I don't. Speak for yourself, please. If I want something as close to the book as possible, I read the damn book! When I go to a movie based on a book, I want it to offer me something that wasn't in the book, something that complements and adds to it rather than simply rehashing it.

More to the point, when I go to any movie, I want something that is a good movie in its own right. And what makes a good book and what makes a good movie are usually two different things, because they're two different media with different languages and pacing and strengths and weaknesses. An exact, scene-for-scene translation of a book to the screen would take something like five or six hours, be insufficiently visual, probably need tons of voiceover narration, etc. It wouldn't make a good movie. Moving a story to a new medium requires changing it to fit. A book needs to be distilled and condensed to fit into a movie's timeframe. Character thought and action need to be more externalized, internal monologues and detailed descriptions replaced with outward speech and actions and visuals. Those changes are inevitable. What matters is keeping the essence of the characters, the theme, and the tone of the work.

Indeed, personally I've always found adaptations somewhat redundant. I'm more interested in seeing the characters and the world I like than in seeing them reiterate the exact scenes and lines I read about in the book. I sometimes think it'd be nice to see movies that weren't direct adaptations of novels at all, but were original stories set in the same continuity, fitting alongside and in between the books rather than just copying their stories. It would still have the things I enjoyed from the books, but would be entirely new at the same time. I think that would be interesting.
29. JoeS

GRAVITY probably would be 4th. And Mike Newell's GOBLET OF FIRE (aka HARRY POTTER 4) is the best of the HP films.

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