Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban

I admit quite freely to loving the Harry Potter series of books, and any criticisms of them always seemed a bit weak to me. Yes, they’re children’s books, and as such are not the most challenging texts you’ll ever read, but is that really so bad? Surely it’s better that people – adults and children alike – are reading any book than reading none at all?

Books aside, I can’t say that I’ve loved the film adaptations that much. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Columbus’ direction; any film of his that I’ve seen has always felt flat and joyless, with an over-reliance upon special effects or big name stars to carry the story. The first two Harry Potter films I thought were good; not great though. The cast was almost entirely excellent, with every single comic British actor apparently signing up for bit parts, and the effects – particularly the Quidditch matches – were excellent. But, like with all his films before, and despite the wealth of source material and the established actors, they never managed to quite penetrate my stony heart in the same way the books had.

The third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, is helmed by a different director – Mexican Alfonso Cuarón, and it’s made a great deal of difference. The plot – which concerns Sirius Black escaping from the wizard prison of Azkaban and supposedly coming after Harry – is far darker than before, and that darkness is felt throughout the film, from Gary Oldman’s twitchy performance as Sirius to the Ring Wraiths Dementors, from the Quidditch match played during a thunderstorm to black comic moments such as Disney-fied bluebirds happily flitting between the trees, before being snapped up as lunch by a whomping willow.

Comparisons with the book are inevitable, and there’s always a lot that gets left out. I was disappointed that nothing was mentioned of the past relationship between Snape, Lupin, Sirius, Pettigrew, and James Potter, or that the map Harry uses to spy on where people are was made by the latter four. Nor was it mentioned that James Potter was able to turn into an animal, a stag, which is the same animal that appears as Harry’s patronus during the climax of the film. The climax felt rushed, but I couldn’t tell whether that was because there was so much to fit in, or because I, having read the book, knew what was coming and could remember all the bits that were left out.

The supporting cast is bolstered by the likes of Lenny Henry, Dawn French, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, and Jim Tavaré making a brief appearance as the landlord at the Leaky Cauldron. Replacing the deceased Richard Harris as Dumbledore is the wonderful Michael Gambon, who is a great improvement upon his predecessor, who always played the part with senility and frailty, which was not how I’d imagined the character at all; he never felt as if he was the most powerful wizard in the land – looked more as if he’d fall over if you walked past him at speed.

I don’t know if Cuarón is set to direct Goblet of Fire, but I hope he is. How they’re going to squeeze all of that into one film will be interesting…