Lessons in Adaptation

Lessons in Adaptation: The Harry Potter Film Series

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Update 9/23/2020: I wrote this a while back, but since then a certain author has fully outed herself (See? Pronouns aren’t that difficult, Rowling, you crybaby) as a misogynistic, transphobic asshat. I feel like if I’m going to be talking about her work, I ought to use the space to promote something more useful, so here’s a link to some U.K. groups that help trans kids:

The Proud Trust

LGBT Foundation

Brook

I would encourage you to donate money to them or another trans UK-based charity instead of feeding money to Rowling.

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I love adaptations.

I love to see what goes into creating them, how they change their source material, and how they don’t. I’ve hardly made it a secret that my philosophy toward adaptation is that the more changes, the better, but each one has something it can teach us, no matter how it was made. Even the failures. Especially the failures.

I don’t know what this series will be. I have a list of works to talk about, some with a lot to them, some with less. Some, I’ve done individual reviews for, or will in the future. Others, I will only discuss in these essay-sort of things. Who knows how long these will end up. I’m imagining a spread. I might go into detail, I might keep it vague, I might explore the themes in isolation, or I might give summaries. Expect spoilers.

There’s  lot to be said for original stories, but since time immemorial, we have been re-telling stories, re-shaping them and crafting them into new works, turning what already exists into building materials for art that surpasses the original and expresses new ideas, that becomes something else entirely, all its own. This is how ideas propagate and evolve, in the true sense of the word, like living creatures. An adaptation becomes its own being, a statement, intended or otherwise, that exists apart from whatever corporate cynicism and marketing intent created it. Adaptation is one of those precious few areas where no matter how much you plaster over it, dandelions still grow between the cracks. It is human nature to tell stories, and those stories come from somewhere. And no entity, no matter how powerful, can truly control them.

I think, then, that it’s fitting I start with one of the most profitable adaptations in history by talking about how, despite every attempt to make it a basic adaptation, it turned into a neverending mirror of its source material, and in doing so, changed its source material forever. Let’s discuss Harry Potter.

Lesson #1: Time Matters

Prelude

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I said a while back that I wasn’t overly interested in reviewing the Harry Potter series. I read the books as a kid and I enjoyed them, but I was really more into the phenomenon as a social event rather than for personal entertainment. Even when reading them in elementary and middle school, I found the assumed Christianity of the characters strange, the S.P.E.W. subplot both unnecessary and confusing, and the main character uninteresting. To be completely honest, my experience of the Harry Potter series was rooted far more in the early Xbox games, which were much more focused on the world and lore and only seemed to follow the plot of the books as an afterthought. The games would frequently skip over rather important plot points through cutscenes. And that was fine.

However, Harry Potter is one of the most influential pieces of fiction of the past several decades, and between special editions, Pottermore, and the unfortunate attempts at an expanded universe, the series is unlikely to go away any time soon. Unfortunately. In recent years, largely because of increasing exposure of J.K. Rowling’s questionable political leanings, the original books have come under increased scrutiny. They’re still remembered fondly, but the greater diversity of fiction, especially YA fantasy, makes the flaws in the Harry Potter series that much more apparent.

On top of this, the original fans have grown up. There are plenty of kids whose parents have introduced them to Harry Potter, but twenty years on, it’s looking more and more like the Harry Potter series is not going to reclaim its popularity as the cultural juggernaut that it was during its release. The Lord of the Rings, The Dragonriders of Pern, and The Chronicles of Narnia largely gained their popularity through cycles of rediscovery long after their initial release. They were all well-received in their prime, but none of them came close to Harry Potter in terms of presence upon release. They were comparatively slow burns. Harry Potter, though, was a proper conflagration. And those tend to burn themselves out rather quickly.

The series is apt to age poorly. For those unaware, many of the complaints about the series come from information clarified (or, if you like, invented) by Rowling after the release of the books. The author claiming Dumbledore was gay, some minor student characters were Jewish, Nagini is actually an Asian woman, Hermione was black, or that werewolfism was a wizard-version of AIDS, creates Problems. Not only is none of this part of the original text, which is noticeably homogenous in its characters in terms of background and identity, but the claims come with unintended subtext when shoehorned into a story that they were not originally a part of. Comparing predatory animals to people suffering from a lethal disease that is not dangerous to others is not a great look. Without actual integration into the plot, retrofitted diversity becomes careless lip service that makes the appearance of being progressive without committing anything of value. (Princess Weekes wrote a good article on the Harry Potter series’ use of minority issues for The Mary Sue that you should check out, by the way. While you’re at it, check out Movies With Mikey’s three-part video series on the films.)

But it would be folly to say that the Harry Potter series will be obsolete in a few decades. Franchises this large rarely are, and if the success of the merchandise and peripheral media like the theme park are any indication, people love this world deeply. There will be more Harry Potter adaptations in the future. Perhaps not too far into the future, either.

As such, I think it’s worth taking a look at the approach the films took in re-telling the story, whether it paid off, and why they might have made the decisions they did.

The Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s, if You Want to Be Petty)

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I find it endlessly funny that the film crew had to record two versions of the lines because of the endlessly inane decision to change the name of the stone in the American version of the book. Because, you know, Americans are much more familiar with that well-known tale of the fabled Sorcerer’s Stone. It creates the Elixir of Pointless Corporate Decisions.

Anyway, the production of this film is arguably more interesting than the end product, being the start of one of the biggest film franchises in history. Rowling famously retained an immense amount of veto power and influence on how the film was adapted, though how much is only known to the people at the negotiating table. This is relatively uncommon for adaptations, as authors of books rarely have experience in filmmaking and tend to be reluctant to allow changes. This worked to the detriment of the Fifty Shades film adaptations, which tried to improve upon their severely flawed source material but ran aground of an author who retained influence comparable to Rowling.

In the case of the Harry Potter films, most fans seem to agree that Rowling retaining control of the project was a good thing, ignoring the Fantastic Beasts films. Having an author on-board for a film can be useful, as it gives the author a chance to illustrate their vision in a way the original text never could. It’s a curious thing to look at in adaptations, as sometimes the changes made from the source material were specifically requested by the author. This was the case for the early 2000s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, which was heavily derived by fans for diverging from the source material, but was born directly from the mind of the author.

When an author is involved in the adaptation, they fight hardest to preserve the things they care most about. As the first book is fairly short and more episodic than many of the subsequent ones, its changes are generally minor. One of the common divergences in films compared to the books they are based on is the appearance of characters, as films not only have more visuals to work on, but also have to commit to a specific interpretation of a character’s appearance. Books can be vague; films cannot. This led to minor changes like Harry not quite having the same shade of eye and having smoother hair, and Hermione being “prettier” than her book iteration (which is a topic for another time, but maybe let’s not objectify kids like that, pedantic nitpickers). A few scenes are cut or trimmed, including moments of character interaction between Malfoy and Harry or between the main trio. The sense of time is also altered, as necessary for the medium, and there are several small scenes or shots added in the film to accentuate things that can’t as effectively be described as individual moments in a book, like Harry marveling at Hedwig.

Through all of this, it is possible to see the thing that remains consistently preserved through all of the films: the plot. Very few plot points are changed in the adaptation, and none are significantly rearranged. Many are shortened, and these tend to amount to the largest changes. The centaur Firenze, for instance, only appears in the film briefly to explain that Voldemort is back, where in the books he’s part of a longer scene that introduces centaur culture and drama between Firenze and the other centaurs. In the books, Harry and his friends have to sneak Norbert the dragon out of the castle when he starts to get too big for Hagrid to care for, but the film cuts Norbert’s contribution to a single scene.

Changes are not necessarily bad for adaptations. They are, by their nature, neutral, provided the concern is the quality of the narrative. I love the Norbert chapter in the book and wish it were extended, but it admittedly offers little to the film as it exists. The point of the scene in both the film and the book is to hint at someone manipulating Hagrid to get past Fluffy and to give an excuse for Harry to encounter Voldemort in the forest. Viewed as a means to progress the plot, many of the more unusual parts of both the book and the film make complete sense. The scenes in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone slot together like puzzle pieces, which is a consequence of its mystery-styled structure. It’s part of what makes the first entry into the series endearing and easy to follow.

However, it also makes it boring. While the first Harry Potter book is nostalgic for many people and has a childhood charm even for those who didn’t grow up with the series, I don’t know many who would call it their favorite in the series. The first book is simple and highly polished, but it also lacks depth. The main characters don’t have much in the way of arcs — Harry learns to be more assertive, but his culmination point comes early in the book, arguably at the point where he and Ron save Hermione from the troll, but perhaps as early as his standing up to the Dursleys. Hermione learns to be more cooperative, as does Ron, but this also reaches its end point with the troll. Through most of the latter half of the book, the characters are mainly just solving the mystery of what is hidden in the castle and who is trying to steal it. That’s not a bad story, and it fits the episodic adventure style of the first few books, but it means that the characterization is isolated from the plot. The appeal of the first book is largely rooted in its world and simple construction, but it opposes the character focus of later books and doesn’t fit especially well into the overarching plot of the series.

Chris Columbus opted to adapt the book directly, keeping as much material in as possible and establishing his artistic style in a similar light to the quaint descriptions and chapter illustrations of the novel. As such, it has fairly flat lighting with a bright palate and simple designs for everything from the sets to the costumes. The film relies on early 2000s computer-generated effects, so they end up looking rubbery and visibly fake, but this fits the aesthetic of the rest of the film. It bridges the gap between low-budget fantasy films of the pre-1990s and the CG-heavy fantasy films of the 2000s. This and the film that follows (also directed by Chris Columbus) were the first of the genre I like to describe as “twee early 2000s children’s fantasy adventures.”

The film has a clear aesthetic, and it’s not incompetently made, but the focus on plot and the relative weakness of the source material ultimately hampered the film’s potential reach. It was never going to be brilliant because of the circumstances in which it was created — the later books work in tandem as one long story about good versus evil and the inner turmoil felt by the main character, where the earlier ones are episodic adventures of a young boy wizard. The books are incompatible, and aim for an audience that would have been following their release and growing up along with it. It’s hard to capture that with a film series and keep it consistent.

Yet, in some ways, that’s what makes the films such faithful adaptations of the books, even when they don’t mean to, and even when they change things.

The Chamber of Secrets — Every Nerd’s Favorite Innuendo

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The Chamber of Secrets film had some mighty big shoes to fill. Not only was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s-Philosopher’s Stone one of the most financially successful films of all time, it kicked off a project that everyone knew was going to go on for seven years or more. The books were popular by the time of the film’s release, but the response to the film locked the franchise in for good, not only as a book series, but as the massive multi-media enterprise it has since become. If the first book was the spark that lit the fuse, the first film was the explosion when the black powder caught.

So on top of having to show up the overnight monster the first film had become, The Chamber of Secrets had another problem: the book it’s based on isn’t very good.

I don’t know that there is any real agreement on the best Harry Potter book. The films have their IMDb ratings and Rotten Tomatoes scores, which are reasonable assessments of fan response, and Goodreads has a sort of a thing for the books. However, as mentioned before, I don’t trust Goodreads, and given that all of the books fall between 4.41 and 4.62 stars on a 5-star scale (really?), I would say they’re all within a good margin of error. People like all of them, more or less.

Except… well, guess which book has that 4.41 rating? And which one comes up first when you google “worst harry potter book” (I don’t capitalize my searches, fight me)? And which one is consistently listed both at the bottom of “Best Harry Potter Book” lists as well as the top of “Worst Harry Potter Book” lists?

Yeah, so The Chamber of Secrets is probably the weakest of the Harry Potter novels. It’s not the most disliked or actively inept — most people differ in their opinion on that, due to biases and personal taste. For me, the worst one is The Order of the Phoenix (we’ll get there eventually, but it is very boring and very long and most of it is just angry horny Harry trying to figure out how puberty works). But, even though I think that one is much more flawed than The Chamber of Secrets, I still have to admit that it develops the characters, plays on important recurring themes, and ends with some of the highest stakes in the series. Chamber, by comparison, continues in the episodic adventure-style of the first book while also setting the ground for events that would become the bigger arc of the series. Chamber needs to start the trajectory that the fourth book accomplished, but it gets trapped in the childish tone of the first book and in the process, loses its identity on both ends. It’s too dark and convoluted to feel quite continuous with the first book, but not nearly original or theme-driven enough to feel continuous with anything that comes after. It has some interesting lore, but otherwise adds very little to the series as a whole.

Enter the Chamber of Secrets film.

The Chamber of Secrets was made by largely the same team from the first film and continues the style set there. Yet, it’s also more character-driven, driving up the stakes and exploring the relationships between the characters further, expanding into the world and showing that bad guys and monsters aren’t the only things to worry about — sometimes shitty things like prejudice and cruelty bleed through the boundaries of our fantasy escapes. And sometimes we’re stronger for facing them there.

The Chamber of Secrets film addresses some of the most relevant and harrowing issues of the series, and it does so with no holds barred. This is the first Harry Potter story where children are caught in the crossfire of Harry’s adventures and systematically taken out because of they belong to minority groups. This is the first Harry Potter story where the bullies prey upon characters by dredging up painful pasts, and where this behavior is passed on through generations and propaganda. Where slavery is an accepted part of the magical world, and where Harry’s role as the hero is questioned. This is the first Harry Potter story where the knight in shining armor is a liar, where your friend is a villain, where adults are more than unreliable, they’re downright cruel, even the ones you trust. This is the first Harry Potter story where Harry has to take action and prove his worth, not through magic or birth right or cleverness or innate skill, but through mistakes and tenacity and compassion. It is the only one where he truly sacrifices anything of his own for someone else, and he does so not because of heroic worth or because those people have done anything to help him. The opposite, actually; this is the only film that culminates in Harry going out of his way to save people who have wronged him. And he does it because, in this story, he cares about people who are suffering.

The Chamber of Secrets, more than any of the other films in the series, is about discrimination, hatred, and being made to feel small for things outside of your control, things you wouldn’t want to change even if you could.

The book deals with all of these concepts too. The difference is all in the delivery. The light and childish tone of the books masks these issues, presenting them alongside cartoon villainy that is all a matter of solving riddles and fun wordplay. It adds in subtext about minority groups without the scaffolding necessary to make that subtext meaningful.

The film is not perfect in addressing these things. It still plays with Ron’s inability to afford a new wand as a joke rather than a failure of the school, and it still juxtaposes Malfoy shouting a slur at Hermione with goofy slug antics. But then it goes back and shows the pain these larger societal issues cause. It shows Hermione, brilliant student delighted to go to a magical school, made to feel unsafe because of where she comes from. It shows Hagrid being expelled as a scapegoat, not in spite of being a poor misfit with a big heart, but because of it. And when Dobby appears at the end of the film, we see him not as an annoying and unsuccessful pest trying to keep Harry from his magical school, but as a victim of the same system of cruelty and apathy that has wrought pain throughout the book. Dobby is a necessary part of the film because the moment when Harry realizes Malfoy has enslaved him is the moment when Harry is no longer opposing bad people, but bad systems. That is what this film is about, even if later films drop this thread almost entirely.

I’m not going to pretend that The Chamber of Secrets is the best of the Harry Potter films or even devoid of flaws. It is clumsy in many parts of its delivery, and the zany charm of the series occasionally intrudes on the deeper subject matter. Moaning Myrtle is never really played as anything other than a weirdo, even though her story fits readily into the crux of the film. A student died. That’s a big fucking deal. The fact that she’s still around, able to communicate, doomed to haunt the place that killed her forever, that should be more than just a cheap joke about why people don’t like to use her bathroom.

But that doesn’t detract from its merits. The Chamber of Secrets looks good, with effects that hold up to this day. That basilisk? It looks better than the dragon in the last film. Part of this is the incorporation of a beautiful animatronic alongside the digital version, but the blending of the two is elegant and it’s frequently difficult to distinguish the two. The creatures in this film were more challenging to animate than in later films because they were coming out on the cusp of modern digital effects. The limitations of the medium required workarounds, like making the design less realistic (read, more stylized) and therefore less familiar to the audience. Anyone who spends time around snakes can recognize a CGI version that doesn’t look right, but fantastical creatures that get easy parts like the body and the scales but turn the head into something else can sometimes manage to fool the eye.

The Chamber of Secrets film takes a no-man’s land of a book and makes it better. Even as a child, watching this film with no background about the Harry Potter series and little connection to the characters, I understood Dobby and I understood the snake and I appreciated the strengths of this film. The more I watch it, the more I see in its flaws as well. It is a solid adaptation that takes what works in the book and strengthens it, turning the irrelevant sidetracks and turning them into character growth moments, filling them with charm, and creating something that anyone can enjoy. Not bad for a film with so much working against it.

The Goblet of Fire – DRAGONS. Well, dragon.

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Something changes when you become familiar with a series on an intimate level, and then something new of it comes out. You are now armed with the capacity to see the details hidden by the creators, to follow threads that may have gone unnoticed over your head or under your feet. You see behind the curtain.

This can take away some of that magic, especially when you’re in middle school and your friends have been telling you about how good these books are and how they differ from the films, and now you have the power to make that judgement for yourself. Social pressures do weird things to your brain.

The fourth Harry Potter book was my favorite, in part because it was the first one I read before seeing the film. I had no preconceived notions of what would happen in it, no image in my mind as I flipped through the pages. It also had dragons, and, I mean.

So naturally, I loved the film. I saw it three times in theatres, which is something I just don’t do. Mainly it was for that dragon. It was a very pretty dragon. I loved that they made it more active, that it was flying around and chasing Harry and climbing on the castle. Some of the shots they get of it making its way to Harry as he tries to dislodge his broom are beautifully intense. It is objectively an improvement over the book, whose comparable scene is remarkably bland.

But something bothered me about the dragon sequence, too. They showed two of the little figures and part of a third, but the budget clearly wasn’t up to showing four different types of dragons. They were all noticeably obscured, and the film lazily kept the audience in the dark alongside Harry. The books are written from Harry’s perspective, so he only sees the dragons before the task. But the films regularly show other characters and have more of an omniscient perspective. My guess is that this is for budget reasons, but then they have the dragon flying around the castle, and surely that was more expensive than showing a glimpse of the other dragons, right?

And then, of course, we have the dragon falling to its death in the fjord around the school. I was used to seeing cool monsters I liked dying at the end of their run, but it soured an otherwise good experience, just like the obvious omission of the other dragons. For me, the core appeal of this part of the story was seeing these spectacular creatures, which only appear infrequently in other parts of the books. And the film failed me in that.

The tricky thing about adaptation is that you have to balance a lot of expectations. It’s an impossible task, so you end up cutting or changing material to make the most of what you have and carve your identity, but sometimes you end up leaving people in the dust all the same. The dragon fight is changed by necessity. Harry doesn’t have the means to fight the dragon, so he has to fly around it, but the scene is fairly slow and uninteresting in the book. It essentially amounts to Harry flying around until the dragon rears up to see him better, then he swoops in and steals the egg. The dragon breaking out and pursuing him around the castle is a much more intense scene that incorporates quick thinking and skill with a broom, making Harry feel vulnerable but also showing his capability. It highlights the danger of the Triwizard Tournament and gives us some spectacle. The dragon and Harry falling down presents a climax of tension. It is also a weak addition that undermines Hagrid’s love of the dragons (he essentially helps Harry kill one of them, and we never see his response), and it’s a cliche. Big scary monster is big and scary, therefore it must die.

Adaptations can add interesting new content, but that content can go south very quickly. Goblet of Fire (the film) does both.

Many of the Harry Potter films are beholden to the pacing of the books, which even in the later entries to the series relies on chapters of roughly equal length where the characters learn something, do something, or lose something. The books take an episodic approach to storytelling, with some event or object that makes up the title of each chapter, and may or may not contribute to the story as a whole. Books that do this tend to be difficult to adapt into films, as either whole chapters need to be cut for timing, or the less important events need to be rushed through. The Lord of the Rings films heavily edit the more episodic portions of its source material, particularly at the start of the adventure.

The fourth Harry Potter film is at an advantage because its plot is laid out in a form that already accounts for episodic chapters. It’s essentially a sports competition, with different games making up important parts of the three acts of the film. The first task is where Harry gets locked into the games and shows that he’s capable of holding his own against the older students, the second allows for more characterization and demonstrates the deeper connections between the players that the games intend, and the third task throws all of the camaraderie and depth of the previous two tasks out the window by pitting the players against one another and rewarding brutality — eventually leading to the climax at the grave site.

Between and bracketing the tasks are one or two additional events, namely the introduction to the goblet, Harry in the bathtub, the Yule Ball, and the resurrection of Voldemort. Also, Malfoy the Amazing Bouncing Ferret, which could not have been cut. The scenes with Mad-Eye Moody, or his polyjuice potion body double at least, are also emotionally important within the story, giving the kids one of about two good Defense Against the Dark Arts professors that they will ever have, and setting up a betrayal that will genuinely sting for Harry. I honestly a bit surprised that the books don’t really delve into the impact Fake Moody has on Harry after he realizes his new favorite teacher is trying to kill him. The films forgo that opportunity as well. Still, Fake Moody is one of the more interesting parts of the story outside of the tasks, and the film makes appropriate adjustments to fit him into the medium.

All of the films have slight stylistic changes from the books. You can notice immediately the distinction between the film scenes and the corresponding chapter illustrations in the books, as well as some of the descriptions. This is the first film where I had a bias toward the book chapters, so small things like Moody having a strap for his eye and the dragon only having two legs bother my petty middle school self, but since then, I’ve come to appreciate many of the divergences. This film plays with its lighting more than most of the others, shifting effortlessly from bright, warm school environments to the dingy horror vibe of the tasks themselves. The third task demonstrates this most readily, with the stands full of flags and music and cheering that is immediately cut off by unwelcoming vegetation as Harry enters the maze. It’s a bit on the nose, but I like it for this series. It sets up the third task to be isolating and foreboding, distancing Harry even further than the others from the hypothetical safety of the school and Dumbledore. The same idea of being close to safety but just far enough outside of the bubble that one could be hurt is what makes the graveyard scene so chilling. Cedric dies feet away from the portkey that could have saved him, and what’s more, he and Harry were pushed to go just outside the bounds of safety by the people they trusted.

(The fourth book, like the second and third, has some of the strongest themes in the series.)

What hamstrings this film more than anything is its pacing. Its pacing is very scattered, and many scenes were kept from the books that probably should have been cut. Now I would have loved to have seen Blast-Ended Skrewts on-screen, but their decision to leave the Skrewts out of this particular story was a good one. Barty Crouch’s death, the Pensieve, Ron being pissy about Harry’s name being pulled from the cup, the love stuff — all of that feels weak within the film. I’m not saying that it couldn’t have been worked in, but with other unnecessary material added (hello strange magical rock band and dwarf crowd surfing…), the film needed to be more selective about what it used. The fourth book is twice as long as the third, and even cutting out Winky and S.P.E.W. entirely (another good decision, as these subplots happen to be both among the most racist and sexist material in the series), it just doesn’t have time to get through everything.

Take for instance Neville’s little subplot in this film. Now, Neville has a similar arc throughout the book series, but it takes longer to get started and is greatly de-emphasized until the final entry. Neville is a nervous child who develops a penchant for Herbology and little else. We eventually learn that Neville’s parents were tortured by dark wizards and that in another world, he could have been in Harry’s position as The Chosen One (a plot point I will contend is bullshit because if the world depended on Neville as written, the world would be fucking doomed). Anyway, in this film, Neville is disturbed by Fake Moody torturing a whip spider (yes, that’s what that is, they’re lovely), to which Fake Moody feels guilty and offers him a Herbology textbook as an apology. It’s a bit muddled in terms of character motivation for Fake Moody, even if he was just playing his part or hoping Neville would give Harry a hint for the second task, but it’s a sweet moment all the same. More importantly, it gives Neville something to gush about, which we don’t really see at any other point in the series — book or film — and that’s even better. Neville coming up with the gillyweed plan is brilliant because it’s an early indication of the character’s merit, and humanizes him in a way that’s necessary if he’s going to be an important player in the final book/film. However, it’s also rushed and shoehorned in between material that is far less integral, and is weakened by proxy.

Figuring out what to cut was always going to be a difficult decision for this film. Later books have more padding and longer or less important chapters, but this one is the last to keep to the episodic adventures of the first books. The first half of the fourth book is part of Early Potter, and the last few chapters are the start of Late Potter. I don’t think it could have, or should have, been split into two films, but it needed the most tweaking in the inter-task chapters to work. As is, it has some valuable additions, particularly in defining the look of the series moving forward, and it handles the transition from light Early Potter to grim Late Potter. It’s not as character-focused as the third film, but it sets high expectations for the subsequent stories. Expectations that, frankly, I don’t feel were fulfilled.

The One Based on the Worst One (Don’t @ Me)

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The Harry Potter series is roughly laid out as halves. The first half covers the misadventures of a small child who learns he’s a wizard and ends up saving his school from various bad guys each year as he tries to figure out how his new world works. Simple, easy, cute. A story for the ages. The second half of the series is a two-thousand page epic fantasy about a boy chosen to stop some terrible evil as it grows in power and seems impossible to kill.

What I’m trying to say is, the latter half of the Harry Potter series is kind of derivative. The whole series is derivative in one way or another, but once Voldemort comes back and Harry’s main goal is to stop him, all of the subsequent books start to blend together. The story is now much more goal-oriented because there’s a single bad guy to stop, and the process of figuring out how to stop him becomes the bulk of the story’s content. Some people like this because it forgoes the more juvenile every-book-a-mystery format of the early series. Harry becomes a more active agent, and now that he knows how the wizarding world works, he can shove around his weight a bit to significant effect.

But none of that is what I liked about the Harry Potter series. It’s nice to have more character development, but the series is reluctant to give Harry relatable flaws. He’s angry and angsty and he likes girls I guess, but now that he’s on track to kill Voldemort, all of his feelings are justified. We’re still supposed to see Harry as an audience vector, but by this point, he’s his own character. And if you happen to not like that character very much, well that sucks for you.

I have gone on record deriding Harry Potter as a bland character— a Mary Sue, even. The term Mary Sue is loaded in ways that I won’t get into here and I use it more than I should, but suffice it to say, Harry Potter is not, in fact, a Mary Sue… at least some of the time.

The thing that’s hard to get right is that characters are not real people. But we perceive them in the same way. The fifth Harry Potter book takes place inside Harry’s mind more than any book up to that point aside from the first. The Harry it shows us is a figure who is fundamentally different than the little boy we knew before. He is older, wiser, and more haggard. He has seen a fellow student die, a friend of a sort, and as far as he’s concerned, it’s his fault. He should have stopped it, he should have found a way to save him. But not only has he failed, Harry is responsible. He convinced Cedric to take the cup with him, and no amount of adults screwing up or malicious intent is going to change that. Harry Potter accidentally killed one of his classmates.

The fifth book is not bereft of powerful moments. It is one of the darkest of the series, one that mercilessly beats the characters, Harry especially, and does not relent until it finally ends. Harry is isolated from his friends and what little family he has, his teachers are all assholes, and the scales have been lifted on what Hogwarts really is. He tries to resist, finding new friends and growing closer with those he cares about, but they betray him. His whole world falls apart.

And then his father dies. He doesn’t just die, he disappears. Poof. Gone forever.

The fifth book is unrelenting. Harry has reason to be angry at everything, but as a reader, I just can’t take all of that. It’s so dour and emo, pointing out how miserable Harry’s life is through every detail, to the point where even the small things don’t seem to matter. Umbridge is awful. Yeah, so? What’s the point of it? To show that the adults in this world are cruel or ignorant or loathsome? To show how corrupt the ministry is, to show how bad things can get?

I know that already. The other books have shown me.

The highs in the fifth book are minor and often linked to Harry’s love interest, Cho Chang, who is so insignificant as a person that the books seem to abandon her after this one. Harry’s hetero! Great. I could not care less. Harry’s characterization is scattered throughout the series and largely isolated to the third book, but it’s obscured here by the actively inept agents all around him. It’s one thing to have Harry try to survive a bad teacher, but it’s very much another thing to make him look spectacular simply because the people around him are so awful. The story ends up trying way too hard to make Harry the center of attention. And this isn’t helped by the inane prophecy at the end.

Whether you like the fifth book comes down to a lot of the details. Umbridge is some people’s favorite character in the same way Joffrey is from Game of Thrones. Some people love the darker tone, the romance elements, the D.A., and Harry taking a leading role. He is no longer the passive hackey-sack he was in all of the previous books. And Luna speaks to a tremendous number of people because of her oddness and carefree attitude.

And at the end of the day, it’s a personal preference for me. I never really got it. Not even Luna, I’m afraid.

When I first watched the fifth film, I projected my feelings onto it. I didn’t like it. I thought it was too long. I thought it was boring. What’s the Order of the Phoenix? Considering that’s its title, it never really explains what it’s about.

My feelings toward it since then have softened. It continues in the same vain as the fourth film stylistically, cutting a lot of material for time and adding some new material in, but otherwise staying true to the book. This is the first film in the series directed by David Yates, who would go on to direct all of the remaining films.

However, the thing that makes this one stand out is its visuals. All of the Harry Potter films have their stand-out shots or scenes, and most of them kind of blend together into a sort of charming but (especially toward the later films) grim atmosphere. A lot of grays, a lot of muted colors after that first film. The series looks fine, but it doesn’t stand out much.

Except for the third film and this one. And the third film looks amazing, don’t get me wrong, but the fifth film is probably the best-looking of the bunch.

What makes it work is how it translates Harry’s emotional state to the camera work, lighting, and cinematography. Small moments like the opening with Harry sitting on a Muggle swing set are powerful additions that allow the audience to interpret the character and how he sees the world. The story is told through Harry’s eyes, but with just enough of a filter that we’re not trapped in his head like we are for the book. This is what films can do, and the adaptation plays to the strengths of its medium.

It’s still restricted by the follies of the book, but it manages to extract something of value and translate that to the screen. I’m not personally that impressed with the final wizard battle, but it’s decently creative, and more importantly, energetic. Umbridge is almost played for laughs and the montages of her trying to infiltrate the D.A. make scenes that would otherwise be a slog watchable. It’s not as big of an improvement on the book as the second film in my opinion, but considering where it’s starting from, it’s damn impressive.

The Half-Blood Prince – Also, Stakes!

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Of all of the Harry Potter books, the sixth is the most forgettable. Sure, important things happen — Dumbledore dies — but even the cover fails to capture the intrigue of the other books. Where the fifth is plodding and actively inept, the sixth is less frustrating, but somehow more vacant. It is paced like a Twilight novel and expects you to forget most of what happens outside of about three important events.

So what are those events?

First is Harry discovering that Malfoy is a death eater. Second is Harry and Dumbledore retrieving the locket. Third is the encounter on the tower. There’s also a book and some dark things happening around the school trying to kill kids, but that’s all just par for the course as far as Hogwarts goes.

Essentially, there are two stories unfolding simultaneously in this book. One is compelling, the other is not. Malfoy is now in-league with the Death Eaters properly, and he has to kill Dumbledore. He’s devising some sort of plan that keeps going wrong, and Harry tries to figure out what it is. Eventually Malfoy confronts Dumbledore on the tower, and fails, but so does Harry. Dumbledore dies anyway.

The second plot takes up the majority of the book, and it concerns the mysterious goings-on, the potential darkness of the book Harry’s discovered, and the mystery about its identity. There are some worthwhile ideas generated here, like Harry carelessly casting a spell used by Death Eaters and Hermione struggling with Harry suddenly being better at her in school. However, none of these plot points are developed in full or really come to their own culmination. Snape revealing that it was his book speaks far more about Snape as a character than anything brought up over the course of the story. It might have worked better if Harry learned that it was Snape’s sooner and got an insight into him before he killed Dumbledore, but the book wants a twist reveal, so there you go. I like The Half-Blood Prince in concept, but as with much in this series, it’s a bit of a slog in practice.

The film never quite gets over this hump, but it’s still worth examining.

I don’t mind this film, but it’s a solid Meh from me. Or, what I can remember from it. I’ve seen this movie a few times, but damn if I know what happens between the few major events within it. A lot of the story is based in character interactions, romance, and teen drama, but boy does it leave zero impact, in both the book and the film. It’s a nice reprise before the fallout of The Deathly Hallows, I suppose, and the constant reminders that not only is danger around, characters are constantly flirting with death without even realizing it. Where in the fifth book, the more dire scenarios were torturous, here, similar threats come suddenly and bear teeth.

It’s fitting that this is the book where Dumbledore dies, and in the film, they make it even more unexpected through subtleties of the acting. Snape appears to be there to help, and Harry lets him by willingly. Although the audience has reason to suspect Snape, Harry trust him. He hates him, but he trusts him. And then Snape kills it, along with Harry’s mentor and the only character who seemed to know what the fuck was going on up to this point. Later revelations be damned, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

The Harry Potter film series has always been made for the fans of the books. It technically provides enough context to get someone unfamiliar with the series through, and a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary for this sort of loose fantasy series. We don’t need to know how the Knight Bus works or all of the spells the kids know, because the necessary stuff is worked into the plot and the extraneous stuff is set dressing. However, even as a child at the optimum age for the films, with a genuine interest in the world and friends willing to explain anything I didn’t understand, the series as a whole just never really grabbed me. I liked the creatures and I liked the third film on its own, but I never would have gotten to the sixth film if I hadn’t read the books.

Scenes kept in because they were in the books offer little for film goers who don’t know about the stray chapter that scene references. How important is it, really, that Ron plays Quidditch or has girl troubles. or that Harry goes to Aragog’s funeral, or that Slughorn… well, all of Slughorn, really? These plot points are spread out in the books, and while I would debate their relevance there (the plot purposes these events serve could have been reached through other means), they unquestionably fit the tone and pacing of a long novel better than they do a film. These elements are functionally just padding to ensure that Harry investigating Malfoy doesn’t take up the entire story. It’s the more interesting of the two loosely connected plot threads running through the book, but it’s also too simple to satisfy an entire narrative. The film struggles with this even more than the novel.

So why does it still kind of work? I can barely remember what happens in this film, but I can somehow remember the expressions on the characters’ faces when Harry accidentally maims Malfoy, when Malfoy faces off against Dumbledore, when Snape kills Dumbledore, and when Harry goes after Snape. Faces are not something I remember easily. It takes a lot to get me to pay attention to them, especially when I have only a limited investment in the characters as I do in this film.

It’s the acting.

From what I understand, the casting of the first Harry Potter film was complicated, with Susie Figgis initially selected as casting director before being replaced with Janet Hirshenson who eventually selected the leads, as well as the rest of the cast. Columbus also obviously played a role, as did Rowling herself to a lesser degree, and I’m sure others weighed in over the course of casting. The actors selected were all well-suited for the roles, but only a few of them stood out in that first film, namely Alan Rickman as Snape. The actors were more settled by the second film and gave more intense performances, especially the kids. The scene where Lucius Malfoy confronts Harry & Co. in the bookstore is a small marvel in retrospect, with all of the child actors holding their own and delivering just as much if not more depth to the scene than the adult they’re playing against. It’s impressive.

But even from those early moments, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the cohesion in the main cast of the films. Children are notoriously difficult to cast effectively for a number of reasons, experience being the big one. It’s even harder to do this with children who are expected to grow up over the course of the series. There are more than a handful of television shows that bank on a young actor who is perfect for their role at a given time, but who doesn’t quite grow into it as hoped. It’s not necessarily that the actor is outright bad, but certain actors fit certain roles better, and children often just don’t have their personalities set as rigid as adults do. Sometimes the character is changed, sometimes the direction is intensified, sometimes the actor leaves, and sometimes the film just suffers through a mismatched performance.

There is no recurring child character in the Harry Potter series for whom that happens. All of them are at the top of their game and give memorable performances. I think this could have been true for many of the child actors passed up for the roles, and I’m not overly fond of the decision to hobble the project by preventing non-British actors from auditioning (it’s not a great look this time of the century, if I’m honest). But whatever coincidences gave us these actors in these roles playing them the way they did, I think the outcome is something to admire.

We will never see Daniel Radcliffe play a character like Harry Potter ever again. We will never see a Harry Potter played the way Daniel Radcliffe plays him ever again. This cast was lightning in a bottle, and it infused the series with the magic it desperately needed. It is the reason this series got through eight films and four directors and three books published after it started and all the money in the world. These characters were fitted to those in the books, but much like the cast of Marvel movies, they have altered the roles in subtle ways to make them their own. We could have gotten a generic Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and they would have been fine. We did not get generic. We got Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint playing characters that they could embody and flesh out in all the ways the books did not, through their actions, intonations, body language, and expressions. And for Harry Potter, a mixed bag (just the bag not the contents) of a fairly bland protagonist, that takes some serious skill.

But this particular film’s one distinction is that it, alone among the series, is not just about Harry. This is the only one where throughout the film, Harry is mirrored against another character, in this case, Malfoy — a fully-realized antagonist with nuance, no less.

Where Voldemort is just an evil snake-man wizard Hitler, Malfoy is just an asshole. He’s a little shit and he always has been, and as far as I’m concerned, he always will be, but, crucially, he’s more than just some evil monster. Voldemort has had plenty of followers and aides over the course of the series, but aside from Snape (whose relatability is, shall we say, contentious), the films have never tried to paint them as anything more than lackeys. We don’t always need to know the inner workings of villains — this guy’s an asshole, he murders people, mystery solved. But there’s also something valuable to showing how people who aren’t wholly bad to begin with become monsters and do unthinkable things. The books aren’t overly interested in exploring Malfoy’s humanity until basically the end of Book Six, when he fails to kill Dumbledore, and really not until Book Seven, when he’s weeping at the death of one of his friends and eventually reunites with his family. We honestly see far more of his mother’s humanity in the books.

The films continue this same trend, though here and there we get little snippets of Malfoy as a person. He’s frequently the butt of jokes in the same manner as Umbdrige (in the fifth movie, often in the very same scenes). He’s portrayed as a little shit, as appropriate, but he’s also a complete wuss and hilariously inept, his assholery frequently getting him into trouble just as often as the golden trio. And again, what little we do see of him interacting with his family is intriguing. That scene I mentioned earlier in the bookshop doesn’t focus much on Malfoy the younger, but Tom Felton’s acting adds some nuance to the roll, namely in how his smirk disappears as soon as his father arrives, how he doesn’t talk through the whole exchange after that despite his father doing exactly the same thing he was earlier, and how he’s pushed off to the side, framed between his father and the other kids. It’s small, but details like that paint a different picture of Malfoy than the smarmy racist bully archetype implies.

All of it makes his performance in this film that much more powerful. Throughout the film, we get a distinct change in Malfoy’s demeanor compared to the previous films, and by the end of it, he’s weeping as he faces down his headmaster, only then seeming to realize what he’s done. He can’t go through with it, and he knows it, Dumbledore knows it, and probably the other Death Eaters know it, too. Do you think Voldemort is banking on some sniveling weenie who barely knows the guy to dispatch his worst enemy? Of course not! Malfoy is small fry, and he always has been. He’s cannon fodder, caught up in something Harry is all too familiar with and knows how to navigate, but which he himself is wholly unprepared for. The only reason his sorry ass isn’t dead by now is because, by sheer coincidence, Dumbledore happened to be dying already and Snape was willing to roll with it. Yeah, I’d probably be a bawling mess, too, under those circumstances.

Book: Seven, Film: One

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We are finally getting away from this trend of splitting major franchise films into two halves, which is good, because both halves are inevitably weakened as a result. The fourth Avengers movie was the last to attempt this, and given its hasty renaming of the last film and efforts to make that film stand on its own, I think that’s an indication that the film industry is wising up to the folly of this decision. Split films make bank, but at the cost of the story, and there are plenty of people who will be disappointed enough with the first one to not bother with the second until years later, if at all.

Hello.

So, I said that I disliked the fifth book most of all of them, which is true, but the worst sequence in the series for me was the first half of the seventh book. The sudden change in setting without a change in structure made the seventh book feel bloated and self-serious, in a way that even the previous two books hadn’t. By this point, I had long since fallen out of love with the series, and the time it took for the seventh book to come out didn’t help. I was gifted the seventh book at random by my dad, who knew I used to like the series, even though I never asked for it, so I read it to be grateful. I liked it. It was fine. Not world-shattering or anything, but hey, now I knew how it ended.

You can imagine I was not among those lining up to see the seventh film in theatres. I did end up watching it before the final film came out, but it didn’t change my mind on the series, for better or worse. My friends who were really into Harry Potter had either moved away or stopped talking about it, and I had other interests I cared more genuinely about. This isn’t the sort of film you see because you want to see something that gives you a new look at life. It is very much the Iron Man 2 of the Harry Potter films.

In looking at it as either a stand-alone film or an adaptation, you can’t ignore the choice to split one book into two films. This has never worked for a major franchise series, at least narratively. It worked for the third book of A Song of Fire and Ice, but that wasn’t a film. Books and shows, especially long-running ones that are really just single, self-contained epic stories like A Song of Fire and Ice, can be cut up, rearranged, or modified far easier than episodic adventures. This is why films that try to combine multiple children’s books into a single story often feel like they lack structure. It’s because they do.

The Harry Potter series is very episodic, the later books less so than the first, but each one is still split up by year with a gap in between. You could not easily combine multiple years into one narrative (just look at the many multi-year fanfics and the Cursed Child play). Each book follows a roughly similar format, with the year starting on shaky ground before settling into a familiar pace, the characters gradually becoming aware of a mystery or growing threat as the year progresses, eventually culminating in their many misadventures leading them to figure out what’s going on and confront the villain at the end of the book, sometimes unintentionally.

The seventh book dismisses with a crucial early part of this formula: the calm as the characters go about their lives and let the plot develop in its own time. While the characters have a few moments to breathe here and there, almost from moment one, they’re on the move and looking for horcruxes. The final book wants to feel epic, and given how the others have upped the stakes, I can’t blame it for being almost all action. The main trio gets time to sit in a tent and listen to the radio or banter or grieve, but these moments are fleeting and bracketed by the constant flow of plot. So much happens in the seventh book, but almost all of it is retrieving things, fighting people, running through a forest or castle or bank vault, making hasty plans, and enacting those plans hastily. It’s not until the very end of the book that the characters ever get a moment to stop, and then that part’s immediately cut off by the saccharine ending where Harry proves how terrible he is at naming his children.

And then to take all of that and just split it down the middle? That’s an iffy decision for the story. The seventh book is almost all payoff as it is. The first of these two films is trying to climb a waterfall on those grounds alone, and that’s before you realize that the truly exciting material takes place almost entirely at the Battle of Hogwarts. That’s where Harry faces Voldemort, where we get the dragon and the fiend fire, the destruction of the last horcruxes, the assemblage of the hallows, and the return of all of the side characters we love just more they die. The first half basically has the wedding raid, Harry & Co. visiting Godric’s Hollow, the trio being captured by the Malfoys, and Dobby’s death — most of which feels like it could be cut.

Ending on Dobby’s death is a strong point of this film, but it’s undercut by how little Dobby appears in the movies compared to the books. The house elf subplots in the books needed to be cut for time and content, and they’re not especially interesting or even palatable in the books, but they do establish Dobby as a recurring aide for Harry as he goes about his adventures. It kind of needed to be a different character in the film. It’s a powerful moment, but it’s just one more event in a middle chapter of a story that just keeps trucking along, regardless of the time it needs to take. It’s more interested in the destination than the journey, and you feel its desire to get there.

Film Eight — The End of an Epic

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I did not see the final film until two years after it was released. I honestly don’t have that much to say about it. It probably changes a lot from the books just to adjust for structure and work around exposition that isn’t as elegant in a filmic format. Also, did you know that the kid being rescued with Malfoy and Goyle in the Room of Requirement is Blaise Zabini and not Crabbe Whatsisface? I’m sure there was some extra-narrative reason why, but I find it very odd that they made that decision so late in the game and that, despite it being a kind of emotionally important scene, I did not notice until about five minutes before writing this. There’s my take on this film. You’re welcome.

No, really, it’s a pretty decent film if you’ve made it through the series so far. I wasn’t there for the fireworks because I frankly did not give enough of a shit about the series after the previous film. I had kind of grown out of it, and that’s not to say that the series has a limited age range — it is one of the most universally appealing stories around — but whatever core appeal it held for me when I was in the thick of reading the series burnt itself out fast for me. I liked the ending, but I never had any interest in going back to it.

As an adaptation, though, it is slightly fascinating. We really have to take the two Deathly Hallows films together when assessing them as an adaptation, because the source material is very rigid and by this point, the series was way too big to take any risks. Splitting the films was the biggest risk it was going to take, and that’s less of a risk than just releasing a five-hour movie. They did not want to cut anything, and they basically didn’t. Not anything important, at least. The story remains intact, accounting for visual delivery, and aside from very minor tweaks to the dialogue and one or two shots that adds implied context from the books (and also removing the faff with the Bloody Baron’s backstory, which we really needed, I’m sure), it’s the same. The actors and the effects, that’s all that’s different. They took what was in the books, beat for beat, and they put it up on screen, and between the two films, they made over two billion dollars.

Book fans can gripe all they want about how we never saw Ron and Hermione in the Chamber of Secrets or that Voldemort wasn’t specifically torn apart with magic in the books — genuinely. Sometimes the reasoning behind specific complaints can illuminate deeper issues with a piece in ways that matter. That certain characters appear in the finale while others don’t, that deaths are slightly different, that the details change in adaptation — sometimes that matters. It matters that the actor playing Lavender Brown was replaced with a white girl when her role became bigger in the sixth movie, despite that not happening for any of the white actors. It matters that Hermione’s roll was cut down in certain movies, but her romance subplots remained wholly intact. It matters that Dobby was brought back for this movie despite not appearing in any of the others outside of the second. It matters that the good guys murder people the way they do.

But if you’re going to nitpick the flaws of the films, you owe it to them to understand why they made those decisions, and why the books made theirs. Sometimes the reason isn’t good. Sometimes the reason is that someone was lazy or didn’t think things through or thought it would look cool and didn’t realize or care about the unintended subtext. Sometimes people do things because they just want to cash that two billion dollar check and they know it won’t matter at the end of the day if people die as scraps of dust or as human bodies. The books are fallible, and they make the exact same sorts of mistakes. Just because it’s an adaptation doesn’t mean change is bad. If anything, the weakest part of the Deathly Hallows films is their utter unwillingness to get out the scissors and be merciless. They were never going to do that, because maybe it wouldn’t have made two billion dollars. Change is risky, and sometimes people aren’t willing to go through with it.

So, here we are at the end of the line, witnessing an utter phenomenon. The Harry Potter series is a nice start to these tangents on adaptation because it’s complete, simple, and readily available. If you ever figure out how to access the source material and time to do this with the Marvel series, let me know. But I think this was a valuable exercise, really. I liked the Harry Potter series as a kid, and it wasn’t really that long ago that the films concluded. This has given me a renewed appreciation for them, where I previously considered most of them to be just replicas of the books, perhaps even inferior. Expect more of this in the future. For now, ta!

… What?

I haven’t missed anything, have I?

All right, I’ll talk about it.

Azkaban

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This is the film that convinced me to read the books.

It convinced me to read the books because I loved it. I didn’t really remember the other films all that well, I never saw this one in theatres, I thought Buckbeak was a gryphon, and I really didn’t know what Muggles were despite watching both preceding films at least once, but I loved it. And I still do.

What you like or dislike about the Harry Potter series is subjective. All of it is pretty similar in quality, and part of the reason it has such wide appeal is that it’s consistent and doesn’t really rock the boat. The morality is simplistic (to the point where I still find it baffling that I had multiple friends growing up who weren’t allowed to read or watch the series), and the most radical political statement it makes outright is, “Hey, maybe Nazi are bad, and also we shouldn’t let them infiltrate our government, eh?” I mean, if you’re the sort of person who finds that statement difficult to wrap your head around, then maybe you should try Bob Books or something.

Harry Potter plays it safe. Except when it doesn’t.

Consider this: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not the story of The Chosen One trying to save the world from the evil wizard who killed his parents. It is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy coming to terms with the death of his parents and realizing that he is stronger than his own pain. It is about a boy who is pursued by hallucinations and premonitions and monsters that prey upon one’s deepest emotions until there’s nothing left but an empty shell of a person. It is about him fighting those monsters, not with weapons or violence, or even really with love, but with self-actualization and inner peace. It is about him realizing that he is his own person, that sometimes a thing has to get done and there’s no one else to do it, and that he’s the only one there. It is about grief and pain and loss. Over the course of the film, the boy gains two new father figures. And then he loses both of them. But he comes out of it okay.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is about more than just Harry Potter.

I’m sure you could cut this film, polish it a bit, update a few of the effects and change around the dialogue to make it just a bit better, but it is a damn fine film. The Prisoner of Azkaban is complete in a way no other Harry potter film is, and the only way it manages that is by forgetting that it’s part of one of the biggest film franchises ever and forging its own path.

Technically speaking, very little changes plot-wise from the book. Harry gets the firebolt early. That’s pretty much it. All of the rest is in the dialogue and the dressing. And it slims the dialogue considerably, inventing some of its own, and focusing on the visual narrative.

That’s where it matters. This, more than any of the Harry Potter films, is a film first and an adaptation second. It is not interested in merely putting the pages on-screen. This is the film that gives us Buckbeak flying over the school, and Harry spreading his arms and laughing for the sheer joy of it. In the books, that scene is two paragraphs long and mostly concerned with how uncomfortable the ride is. The film takes a throwaway description and turns it into something magical. It takes the mystery of who Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs are and makes both the answer and the process of getting there a lesson in identity and cycles and the complexity of people. The third book continues in much the same vain as the previous two, as a series of episodic adventures with a little picture at the top of each chapter. The third film makes just two of those chapters into half of its story.

I’ve mentioned before that the use of time-travel in The Prisoner of Azkaban is unusual for fantasy series because it’s rare for them to bother with something typically reserved for the realm of science fiction. The film goes even further in exploring this concept, playing with visuals and repetition in a way that the books gloss over, and presenting new challenges to the characters. It is charming and perhaps even a little silly at times, but it plays with the tension of the narrative, and crucially, it builds to something. The Harry who goes back in time is barely older than the one he’s helping through his time-travelling adventures, but he has something the younger Harry doesn’t: foresight, expectations, and failure.

When Harry goes back in time, he knows what will become of him and Sirius. He knows what’s at stake if Sirius is caught, and he knows that in order to succeed, he has to give up a chance at spending time with his Godfather. He is no longer the passive agent. In that one moment on the rocks, all of this comes flooding into him and he realizes that he can’t just keep letting things happen to him. Sometimes, there’s not going to be anyone else there to save you.

That’s how he makes his patronus. Not merely with happy memories, but with acceptance. This moment here:

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This is the moment he becomes Harry Potter. This is the thesis of the entire series.

Expecto Patronum literally means “I expect a patron.” Patron from the Latin pater, or father. When you don’t have a father you can rely on, make one yourself. You are more than your blood.

This series spanned over a decade and seven books and eight movies and more kitsch and money than you or I will ever lay eyes on. The author grew with the books and the films, as did millions of children worldwide, including the actors portraying these characters. The story spans seven years in the lives of fictional characters, and it has been more than that many years since we shut those books and left the theatre for what we thought would be the last time. Since then, the legacy of this series has changed, and it will continue to change. Just as it has been since that first book was published over two decades ago.

Time matters.

Epilogue

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In 2016, Warner Bros. Pictures released Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a spinoff film of a spinoff book that will inevitably get fifty sequels or so, assuming its first one hasn’t already driven the franchise into the ground (fingers crossed). This is far from the first cynical cash grab on behalf of the Harry Potter IP, and a lot of people liked that first Fantastic Beasts film, so who am I to judge? I do think it’s worth examining the relatively lukewarm response this and other Harry Potter peripheral merch has received since the conclusion of the books and the films. Harry Potter is over. But we’re likely to see it shambling about like a ghost, trying to pry its way back to life through Funko Pops and whatever this Pokepotter Go nonsense is. Warner Bros. is going to try to reboot this franchise some day soon. The next attempt will probably fail because it will be riding the aftershocks instead of creating its own mark like this first attempt did.

The Harry Potter films map alarmingly close to the books through a series of coincidences. The first two are generic with a touch of magic, hinting at the potential but restricting themselves in their material and still very much children’s movies. The third is brilliant. The fourth is a turning point. The rest are darker in tone and Voldemort-centric, telling a story in isolation from the rest of the series, as though the first half of the series was the prologue and now the real business begins. They are technically impressive and at the time, phenomena whose likes had never been seen. Some hold them in high regard as the pinnacle of the franchise, but most use them as waypoints between the charm of the early films and the emotional release of the finale. You cannot have the payoff without the setup. But it’s the ending that hits home, chaotic though it is. It should have been done differently. Even those who love it find flaws.

But at the end of the day, the Battle of Hogwarts and the fate of Harry Potter will forever be seared into the hearts of the children who grew up loving this series. Not because of what it is, but what it represents. It is the closing of the book on one of the most far-reaching stories in the world. It is the years of waiting and the twists and the tears and the emotional investment and the fanfiction and the costumes and the midnight premiers and the young writers it inspires and continues to inspire to this day.

I have long since fallen out of love for the Harry Potter series and I won’t pretend that it’s perfect. But I do understand those who see it that way. And no amount of cynical cash-grab sequels or shitty tweets will ever take back the magic the series once produced in the minds of its readers. I think it’s important to grow with our media and seek to understand it better when new information comes to light. When someone you deeply respect fails you, you smash their lies, pick up the pieces, and turn them into something better. You make the thing they never could.

Maybe in the distant future, the children who grew up on Harry Potter and have since come to see its flaws will build it to be even better. That’s what adaptations are for.

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