I have to confess: the first time I read this book I really didn’t like it that much. It just seemed like more of the same – Harry’s family treats him badly; he escapes to Hogwarts where he is picked on by Malfoy and treated unfairly by Snape; there’s another danger that Harry has to figure out; Hagrid has another dangerous animal around; there’s another Defense Against the Dark Arts professor; etc. It felt like author J.K. Rowling was just rehashing her prior two books. My re-read was enhanced by the fact that I now knew the role Sirius Black and Remus Lupin were going to play in Harry’s story, as well as knowing how important the back story on Harry’s parents is. I liked the book a lot more this time around because I was reading it for these new things, not just seeing the same old plot points.
Thoughts about the movie: At the time, this movie had the longest book to adapt, yet it came in at the shortest duration (just over two hours). Despite this, it was by far the best adaptation of the three. Chris Columbus had done a serviceable job directing the first two movies, but Alfonso Cuaran (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) was brought in to direct this third one and the difference shows. This movie is both scarier and funnier than the previous two. There are several new locations used, both inside and outside the school, and they are beautifully shot. There are many beautiful transition shots, such as following the flight of an owl while fall turns to winter. Cuaran also made the decision to put the leads in regular clothes for much of the movie and this helped make it come across a little more seriously.
The kids continue to grow as actors and Daniel Radcliffe especially gets to show off more of his range. There are a couple of cute scenes with Ron and Hermione, one where she grabs his hand when she gets scared, and another where they are looking at the Shrieking Shack and she asks Ron, “Do you want to get closer?” Ron thinks she means something else until she clarifies she meant closer to the shack.
There are several small moments of humor, such as Harry reaching for Hermione’s necklace and her slapping his hand away, or a character who can change into a dog commenting on the problem of fleas. There is also some twisted humor with the Whomping Willow, who seems to have a thing against birds trying to land on it. At one point the willow shakes snow off itself and gets some on the “camera lens”. Even the closing credits, which appear in the form of the map in the film, have a number of small jokes in them if you watch the footprints and read some of the room names.
There was some off-screen humor that showed how well the three leads had been cast. Director Alfonso Cuaron asked each of them to write down their thoughts on their characters, so he could get to know them and the actors better. Rupert Grint (Ron) didn’t do the assignment; Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) wrote a one page summary; and Emma Watson (Hermione) wrote a 16 page essay. Sounds pretty much like their characters, doesn’t it?
The cgi continues to improve. The Quidditch scene had less jerky motion than the prior two. Michael Gambon stepped into the role of Dumbledore after the death of Richard Harris. He looks quite a bit like Harris, especially in makeup. The biggest difference was in the voice, but if I had not known that Harris had to be replaced I can’t say that I would have known it was a new actor in the role. Several of the other kids mentioned in the novel (i.e. Parvati Patel, Lavender Brown) were finally seen onscreen, although for some reason most of them were re-cast for the subsequent movies. The actor who plays Draco Malfoy’s muscle Goyle (Josh Herdman) only appeared once or twice for some reason. A couple of other scenes just have a second “Slytherin Boy” there instead.
Big Names and Familiar Faces: This movie continues the series trend of having well known
actors/actresses playing roles both across many movies, and in smaller cameos within only one or two movies. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban returns Dame Maggie Smith (Professor Minerva McGonagall), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia Dursley), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon Dursley), Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick, although credited only as “Wizard”), Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Alan Rickman (Professor Severus Snape), Mark Williams (Mr. Weasley), and Robert Hardy (Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge). Joining them this time are Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), David Thewlis (Professor Remus Lupin), Michael Gambon (Headmaster Albus Dumbledore), Emma Thompson (almost unrecognizable as Professor Sybil Trelawney), Julie Christie (Madame Rosmerta), and Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew). Gary Oldman seems almost a given for the role of Sirius Black. Whenever casting directors see a role calling for “dangerous and deranged”, they probably have Oldman on speed dial. Both Oldman and Thewlis did an excellent job with the emotion of the scene in the Shrieking Shack. U.K.
Thoughts on the book vs. the movie: The movie picks the most important scenes from the book to include, right up until the Shrieking Shack scene, and then it spends much of the latter part of the movie with the events from that point on. This was very well done and I really didn’t find myself missing anything from the novel. The long sections in the book about all the Quidditch matches and all the times Hermione’s cat Crookshanks tried to attack Ron’s rat Scabbers were almost fully cut. I didn’t miss them.
While the characters of Cedric Diggory and Cho Chang appear some in the book, and will be important in later books, they do not appear in the movie, although it could be argued that Diggory would have been one of the players in the Quidditch scene where Harry is attacked. Professor Lupin has most of his scenes from the book kept in the movie, so he ends up being the most important adult character.
The book explains how Sirius Black escaped from Azkaban, but the movie does not. Frankly, I found the book’s explanation kind of weak, so I was just as glad the movie didn’t try. Leaving it a mystery was better. Several times the movie combined multiple scenes from the book into a single scene in the movie (i.e. Hogsmeade) and this worked well.
A little moment that was added was when Professor Snape steps between the kids and something that is a danger to them. He came across as almost criminally deranged in the book, and the movie correctly toned this down quite a bit. Another character change that was made regarded Hermione. In the book she is shown to be approaching a nervous breakdown from coursework pressure and her subsequent actions are a sign of her losing it. In the movie her actions become those of someone gaining courage and standing up for herself. This was also a big improvement over the book.
At the time I first saw the movie it was easily my favorite, even though the book had been my least favorite. Having re-watched it, it is still easily my favorite of the first three. I wish Cuaron had been able to direct more of the movies in the series.
Old rating vs. new rating: I originally rated this movie 4 stars and I am keeping it there. It is by far the best of the first three, and no worse than second best of the entire series.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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