It is an odd and instructive fact that Hollywood’s translation of books to the screen can go astray, not only in the usual way by departing radically from the intentions of the author, but also by attempting too literal a rendering. The latter flaw has been on display in the first two Hollywood versions of the Harry Potter books, in films directed by Chris Columbus of Home Alone fame. Columbus’s versions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were bookish, all too bookish.
For the third installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban–whose opening weekend box-office take exceeded that of the first two films–Alfonso Cuaron assumes directorial duties. Jettisoning any attempt to stuff the entire book onto the screen, Cuaron here delivers a film much closer in spirit and quality to his under-appreciated A Little Princess than to his pretentious soft-porn film Y Tu Mama Tambien, on which critics lavished undue but predictable praise.
The pruning of the story exacts certain costs, particularly in the slight roles afforded to Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon replacing the late Richard Harris), and Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson in an appropriately affected performance). The only adult to make a sustained appearance in the film is Hogwart’s new Defense Against the Dark Arts Teacher, Professor Lupin (David Thewlis), who provides gentle and sage guidance to Harry at crucial moments in the story.
But Cuaron’s editing is tight and the cinematography, sumptuous. The first scene captures the oppressive climate of the Dursley household, where Harry spends his summers enduring the smug condescension of his aunt and uncle and their spoiled and obnoxious son, Dudley. To add to his frustration, another relative, Aunt Marge, is visiting; over dinner she treats Harry like a servant and begins to deride his parents. Harry’s anger mounts to the point where he is unable to resist the use of magic. Aunt Marge, already on the portly side, begins to swell to gigantic proportions and then to float like a blimp, out the door and into the sky, as Harry’s uncle tries desperately to drag her back to earth. Having broken the wizard code about using magic in the non-wizard world, Harry takes off into the street, only to confront in rapid succession a huge dog and a bus sent to escort him to safety.
The scenes of the tumescent Aunt Marge and the bus racing recklessly through city streets contain more humor and energy than any scenes in the first two Harry Potter films. These scenes set the tone for the entire film, which succeeds marvelously at translating the wonder and youthful enthusiasm of the books. As in the first two films, the same three actors play the three main child characters: Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson). But here they seem less restrained and more exuberant; Radcliffe and Watson seem especially to be coming into their own in this film.
The film does a superb job of uniting the various strands of the plot around a single mystery; in this case, the mystery concerns Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer and the first successful escapee from Azkaban prison.
Not long after he learns of Black’s escape, Harry hears stories of Black’s involvement in the murder of his parents at the hands of Lord Voldemort. But one part of the story is questionable. The victim of the murder for which Black was imprisoned was Peter Pettigrew, whose body was never found. In his clandestine, nocturnal travels through Hogwarts, Harry makes use of a magical map, the Marauder’s Map, that reveals the whereabouts and identity of everyone in the school. One night, much to Harry’s surprise, the map reports the presence of Peter Pettigrew.
The film sets up and then builds gradually to the unraveling of the mysteries of Black and Pettigrew, even if Oldman’s performance as Black leaves much to be desired. Oldman looks and acts too much like a subdued Charles Manson to play one of the most complex characters in the Rowling universe. Yet, Cuaron orchestrates the plot so expertly that even the minor story lines–such as Hermione’s seeming to be everywhere at once and the fate of Hagrid’s beloved, noble, and dangerous pet Hippogriff, Buckbeak–eventually tie nicely into the main story.
The film does a wonderful job of showing Harry’s maturation–the tension between his youth and frivolity–on the one hand, and the necessity of his confrontation with evil forces, on the other. In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Harry dons the Invisibility Cloak and begins a snowball assault on his condescending classmate and nemesis, Malfoy. At the sight of Malfoy scurrying away in confused humiliation, Harry enjoys a laugh with Ron and Hermione. Immediately after this, however, Harry overhears the story of Black’s involvement in his parents’ death and promises revenge. “I will kill him!” he shouts.
Harry’s vulnerability and trepidation, grounded in the clear knowledge of what sorts of forces are allied against him, render his courage all the more palpable. In this film, Harry fears not just Black, but also the presence of the Azkaban guards, now at Hogwarts on the lookout for Black. These guards, the dementors, bear a striking physical resemblance, at least on film, to the Ringwraiths from Lord of the Rings. A deathly chill in the air announces the arrival of dementors, whose mode of attack involves sucking the soul from the mouth of a victim.
The scene in which Harry first encounters a dementor, on the train to Hogwarts, is expertly handled to deliver subtle scares. Sitting in a rail car, Harry, Ron, and Hermione notice the windows begin to cover with ice; they feel a cold chill in the air, and then perceive the approach of a dark hooded creature. The dementor takes a particular interest in Harry, who barely escapes having his soul sucked from his body. Harry remains petrified and with good reason. As Ron puts it, the dementors make you feel as if you’d “never be cheerful again.”
Rumors quickly circulate that Harry Potter swooned and fainted on the train, a rumor of which Malfoy makes maximal, mocking good use. So, Harry must learn to overcome his fears even as he is subjected to doubts, external and internal, as to his ability to succeed. The film is especially good at probing the questions, How do the young develop confidence? How does one do something difficult for the first time? Confidence–the tricky concluding plot line suggests–is a matter of envisioning a future in which one’s fears have already been overcome.
But this is a film in which subtle lessons, about courage, confidence, friendship, and the value of truth, abound. And, thanks to Cuaron’s deft directorial skill, it also contains lessons about how to bring great literature to the screen.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.