For reasons I can no longer recall, this is the only Harry Potter film I never went to see when it was originally released in the cinema. As a result, when I came to re-watch it, my memories of previous viewings were not as strong as for the other films. What I did recall was that the new director, Alfonso Cuaron, had given the film a very different style than the previous two; and was also less afraid to rework the source material and add new things than Chris Columbus. And on the re-watch, this new style appealed to me much more than the first two films.
From the start, the film looks different – it is much less colourful, and looks to have been dulled. The environment is used really well to emphasise a slightly darker tone: the deserted playground where Harry gathers his thoughts on the street; the Hogwarts Express travelling through fog; and the dark and stormy Quidditch match. It’s not all gloom though: I really loved the sweeping shots of Hogwarts and the landscape as Harry flies on Buckbeak. There are other stylistic differences, like the students wearing more conventional Muggle clothes and sometimes wearing their uniforms in different, informal ways. The scene transitions are better, and there’s inventive use of editing and sound effects: for example, the fast, chaotic shot changes and the cuckoo clock during Aunt Marge’s inflation scene. As for the visual effects, the Dementors are incredibly chilling and menacing: having them literally freeze their surroundings is an excellent touch to visually portray the effect they have. Professor Lupin’s werewolf transformation itself looks good, and I understand that Cuaron wanted the werewolf to look sickly (continuing with the ‘lycanthropy = disease’ metaphor), but it doesn’t look as scary as it should.
Daniel Radcliffe, whose acting wasn’t brilliant in the first two films, is suddenly doing a lot better in this one. Whether it’s the script, or the direction, or both, he expresses a lot more personality that reflects Harry’s character in the books more closely. He smirks a little when telling Aunt Marge about how he gets caned at school; he gets angry and kicks his cabinet; he shows off his sarcastic side, saying, “Thanks, Ron,” when Ron is talking about the threat that Black poses to him; and he unashamedly asks Snape to lower his wand after getting caught wandering around at night. The fact that the character is growing up into a proper teenager undoubtedly has something to do with it, but you can’t imagine Harry in the first two films – the one who asked Hagrid “How am I to pay for all this?” and called Uncle Vernon “sir” – doing any of these things.
Michael Gambon takes over as Albus Dumbledore after the passing of Richard Harris: I like the additional energy he brings to the character, but he tends to spout his wisdom rather randomly. Emma Thompson is wonderfully over-the-top in her brief appearances as Professor Trelawney, waving her hands all over the place. David Thewlis captures Professor Lupin perfectly well. Gary Oldman successfully handles the two different sides of Sirius Black: the manic revenge-seeker and the loving godfather.
The acting all around seems to be helped by the dialogue, which feels very natural. We see characters talking casually, and giving us an idea of normal life at Hogwarts, like the scene with the Gryffindor boys trying magic sweets in their dormitory. The film makes a lot more time for character-building moments, like Hagrid asking Harry how he’s doing during his first class, and Hermione trying to comfort Harry as he weeps under his Invisibility Cloak, having just found out that Black was apparently responsible for his parents’ deaths. There are even some such moments that weren’t in the book, like Harry’s first conversation with Lupin, which establishes the bond between Lupin and Harry’s parents much earlier; Harry using a memory of his parents, which he admits may not be real, to create a Patronus; and Sirius having a heartfelt conversation with Harry before he escapes.
The glorification of Hermione and deprecation of Ron is nowhere near as bad as the last film, but it’s still there a little bit. It’s Hermione, instead of the injured Ron, who tries to shield Harry from Sirius; and when Harry and Hermione interact with Ron after their adventure with the Time Turner, they seem rather like two great friends wearily dealing with their goofy inferior sidekick. Also, the stress that Hermione’s extra classes and time travelling put her under is barely acknowledged in the film, perhaps because that would make Hermione look bad. I do love seeing her punch Malfoy, though.
In terms of adapting the whole story, more effort is put into condensing the key elements effectively than the previous films. The majority of the most important and fun parts are included, and some are swapped around to make them work better in the time frame: it’s well-structured, establishing new elements appropriately, though part of that comes from how well done the book was. Cutting most of the Quidditch is a no-brainer, and it’s surprising how much quicker the middle of the story goes without it; this also allows Harry to get his Firebolt at the end, for a happy, triumphant conclusion. Both Scabbers, and Hermione apparently teleporting into her classes, are brought up enough that we don’t forget about them, though not much is made of Crookshanks. It is quite clever to have Harry notice Peter Pettigrew on the Marauders’ Map and go investigating, another scene not in the book: not only is this perfectly in character for Harry, but it creates an extra layer of mystery regarding Pettigrew, and allows for the confrontation with Snape and Lupin without the need for another Hogsmeade visit.
I was very happy with how particular scenes are adapted: the Knight Bus is appropriately wacky, and Lupin’s class with the Boggart is also good. Ron choosing to give his spider Boggart roller skates is actually an improvement on taking its legs off and making it roll around like he did in the book, though can anyone deny that Parvati turning her snake Boggart into a giant jack-in-the-box only makes it scarier? Harry and Hermione’s time travel sequence is a bit drawn out, but I like how it includes additional interference on their part, and some additional action with the werewolf.
Unfortunately, the scene in the Shrieking Shack feels rushed and a bit unsatisfying. There is no explanation that Lupin and his friends made the Marauders’ Map, which would probably leave anyone who hasn’t read the book very confused; there is no explanation of how Lupin and Snape know that Harry and co are in the Shack; Lupin instantly knows about Pettigrew being the Secret Keeper and makes up with Sirius without any confirmation; and there is no explanation for how James, Sirius and Peter became Animagi. (Indeed, the fact that James was an Animagus – thus the reason for Harry’s Patronus being a stag – isn’t mentioned at all.) And when that scene is over, Harry and Sirius have bonded extremely quickly, given the time taken and information provided. I don’t agree with Pettigrew giving an evil smile and wave before he escapes, either; he’s supposed to be motivated by cowardice and self-interest, not any actual ill will towards his former friends. There aren’t many other slip-ups in the whole thing, though: the scene with Harry and Hermione dodging the Whomping Willow does go on too long, and the inclusion of a Hogwarts choir feels random, though it helps to create the atmosphere.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban definitely raises the bar for the film adaptations of the books by a long way: the acting is a lot better, and the change in style fits the changing tone of the stories. It’s more prepared to adjust the source material and add new elements of its own, and for the most part, the already excellent story it presents is about as well adapted as it could be.
Rating as a film: 4.5/5.
Rating as an adaptation: 4.5/5.