Harry Potter Film Series Retrospective, Part 1

This past week, I have been stuck in Orlando. My brother had a week-long baseball tournament that ensured I was trapped in the veritable Hell of a city (the temperatures aren’t far from that analogy) until today. Now, those of you who know me will probably attest to the fact that I am not an outdoorsy person, and it shows (one of the loud-mouthed baseball players on my brother’s team commented that he has never seen somebody as pale as me). So rather than do what normal people may do in Orlando, I holed up in the hotel room and watched movies for a full week. Specifically, I watched the entire Potter film series again. Though I could not write down there, I did take some notes so I could expand upon them in a blog post. So, without further ado, I present the first part of my Potter Film Series Retrospective.

Part One: Sorting (But Not Into Houses)

To start out, I thought I would sort the films in order.

Halfway through Order of the Phoenix, I discovered that this task would be next to impossible. I simply cannot separate them into eight clearly defined ranks. So, rather than assign each film a ranking of one through eight, I will sort them into two groups: “Good” and “Bad”. Now, understand that none of the Potter films are bad films – each of them is a very watchable, entertaining film. “Good” and “Bad” in this context simply refers to their status as a Potter film – “Better” and “Worse” may be better distinctions, but I’m not going to bother with that.

So: the groups. These are in chronological order, not in order of excellence.

Good: Prisoner of Azkaban (Cuaron), Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows: Part One (Yates)
Bad: Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets (Columbus), Goblet of Fire (Newell), Deathly Hallows: Part Two (Yates)

I’ll probably take a lot of heat for putting three of Yates’ films within the “Good” category, especially since those are some of the most oft criticized ones. But I have reasons! All of which you shall find enclosed below.

The Best of the Good

I have been on the record as saying that Prisoner of Azkaban was one of the worst Potter films. I would like to completely Heel Face Turn here and say that I was sorely mistaken. As I was only 10 when the film was released, I missed a few of the finer points of the film. As such, the majority of my 10-year-old opinion was based on how well it followed the book. And even today, I can say that it followed the book rather poorly in comparison to Columbus’ films. So my opinion was forever marred by that mediocre first impression. But, with the wisdom of seven years and two film classes added on, I now see a whole lot of merit to the film, which has earned it my top spot. This is the one ranking I can supply: Prisoner of Azkaban is the best Potter film.

But why? Well, Azkaban does a few things that the other Potter films did not. One of the best things it does is that it keeps the spirit of the books without unerring faithfulness to it. Though it takes the overall plot of the book and performs a neat patchwork job, the film has a lot of the subtle, rapid humor that is rampant in the Potter books. Yet at the same time, it handles the matter of Sirius Black’s escape from Azkaban in an appropriately foreboding manner, and sufficiently adds depth to Harry in the process.

More on the side of film specifically, the film is essentially a French New Wave film with Harry Potter licensing tacked on. I would be willing to bet that if you watched 400 Blows alongside it, you would notice a few parallels. For starters, the opening dinner sequence is eerily reminiscent of Doinel’s first dinner with his parents in 400 Blows. You have the young child completely subservient with a rather cold relationship with the mother figure, and a tenuous agreement with the father figure that is easily shaken by the father figure’s anger. Harry blows up Aunt Marge, and then he takes to the streets, fleeing the law. Hey, that sounds familiar!

As the film progresses, we see further examples of Truffaut’s coming-of-age tale within the Potter film series, married with the New Wave’s trademark long takes and fourth wall winking. In many shots, characters look directly at the camera. The camera often serves as Harry’s point of view. We get some rather impressive long shots of the trio running down the vast grounds outside the Stone Circle to Hagrid’s hut. The New Wave suits Prisoner of Azkaban very well.

Cuaron has a couple of subtle touches that I noticed that really increased my love for Azkaban. Notice that, once the trio reaches Hogwarts, they are always wearing robes when they are abiding by the rules, but street/Muggle clothes when breaking them. As an IB student I can come up with a bunch of analogues: conformity/anti-conformity, order/chaos, compliance/defiance, etc.; however, I will simply leave it as a cool touch. The use of the Whomping Willow to show the passage of the seasons counts as both as a cool touch as well as a massive Chekhov’s Gun.

Overall, Azkaban stands alone as an excellent film among a crop of excellent adaptations.

The Rest of the Good

So Azkaban definitely gets a #1 slot, but the next two are a bit muddled. Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince are both excellent films, but I have a hard time choosing one over the other. Order of the Phoenix benefits from excellent pacing, far outstripping the either sluggish or too rapid pace of most other Potter films; musical montages go a very long way. It wonderfully captures the character of Umbridge; the hyperbolic depiction of the Educational Decrees is one of the most underappreciated images in the series, I feel. Her reign of terror set to some of the most upbeat, charming music is very well done. The shots of the DA practicing and succeeded juxtaposed with the Inquisitorial Squad trying and failing to stop them is another excellent montage. The film does a great job of capturing the themes of the novel, which is actually a touchy subject – though the series as a whole has a set of themes, each novel deals with wholly unique ones. Order of the Phoenix deals with the importance of choice and actions, and that comes across excellently during the film. Harry sitting at the Order’s meeting table saying “I want to fight!” met with an approving gesture from Sirius is perhaps the most telling scene when it comes to this; despite Harry’s fears that he is being possessed by Voldemort – or worse, himself going bad – he chooses to fight.

Half Blood Prince is a very different film, and I applaud it for breaking the Potter mold. Whereas Order of the Phoenix (and, in fact, the four films preceding it) were quite dark and foreboding, Half Blood Prince has a remarkable levity that is amplified by the film’s heavy romantic emphasis. Given that the novel was the first to really explore this side of the Potter series, it is appropriate that the film didn’t scrap the subplots (which were honestly elevated to main plot). Although it gave us the exceedingly awkward and poorly developed Harry-Ginny relationship (poorly developed through no fault of the film individually, nor the actors), it also gave us a much more solid basis for the Ron-Hermione relationship in Deathly Hallows by escalating things from simple awkward gestures in various films to much more direct emotional responses (the scene where Hermione sets birds on Ron and Lavender). HBP was more emotional and yet at the same time comedic, while having a lot of the same swiftness of Order of the Phoenix.

Half Blood Prince would barely edge out Order of the Phoenix, as HBP has absolutely stunning cinematography. Sweeping long shots over the castle as glimpses through the window show time-lapsed action dominate the film, and prove just how gifted Yates’ cinematographer is. However, what eventually brings HBP down to Order’s level is its lack of emotion in the right place – Dumbledore’s death. Dumbledore’s death was the most shocking and emotional high point of the series at that point, and yet in the film it didn’t play out nearly as spectacularly. This is likely due to the writers’ decision to scrap the battle at Hogwarts, since Deathly Hallows has a similar battle that dominates the final third of the book, but either way – Dumbledore’s death was not as good as it could have been. As such, I place Order and Half Blood Prince tied for #2.

Deathly Hallows Part 1 gets an honorable mention as the #3 spot in the Good group, mostly due to its emphasis on character over action, on atmosphere over exposition. Is it long? Yes. Is it difficult to follow? Yes. Is it wonderfully chilling and foreboding? Absolutely. Does it feature the most character development of any Potter installment? Absolutely. It is the Empire Strikes Back of the Potter series – brooding, dark, middle-of-the-road plotline with only cursory and certainly not happy resolution.

The Bad

From this point on, I would say that these Potter films were not good Potter films. Good films, again, but not good Potter films.

Deathly Hallows Part 2 comes in at the top of the bad films (in that among those in the group labelled “Bad”, it is the best). The first 100 minutes are spectacular, whereas the last half hour really causes irreparable damage to the series’ symbolic and thematic values. For my full thoughts, refer to the full review.

Just below it come the first two films – Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. The films are actually pretty good – the problem is that they were made solely with children in mind. Now, I understand that Rowling wrote the series initially for children, and gradually stepped up her audience. But in retrospect, the first two films were far to saccharine and far too faithful. They did not interpret the material in any significant way, simply providing a paint-by-numbers adaptation of a children’s book, for children. Well done, with remarkable craftsmanship to be sure, but nothing special.

Goblet of Fire, unfortunately, ranks last in my list. Why? Well, to be honest, I remember almost nothing about it. The film is dreadfully unremarkable, and lacks the spirit of childlike whimsy that pervades the first two – instead, we get a film that wants so desperately to be dark and mysterious, but is just a very plain adaptation of the book. The final graveyard scene ALMOST makes up for the film’s crushing faults, as Ralph Fiennes gives a tremendously chilling performance as Voldemort – but overall, the film is just not memorable, and seemed to be made as a contractual stipulation rather than out of genuine excitement and passion.

Next in the Harry Potter Film Series Retrospective: A look at what the series as a whole did wrong, and how it could be fixed.

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