Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban

So after catching the last two Harry Potter movies on cable (or whatever) and generally scoffing at the acclaim for the books (or some reason I once felt that Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fandom were mutually exclusive), I finally became a believer with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, our subject today in Transfigurations. Off we go!

The Crew:

Chris Columbus, tiring of rarely seeing his family AND RUINING OUR DREAMS, decided to merely produce this installment in the series. After Guillermo Del Toro and Marc Forster turned it down, Alfonso Cuaron was selected for the job.

After getting his start in Mexican tv, Cuaron proved no small shakes at translating literary coming-of-age stories to the screen with A Little Princess and Great Expectations. It was his Y Tu Mama Tambien, however, that attracted the filmmakers, though that film's overtly sexual post-adolescent themes are understandably muted here. He went on to make one of my favorite films of recent memory, Children of Men.

Steve Kloves returns on screenplay duties, while John Williams continues to compose scores and all. Our cinematographer (because this is the first time I've been compelled to look it up) is Michael Seresin, director of photography on such disparate films as Fame, Angela's Ashes, and Step Up.

The Cast:

Three major new additions greatly increase my appreciation for the series as well: David Thewlis plays the best teacher slash werewolf any student could wish for, and nobody plays crazy like Crazy Gary Oldman.

After Richard Harris's passing in 2002, Michael Gambon stepped into the role of Dumbeldore with a booming voice, a darker interpretation of the character, and a slight Irish accent.


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From a plot standpoint, events are naturally condensed into a more breezy timeline, and some exposition is lost. What I love about this from a cinematic standpoint is that while the book feels the odd need to refresh us on many, many things (opening with the line "Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.", in case we were not aware), the film can just sort of assume that we will pick it up as we go along, if we don't know already.

The film removes the extended subplot wherein Harry receives a Firebolt (a fancy Quidditch broom) anonymously, and Hermione reports it to Professor McGonagall, suspecting it might be from Sirius Black. This causes an extended rift between Hermione and Harry/Ron which lasts nearly half the book. The argument between Ron and Hermione about Crookshanks's pursuit of Scabbers is much less touched-upon.

Perhaps now that the three leads were finally old enough to start developing an onscreen rapport, it was decided not to split them up as much as the book does (Kloves also loves Hermione more than Ron, and wouldn't want to write her out very much. More on this later).

The final major thing left out is the explanation of exactly how Sirius Black betrayed the Potters, what the Fidelius Charm is, and so on. This is seemingly the beginning of a trend in which major plot points are just left unexplained in later films (which never bother me, since I've read the books now).


Before the great feast to start the term we're treated to a performance of a chorus of children holding toads, singing the words from the opening three witches scene of Shakespeare's MacBeth. Were they practicing all summer for that or something?

The burgeoning and inevitable relationship between Ron and Hermione is planted in the films earlier, with a furtive hand-clasp during the hippogriff class. This is in addition to an awkward aborted hug in film 2.

The restriction on underage magic seems to flutter in and out of existence in the films- Harry is seen at the very start practicing lumos maxima with his wand (if you know what I mean), but doesn't worry about getting in trouble until inadvertently blowing up his aunt. My operating theory is that in the films magic is restricted, but they can't detect it remotely with "the trace" as mentioned in book 7. They just punish people for things they hear about, like the hover charm in 2 or the patronus charm in 5.

Also, cut for time in the film are nearly all Quidditch scenes and lessons where nothing important happens. Oh well.


The book has the natural advantage of time, once again, and in book three especially we're treated to the revelation that there was a full-fledged history going on before Harry Potter was even born, one that consisted of much more than an evil wizard named Voldemort doing bad things. The adults in all the early books were fun enough and all, but they never seemed to have stories of their own until the third book- finding out about the marauders, Lupin's lycanthropy, and why Snape hates Harry's father so much (part of it, anyway), I've always found more engaging than the general good/bad dichotomy, at least early on.

The book makes all of the connections between the present day and the past clear, as well- the movie, despite liking the Marauders' Map so much that they made it a key part of the credits and DVD production design, never explain who they were (nor does Lupin explain how he knows what the map is, when he sees it).

The movie does retain plenty of the dramatic appeal, especially in the climactic scene when all is revealed in the shrieking shack (though it's not explained why it's called the shrieking shack), and it's the implied history that made me pick up the books in the first place. But why they couldn't have mentioned the friendship of Lupin, Black, Pettigrew and Harry's father in more detail in the film is beyond me.


Oh man, oh man. So many little things are happening, all around the edges of this movie. You can really tell that they spent more time on production, more time on FX, more time making it a cohesive vision. And as well they should- the Harry Potter books presented filmmakers with the opportunity to depict a world in which anything could be magical, at any time, but it took three films to run with it.

Just watch the first twenty seconds of this clip below (don't mind the foreign dubbing or brief red title thing):

As we pan into the leaky cauldron, we see a wizard absent-mindedly making his spoon swirl itself, a busboy make an empty bottle disappear, and the chairs put themselves up on the table. Just for a brief establishing shot of the Leaky Cauldron.

Beyond movie-only scenes like the candy that causes animal sounds, this attention to detail goes straight through- even the letters in the Harry Potter logo float in place this time, because why not. There's a giraffe running through all the portraits, brooms and quills that move on their own- every time I find something else I didn't see before.

It's also a great story, streamlining the plot of the book into a compelling mystery. Though it lacks the personal touches I mentioned above, it does include a new scene where Harry sees Peter Pettigrew on the Marauders' Map, which I like because it sets up the big reveal at the end a lot better- reading the book I don't see how one could possibly guess that Sirius Black is actually innocent until it's all laid out for you, but the implication that Pettigrew is alive in the film plants the seed in a more thorough way.

There are even some great lines that don't stem from the book at all- when Lupin is about to transform, Sirius tells him "You know the man you truly are Remus. This heart is where you truly live!". Or the spontaneously philosophical Dumbeldore off-handedly musing: "For in dreams we enter a world that's completely our own."

The camera-work is superb, as well- the seasons transition with the flight of birds, we transition straight through mirrors at inventive angles, or through the Hogwarts clock. From overhead we see dementors circling just as carrion crows did earlier, or a diminutive angle of a stone skipped over the lake telegraphs Hagrid's sadness at losing Buckbeak's appeal. It's magic behind the camera worthy of what's in front.

CONCLUSIONS: One? The other? Both?

I would definitely recommend both, and with a gun to my head I'd go with the film- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is probably my favorite film in the series so far on its own merits (it might be because I saw it before reading the book, unlike the following three).

It finds a perfect middle ground between the faithfulness that such a popular book requires and the inventiveness that a great filmmaker can bring.

Based on the first two movies, I didn't feel motivated to read Harry Potter books because I just figured I was missing out on a decent kids' story.

After I saw this movie, I realized I was missing out on an entire world, such as I might find in dreams.

Leftover Thoughts:

- Per the DVD extras: Alfonso Cuaron assigned the three principals an essay on their characters. In an hilarious case of excellent casting, Daniel Radcliffe wrote a page, Emma Watson wrote sixteen pages, Rupert and Grint just didn't do it.

-Another worthy addition to the cast: Emma Thompson's appropriately bonkers Professor Trelawny chews just the right amount of scenery.

-Parodies of HPPoA that are worth your time: Cleolinda Jones's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Fifteen Minutes, and the Rifftrax (downloadable .mp3 commentary from the MST3K guys) is a steal at $4.

Next week, of course, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire!

2 Response to "Transfigurations: Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban"

  1. I love Harry Potter...which probably should embarrass at least a little...but now.

    Anyhow, came across your site on IMDB. Can you head over to my blog and vote in the Katharine Hepburn Awards?

    Love of Harry Potter should embarrass no one! No one at all.

    I'd love to vote in your Hepburn awards, but sadly I have only seen The Philadelphia Story (just recently) and On Golden Pond (forever ago). I suspect that would make my ballot very incomplete.

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