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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Reviewed by Eliza DoLots

The third book of the Harry Potter series, Prisoner of Azkaban, has a quality that makes it unlike any of the other Potter books so far: Voldemort is not around. This makes Prisoner a personal story, more about a child growing into manhood than the "chosen one" battling "the supreme evil." Perhaps because of this, it is less heroic and more psychological than the other books. It deals not with evil outside, but evil within, evil that has been endured and evil which exists without external provocation. The demonic creatures in Prisoner don't eat you, or kill you, they make you face your worst fears, they rob you of your ability to be happy, they make you replay the worst moments in your life. They can be fought, not by heroic displays of wizadry, nor by feats of physical supremacy, but only by finding joy within one's self.

Turning each of the Potter books into movies has been a tremendous task. Not only do they require high production value to look believable, but there are legions of book fans out there waiting to find fault with even the best effort. Prisoner is no exception.

One decision, made early on, which appeased the Potter fanatics was to change directors. While Christopher Columbus did a lovely, magical job with The Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, his light touch did not seem suited to Prisoner's issues of inner torment. I had not seen any movies directed by Alfonso Cuaron, however the advance word was that he worked well with young people and did an excellent job portraying real world experiences. That seems to be true.

This, to me, is the most realistic of the movies to date. The Dursleys are portrayed less as obsessive, controlling maniacs and more as a family suffering from some major disfunction. Our first sight of the house is not the Dursleys trying to control Harry, rather it is Harry tormenting Vernon by flaunting the rules - both of the house and the magical world. He is casting a spell to create light under his bedcover so he can read his spell book when he is supposed to be asleep (according to the Dursleys) and not performing magic (according to the Ministry of Magic).

In the previous movies, the Dursleys home was enclosed and encapsulated, narrow corridors connecting the rooms, no connection to the world outside, not even a sunny sky seen through a window. Here one room opens freely into another, the living room even opens out to the yard. There is no feeling of oppression by confinement, the house is, if anything, airy and comfortable feeling. The tension in the family is not caused by or made worse by the confining walls. The tension exists because of the personalities involved. It is exactly what one might expect when a troubled teenager is an unwilling part of the family.

The appearance of and Harry's "dispensing of" Aunt Marge provides him an excuse to run away, much the way many kids have and will run away from the adults they view as horrible. Yet, here again, Privet Drive (rarely seen and when seen shown as regimented and dull) becomes a normal neighborhood, with all the accoutrements of normal life: cables running into the homes, recycling bins up against the houses, toys strewn about. There is even a small park with play equipment.

Harry's arrival in the magical world (by way of a harrowing, "video game to be" ride on The Knight Bus) shows us a world that is not "Disney charming" but rather dirty and practical. In the second movie, our trip to the Weasleys' house was all about "oooing and ahing" at the ongoing magic. It was easy to imagine a Disney attraction with a magical stirring spoon and magical knitting needles. The Leaky Cauldron (bar/hotel and gateway to Diagon Alley) is just a dirty old place. Magic happens casually and generally unnoticed - the chairs at a long table flip themselves over as the last guests leave - no one stares, it happens as almost an aside while the real movie is happening in the foreground.

Life at Hogwarts, too, is presented as far more normal than in the previous movies. The kids hang out and talk about what they're doing, what their favorite sports teams are doing. The interaction among the boys in the dorm is more natural and relaxed than previously.

Anytime a much loved book is translated into a movie, things will be lost. As frustrating as that can be, one has to accept that it will happen. Because of that, I don't fault this film for many of the missing or altered scenes. However, there are some issues which do concern me. This is largely because my hope is that each of the books will be made into movies (they are working on the fourth, Goblet of Fire now) and some omissions or changes can have repercussions in the telling of the future books.

Harry not telling the clerk on The Knight Bus that his name is Neville Longbottom, while disappointing to Fan Fic folk who love to theorize that it foreshadows Neville being revealed as "the real one to defeat Voldemort," doesn't endanger any of the existing story. Failing to explain the origin of The Marauder's Map however does. Well, maybe not endanger the existing story, but it does put the job of explaining it on a future movie. More than that, it detracts from one of the major themes of the book: Harry recognizing his father as having been a kid like him, a teenager who violated school rules left and right but stuck by his friends with almost supernatural loyalty. Making that connection with his father, and finding himself in the company of people who didn't just know his father, but who loved his father, is a critical component of the book, and without i, the movie is perhaps a bit shallow.

Harry's Patronus is, to me, a change that both detracts from the emotional impact of the movie and will create problems for whomever directs the fifth book. In the movie, it is a blazing white force field. For a brief moment, it takes the shape of a stag, but after that, it is waves of light. Here is that scene from the book:

 

     "And out of the end of his wand burst, not a shapeless cloud of mist, but a blinding, dazzling, silver animal.
He screwed up his eyes, trying to see what it was. It looked like a horse. It was galloping silently away from him,
across the black surface of the lake. He saw it lower its head and charge at the swarming dementors.... Now
it was galloping around and around the black shapes on the ground, and the dementors were falling back, scattering,
retreating into the darkness.... They were gone.

     The Patronus turned. It was cantering back toward Harry across the still surface of the water. It wasn't a horse. It
wasn't a unicorn, either. It was a stag. It was shining brightly as the moon above ... it was coming back to him....

     It stopped on the bank. Its hooves made no mark on the soft ground as it stared at Harry with its large, silver eyes.
Slowly, it bowed its antlered head. And Harry realized..."Prongs," he whispered. But as his trembling fingertips stretched toward the creature, it vanished."

 

Prongs - at that moment he knew the shape his father took as an animagi (transformed into an animal), that his father had written the map and that his father lived on in him, appearing as his protector when needed. Obviously, the emotional impact of a wave of light is not as intense. More importantly, though the Patronus Charm appears and is discussed frequently in the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix).

Here, Harry is questioned about using magic illegally around muggles:

 

"You produced a fully-fledged Patronus?"
"Yes," said Harry, "because..."
"A corporeal Patronus?"
"A - what?" said Harry.
"Your Patronus had a clearly defined form? I mean to say, it was more than vapour or smoke?"
"Yes," said Harry, feeling both impatient and slightly desperate, "it's a stag, it's always a stag."
"Always?" boomed Madam Bones. "You have produced a Patronus before now?"
"Yes," said Harry, "I've been doing it for over a year."

 

There are numerous scenes in which the Patronus Charm and the animal shapes that a Patronus might take (Hermione's is an otter) are discussed. By changing the Patronus to waves of light, Cuaron has presented the director of the fifth movie with a dilemma: does he abide by the history in the movies, or does he abide by the history in the books?

Acting is never a paramount issue in the Potter movies. As long as it's serviceable it will suffice. Bobby Coltrane is perhaps a bit overly melodramatic as Hagrid in distress. Fortunately, this is one of the worst books for Hagrid and he will have less need to be distressed in future movies. Rupert Grint continues to be annoying as Ron Weasley. He desperately needs to learn another facial expression to convey fear. His current choice looks like he's got a bad case of diarrhea. Since he is in fear through most of each movie, it's probably something worth working on. Daniel Radcliff handles the more mature Harry just fine and Emma Watson, while way too pretty for the geeky Hermione, is believably uptight and brilliant.

New to the staff at Hogwarts this year is Professor Trelawney, played by Emma Thompson. She didn't match my expectations, but she is interesting. To me, Trelawney has always been almost misty, barely there. Thompson plays her as an aged flower child. It's not hard to imagine her taking a few bong hits before going into class. Trelawney grows in importance in the books. It will be interesting to see how this interpretation of the character holds up to the twists and turns Rowling throws in book five.

One note on this movie is that I think the PG rating is low. I think PG-13 would have been more appropriate. Not only are the dementors terrifying both to look at and to think about, but there is a werewolf transformation scene that is quite scary and the werewolf both fights with a dog and chases the main characters. My 9 year old daughter spent a considerable amount of time either out in the lobby or down on the floor. I would have taken her to see it regardless; we've read the book and I reviewed all the scary parts with her. But, had the movie carried a PG-13 rating I would have anticipated more frightening portrayals of the monsters than I had.

 

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Director
Alfonso Cuarón

Screenplay
Steve Kloves

Released
June 4, 2004 (US)

Cast
Daniel Radcliffe
Emma Watson
Rupert Grint
Michael Gambon
Robbie Coltrane
Maggie Smith
Alan Rickman
Gary Oldman
Emma Thompson

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray