Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third installment of J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter series, was first published in 1999 and is 435 pages long—almost 100 pages longer than Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. While Rowling spent much of her two previous books developing the plot and characters, this third book, although it does advance the plot and introduce new characters, is more of a transition piece, linking the conception of Harry Potter and the wizard world to the clash between Voldemort and Harry. Once again, as can be said for the entire series, Rowling’s excellent writing skills are on full display. Few authors are able to write a story with mass appeal and potential for a film adaptation. Children and adults alike have been mesmerized by the world of Harry Potter, latching onto the story and themes, such as those that appear in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: injustice and trust.
One of the recurring themes in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is injustice, both on a moral and legal level. The opening setting of the book is set at number four, Privet Drive, also known as the Dursley’s household. For multiple reasons, Harry is treated poorly by the Dursley’s, who pride themselves on being perfectly normal. For example, Harry has lived under the stairs, half-starved and half-clothed, subjected to psychological abuse. According to Professor Roni Natov in her paper titled, “Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary,” “Harry embodies this state of injustice frequently experienced by children, often as inchoate fear and anger—and its other side, desire to possess extraordinary powers that will overcome such early and deep exile from the child’s birthright of love and protection. That every child experiences himself as special is obvious, if for no other reason than that everything that happens to him is inherently significant.” This notion of fear that Natov touches on is apparent throughout the book. Harry is constantly faced with different obstacles and situations that no other young wizard has experienced, and his only choice is to face them front on or fail and die. After all, he is the boy who lived. One specific example that Natov mentions is the Boggart, which takes the shape of whatever the wizard fears. For Harry, the Boggart represents fear itself and it takes the shape of a Dementor.
In terms of legal injustice, Rowling uses multiple examples, such as the widespread belief that Sirius Black is connected to Voldemort and the assumption that Crookshanks killed Scabbers, but perhaps the one that elicits the biggest response from readers is the extermination of Buckbeak caused by both Malfoy’s. Draco is at fault when he ignored Hagrid’s instructions and was harmed approaching Buckbeak and Lucius Malfoy effectively lobbied for Buckbeak’s killing. The death of this innocent creature represents the corruption of a legal system, when power is placed in the wrong hands. However, Buckbeak is saved during Harry and Hermione’s time travel, signifying that maybe good overrides evil in the end, although time travel is a rare and fictional occurrence.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban also deals directly with issues of trust, which is seemingly part of the maturation process for Harry. The book’s title and story focuses on the one who escaped Azkaban, which is thought to be an impossible feat. That man is Sirius Black. At the beginning of the novel, everyone seems to think he’s connected to Voldemort and is out to get Harry. Furthermore, he is supposedly connected to the killing of Harry’s parents, making the prospect of trusting Black seem implausible. However, as is Rowling’s strong point, she does a fantastic job of piecing things together and creating the scene where Harry, during his encounter for the first time with Black, finds out from Lupin that Black was a close friend of Harry’s father and is indeed not out to kill him. The notion of trust is revisited again when it’s discovered that Scabbers is actually Peter Pettigrew, loyal follower of Voldemort. According to Julia Rose Pond’s essay, titled, “Divine Destiny or Free Choice: Nietzsche’s Strong Wills in the Harry Potter Seres,” “Rowling creates Harry as a character with whom many readers identify in his maturation and naivety. She also raises him from a person of average potential to the strong willed young man, successful in his adventures.” This quote is accurate in noting the characterization of Harry Potter and how Rowling created a character that readers could relate to and grow up with. Harry might be a wizard, practice spells instead of arithmetic and go to Diagon Alley instead of Disney World, but he still deals with human issues and the trials and tribulations of growing up in a society that demands quick maturation.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the first and only Harry Potter film to be directed by Alfonso Cuarón, a revered Mexican filmmaker. Immediately, whether the viewer is a cinematography buff or not, he or she notices the filming techniques of Cuarón that makes this film stylistically different than the two that precede it. For example, Cuarón uses wide-angle lenses to increase the size of the shot and the amount of detail in each frame. It’s clear that Cuarón labored over each and every shot to obtain the desired dramatic effect. Also, for the sake of comparison, the two previous Harry Potter films have a lively mood and are flushed with color. This third film is a leap in the opposite direction. Darkness is ubiquitous in the film, which is realistic and naturalistic. The darkness conveys the story’s shift towards evil, as Voldemort’s momentum is building despite his absence in the story. Instead, Dementors, extra large, terrifying, soul-sucking creatures that are perhaps portrayed too intensely in the film for children, have a large role and are responsible for a portion of the obscurity.
According to “The Prisoner of Azkaban: A New Direction for Harry Potter” by Cara Lane, Cuarón’s focus on darkness and a somber reality is reflected in the portrayal of Hogwarts. “In addition to the somber tone created through atmosphere, music, and shadow, Hogwarts and its grounds undergo a dramatic physical transformation. Ruins feature prominently in several scenes; most notably, Hermione, Harry, and Ron look down on Hagrid’s hut from behind disintegrating stones from an old part of a castle and the courtyard where Buckbeak’s executioner sharpens his blade is overgrown and rundown.” This gives the castle a feeling of antiquity, which is the nature of Hogwarts—an old, historic school.
One of the most poignant elements of the film is the point of view. There’s a lengthy time travel scene where Harry and Hermione go back in time to save two innocent lives: Buckbeak and Sirius Black. Cuarón portrays the time travel perfectly in the film, managing to show the past and the present transpire in the same frame, eventually syncing the two together. Along with time travel, the movie also uses magical devices such as the Marauder’s map and Harry’s invisibility cloak to play with the point of view. According to Lane, the film constantly juxtaposes these extraordinary tricks with mundane actions and artifacts, which allows the viewers to see the interconnections between the muggle and magical worlds.
Lastly, Cuarón’s film ends in a most peculiar, abrupt fashion. In only a couple minutes, it’s made known that Professor Lupin resigns and leaves, declaring, “No one wants, well, people like me teaching their children,” he hands back the Marauder’s map to Harry and Harry receives a new Firebolt broomstick in the mail and zooms off into the open sky. This ending is a direct contrast from the ending of the book. It gives viewers the sense that the story is in transition—just like how the film is a transition from childhood to basically adulthood and from one plot to another—but the cheerful, hope-filled ending is ineffective and doesn’t conform to the rest of the film. Perhaps this letdown of an ending is what drew most of the ire from critics, as just like news articles and literature, I believe people are more likely to remember the beginning and ending of a film than what comes in between.
Throughout this class, we have looked at film adaptations of literature, examining what parts of the book the film left out, what parts were included and if the film was a faithful adaptation of the book. As I’ve learned, which is stated in lecture, it’s impossible to include every element, every bit of dialogue and every minute detail of a book in the movie because literature allows that—there are many things that words and writing can convey and accomplish that film can’t. Each medium should be respected in its own right for what it brings to the table. However, as is the case with Harry Potter, the book series will always be favored over the films because quite simply, they are a hundred times better. There’s no way Cuarón could have incorporated close to all of the plot twists, character developments and dialogue found in the book. Perhaps his focus on producing a visually stimulating film with focused concentration on detail in every frame led him astray in his adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
As stated above, there are things the film does well and there are some things the film doesn’t do well. Most notably, there’s a significant amount of dialogue and scenes from the book missing in the movies. To highlight on a couple, in the movie, there’s no conversation between Harry and Professor Lupin about Harry’s Patronus, a stag, which was James Potter’s Animagi. Also, the film doesn’t provide any dialogue about Lupin’s condition, until indeed the moon is out and he morphs into a werewolf. Just as, or even more, detrimental, only one Quidditch match is shown in the film. Not only that, but the match isn’t played out. Instead, the match is used to show a Dementor attack and Harry’s flirting again with death. Quidditch is essential to the plot and a key component of the Harry Potter books, so its apparent exclusion renders the film un-Harry Potter-like. Another travesty appears in the development of some characters. For the most part, the movie develops the main characters well, however, it seems like the lesser characters are hardly touched. Professor Trelawney, an eccentric character in the book, appears on film as overly spastic and a nut in her teaching and the foreseeing of death. On the other hand, Michael Gambon replaces the deceased Richard Harris as Dumbledore and puts on an admirable performance.
Maybe it’s too easy to focus on the film’s negatives instead of its positives and it does have its positives. Cuarón’s film is a good movie—some people think it’s a better movie than an adaptation. And they might be right, as the amount of attention paid to detail is astounding and it’s filmed very well. However, Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is also a good adaptation because it captures the essence of Rowling’s novel, the themes and the story as a transition from childhood to adulthood and from one story to another.
“The Prisoner of Azkaban: A New Direction for Harry Potter”
Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
“Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary”
The Lion and the Unicorn
“Divine Destiny or Free Choice: Nietzsche’s Strong Wills in the Harry Potter Series”
Julia Rose Pond
Georgia State University Digital Archive
17 April 2008