I solemnly swear Azkaban is up to some good

Friday, 11 June 2004 — 4:41pm | Adaptations, Film, Harry Potter, Literature

The Philosopher’s Stone was a screen test: the characters were cast, the sets were built, and we saw the definition of some design conventions that would guide how J.K. Rowling’s imagination would look on film. The Chamber of Secrets was a exercise in refining the execution, with more attention to visual effects and cinematography, and served as a vehicle for Chris Columbus to develop as a director. But now, at long last, we have Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban: the first real Harry Potter movie.

For the first time, we have a Harry Potter film that not only feels complete, but achieves what made the books the phenomenon they are – a balance of gleeful entertainment and meticulous artistry. Steve Kloves’ adaptation of Rowling’s third novel cuts its losses and accepts that some things only work on paper – something that he did to a lesser extent with the first two films – but the big difference is what Cuaron did and Columbus did not, which is recognize there is a lot of unfulfilled cinematic potential lying in the fact that conversely, some things only work on film. Azkaban actively takes advantage of cinema as a medium of expression, and adds a whole new dimension of what the magic of Potter is all about: imagination.

Take, for example, the way the cutting room tackles the passage of time. Because the Potter novels each last a full academic year in what can be perceived as a rather serial fashion, jumping from summer vacation to the first day of school to Halloween to Christmas, there are some inherent pacing issues to resolve. While the first two films negotiate this with jump-cuts that drop requisite visual clues like holiday decorations and the presence or absence of snow, the seasonal transitions in Azkaban are demarcated by a recurring visual gag involving the Whomping Willow, The effect is not only charming, but also serves the literary function of reminding the audience that the Willow is there, and acting as a framework for structural coherence.

This is not the only indication of how the editing work has matured tremendously. The Prisoner of Azkaban is a textbook example of when and how to execute fade-to-blacks for dramatic effect, as whenever Harry is approached by Dementors and falls unconscious to the sound of a woman screaming. On a more general level, the Dementors are everything that the encounter with Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest in The Philosopher’s Stone was supposed to be. Whereas that scene in the first film amounts to all of a cloak floating around a dead unicorn while Harry clutches the lightning scar on his forehead, Cuaron’s vision of the Dementors stops and asks: how is it that one visualizes fear – or soul-sucking, for that matter? Rowling describes the approach of a Dementor as akin to a sinkhole for warmth and happiness; the film conveys this by having these foul creatures freeze everything around them as they pass, with a creeping frost effect very similar to the one in The Day After Tomorrow, only here, it makes sense.

That is what sets The Prisoner of Azkaban apart: its embrace of the medium of cinema defines a magical tone and atmosphere that its predecessors did not possess. Because of this, it stands out as an independent work of art in its own right, instead of relying entirely on Rowling’s contributions alone. The Marauder’s Map is far more than just a leaf of parchment with moving labeled dots on it; it unfolds in all manner of directions like Hogwarts itself, movements are traced with tiny pattering footprints, and the labels themselves are stylized to fit a medieval aesthetic. The Invisibility Cloak is no longer just a close-up of Harry traipsing around under a semi-transparent cloak; it does not stop him from leaving revealing footprints in the snow. The climax is bookended by shots that pass out of Hogwarts and back in through the gears of a large and very symbolic clock, and its initiation – when Hermione activates the Time Turner – is without question the single best moment I have seen in any film this year, a shot that trumps its counterparts in even the most legendary movies that involve the manipulation of time.

The casting work deserves a great deal of recognition, in supporting roles big (Gary Oldman as an appropriately scruffy and bonkers Sirius Black) and small (Lee Ingleby as Stan Shunpike), the best of the lot being David Thewlis’ precisely-in-character performance as new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin. The concern of the main and recurring characters outgrowing their roles is not too much of a problem at this stage, but definitely shows through (a fancy way of saying, “Gosh, Neville Longbottom is tall”).

What holds the film back is the difficulty of reconciling a consistent linear structure and pace with the complexity of Rowling’s book. In The Prisoner of Azkaban in particular, Rowling constructs her plots very much in the style of Agatha Christie, dropping seemingly unrelated clues to a grand and sinister mystery for ninety percent of a work, then tying them all together in a singular denouement that answers every lingering question in one fell swoop. Even the 1974 film of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express discovered that with so many interrelated clues, the adaptation process that leads to a coherent screenplay is a game of pick-up-sticks. The remedy that screenwriter Kloves tries this time around, which peels off a few of the outer layers of the mystery and spreads the rest of it out so as to achieve a relatively even distribution of clues and solutions, is an improvement upon the last two films in the sense that the adaptation work seems considered right from pre-production and not in the cutting room; however, the consequence is a barrage of abrupt revelations and name-dropping that would be an information glut for all but those who have a thorough memory of the original work.

To illustrate some of these concerns, I am now going to discuss a plot-specific adaptation issue, so if you have not read the book, go catch up with the text and come back later.

The biggest omission in the film is a critical one, and sorely missed, which is that the identities of Mooney (sic), Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are never revealed, and Remus Lupin never explains how it is he knows how to operate the Marauder’s Map, even though Snape’s implicit line about Harry getting it “straight from the manufacturers” (in a perfectly executed staging of the scene where Snape catches the boy wizard out of bed at night) remains intact. It would have taken a minute – just one question from our dear inquiring Harry, and an answer in return. It is only excusably problematic that the details of how the whole matter of betrayal and the Secret Keeper charm are never explained, but an understanding of the roles of Lupin, Pettigrew and Black in relation to James Potter is key to what Azkaban contributes to the grander saga, which is an introduction to the dynamic of the parental generation, as well as a clue to the form of either Potter’s Patronus.

It should be emphasized that we do see individual scenes that go into the various relationships with the elder Potter on a one-on-one level. A delightful chat between Lupin and Harry about the latter’s parents whilst all the other students are at Hogsmeade, a scene not in the book, may well be what Rowling referred to as the unintended clue to Book Six. Still, it would have been nice to see such a vital clue tie it all together. As it stands, the fact that Lupin could read the Marauder’s Map at all is a plot hole; and while tackling the Shrieking Shack as a ten-minute dialogue sequence would not have been feasible, whittling it down does make it look like Harry trusts Black’s side of the story far too quickly.

These complaints aside, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is in every way a superior film compared to its two precursors, and the first one that is not only highly watchable, but a lot of fun. No longer does it feel like the whole affair probably looks a lot better on set than it does on screen; and finally, we see some literacy in the language that is unique to cinema. While The Chamber of Secrets was developing this communicative aptitude with key scenes like Tom Riddle’s diary and the fight with the Basilisk, now we have an entire movie that does J.K. Rowling justice, a movie that captures the dark, yet lively spirit of Harry Potter from beginning to end. It could have been longer without penalty, but that does not stop it from already being a must-see for veteran Potterheads and non-fans alike.

Ideally, Alfonso Cuaron should be invited back for at least one Potter movie. Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is already working on The Goblet of Fire, and I maintain that there is no better person for The Order of the Phoenix than Terry Gilliam, but Cuaron now has a proven record of knowing how to commit Rowling to film.

Next: some equally belated thoughts on the Calgary Flames’ blaze just short of glory.


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3 rejoinders to “I solemnly swear Azkaban is up to some good”

  1. LorencotiX

    What do you think about WIKILEAKS?

    Sunday, 12 December 2010 at 5:25am

  2. AssangeNor

    So….. where is toilet? Hehe))) Joke, relax 😉
    Thank you
    bye bye ;))

    Friday, 14 January 2011 at 6:27pm

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