The Great Harry Potter Rewatch: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and (yes, I’m a geek) I’ve probably read them hundreds of times. Having purchased the box set of films, I’ve decided to have a Harry Potter rewatch (until we get to the last two films, which will just be a watch as I’ve not seen them), to see if I can learn to love the films as much as the books (doubtful, but I’ll try).

Up next is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This is my favourite book in the series. It’s where things start to get serious, it’s the only book in which Voldemort doesn’t appear (more ominous than an appearance might have been), and it’s a slice of what’s to come, and of what came before.

Unfortunately, this is also my least favourite film. I remember seeing it at the cinema with a friend and just being horrified at how bad it was. What makes it worse is that everyone was raving about how this was a great film, it was darker and had more depth than the two that came before. Yes, that is true, but I think making it “darker” also involved sacrificing some of the great storytelling at the heart of the book.

I went into my rewatch of this film apprehensive, but willing to give it a chance, putting my previous dislike down to youth and the stubborness that comes with it. I thought the opening scenes were good, but as soon as the Knight Bus appeared I remembered exactly why I hated this film.

The Knight Bus is meant to be a bit of comic relief after Harry’s serious encounters with Aunt Marge and what he thinks is a sighting of the Grim. It’s meant to be a bit of magic after a summer of no magic. Instead, the Knight Bus is freaky. Stan Shunpike, far from being loveable and gullible is instead just plain weird. Ernie the bus driver is more in character, but any positives the Knight Bus in the film has are drowned out by the creepy head that insists on giving a running commentary to everything. It’s not funny, it’s not dark, it’s just stupid.

Things only got worse for me when Harry got to The Leaky Cauldron. Instead of a comfortable place to spend the rest of his summer, with pleasant barkeep Tom keeping an eye on him, Harry arrives at a dark, eerie pub where Tom is a hunchback. 

The Knight Bus and the Leaky Cauldron feel like this film is trying too hard to be more grown up, and it bothers me. The film doesn’t need to try hard, because the story is dark enough on its own, and that’s even before the Dementors get involved.

Here, at least, the film gets something right. The Dementors, with their ghost-like black bodies and the cold that signifies they are coming, are suitably scary.

Azkaban introduces us to three characters of great importance – Lupin, Sirius and Petigrew. On first view I remember not really liking Lupin, but I warmed to him during this rewatch. David Thewlis strikes a good balance between the man struggling to reconcile his normal life with his werewolf one.

Sirius is also well played, by Gary Oldman. The scene where he and Harry bond over the thought that they could be a family is a gorgeous quiet moment in an otherwise rather busy film.

Timothy Spall plays Peter Pettigrew perfectly as the snivelling man who spent years living as a rat.

These three, along with Harry’s dad James, are integral to the third book. The gang of four have an interesting story, but unfortunately this is never told in the film. We don’t hear how Sirius, James and Peter learnt to become Animagi to keep Lupin company, or how their roaming of the castle and its surroundings led them to create the Marauder’s Map, even though the Marauder’s Map is used extensively by Harry in the film. And most importantly, although we see Harry’s stag Patronus, we never learn in the film why it is a stag – it’s what his dad used to transform into as an Animagus.

If the story of Harry’s dad and his friends is missing, the other integral story in the book might as well have been, for all the prominence it was given. That story, told by McGonagall in the book, reveals how Sirius and James were best friends, and how everyone believes Sirius gave James and Lily up to Lord Voldemort. It is told in the film, but very badly. In the book there’s a great build up to the final reveal, but the film’s script offers no such subtleties.
The missing/badly told stories in the film make me sad, since they’re not only important in Azkaban, but also in the rest of the series to come. They form our understanding of the relationship between Harry’s parents, their friends, and of course Voldemort, and lend another dimension to the relationship between Harry and Voldemort. Without these stories, everything has a little less meaning.

There are some great moments in the film. I love Dawn French as the Fat Lady, Hermione’s growth from bookworm to tough girl is fun to watch, and Tom Felton, as always, is brilliant as the sneering Draco Malfoy. In fact, all the young actors have improved considerably since the first film, although there are still occasional moments of: “Oh, I must ACT, quick face, look angry/sad/happy!”

Overall, I found Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a really unsatisfying watch. If you’ve never read the book, I imagine it’s a fun story with plenty of mystery. Unfortunately, I have read the book, and all I can think about when I see this film is just how much is missing. Films always have to sacrifice something, but I felt in the case of Azkaban, it was the wrong things. I’d rather have sat through a longer film that told the story properly than a shorter film which tried to create drama when there was no need – the story was good enough to sustain itself.

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