Why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best Harry Potter film

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is not only the best Harry Potter film adaptation, but one of the most successful literary film adaptations of all time. The praise is universal: The film ranks at No. 471 in Empire magazine’s 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time, and IGN designated the movie as the fifth best fantasy film. And something very interesting happened in 2011: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was voted Film of the Decade at the First Light Awards by children aged 5–15. That’s an achievement! But why all the praise for this third Harry Potter film? Answers below. 

A new visual style for the Harry Potter franchise

Only with director Alfonso Cuarón did the Harry Potter film series take on a more serious tone. The slightly kitschy children’s films by Chris Columbus were quickly forgotten. From now on the third film dictated the atmosphere and the visual style of the upcoming Harry Potter movies. Indeed, Cuarón stages the third Harry Potter adventure in a refined visual style: Monochrome grey tones with very high black values dominate the picture instead of kitschy and colorful colors. The extremely exaggerated contrasts further alienate the events, as these visual stylistic themes make darkness and threat even more tangible. Also, the majority of shots are filmed with a handheld camera, which gives a naturalistic, nervous style to many scenes. And a lot of shots are held for a longer than usual time without cutting. In doing so Cuarón has given Hogwarts a much more atmospheric feel.

An artistic work on its own

Poster HP 3
Official movie poster

Cuarón has also achieved something that only very few directors can do: his film exists alongside the original book. This means that his movie isn’t dependent on the original at all and also doesn’t try to stick to it desperately. The third Harry Potter movie tries not to be as close as possible to the original and does not get lost in gimmicks. Cuarón has succeeded in leaving the stage of “submissive slavish visualization”: This film is an artistic work in its own right, it lives, it breathes what its predecessors never achieved.

The book was radically shortened and the essence was worked out for the first time. The Harry Potter franchise suddenly became a universal coming-of-age story, which for the first time also allowed itself nuances and real threats. The film brillantly captures the often gloomy and dangerous atmosphere of the plot very atmospherically.

Elements showing the originality of the film

Cuarón and his crew added some very interesting elements to the film and the Harry Potter universe. They also made some important, very creative changes. Here is an overview which shows the genius of this work:

  • It was Cuarón’s idea to have a Hogwarts Choir singing as the students enter the school. He suggested using “Double, Double Toil and Trouble” from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This Choir brings a lot to the atmosphere of the movie.
  • In the books it is mentioned that the werewolf resembles a normal wolf in appearance besides some little differences. This is not the case in the film, as Lupin in his werewolf form is shown as having a gaunt, humanoid, hairless appearance, with a coyote-like face and no tail. The movie shows a much more original and frigthening werewolf.
  • In the movie, Cuarón adds the Shrunken Heads onto the Knight Bus. Something Rowling could have done for the book.
  • Essentially the entire layout and structure of Hogwarts, and its grounds, were altered for this film, and remained more or less the same for the following sequels. Hogwarts grew and expanded significantly with the third film. For the first time, the Hogwarts courtyard and bridge were seen.
  • Cuarón made the romantic connection between Ron and Hermione more prominent in the film than the book; the emotional development of all three lead characters is given more attention in the third film.
  • Cuarón also hade the idea to have the students as well as Harry, Ron, and Hermione wear everyday clothes more often than their Hogwarts uniforms in order to show more of the characters’ personalities.

The creativity and originality of Cuaron went so far that Rowling even said she got goosebumps when she saw several moments in the film, as they inadvertently referred to events in the final two books. She said:

Alfonso had very good intuition about what would and wouldn’t work. He’s put things in the film that, without knowing it, foreshadow things that are going to happen in the final two books. So, I really got goosebumps when I saw a couple of those things and I thought people are going to look back on the film and think those were put in deliberately as clues.

You can find out here what these clues might be. One of them is for sure the conversation between Harry and Lupin on the bridge. And guess what, the scene is not in the orginial book! Another sign of Cuarón’s great understanding of the Harry Potter universe. The scene not only gives insight into Harry’s parents that would become relevant after the Snape reveal, it ends with Lupin saying: “You’re more like them than you know, Harry. In time you’ll come to see just how much.” That clearly foreshadows Harry’s sacrifice in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Until then watch again Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban!


Pictures: © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. Harry Potter Publishing Rights

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