“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
A New Direction
While Chris Columbus had been at the helm of the first two films in the Harry Potter franchise, he opted to slip out of the director’s chair for Prisoner of Azkaban in order to spend more time with his children, though he remained on board as a producer. After a short search, director Alfonso Cuarón was offered the job. Cuarón had not seen the first two films, nor had he read the books. He was coming off his Academy Award nominated film, Y tu mamá también, so a big-budgeted fantasy film about wizards was a little intimidating. It wasn’t until his good friend, and fellow director, Guillermo del Toro, insisted he read the books that Cuarón saw the potential in what Prisoner of Azkaban could be.
A New Dumbledore
After the death of the legendary Richard Harris, who played Albus Dumbledore in the first two films, rumors swirled as to who would replace Hogwarts’ Headmaster for the remainder of the franchise. There were rumors that Ian McKellen was offered the role, but McKellen was not interested, seeing as how he had played a similar character (a wizard) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Harris’s family had pushed for Harris’s good friend Peter O’Toole to inhabit the role, but Alfonso Cuarón eventually chose Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.
“With Michael, we were talking in terms of Dumbledore having a long beard and dressing in a long gown – he’s not necessarily precious and regal; he’s funky and could seem a little shabby, a little distracted, but actually he’s completely in control of everything. And that’s why we thought Michael Gambon would be fantastic.”
Gambon refused to read the books and instead brought his own interpretation of Dumbledore to the role. He not only brought Cuarón’s desired “funkiness”, but he also added a bit more humor and intensity to the character. Despite Richard Harris only appearing in two Harry Potter films, debates still rage among fans as to who was more faithful in their portrayal. For me, Richard Harris perfectly fit the style of Chris Columbus’s vision, and I can’t help but wonder what more Richard Harris could have done with Dumbledore under different direction. However, I will admit that I found Gambon’s version to be more nuanced. He certainly had a more effective presence on screen and he was able to come across as not only wise, the way Harris played it, but also harboring secrets that would change Harry’s life in the coming years. It’s hard to imagine the rest of the films without his portrayal, especially as the story continues and grows darker.
Harry Potter Grows Up
J.K. Rowling’s third installment in the Harry Potter book series triggered the beginning of a much darker journey for Harry and Cuarón wanted that to come through with the film as well. Gone were the brightly colored palettes of the first two films, replaced with desaturated images and dark greys and blues. The wizards robes that the cast wore around the castle and beyond were replaced by more modern and contemporary clothing in order to give the maturing characters more of an identity. Even the set pieces evolved and the grounds of Hogwarts began to feel more like a lived-in space within the Scottish Highlands than simple set pieces scattered around the castle – Hagrid’s Hut being a prime example.
There was also more focus on the characters themselves. Rather than the trio solving a mystery within the castle, Prisoner of Azakaban introduced people into Harry’s life that were able to give more backstory on the murder of Harry’s parents and how their deaths affected the story, setting into motion what was to come in future installments. The films had already tapped into the British talent pool with Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Kenneth Branagh, and Prisoner of Azkaban continued the tradition of adding top tier talent to the films, casting Gary Oldman as the titular character, David Thewlis as fan favorite Professor Remus Lupin and of course, Emma Thompson as the bug-eyed seer and Divination professor. The younger actors were able to mature along with their characters and while the threat of Voldemort continued to loom over Harry and friends, it’s Sirius Black, and the theme of varying father figures, that really move the story.
Prisoner of Azkaban pushed the franchise to become more about the characters and how they were dealing with the hardships of growing up as well as the external threats around them, giving the Wizarding World much needed depth and purpose.
What Harry Potter Means to Us
I am the Harry Potter generation. I read the books; I watched the movies; I played the Scene-It version of the interactive DVD board game. I was (and still am) a huge fan of the world J.K. Rowling created. I can still vividly remember my mother coming home with the VHS of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I can still hear the cries in the theater when Dobby was killed. I can still dust off my Gryffindor robes each Halloween and pass as Ron Weasley. I owe a lot of my childhood to Rowling and the impact her books had on my love of reading. Yet, until recently, Prisoner of Azkaban was never my favorite film in the series. It definitely has a lot of my favorite characters (like Lupin and Sirius), but I always preferred the final films the early ones (specifically 3 to 5). Recent rewatches have changed that. Prisoner of Azkaban is a damn fine film. It’s still nowhere near the top of my list for favorite Harry Potter movie, but a lot of what made the series work in later instalments can be attributed to what Cuarón accomplished here with this film. If someone had to pick one Harry Potter film to call a masterpiece, the majority would no doubt pick Prisoner of Azkaban.
Chris Columbus had delivered two very enjoyable, very faithful adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s work, but Alfonso Cuarón changed the course of the franchise by invoking richer, deeper characters, tapping into the emotion of the story rather than focusing solely on the bare-bones adventure within the castle. He also had no qualms about making this movie his own while still playing within the universe that Columbus had set up in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. He altered some of the source material while adding in his own elements, something that would benefit the franchise going forward under different direction.
Had Columbus directed Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s hard to say where the franchise would have gone, or how successful it would have been. Oddly enough, Prisoner of Azkaban is the lowest-grossing Harry Potter film while being the second best-reviewed behind The Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Alfonso Cuarón set a new course for the franchise with his darker, more adult take on Harry’s journey and it’s really no surprise why most fans cite the Prisoner of Azkaban as their favorite movie in the entire series. It paved the way for David Yates and Mike Newell to bring their own vision to the rest of the films while staying true to the novels, and they were able to do it in a way that would appeal to not only the younger fans, but to the adults as well.
Without Alfonso Cuarón’s inspired vision for the film, it’s hard to see how the franchise matures and progresses. I think it’s also safe to say that Prisoner of Azkaban was a turning point, not only for the Harry Potter series, but for the direction and filming of contemporary young adult movies to come.