Alfonso Cuaron's
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
    By Jen Johans

“A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of
moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes
    -- Stanley Kubrick (IMDb)

* Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

To some, the art of adapting a beloved novel into a film is almost sacrilegious.  When done correctly
in the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s
The Godfather, it can be a wonderful representation of the
novel and a companion piece to its source material that sometimes surpasses the original.  If done
poorly, it can be the ultimate disappointment and an example of ego and artistry run amok such as
in the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s
The Great Gatsby.  When I began thinking about what
constitutes a worthy adaptation, I found myself recalling some of my favorite adaptations of all time
and the directors who have succeeded along the way—artists such as Francois Truffaut, Anthony
Minghella, and Stanley Kubrick.  It seemed fitting to begin my paper with a quote from Kubrick
since, not only did he helm some of the most impressive, daring and artistically magical adaptations
of the twentieth century but his was a career comprised almost entirely of adaptations and one
whose work continues to inspire directors and audiences to this day.  Kubrick’s work remains as
immediate and powerful today as it was when his films were first released and I find myself
constantly reminded of his genius when seeing the newest cinematic offerings and the way that they
pay homage to Kubrick again and again; looking at the
Harry Potter series is no exception.  While
the classically stylized earliest films from director Chris Columbus seem to recall John Hughes,
Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, there’s one constant that runs throughout Columbus’ and
even in the films of those universally lauded men, which is the Kubrickian influence.  “If it can be
written, or thought, it can be filmed,” Stanley Kubrick (IMDb) once remarked and taking a cue from
my overview of the five films utilized in
my presentation, I will dissect the way that cinematic
technique and individual artistry helped augment J.K. Rowling’s wonderful
Harry Potter collection
in my favorite film of the series so far, Alfonso Cuaron’s
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

After directing the wildly successful first two films that stayed relentlessly true to the source
material (at times almost to their peril) and with a far more classical Hollywood styled approach,
director Chris Columbus decided against helming the next film in order to return to his family back
in the states.  Impressed by his work on
A Little Princess, Columbus turned over the reins of the
series to Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron.  At the time of the job offer, Cuaron had never read the
novels or seen the first two films but he brought a dazzling and artistic sensibility to
Harry Potter
and the Prisoner of Azkaban
that marked Cuaron as the ideal candidate to move the previously
solely youth-oriented series into the darker and more mature territory that was to come.

Eager to learn and get acquainted with his young cast, he asked the three actors to write an essay in
first person about each of their characters and as IMDb reported, true to the personalities they
portray, Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) wrote an earnest and straight-forward one page version, Emma
Watson was the quintessential Hermione with a whopping sixteen page draft and Rupert Grint (Ron)
didn't turn his assignment in.

Passionate about film since his youth when he would sometimes tell his mother he would be going to
visit friends and escape to the local theatres instead, self-proclaimed movie “nerd” Cuaron was first
invited by the great American director Sydney Pollack to film in America after his work
Love in the
Time of Hysteria
made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival.  In one of his first assignments, Cuaron
worked with actor Alan Rickman on an episode of
Fallen Angels that he helmed before later re-
teaming with Rickman on
Harry Potter.  

However, it wasn't until
A Little Princess that his career first took off and the film shares many
situational and thematic similarities to the big screen series about the boy who lived in a cupboard
under the stairs.  In fact, as I worked on my presentation, I even found a YouTube fan made trailer
combining both of the films together.  After
Princess, he directed the stunning, freewheeling and
Great Expectations, despite a tense relationship with Twentieth Century Fox and then later
crafted his own daring entry into the burgeoning Mexican New Wave with his adults-only coming-of-
age road movie
Y Tu Mama Tambien.  

It seemed like an odd choice following his explicit
Tambien to jump into J.K. Rowling's world of
magic and quidditch but it proved to be just the right breath of fresh air that the series desperately
needed.  When
Azkaban opens, we’re startled to find a much older looking Harry underneath the
covers of his bedspread, trying to use his wand to produce enough light to complete his homework.  
After a few tries and made all the more difficult by his being forced to keep quiet enough so that his
uncle won’t be able to hear him, he proclaims a more determined sounding, “Lumos Maxima,” and
the effect of that tiny amount of light propels the camera of cinematographer Michael Seresin
Angela’s Ashes) to pull back out through the window and into the clouds to present the opening
title.  Although subtle, this small but dazzling opening immediately calls attention to
Azkaban as an
artistic, impressionistic film and for fans of Cuaron, it’s a great preview of what’s to come as Seresin,
replacing Cuaron’s over-scheduled longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki,
does a tremendous job of adapting his style to fit Cuaron’s trademark.  His superior work impressed
not only audiences but Cuaron as well who went on to hire him for
Paris je t’aime.

With a preference for a constantly moving handheld camera fitted with wide angle lenses to give the
film both a false sense of freedom and improvisation adding to its fluidity, on repeated viewings, one
begins to notice just how orchestrated the shots are with takes that last double the amount of time
that traditional Hollywood cuts do and scenes that begin with one group and end up dancing with the
camera around several other conversations and situations indicating Cuaron and his collaborators’
painstaking attention to detail.  A dark color palette and an obvious nod to director Tim Burton is
recognized nearly instantly during the chaotic Knight Bus sequence as well as Cuaron’s interest in
sociology and magic realism after Harry runs away and stays in the Leaky Cauldron.  Note the way
that the camera pans around Diagon Alley to see the various goings on before swooping back up to
see Harry in his room in a scene that would normally have been left on the cutting room floor but
adds to the beginning of our recognition of Harry’s feeling of isolation with a “me against the world”
mentality that will return throughout the entire series.  Even when photographed with loyal friends
Ron and Hermione, Harry is usually framed to the side or alone in a separate shot and it’s a curious
decision made by Cuaron to let viewers only hear the voices of Ron and Hermione arguing about
their pets Crookshanks and Scabbers before we see the two arrive.  Although, perhaps credit for this
choice is owed to veteran
Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys, Fabulous Baker Boys) by
making the first words uttered by Ron and Hermione a debate between their pets which pays off
tremendously in the film’s final act when we learn that Ron’s rat Scabbers is really Peter Pettigrew a.
k.a. Wormtail.  

The aforementioned sequence is the first of several deliberate decisions made in scenes that in a first
or casual viewing perhaps seem a bit odd or even distracting but on closer inspection not only aid in
the viewer’s internal and subconscious understanding of the story (harkening to Kubrick’s quotation
of film being used like music) but also in foreshadowing events to come.  In fact Rowling was so
impressed by Cuaron’s intuition and decisions that she shared on the DVD’s Behind-the-Scenes
featurette that he actually foreshadowed several things to come in the series without realizing it.  
Curaron, who prefers to make all visual decisions either during the shoot or on storyboards as
opposed to in the cutting room is so devoted to his particular vision that he works unceasingly on
each film in its postproduction and was so wrapped up in putting the finishing touches on Azkaban
that he was unable to film the fourth and unfortunately the weakest cinematic entry in the series.

In another telling scene, we get a sense of the ambience of the train station before Harry boards the
Hogwarts Express that’s intercut with a very important conversation between Harry and Mr.
Weasley regarding Sirius Black’s escape from Azkaban Prison.  When I first saw the scene, I thought
it was a poor choice to have such a vital exchange of dialogue cast off to the side, bound to get lost in
the shuffle of the noise and hustle and bustle of passersby but this time around, Cuaron’s true
intention became clear when I realized that the camera finally focuses squarely on Harry when he
says, “Mr. Weasley, why would I go looking for someone who wants to kill me?”  In retrospect, the
answer lies in the photography of the film and the way that it sweeps in and out of the crowd to
finally get Harry alone and that is because it’s perhaps the way that this “someone” may go looking
for him.

Further cinematic foreshadowing is unveiled during the first day back at school when the camera
follows a bird around campus to locations that initially seem random except for those who have seen
the film before and realize that whatever location the bird is flying to ends up being a monumentally
important location later on during the ultimate showdown which is shot twice after we learn of
Hermione’s time-turner.  It was at this point when, in preparation for this paper, I was dutifully
taking notes during the film that I began to have doubts and gave in to most viewers’ perception and
argument that artistic film is snobbish and exclusive.  On one hand, Cuaron could anger some with
all of these subtle painterly sequences that pay off later but my worries were soon dashed when I
thought that on another, it makes the film that much richer for both film fans who have seen it
before but even more so for devoted Rowling readers who will instinctively begin seeing his
cinematic reasoning.  In the same token of rewarding young readers, it may also even
subconsciously get younger people looking at film with a different eye in seeing what cinema can do
and may have been precisely included because much like this particular viewer, director Alfonso
Cuaron fell in love with cinema at an early age and began thinking visually as an adolescent.

Azkaban however isn’t only filled with subtext and artistry-- fans of the series’ quidditch scenes will
Azkaban’s more daring and darker sequence filmed in the gray, relentless rain that
foreshadows Harry falling off his broom even before it happens as the entire scene begins with Draco’
s drawing of Harry doing just that in class.  Director turned executive producer Chris Columbus
noted on the DVD that the special effects in the first two films were too rushed and never up to his
high standards and it was his belief that they should only improve with each passing film, such as
the stellar work in
Azkaban of not only the quidditch scenes but also in Cuaron’s several month long
design of the Dementors.

However, like the visual effects that Columbus hoped would improve, Cuaron reinvented some of
the same devices and characterizations of the previous films to tremendous effect such as the
presentation of
Azkaban’s newest offering the Marauder’s Map by Fred and George Weasley to Harry
that seems more than a little influenced by
Alice in Wonderland with their repetitive dialogue,
voices in unison that helps turn the rebellious duo into the far more successful mischief makers of
the series to come, culminating in David Yates’ excellent
Order of Phoenix.  In addition, I admired
the way that the invisibility cloak was reinvented to more believable cinematic effect as we get a
truer point-of-view of what the outside must really look like from inside the cloak.  There’s a
purposely distorted view with material placed in front of the camera’s lens in order to garner a more
accurate depiction, all the while instead of just using Harry as a device to get to the goods (the
secrets revealed in the dialogue), this time around we’re painfully aware that he’s listening to the
revelation that Sirius Black is his godfather thanks to the audible breathing of Harry heard on the
soundtrack.  His heartbreaking flight from The Leaky Cauldron leads to the film’s most visually
breathtaking and emotionally powerful shot as Hermione and Ron follow Harry’s footsteps and
Hermione approaches him in the snow and gently takes the cloak off Harry to comfort her crying
friend like a sister.

The introduction of Professor Trelawney is priceless as well, thanks largely due to the pitch-perfect
characterization of Emma Thompson who took the role after it was turned down by this year’s
Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton (IMDb).  Trelawney initially appears like a harmlessly
demented old woman and provides laughter the same way her ex-husband Kenneth Branagh did as
Gilderoy Lockhart in the second film.  However the scene where she is possessed and has a chilling
prediction is made all the more frightening by Cuaron’s Hitchcockian tribute of the curly-cued
staircase (shades of Hitch’s
Vertigo) and the audience point-of-view of looking down it like the iris of
an eye, “seeing” darkness to come the way that Trelawney saw the future.

Foreshadowing not only Ron and Hermione’s future romantic relationship but Harry’s increasing
alienation, the filmmakers’ decision to isolate Harry separately in shots early on recurs frequently in
Azkaban including in one memorable scene where the three children look on during Buckbeak’s
execution.  While on the surface, the first hug that spreads into a second hug is a visual homage to
the love triangle in Cuaron’s previous film
Y Tu Mama Tambien, it also further establishes their
dynamic and predicts the tension that will follow.  Shielding her eyes from the sight, Hermione
turns right to hug Ron and wanting to comfort his friend similar to the way she comforted him,
Harry hugs Hermione but his hug seems slightly superfluous as if Harry is hanging onto the two as a
visual representation of a third wheel or worse yet, as a teen who is beginning to realize that the
stakes have increased and he must ultimately carry out the final battle alone.  The burgeoning
hormones of the characters were echoed in real life by the cast who Rowling feels gave their best
performances in the third film and were eager to display more emotion or as Cuaron put it challenge
themselves greater as actors.  Cuaron’s
Tambien, loved by Rowling who said she felt depicted his
keen insight into the minds of teenage boys, proved to be a good jumping off point for the director to
abandon the explicit nature of that film and focus more on the hearts of our main trio in Azkaban.

Although far from being only about the boys, Hermione (who is screenwriter Steve Kloves’ favorite
character to write), gets an unprecedented chance to shine in the film and one can argue that she
even has a bigger role in saving the others’ lives with not only her time turner but at times being the
first one willing to risk danger such as when she stands in front of the boys erroneously to fend off
Sirius or trying to reason with Lupin after he changes into a werewolf.  Ultimately, it’s Hermione
that knows deep down that Harry’s father is not the one who cast the ultimate patronus to save him
and his godfather but she’s gentle and quiet about this fact, far more mature than her peers
(indicative of females that age verses males in puberty) and waits for Harry to come to his own
conclusion, knowing for once when not to raise her hand and shout out the answer.  

Still, it’s Harry’s tale all the way and I especially admired the way that for once adults had a huge
hand in the fighting conclusion as there’s an outstanding scene involving the kids along with Sirius,
Snape, Pettigrew and Lupin as they all try to sort out just what has happened and what to do to
resolve the situation.  As an adult, it always bothered me that the adults weren’t accepting more
responsibility or taking a larger role in the increasingly dangerous confrontations and
finale was important for several reasons not only for the one I’d just mentioned but also because it
further displays Harry’s progression to the man he will become when he is the one to attack Snape to
get to the truth and works the easiest with wizards of all ages.  In addition, it’s Harry’s young and
pure heart as well as his moral compass for choice that had been the recurring theme of the previous
films that causes him to halt Sirius and Lupin from killing Pettigrew, showing that he’s inherited not
only James’ penchant for trouble and rebellion but Lily’s compassion as well.  Although, never
forgetting Harry’s age or the age of the series’ largest and most ardent demographic, some of the
mischief of youth is revealed again in the conclusion as we hear Harry’s now fully confident echo of
the beginning command “Lumos” with his vocal key to the Marauder’s Map, “I solemnly swear that I
am up to no good.”  While fitting for a child, the irony of that statement is that Harry may be “up to
no good” but does so only for sake of the overall good.

While Rowling shared that of the first five novels,
Azkaban was the easiest to write in the DVD
featurette, Cuaron praised her textual clarity that provided the filmmakers with the perfect map to
how the film should look and feel.  Eager to tackle the source that consisted of, as Cuaron noted on
the DVD “so many abstract concepts in the frame of an adventure,” we finally had in a director (as
Rowling put it) a case where the book and director were really made for one another.  Although there
were some who disliked the overly artistic style and relentlessly moving visuals of Cuaron, I felt that
it not only aided in a person’s understanding of the novel but strengthened Rowling’s words and
caused viewers to think cinematically.  Much like I deeply admire Rowling for inspiring youth
around the globe to read, I admire Cuaron’s decision to make a fun, thoughtful, creative and
intellectually stimulating work that doesn’t play down to the lowest common denominator and
instead makes viewers active participants in the cinematic process.  Similar to Cuaron’s admitted
youth of seeing hundreds of films and taking “something away from each one,” before he ever
picked up a camera, hopefully
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will inspire the next
generation of filmmakers to begin seeing cinema as a valid artistic medium and one that makes them
look even deeper between the lines of the novel as well as the choices in the shots.

    Works Cited

    “Alfonso Cuaron.”  IMDb.

    “Harry Potter 1-5: A Muggle Film Buff’s Guide to the Magician’s Behind the Movies.” Film

    “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” IMDb.

    “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” (Poster)

    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. “Special Edition DVD.” Dir: Alfonso Cuaron.  
    Warner Brothers, 2004.

    “Stanley Kubrick.” IMDb.

    “Steve Kloves.” IMDb.

    “Michael Seresin.” IMDb.
(c) Jen Johans.
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