It’s Aprilfonso Cuarón over on Almost Ginger this month as I take part in the next instalment of Director of the Month hosted by French Toast Sunday. I have unsurprisingly chosen Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2003) to focus on. Which was, perhaps, one of Cuarón’s most surprising career moves.
It’s no secret I love Harry Potter (books and movies) along with many of my nearest and dearest and, of course, the rest of the western world. I am a proud Hufflepuff (I have the scarf to prove it) and I have both a Deathly Hallows AND chocolate frog key ring (that are both in use) from visiting the Warner Bros Studios over two years ago. The fandom actually started out as a Daniel Radcliffe obsession (many of the friends I’ve had since childhood will be only too pleased to tell you stories of that part of my life) into an obsession with the making of the films and discovering any Behind-the-Scenes tid bit that I could find. I genuinely believe the Harry Potter franchise played a role in my cinephilia.
Which brings us to the Harry Potter film that, despite your own preferences, is widely known as the best film. I’m talking about the Prisoner of Azkaban. And, because this is the only Harry Potter film Cuarón directed, I’m going to try and break down five stylistic and filmic-y reasons why it’s considered the best and what Cuarón contributed to Prisoner of Azkaban‘s success.
1. The landscape
Question: This entire series is so dependant on plot devices and small nuggets of information that are embellished into really important pay offs in later movies, so then why did the production team on Chamber of Secrets (2002) put the Whomping Willow tree so damn close to the school when they knew in the next film it would have such prominence?
Because whomever was on the design team clearly didn’t give two hoots about the grounds beyond Hagrid’s Hut and the Forbidden Forest. But just look at the misty, vast landscape that surrounds Hogwarts that almost serves as a character in its own right in Prisoner of Azkaban. The moody, dark colours are a magic in itself and the perfect accompaniment for the darker narrative. It really sets the scene for Harry Potter to receive yet more bombshells, poor lad. And yes, you may argue that it’s the first time the plot really takes them outside to have this opportunity but… Quidditch? When Harry flies a broom for the first time in Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone? (2001) The Quidditch pitch may as well be miles down the road from Hogwarts.
2. The balance
A lot of people feel that Cuarón can be a bit “style over substance” but I completely disagree. I feel that the third film had finally found the balance between the technical, special effects aspects of the film which is so crucial to a film set in a fantasy world (sorry kids, you can’t actually fly on a broomstick but you’ll be pleased to know there’s no such thing as a Basilisk or Fluffy… Or is there…?) with a heartfelt storyline featuring characters you can really fall in love with.
3. Poetic License
I’m not going to go into this in too much detail, but I like how Cuarón had the guts to not over explain everything and unless you wanted an 11 hour film OF COURSE NOT EVERY LITTLE NUGGET OF INFORMATION IS GOING TO BE IN THE MOVIE. In short: Novels paint the picture with words, films can do it audiovisually.
But let’s choose one specific moment that has most lovers of the book up in arms. When Lupin gives Harry Potter back the Marauder’s map at the end of the film, he knows the “Mischief Managed” pass code to turn the map back into ordinary parchment again. That’s it. The film doesn’t explain anything else, but book lovers are all “Why didn’t he explain why he knew it??” I have two answers. Answer one: He didn’t HAVE to. Answer two: Book lovers, you already KNOW why. Secondly, most newbies won’t have a clue what they’re missing out on, and those that do figure it out (because it’s not impossible, you know, people aren’t stupid) will love that they figured it out.
So to sum up, in order to make a great film out of a great book, some poetic license is required and I’m glad Cuarón had the balls to go for it. I read an excellent response to this debate, which went something like, “Cuarón didn’t just make an adaptation, he made a film.” There’s a lot of back and forth about this, but that’s the bottom line for me.
4. The humour and the light
Yes, the film is more tonally darker and a lot of the colours are darker, but I think what we’re really seeing here is contrast as there is so much colour through the darkness. The Knight Bus flooring it through central London at night, the bright orange pumpkins that the threesome hide behind near the dark forest walls, the glimmer of greens and reds through the torrential rain during the Quidditch match. Things may have gotten darker, but that’s allowed for the beautiful contrast.
The same goes for the humour. The darker the stories get, the more humour seems to be injected. The Knight bus conductor and is bodily-impaired friend on the mirror, the fantastic Emma Thompson’s Professor Trelawney and her predictions, the Monster Book of Monster and even the stuff that’s added like “Is that really what my hair looks like from the back” isn’t cheesy and it gives the film a relatability. The humour that Cuarón would introduce in Prisoner of Azkaban would stem through the rest of the series, especially Half Blood Prince (2009) which I think is the funniest of the series.
5. Gary Oldman
Okay, sooo… I’m not sure how much input Cuarón would have had in casting, but what a casting choice. YES.
What are your thoughts on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Do you regard it as the best? There are no wrong answers on opinion after all!
Also, stay tuned for my May Blind Spot Series as I’m watching Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and I’m very excited about doing so!