I grew up with Harry Potter. When I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for my elementary school book club (yes, I was a nerd), I was caught in author J.K. Rowling’s world. Harry was the same age as me, and finishing The Deathly Hallows in 2007 was in many ways a very real bookend to that part of my life.
Luckily, though, Harry Potter still lives on in film. To do proper justice to the epic seventh part of the series, director David Yates elected to break the book into two films, with the first dropping on November 19, and the second July 15. But before we step into the cinematic world of Harry Potter for the last few times in the foreseeable future, it’s worth looking back on the film series as a whole.
In total, the Harry Potter series is the highest-grossing film series of all time, with its films among the top-grossing films worldwide (1); so far, the first six films have amassed a staggering $5.4 billion in ticket sales (2), and it’s likely Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2 will make sizable additions to that figure. It’s no doubt they are a commercial success, and to a lesser degree every single one has been a critical success too. As far as film adaptations go, they get most things right most of the time. But that’s not to say that all the films are equal. Below is my personal ranking of which films are the best, starting from the top and working my way down.
#1: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Prisoner of Azkaban was arguably the best book (it’s at least generally recognized as one of the best) and it’s not too surprising that its adaptation is to me the best blend of comedy, seriousness, magic, and storytelling. The loss of Richard Harris as Dumbledore could have been a major stumbling block for the series, but Michael Gambon proved his worth with this installment as a subtly more conniving and perhaps more ambiguous wizard-in many ways, the perfect set up for what the character would become in the later books and movies.
Ironically, Alfonso Cuarón had not read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies when asked to direct, after people such as Guillermo del Toro turned down the film-del Toro is reported to have said that the the films were too bright for his tastes (3). Ultimately, it was probably for the best. In the tradition of other great movies made by outsiders to the franchise-Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is perhaps the best example-Cuarón crafted a tight piece that paid due respects to the book without being ruled by it. Hogwarts never looked more real as a location, and composer John Williams took the phrase “something wicked this way comes” and created a sonic wrapper of old-worldly music that meshes perfectly. This is not only a standard for judging the other Harry Potter films, but book adaptations, period.
#2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Directed by: Chris Columbus
After having directed the first film, Chris Columbus returned to polish his craft with Chamber of Secrets. In many ways, the continuity between the two films means that if you didn’t like the first film, you didn’t like the second (and vice versa), but there is something to be said for even-handed direction. The special effects are more believable, the actors begin to fill in their roles, and the set design became more elaborate and realized.
That said, Chamber of Secrets occasionally suffers from focusing on “fan moments” from the book rather than on necessary plot; this can at times make the story plodding. However the whodunit aspect of the book (even after the seventh novel, a unique element of the Harry Potter canon) survives intact to elevate this film.
#3: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Directed by: David Yates
To my friends and I, Order of the Phoenix was really packed with too much of Harry complaining. Luckily, director David Yates, in his first Potter film, crafted a leaner and much more effective story than perhaps the book ever was (much of this might have to do with the change in writers: Steve Kloves, who wrote all the other screenplays, was replaced by Michael Goldenberg for this film) (4).
Goldenberg described his task of condensing the longest Harry Potter book as that of staying true to the spirit, if not the letter of the novels (5). To that end, the elements of the novel that ended up on the cutting block were all non-essential, especially Quidditch, which had been largely shoehorned into parts of the previous few movies. Ultimately, Yates and Goldenberg succeeded in stripping the book to its bare details without compromising character development. It also represents one of the few times in the film series montage has ever been effectively employed.
#4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Directed by: Mike Newell
Compared to the first three books, Goblet of Fire was far more detailed and far longer, so it’s not surprising that the producers considered splitting the film adaptation into two parts. Luckily, they didn’t, as a longer Goblet of Fire wouldn’t have necessarily made it better. On occasion, however, the streamlining of the narrative results in seams appearing. The story begins, from the perspective of the book, in medias res at the Quidditch World Cup, but then skips the entire tournament match and jumps ahead-of all the times to include at least some of the game, this was the wrong time to skimp.
In so far as the book is a thematic turning point for the series, however, Goblet of Fire did an admirable job of transitioning from the lighter, episodic stories of Books 1-3 to the darker, continued narrative of Books 5-7. The principal actors (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson) successfully make the transition to the mature versions of their characters, and in Radcliffe’s case turns in one of his more nuanced performances. All in all, the movie succeeds in standing alone without falling into becoming the lead-in to the rest of the series.
#5: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Directed by: Chris Columbus
With most good film series, sequels tend to be better than the original. In re-watching Sorcerer’s Stone, I was struck by how comparatively unpolished it was. In some cases, the special effects were simply pedestrian-and considering this film spends too much time fawning over its magical set-pieces, this is a serious problem. The actors, unsurprisingly, aren’t that great, considering they are only around 11. There is also on occasion some over-attention paid to elements from the book, such as the competition for the House Cup, that undermine any sense of a satisfying ending. That said, the adults pull more than their weight, and it’s hard to argue with the inspired casting that brought actors like Maggie Smith and Alan Smith to the fold. It’s perhaps easy to look back on it harshly years later, but it’s clear from the film that Columbus and the cast are just as amazed by Harry’s wondrous world as the viewers are.
#6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Directed by: David Yates
In terms of ignoring important backstory, setting up the events for the sequel, and providing dramatic tension… Half-Blood Prince is easily the weakest Potter film. Paradoxically, although Order of the Phoenix toned down Harry’s love-pining, its sequel ramped it up in comparison to its effects in the novel; at times the film plays more like Hogwarts, 90210 or School Daze than a real story about wizards.
I have a sinking feeling that knowing that the seventh book would be split into two films killed this one, as much of the ending was rewritten and comes off on-screen as audible chair-scraping and moving pieces into position for the next film. The climactic battle at Hogwarts, for example, was removed. Not only does it make less sense that no one stood against the bad guys in a stronghold, but the loss is compounded by a useless battle scene earlier in the film. The problems only increase from there: apparently Yates and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel were so interested in making the film superficially “dark” that Warner Brothers asked them to stop color-grading the footage so much and bring back some color. The movie focuses on relationships to the expense of everything else, but the romance between Harry and Ginny fails to mesh not because of the acting, but because Ginny’s crush on Harry was never mentioned in any of the previous four films and comes off exactly as it is: rushed. I wrote many of these thoughts in my first review after viewing the film, but the flaws have only become more obvious with time.
Ultimately, as good as the Harry Potter films are, they all could have been better to some degree. One of the biggest weaknesses of the series was that it isn’t any one creative staff’s vision. While many of the creative staff (such as the set designer and writers) remained mostly constant from one film to the next, the constant change of directors meant that each film feels divorced from its predecessors, with minor exceptions. In watching the later films, I was amazed to find that many of the magical elements have been entirely removed in favor of castle corridors-where did the magic staircases go, or even the sense of wonder? Perhaps it’s just that such a long-running series cannot hope to capture our imaginations the way it did originally. I hope that Deathly Hallows proves that sentiment wrong.
* (1) “All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses”. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved November 8, 2010.
* (2) Collett-White, Mike (November 8, 2010). “End Nears for Blockbuster Harry Potter Film Series”. ABC News. Retrieved November 9, 2010.
* (3) Carroll, Larry (October 26, 2007). “Guillermo Game for ‘Harry Potter’ “. MTV. Retrieved November 9, 2010.
* (4) Fienberg, Daniel (November 16, 2005). “Screenwriter will sit out one ‘Potter’ “. Journal-Sentinel Online. Retrieved November 9, 2010.
* (5) Traister, Rebecca (July 11, 2007). “Harry Potter and the Art of Screenwriting”. Salon. Retrieved November 9, 2010.