Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: What Works & What Doesn’t

On the anniversary of the release of the Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film, we take a look back at the adaptation...

Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter and David Bradley as Argus Filch in The Chamber of Secrets Movie

This Harry Potter article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

Three days after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released worldwide and broke box office records here, there and everywhere in its opening weekend, production pushed forward on the first sequel.

Warner Bros. had all of the cast contracted for the first four films, and immediately exercised its option for Part 2, targeting a November 2002 release date. Behind the scenes, Steve Kloves reprised his screenwriting role and Chris Columbus returned to the director’s chair.

Picking up a few weeks after the first film’s happy ending, Harry Potter is pretty miserable. He hasn’t heard from his wizarding friends all summer and he’s living with the Dursleys once again, who enact a classic sitcom situation, with Uncle Vernon’s boss coming round for dinner in the first ten minutes of the film.

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But uh-oh! A house-elf called Dobby materializes in Harry’s bedroom! Sitcom antics aside, Dobby is here to get the story going, by insisting that Harry doesn’t return to Hogwarts for his second year, lest he fall prey to a terrible evil. Via flying Ford Anglia, Harry is soon rescued from his relatives by the Weasleys.

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It’s not long into the school year, however, when that terrible evil rears its head. According to a message daubed in blood, the Chamber of Secrets has been opened by the heir of Hogwarts co-founder, Salazar Slytherin. And now the horror from within the chamber is loose in the castle, trying to kill off students.

Here’s a story that lends itself to arguments about the logic of keeping Slytherin open at Hogwarts. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall always mentions Slytherin last when listing the school houses, and with such an inflection that she might as well have said “Evil House” instead. It’s a vagary of the film series, that it never quite explains the wisdom of siphoning off a quarter of the school’s students into a house with a reputation for turning out evil wizards. Still, this one delves into Hogwarts history and introduces one of the series’ central themes, that of prejudice.

In wizarding genealogy, having two wizarding parents, who only have magical heritage, makes you “pure-blood.” However, it’s also possible to come into magical power even if your parents are non-magical Muggles, which makes you “Muggle-born.” “Half-bloods,” which come up later in the series, are the result of a union between a pure-blood and either a Muggle-born or a Muggle.

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With me so far? Well, there’s naturally some in-fighting amongst the different types of wizard, largely fueled by the pure-bloods, and Slytherin alumni’s deep-seated ignorance about Muggle-borns. Muggle-born Hermione, arguably the most talented student of the lot, is on the receiving end of racial hatred with the fictional slur “Mudblood.”

This development gives a nastier edge to schoolyard bully Draco Malfoy, played by Tom Felton, and his imperious father, Lucius, played by Jason Isaacs. The two of them are condescending and cruel, and their family’s been pure-blood Slytherins for centuries. That makes Draco the prime suspect as the heir of Slytherin, as far as our trio of amateur wizarding sleuths are concerned.

If you haven’t guessed, that detour fills in for their suspicion of Snape in the first film and, once again, it turns out Lord Voldemort is the root of the trouble. The method of his return through his 16-year-old self’s diary becomes intrinsically important towards the end of the series, but that’s a link for another time.

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As far as the B plots of the film are concerned, the usual blind reverence to the source material is present and correct. Detours spring up left, right and center, tenuously linked from scene to scene in an attempt to hold the abrupt tonal shifts as part of one story.

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At one hundred and sixty-one minutes, this film is the longest of the series, based on the two hundred and fifty-six pages of JK Rowling’s novel. At the same time, few of the Harry Potter films are more successful in preserving the complexities of the Christie-esque mystery story that Rowling weaves into her novels. Then again, it’s no less sudden when the baddy turns out to be Lord Voldemort, hiding under an anagram.

Tom Marvolo Riddle, Voldemort’s real name, was nearly reverse engineered by Rowling from “I Am Lord Voldemort,” something that Columbus literally spells out in flaming letters on the screen. Anagrams are a dangerous route to take, because it gets fans looking for patterns that are not there. Factions of book fans were convinced that the name of wand-making shop Ollivander’s was code for either “Ronald lives” or “Ronald’s evil.”

On the topic of Ronald, Rupert Grint’s performance sums up so much of what is misjudged in this installment. Directed to squeak and squeal for comic effect in action scenes, it actually foregoes the actor’s natural comic timing and instead makes the character insufferable to watch. Furthermore, he’s saddled with ripe dialogue like: “The invisibility booster must be faulty!”

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But it’s no easier for Daniel Radcliffe, whose particular brand of wonderment takes on the form of just repeating certain words questioningly. Both actors’ voices had broken in the year since they filmed the first one, so perhaps that’s why it feels like they’re adjusting to their roles all over again.

As usual, the grownups fare better. New additions to the cast, along with the aforementioned and brilliant Isaacs, include Kenneth Branagh as vainglorious Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart. He’s a character who’s ultimately swept into a subplot, despite being present for part of the climax, but Branagh justifies his inclusion with an enjoyable comic turn. Stay for after the end credits, too.

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A special mention ought to go to Richard Harris, who passed away a week before the premiere of this film. In his two turns as Professor Dumbledore, he exudes wisdom, and in his second run in particular, he nailed the character’s kindly humor and reassuring presence. Also, the character appears to get drunk and cancel all exams at the end, probably ruining the academic chances of older students. So, at least he finishes in style.

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It’s good to see Toby Jones’ performance come through the CGI Dobby, although WETA Digital also created a much more lauded digital character through Andy Serkis’ rendition of Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, released a month after this one. In fact, all of the CGI is much improved from Sorcerer’s Stone, the biggest achievement being the Basilisk, a giant snake that appears in the final act.

But, really, the star of this film is Stuart Craig for his production design. This film arguably holds some of his most accomplished work on the series, with grand sets like the Weasley homestead, the Burrow, and the titular Chamber of Secrets looking absolutely stunning on screen. There’s no faulting the visuals in this one, even if the execution of the story could have been better.

But each of the different directors on the Potter series tended to emphasise different aspects, leaving their own imprint and telling the story through different means. Chris Columbus essentially made two films that were very much like his earlier film, Young Sherlock Holmes, although the source novels are very close to that template themselves, boarding school mystery stories.

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But if Sorceror’s Stone was quaint, Chamber of Secrets feels slightly cheesy. The humor is hit-and-miss, and certain emotional beats come across as mawkish and sentimental. The final scene, especially, is pure Camembert. It’s not the tone you want for a story in which a giant snake attempts a genocidal rampage against schoolchildren.

Terry Gilliam, who was beaten to the director’s post on Sorcerer’s Stone by Columbus, has been less favorable in his assessment. Believing himself to be the perfect fit for the series, Gilliam once told The New York Post that “…Chris Columbus’ versions are terrible. Just dull. Pedestrian.” Certainly, the thought of Gilliam’s Chamber of Secrets is a tantalizing one, and it is a shame that he never got to helm one of the films.

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Much more than its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets feels like it’s made up of tentative steps into a new world. It’s hobbled slightly by the unwavering reverence for the source material, which ultimately makes it less creative than its own production design. As Gilliam said, it’s more pedestrian, the kind of adaptation Warner Bros. wanted at that stage.

It’s not a bad movie, by any stretch, and parts of it are very good. But when you see what was to come post-Columbus, it feels like a missed opportunity of sorts. After the speedy turnaround on this sequel, the series would go on to a regular cycle of one film every eighteen months, and so 2004’s Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban would bring a major sea change.