Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanisn’t just the film that changed the Harry Potterfilm franchise forever, creating a richer on-screen universe for this beloved story, but helped shape the next decade of young adult film franchises for the better as a whole. As we reach the 15th anniversary of the film’s release, let’s break down why this film was so important in the history of cinema and adaptation storytelling…
Before Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron came on board the Harry Potterfranchise to direct the third film, the series was very much a straight-forward, by-the-book adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s bestselling series, more or less in line with other film adaptations of children’s books. This makes sense, given that American director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two movies, had made many of the most iconic family movies of the last few decades, including Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting, and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Cuaron’s entrance into the Harry Potter franchise would set the tone for a more complex adaptation of children’s books, heading into a prolific time for adaptations of young adult book series in particular (partially inspired by Harry Potter‘s success). Cuaron didn’t just change the Harry Potter franchise with his direction of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. He changed the status quo for all book-to-film adaptations aimed at young people, making the next decade in blockbuster cinema a much more interesting place.
Azkaban is dark, emotionally-rich, and tonally-nuanced.
For most people who have either watched the films or read the books, Prisoner of Azkabanmarks the beginning of a turning point for the series. While it still keeps the relatively short, more cohesive adventure mystery format of the first two books/films, it begins to add in a darkness and narrative complexity that is not as present in the earlier, more straightforward Harry Potter installments.
In Prisoner of Azkaban,Rowling begins to expand this world by giving us the story of the Marauders, Peter Pettigrew’s betrayal, and Sirius Black’s tragic life story as a result of that betrayal. It plays with the concept of time — both in the form of Hermione’s Time-Turner and in an exploration of the previous generation’s influence on today’s youth — in complex ways, hinting at how important understanding the past would become in defeating Voldemort once and for all.
We meet the dementors and learn about Azkaban for the first time. We start to more fully explore the legacy of James and Lily Potters’ murders, not simply as a tragedy for Harry, but as a tragedy for these people who had complex lives of their own. Their deaths not only affected their baby son but the countless others who loved them.
For the first time in the series, Rowling isn’t afraid to widen the focus from Harry’s own life and perspective to a more comprehensive one, based around the other Mauraders. This change in both scope and tone is reflected in Cuaron’s directorial choices. He visibly darkens the movie, while also taking the time to indulge in the emotion of Harry, Sirius, and the countless other characters in this film in a way The Sorcerer’s Stoneand Chamber of Secretsdid not.
Cuaron didn’t simply darken the world of Harry Potter with Prisoner of Azkaban, of course. He played with a variety of tones, infusing wonder, curiosity, humor, and teenage angst into the formula. That last one is particularly important, as it would go on to play a much larger role in the franchise moving forward, most notably in the following film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s Mike Newell.
Given the nature of these characters being a bit older than in the first two films, it’s understandable that Columbus wasn’t able to tease these same notes out in The Sorceror’s Stoneor Chamber of Secrets,but Cuaron’s general interest in the rich, inner lives of Harry, Ron, and Hermione is a vast improvement on their earlier characterizations.
Cuaron gives both these characters and the movie’s young audience more credit, asking more of his viewers than Columbus ever did. This is a skill Cuaron had also demonstrated in his excellent adaptation of A Little Princessalmost a decade prior, and one that would be infused into the best young adult film franchises moving forward.
Azkaban isn’t afraid to change the source material.
As much as I hate that Cuaron left out much of the Marauder’s backstory in his retelling of Prisoner of Azkaban, overall, his comfort with making changes to Rowling’s source material in the interest of pacing, continuity, and the respective strengths and weaknesses of film vs. the novel, were a huge turning point for the Harry Potterfranchise that would go on to affect other Harry Potterinstallments, most notably, Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Cuaron described this challenge to IGN, saying:
I had to be very respectful to the source material, but also to the two previous films. But, at the same time, I was trying to make something that I could feel my own.
Though even the least faithful of Harry Potter films are still pretty darn faithful, both Prisoner of Azkabanand Deathly Hallows: Part 1aren’t afraid to add elements, in addition to taking out details in the interest of time. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuaron adds the Shrunken Heads onto the Knight Bus. Cuaron’s commitment to making the movie his own is echoed in later franchise decisions, such as the addition of one of the most quiet, most intimate scenes in the entire series: Hermione and Harry dancing in Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
When it comes to film adaptations of popular books, changing the source material isn’t always a good thing, but I think writers and directors should be willing to take more chances, given the differences in the storytelling forms and, often, the emphasis on first-person perspective in the young adult form. The decision to add in scenes or elements not originally in the books is especially bold and worthwhile, I find, when it is combined with an indulgence in tone or emotion, another aforementioned strength of Cuaron’s direction.
In the Harry Potterfranchise, Hermione and Harry’s dance scene is one of the most emotionally affecting moments in the entire series, and one that never happened in the book. This was also the case for some of the best moments of the Hunger Gamesfilm franchise, which was able to expand its point-of-view past Katniss’ first-person accounts for some of the most powerful moments in the movies: e.g. District 11’s reaction to Rue’s death in The Hunger Gamesor the “Hanging Tree” montage in Mockingjay: Part 1.
Azkaban makes Hogwarts feel lived in.
More than either of the films that came before it, Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkabandemonstrated a visual cohesiveness that made the world of Harry Potter come to life after the flat, theme park-like tone of the first two films. Using bleak tones, rich cinematography, and recurring visual motifs, Cuaron created a Hogwarts that felt lived in.
As viewers, we spend more time casually in classes and in the dorms than in earlier installments, capturing the day-to-day routine of the book better than arguably any of the other films, often thanks to Cuaron’s signature long, fluid, sometimes handheld shots (a great example of this is this long shot in Cuaron’s excellent Children of Men). In large part due to Cuaron’s talent as a director, Prisoner of Azkabannever felt like a checklist or a race from plot point to plot point, but rather a peek into an existing world that was there before we joined it and will be there long after we’ve left.
It set the stage for the films that would come after.
Though Prisoner of Azkabanwould be the only Harry Potterfilm Cuaron would direct, he left an indelible mark on the franchise moving forward. David Yates and Mike Newell would bring their own directorial quirks to this world, but it was Chris Columbus who drew the outlines of this fictional on-screen universe, and it was Alfonso Cuaron who gave them the detail and nuance that really made it come to life on film.
It’s hard to imagine what the Harry Potterfranchise would have looked like moving forward if not for Cuaron’s weird, wonderful, and visually-elaborate influence on the competent, but ultimately straight-forward and somewhat magic-less world that Columbus created with the first two films. Cuaron, a master of jumping genres and target demographics with his films, never panders to his younger audience, instead creating not just the best film of the Harry Potterfranchise, but a young adult genre classic that set the bar for every similar franchise that has followed.