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Harry Potter: Looking Back at 10 Years of On-Screen Magic
The Harry Potter franchise has come to an end, whether we wanted it to or not. The adventure is over on screen, but it still lives on in our hearts. I’m sure I’m not the only one who decided to re-watch the entire series leading up to the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Looking back can be very rewarding, so I thought it would be fun to all revisit the entire Harry Potter series together. I tried to examine each movie objectively, taking into account its unique positives and negatives, and occasionally I added my opinion of a particular movie. Let’s get started, shall we?
It was 10 years ago that the first Harry Potter film was released, and it could possibly be considered the most important of the franchise. It had to not only entertain audiences, but also grab their attention enough to ensure they would be back for the next (at the time) six films. If Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone didn’t do well, there’d be no more films. A great deal of that responsibility fell on the shoulders of the child actors who would playing the film’s lead trio. The heavens must have been aligned just right when the casting director found Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Visually, they were as close as anyone could get to what these famous characters might look like, and they did very well as far as child actors go.
Christopher Columbus directed this one and the second film. I often hear the same positives and negatives about his stint as director. He managed to capture the wonder and magic of the first book while staying very faithful to it. As far as adaptations go, very little was cut out or changed in a noticeable way. The now famous score by John Williams helped add an extra dash of magic to the movie, not to mention the magic itself. The effects at the time were fantastic to behold and have only gotten better with each installment. On the down side, the cinematography is rather bland. Even though it’s only the first book and the darker elements have yet to surface, Columbus made Philosopher’s Stone too bright and clear. There’s next to no atmosphere despite most scenes being lit by torchlight.
Chamber of Secrets
A year after Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets did the phenomenal job of expanding the world Columbus was creating. He continued to stay as true to the source material as possible, which caused it to be the longest film in the series. He managed to improve his style, creating a darker and more frightening film, though at times the picture still felt dull, especially when compared to the moodier installments later released. Most notably, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have started growing up, as have the actors portraying them. Grint especially shows early signs of his excellent comic timing.
In terms of story, this might be the most important film. It introduces the very first of Voldemort’s horcruxes, although we believe it be nothing more than a possessed diary. We also get our first taste of prejudice in the wizarding world, as the Malfoys show their disgust at those born of muggle parents. Those two elements are extremely important to the overall plot of the series, and the latter comes up much more frequently and could be seen as the theme of the franchise as a whole. For the longest time this was my favorite Harry Potter movie, for its similarity to the book and for how well it has held up for me over the years. The changes made to the story are hardly of significance and usually add certain amounts of tension to the scenes. Columbus takes a few liberties to make the translation from book to screen smoother.
Prisoner of Azkaban
When it came time to make the third film, Columbus decided not to direct so he could spend more time with his family. Warner Bros. eventually selected Alfonso Cuarón to replace him. The difference he made was very noticeable and garnered a lot of praise. Cuarón made Prisoner of Azkaban much darker than the previous films, adding a much needed maturity to it. Many changes were made to the story to fit with Cuarón’s vision, most of which were stylistic in nature. He took more liberties with the source material then Columbus ever did. This added a fresh coat of paint, which many agree was needed. The changes didn’t affect main trio, who continued to embody their characters, giving moving performances.
But the movie was not without its detractors, myself one of them. The movie changed so much from the book that many fans were put off by it. Some felt the stylistic changes were silly and unnecessary, like the addition of talking shrunken heads and having the wands make odd noises when used. Cuarón also neglected important parts of the story, like the creators of the Marauder’s Map, allowing Harry to briefly use magic outside of school for a gag, and altering Sirius Black’s personality to be more unhinged. Despite these negatives, the third film remains one of the highest rated on the franchise.
It’s also worth noting this is the first appearance of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. Richard Harris portrayed him in the previous films, but unfortunately passed away shortly after filming Chamber of Secrets. Gambon brought a different kind of Dumbledore to the screen that was a little odd to see at first, but over the years he has grown on me.
Goblet of Fire
Cuarón didn’t stay on the franchise for long, and Mike Newell stepped in to direct the fourth movie. Goblet of Fire is one the longer books and required a lot of trimming down in order to be a watchable two and a half hours. As a side effect, the movie loses a lot of its supporting characters, devoting most of its time to Harry’s trials in the Triwizard Tournament. Without all the subplots from the books, the movie can feel a tad episodic. It more than once seems rushed as it goes from one event to the next, but it’s a necessary evil to cram everything in.
The movie once again takes another step down a darker path, with the return of Voldemort and the death of Cedric Diggory. Radcliffe brings a larger range of subtle emotions, adding more dimensions to his character. Brendan Gleeson and Miranda Richardson wonderfully portray new characters Mad-Eye Moody and Rita Skeeter, respectively. Ralph Fiennes brings the terrifyingly snake-like Voldemort to life better than anyone could possibly imagine. Yet even with the growing dread, the movie still manages to be quite humorous.
With each film the visuals become more and more impressive, and Goblet of Fire is a high point with its dragons, mermaids, and the battle between Harry and Voldemort. Newell continues Cuarón’s more stylistic approach, though it is toned down and feels more appropriate.
Order of the Phoenix
When Warner Bros. decided they wanted the Harry Potter films to feel more real and grown up, they turned to David Yates. What Yates does with the source material is simply astounding. He takes the longest book and turns it into (at the time) the shortest movie. Naturally, when you streamline something so extremely, there’s going to be some missteps. At the same time, Yates has a lot of respect for the books, and any changes he makes he does so with a purpose–he always makes a point to honor the tone of the book if he can’t do a literal translation.
Order of the Phoenix shows Harry at his most emotional. He’s still dealing with the events of Goblet of Fire on top of being left in the dark by his mentor, Dumbledore. Naturally he’s frustrated and angry, emotions Radcliffe does a great job of showcasing. Imelda Staunton’s performance as Dolores Umbridge perfectly captures the villainy of the character. You hate watching her just as much as you hated reading about her.
Yates stayed on to direct the final three movies after this one, and looking back you can tell he was just beginning to understand this world. He had a lot still to learn about capturing the wizarding world on film, but you also see the promise of great things to come.
Yates’ second film is where he really hits his stride. Together with new cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Yates creates a stunningly moody atmosphere for Harry’s last year at Hogwarts. So stunning in fact, that it’s the only Harry Potter film to date to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. J.K. Rowling described the book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as really being part one to a greater story, and the film version certainly feels like a grand set-up for the final two films, while still having a self contained story.
The brilliant visuals are complemented by the equally impressive special effects. The opening destruction of the bridge alone is enough to top anything accomplished by the previous films. But the real scene-stealer is the performances by Radcliffe, Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, and Jim Broadbent (who is new to the series).
Yates’ film continues to make changes from the book while keeping the original spirit of things alive. You’ll hardly notice any of the differences because of all the fun you’re having. While the story continues to get darker, Half-Blood Prince is one of the funniest of the films.
Deathly Hallows – Part 1
And at last we come to it, the beginning of the end. Right from the very second the film opens you are overcome by a feeling eerie finality. You hear distant echoes of the original John Williams theme, but it’s become empty and bleak. “These are dark times,” says the minister of magic (Bill Nighy), and that alone describes the feeling of Deathly Hallows – Part 1. Nothing feels safe anymore, and the stakes have never been higher for Harry and his friends.
Since the decision was made to split the final book into two films, you end up with one of the closest adaptations yet. A big problem with the previous films was the rushed feeling they had of trying to cram everything into one movie. Obviously that’s not an issue here. The plot moves slowly, allowing for a lot more character moments, which Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint performed wonderfully. However, as with the book, there were those who felt nothing was really happening, particularly during the camping scenes.
If you know nothing of Harry Potter, then you would be completely lost watching Deathly Hallows – Part 1. There are many references to the first movies that could confuse anyone not up to date.
Deathly Hallows – Part 2
What surprised me most about Deathly Hallows – Part 2 was just how well it was received critically. You can bet that the majority of the fandom will love it, but I never imagined critics would absolutely adore what really is half a movie. It picks up right where Part 1 left off and doesn’t waste much time returning to the Horcrux hunt. You begin to realize why Part 1 was so slow: so Part 2 could speed things up and become an all-out war movie. Everything is cranked up a notch–the emotions, the special effects, the desperation, the sound, everything.
If there are any negatives to be said about it, they’re fleeting and small. A few changes from the book, like the destruction of the Elder Wand and the sparing of Wormtail, will likely upset some fans. There are some set-ups from the Part 1 that don’t receive a proper conclusion, like Dumbledore’s sister and Harry’s ancestry, but you don’t need those things, because ultimately this story is about defeating Voldemort, not Dumbledore or the Peverells. This has been about Harry’s journey right from the beginning, and it succeeded triumphantly.
We are now capable of watching every Harry Potter film whenever we want. We can relive Harry’s life on paper and on film. Watching the entire franchise the way I have, I can happily say it is the best experience you can have watching movies.
What about the rest of you Potter fans? Did you enjoy the finale? What’s your favorite of the eight films? What’s your least favorite? Is anyone upset that we’ll never have to wait for another film? Comment down below!