Published in the fall of 1999, the third novel in J K Rowling’s literary phenomenon, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, represents a significant progression in tone from the child friendly previous installments The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets both in a literary and filmic sense. Rowling begins the novel as Harry flouts the Decree for the use of magic around Muggles (non-magic people) whilst he is staying with the Dursleys over the school holidays and vents his anger on the ghastly Aunt Marge (played in the film by Pam Ferris) by accidentally blowing her up. Assuming the worst, (that he has been expelled from Hogwarts), he leaves the Dursleys to head for London.
At the Leaky Cauldron the Minister for Magic informs him that he will return to Hogwarts and he learns from Mr Weasley of the identity and intentions of a prisoner called Sirius Black who has escaped from Azkaban to seemingly kill Harry. This introduction to the third year, both in the book and the film, sets the dark tone in motion for the events to come, director Alfonso (Y’Tu Mama Tambien) Cuaron giving the film print a darker hue than Chris Columbus did with the previous films. Childhood fantasy and innocence are slowly dissipating as the trio start to assert themselves and learn advanced magic to use in their defence against the adversity they will find in the final act of the story.

Cuaron’s Film Captures The Darker Spirit Of The Later Rowling Books But Fails On The Details

Whilst Cuaron’s adaptation of Rowling’s transitional third novel is stylish and engaging it also falls into the same trap that most literary adaptations seem to find inescapable: namely explaining the story elements clearly and effectively for all audiences. There will be many people who watch the Harry Potter films with no knowledge of the dense characterisation of Rowling’s novels and will be stuck on a number of inconsistencies in the screen translations, particularly as the books increase in length and the Potter films get shorter and shorter. Chris Columbus directorial style was to express every plot detail from the first two books in detail and stay perhaps slavishly close to Rowling’s stories and the feeling from Azkaban onwards has been to sideline any book conversations and sequences that don’t focus on Harry’s adventure. The film adaptation of Azkaban, one of Rowling’s best Potter books, subsequently fails to bring across the nature of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the title character of this story, and his relationship with the new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) with the same sense of intrigue and adventure that Rowling manages in the novel.

Cuaron’s Strong Visual Style Compensates For The Lack Of Detail

That said, Cuaron has presented the most visually appealing Potter film in the series to date, with the beauty of the Buckbeak flight scene and the complicated Time Turning sequence at the end of the film playing out particularly vividly on screen. The problem is in the lack of detail. We have the Marauder’s Map but no explanation in the film of who Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are; a detail that is vital to our understanding of Harry’s father and his school friends in the novel. There is little development between the trio in this film as well, apart from the small, excellently handled awkward moments between Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) whose relationship will be furthered in the later films as it is in the later books. The look that is given to Daniel Radcliffe as Harry in this film is closer to that which Rowling describes in the books but the angst juxtaposed by the naivety of the character has never really translated well from page to screen. A prime example of this is the awkwardly staged crying scene where Harry learns that Sirius Black betrayed and killed his parents. On a positive note the relationship between Professor Lupin and Harry translates almost perfectly from the original novel and makes you wish that they would find more time to develop this relationship even further in the coming films.

Cuaron’s Film Sets A Strong Standard For The Following Films In The Potter Series

Rowling’s third novel is a sharp, coming of age story that takes a big step up from the child friendly escapades of the first two stories. There is a genuine sense of threat and danger lurking in the air and this translates very well visually on screen, leaving fans of the books and fans of the films alike in wonder as to how darker the transformation between page and screen will get by the time we reach the final part of Harry’s adventure. For now, Cuaron has done an admirable job with the film series.