'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' countdown: Remembering 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'

In our week-long look back at the Harry Potter film franchise in anticipation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows–Part 1, perhaps no film has proven quite as important to the series and as much a bellwether of what was to come as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Yes, the first two films had grossed $967 million and $866 million worldwide respectively, but their director, Chris Columbus, had been tarred as too slavish to J.K. Rowling’s books, and not as cinematically, well, magical as one might hope. Plus, as Jeff Jensen put it in his June 11, 2004 cover story, “Azkaban introduces adolescence — awkward, angry, hormonally charged — into the thematic mix.” The man held responsible for selling out Harry’s parents to Voldemort, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), had escaped Azkaban prison; soul-sucking, wraith-like Dementors were on the hunt to recapture him, and had little regard for playing nice with whoever got in their way. This wasn’t a sweet children’s fantasy anymore. The question, really, was simple: Were the Harry Potter films going to continue to play it safe and hazard feeling staid and boring? Or would they shake things up, gamble with taking some bold creative risks, and perhaps even break ranks with Rowling’s books? Would they, could they, stand on their own as films in their own right?

Enter director Alfonso Cuarón. At the time best known as the director of 2001’s racy, adult drama Y tu mamá también, he was a surprising choice to take the reigns of a massive Hollywood family film franchise. But that was pretty much the point. “Alfonso is basically a teenager himself,” said Potter producer David Heyman. “Mischievous. Naughty. Funny. Loves to shake things up.”

And that he did, too: At his very first lunch with stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint as their new director, Cuarón asked each of them to pen an essay about their characters. Radcliffe was irked at first: “I thought, ‘Who is this man, coming in here and giving us homework?'” As it turned out, the exercise proved its purpose. Watson turned in an 11-page manifesto on Hermione, and in the process discovered perhaps there wasn’t much daylight between her and her role. “It was the first time I had ever thought about Hermione’s character in such detail,” she said. Radcliffe’s single-page essay surprisingly focused on Harry’s arrogance and anger, which proved prophetic after Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — featuring quite an arrogant and angry Harry — was released during the third film’s production. And as for Grint, well, he didn’t so much do an essay, much as Ron would have done (or, rather, wouldn’t have done).

Cuarón continued to shake things up well into production. He relocated Hogwarts castle to the Scottish Highlands, forcing production delays due to bad weather. He collaborated with screenwriter Steve Kloves on inventing scenes whole cloth, like Harry’s solo joyride on a majestic Hippogriff (part horse, part eagle). He encouraged actor Michael Gambon, who replaced the late Richard Harris as Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, to embrace the character’s eccentric sensibility, dressing him more like a magical hippie than the classic wizard from the first two films. He asked for longer, more complicated takes, challenging his young actors to stretch past their limitations. “Sometimes, it took two weeks for me just to get one shot right,” said Radcliffe. When the title star approached Cuarón for help in nailing a particularly demanding monologue railing against Sirius Black, instead of simply giving him suggestions for facial expressions like Columbus would have, Cuarón talked Radcliffe through Harry’s emotional life. Then he said, figure this out for yourself. “I’ll forever be in his debt,” Radcliffe raved. “It basically affected the way I approached everything after that.”

The result: In his B+ review, EW critic Owen Gleiberman called The Prisoner of Azkaban “the first movie in the series with fear and wonder in its bones, and genuine fun, too.” He praised Radcliffe as “leaner, more handsome, and bolder than before,” and commended Cuarón’s “breathless visual and dramatic flow…shot in spooky gradations of silver and shadow. The whole movie zips along with a matter-of-fact cleverness that stays a step ahead of you….Cuarón…has gotten Rowling’s spirit on screen.”

Indeed, while The Prisoner of Azkaban is the lowest grossing of the Potter films, bringing in “just” $795 million worldwide, it remains to this day many fans’ absolute favorite of the series. I can remember seeing the film on opening weekend with a crew of fellow Potter-heads, and all of us exiting the theater with the slightly dizzy feeling that we’d just seen something, well, magical. That’s a terrific sensation when it’s caused by just one, standalone film. But knowing that a Harry Potter movie could truly live and breathe as its own experience — honoring Rowling’s spirit while not beholden to her every word — meant the prospect of revisiting the world of Harry Potter four more times that much more exhilarating.

How does Azkaban stack up for you? Is it still your favorite Potter film, or have The Goblet of Fire, The Order of the Phoenix, or The Half-Blood Prince usurped it? (Or The Sorcerer’s Stone or The Chamber of Secrets, for that matter?) And how much would you pay to see what Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe wrote in those essays Alfonso Cuarón made them write?

More Harry Potter:
‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ countdown: Remembering ‘The Chamber of Secrets’
‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ countdown: Remembering ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’
EW’s ‘Harry Potter’ Central

Comments (110 total) Add your comment
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  • Rolo Tomasi

    These movies suck.

    • Alice

      Sorry that you feel that way, your missing out.

      • Rolo Tomasi

        I’ll live. I did see one and it was a waste of time, the stupid game they play took up a lot of time and didn’t really progress the story. Really boring.

      • Busker

        The “these” in “these movies” is plural, Rolo. But you’ve only seen one.

      • Rolo Tomasi

        Because they all do suck. I’m sure it’s all the same boring crap.

    • Shiny

      Best. Potter. Ever. Loved Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, the time traveling and the wintry background for the story; very cool ending too.

      • Mocha

        Prisoner of Azkaban was my favorite book and my favorite movie, and I agree, Gary Oldman was fantastic. The only thing I disliked about his portrayal of Sirius was the handlebar mustache (though that probably wasn’t his fault). :)

      • Ginny

        agreed with Shiny!!1 :)
        Gary Oldman was AMAZINGGG as Sirius!

    • Cole

      Then why did click on this article……..

    • jane

      insulting millions of HP friends shows how brainless you are. hating the greatest series ever show what a bad taste you have.

    • Arizona

      You know, brainiac, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be spelled ROLLO. Your opinion is worthless. Fail.

    • Ryan

      Rolo: u suck and have no life. All of the movies r in like the top 25 most money making movies. Why? Cause they r so popular and so good. the books are the most popular ever and have sold the most copies ever. U clearly have no idea what u r talking about.

  • Lilly

    The Sorcerers stone was my favorite movie. I loved the chamber of secrets and goblet of fire too. Least favourite of the series – order of the phoenix.

    • AliB

      Order of the Phoenix was my least favorite as well although it was my favorite book.

      • Ginny

        agreed. the movie didnt portray as much as it needed to. i mean, the part where sirius and harry talked and then when Sirius died- those were the best.. i cried.

    • AAR

      Agree. I think because it was my favorite book, there was no way the movie was going to live up to it.

      • Priya

        zhayena Yeah. They’re like crack in book form, I swear.Joshua I know. I really tgohhut I could pull it off, but clearly, it’s just not going to happen. I’m not sure where I went wrong. Probably a mixture of trying to read multiple books simultaneously, along with choosing titles that were a) two long or b) too ambitious. Some things just aren’t meant to be read in a week’s time, I suppose.The good side, however, is that while I’ve fallen way behind, I have read way more books this year than I would have, if I hadn’t tried the 52 in 52 thing.

    • Lisa Simpson

      Order of the Phoenix is my seconf favorite after Azkhaban. That opening scene with Harry in the playground is wonderful and so evocative. Daniel was terrific in that movie.

    • EdinWa

      Azkaban is still my favorite. This is where the real story begins. And it is the only film that really takes us through a year at school. Halfblood Prince is my least favorite.. seemed in a Hurry to get us to the next film.

  • Bazinga!

    Prisoner of Azkaban has always been my favorite.

    • Isabel

      Same here. And my favorite book.
      Just brilliant.

  • Mr. Holloway

    This is probably my favorite “Harry Potter” movie of the bunch, but I understand why it’s polarizing.

    I LOVE that Cuaron took some chances with the material, even if they didn’t always pan out. (I have no words for the rastafarian shrunken head on the Knight Bus.)

    Still, I’m willing to overlook trivial stuff like that (or that the Whomping Willow wasn’t exactly where it should be), even though fans who want slavish adaptations may not be as forgiving. The most important thing to me is that Cuaron seemed to help Radcliffe grow as an actor and he was a brilliant match for this particular material, which began to really mature at this point along with the main characters.

    Also, the Dementors coming onto the Hogwarts express in the early part of the movie is probably my favorite/creepiest moment from the franchise.

    • hickstead

      Jo actually loved the shrunken head and said that she wished she had thought of it.

      • Mr. Holloway

        Well…I’m glad she liked it.

        I still think it was a bizarre and a little annoying.

    • Curtis

      Nope! Never! Was it fun! I heard it opened but haven’t heard much about it.Jennifer @ J. Leigh Designz s last [type] .. Reply:August 10th, 2010 at 8:47 pmYes, it was fun! I poetsd a few weeks ago about it, with pics. If you’re interested it’s .

  • david

    I like this movie but I remember being really disappointed when I first saw it. I think it is overrated.

    I remember hating the knight bus scenes!

  • Eve

    Prisoner of Azkaban became my absolute favourite film the second the ending credits appeared. And remained that way all the way through till the sixth’s release last summer (they’re tied in my mind)

  • Tiff in the OK

    Azkaban was the start of the HP movies going exactly the way I like my fantasy films. Nice and family friendly but with a dark/twisty edge. Made me remember the movies I loved growing up: Dark Crystal, Labrynth, Secret of NIMH, etc.

    • ReRe

      Could not have said it better Tiff in the OK!

    • Joshua

      Read faster. Book 3- Aug 1 and 2Book 4- Aug 3 and 4Book 5- Aug 5 and 6Book 6- Aug 7 and 8Book 7- Aug 9 and 10You see, by my sdcheule, you would be DONE book 7 before your birthday. I could do it, hands down, and you know it.

    • Joa

      i’ve read harry potter and the detlahy hallows 5 time and i can never get bored of it. i love daniel emma rupert evanna bonnie and katie they are all the best ever!! its so sad that j.k isn’t writing any more books!! i’m going to miss harry potter so much i love him

  • Mickie

    Prisoner of Azkaban was my favorite book but my favorite movie is Goblet of Fire.

    • Andrew

      “Goblet of Fire” was the weakest film. It was too rushes. “Prisoner of Askaban” was my favorite.

  • AliB

    This is the movie that actually encouraged me to start reading the Harry Potter books. Cuaron did change the story a great deal, but it was the most intriguing and beautiful film (but that may be due in part because it was one of the best books of the series).

    • K

      He didn’t change it that much. Hardly at all.

      • paula

        Of course it was change a lot. They never explain the history behind the Marauders, it was never explain why Harry’s Patronus is important, they almost didn’t show the plot about Sacabbers. For someone who read the book it was easy to fallow, but someone who hasn’t you can see a lot of plot holes (probably because of the script) Having said that, I love the feeling of this movie. After Order of the Pheonix this is my second favorite movie and my favorite book.

      • J

        Paula, I agree with you on all the stuff the movie missed but this is sill my least favorite of all the movies. Yeah, there was a cooler edge to it, but at what cost? Give me Christopher Columbus any day. He got the true heart of the story.

  • manish

    PoA is the best Potter film yet. I wish Cuaron had made more

    • homeboys

      Absolutely. Cuaron captured the atmosphere and attitude perfectly, IMHO. This was the one film in which Harry looked the way I pictured him, all the teenagers seemed like real teenagers, and the music shook things up. DH looks like it will be amazing, but I really had been wishing for another Cuaron-directed episode. He nailed it (Kloves’s screenplay aside).

  • Lisa Simpson

    Now this – this is where things get interesting. Not only are the story and characters getting more complex, but Cuaron made it all magical in a way that it hadn’t been before. His direction of the young stars in particular raised them into being actors for the first time. All the subsequent movies rest on this one. It is my favorite. It deserved an A.

    • Christian

      The only reason it doesn’t deserve an A is because there’s too much going on that requires you to have read the book to understand. While it ends up making the movie less cluttered with explanations, those who haven’t read the book end up missing out on a lot.

      • Lisa Simpson

        I disagree. I saw the movie with someone who hadn’t read any of the books at that time, and she had no problem understanding it.

      • Dave

        I disagree. I saw this movie before having read any of the books, and I didn’t have any trouble following along with the movie.

      • Dusty

        I also saw this before reading the books, & had no problem following it. The only movie of the bunch that I had problems understanding without reading the book first was HBP.

      • Gina

        I agree with you Christian. It only needed an additional five minutes of dialogue to try and quickly explain the origin of the Mauraders (spelling?) and the importance of Harry’s patronus. That’s it. I’m not asking for much here. I loved this movie, but the absence of this crucial bit of information still irritates me.

    • Bazinga!

      @ Lisa Simpson – Agreed – this movie was the beginning of a franchise to be taken seriously. Loved Gary Oldman as Serius Black. To me the only two things I disliked were the shrunken head in the bus and the absolutely horrific acting of Daniel Radcliffe when he said “he was their friend!” WOW! Can’t believe that scene didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. My daughter and I have watched it many times and we crack up and imitate it for days afterwards.

      Also, this was the first time when the music really came through for me, so much so that I bought the CD and had it playing in the background while reading the other books. John Williams is the best composer (also love his Home Alone soundtracks too).

      • Lisa Simpson

        I like the shrunken head. As for Daniel Radcliffe’s reading of that one line, I don’t get the hate. I thought it was fine. For Harry, whose connection to his friends is the strongest relationship he has, a betrayal by a friend would be the worst kind of treachery.

      • Bazinga!

        @ Lisa Simpson – I completely agree. Harry’s friendships with Hermione and Ron, and love for his mom and dad are what gives him the strength to do what he has to do. I had no problem with the line per se, just the delivery. It just completely took me out of the moment. Other than that one line, I think Daniel has turned into a mighty fine actor. I can forgive him this one bad piece of acting, but not the director for leaving it in. Still PoA is my favorite so far. Looking forward to HP7. YIPPY!

      • Qendresa

        I currently try to read book five very slow, as I’m mniissg book 6 and 7, and I’m reading them in Norwegian, and the last one, in Norwegian that is, probably won’t be here until Christmas or so.. I’m not sure what to do in the meantime..

    • Vijay

      i need to read his book on how to travel thgourh puberty successfully cuz i did not haha but yeah in the like 5th one i realized he was getting hott, now hes hooooooooooooooooottttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt

  • PATAR

    yes, it is my favorite installment from the pack since it is very dark and edgy, unlike the first two movies. It also moves very fluid and seems this movie is the best one who truly catch the vibe of the book. I truly miss his direction than the truly awful Yates. Yates make the fifth movie unbearable to watch and did an OK job on the sixth movie.

    • Liz

      The first two movies were also pretty dark-subject matter wise. I think the first was able to display the wonder of the magical world as seen through the eyes of Harry, yet still have that sense of darkness that Voldemort evoked. As for the second, that was just a dark movie all around with some moments of lightness thrown in, just like the book. I think the books, and therefore the movies, all got darker as they went on.

  • j

    PoA remains, by far, the best film in the series, with only OotP coming close. This is where things got good.

  • StewyFan

    Goblet of Fire is my definite favorite. I felt that it blended the right amount of romance, characterization, special effects, suspense, action, and heartbreak, with a nice cliffhanger at the end, that made it a well rounded film from start to finish.

  • RedRidingHood

    Azkaban is still my favorite. In fact, all the others pale in comparison in my opinion. After Phoenix, I kind of gave up hope that they would ever rise to the quality that Curaon attempted. I’ll still see them, but I don’t know if I’ll buy the DVDs anymore. The Yates collections isn’t worth much time to me.

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