As a devoted member of a fandom, it can be difficult to approach various adaptations within that fandom objectively—and that’s OK. If you love the Marvel movies, you have full permission to get obsessive without fretting too much over the technical quality of the films. If you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s been a bumpy road recently, but you probably still love the movies anyway, and I applaud your loyalty. If you’re a Lord of The Rings devotee, you’ve just been incredibly lucky all along, and don’t you ever forget it.
Disciples of the Harry Potter franchise (like myself) have also been blessed—for the most part. J.K. Rowling’s seven books about a boy wizard, his magical school and the battle between good and evil have all been adapted into movies to varying degrees of success. The uneven homerun rate is most likely due to the frequent changing-of-hands on the production side: Four directors were involved across the eight movies, while only two directed more than one film—Chris Columbus (the man behind The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, the first two films with a wildly different and more innocent aesthetic compared to the rest of series) and David Yates, who directed the final four. To say these eight movies are a bit irregular would be an understatement.
But the movie that sticks out most of all is also the best. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (now streaming on HBO Max along with the rest), based on the third book in the series, hit theaters in June of 2004 and went on to earn nearly $800 million at the global box office. (The amount of money the Potter films brought in remains staggering) Directed by the great Alfonso Cuarón, Azkaban arrived amid several personnel changes in the movie franchise.
There was, of course, the new director replacing Columbus after he reportedly made the personal choice to step away from the franchise. Additionally, Azkaban was the last time composer John Williams was involved in music direction in a major way (his iconic compositions were of course used throughout the franchise after his departure). Most sadly, Richard Harris, who played Albus Dumbledore in the first two films but passed away before the third, was replaced by the much more intense Michael Gambon. The validity of Gambon’s portrayal of the complicated Hogwarts headmaster (who, in the books, tended to have a softer and more wistful disposition) is still debated among fans today. Fellow prestige British actors Gary Oldman and David Thewlis also joined the already illustrious cast featuring Fiona Shaw, Julie Walters, Alan Rickman and Dame Maggie Smith.
So, in some ways, Cuarón was handed a blank check. Original cast-members Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint returned in their charming lead roles of Harry, Hermione and Ron, respectively, but beyond those already-familiar character portrayals, almost nothing about Azkaban resembles its predecessors—or any other movie to follow, for that matter. Cuarón is almost solely responsible for the dark, occasionally dreary, gaelic aesthetic we now associate with the Potter movies. In the first two films, Hogwarts students flitted across the vibrantly green castle grounds underneath endlessly blue skies. In Azkaban, the Hogwarts campus seems to expand and morph into a distinctly Scottish landscape, grassy patches swapped out for tumbling moors and blue horizons exchanged for a perpetual gray. Hagrid’s hut—once a stone’s throw away from the castle’s front doors—is now inexplicably hundreds of yards away. In all, Cuarón’s interpretation of Hogwarts, while grim, is a closer match to Rowling’s descriptions in the books.
But it’s where Cuarón abandons the structure of the book that Azkaban really takes off. It’s still more than two hours long (as all the Potter movies are), but it feels much more concise—perhaps due to the (spoiler!) time travel component. (And the way Cuarón uses time itself as a storytelling mechanism in Azkaban feels much more intentional than storytelling devices used in the previous two films, which tended to drag.) With each new season in the Azkaban story, a violently bewitched tree on the Hogwarts grounds (known as the Whomping Willow) sheds or regrows its leaves to signify the change in temperature. There are other interludes—like a charming scene where Harry, Ron and their dorm-mates take turns tasting different magical candies that temporarily allow them to make realistic animal noises—that aren’t even in the book but still feel so true to its world.
There’s no down time in the script, each scene spilling out effortlessly after the last. In the book, Rowling fills moments between the action with delightful little details, but Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves smartly recognized what to leave out of the movie for the sake of brevity and pacing. The details from the book that really count—the scaly, bony hands of the hooded Dementors, the sloped, snowy roofs in Hogsmeade Village or the bright purple, triple-decker Knight Bus, for example—are brought to life most extraordinarily, all of these visual elements contributing to the overall darkness and dynamic of the story, which finds Harry and his friends another year older and, therefore, facing new and more ominous dangers.
Not only is Cuarón (who has won Oscars for Gravity and Roma) the most acclaimed director to contribute to the Potter universe, he’s also clearly the most attentive to accessibility. Azkaban isn’t just an entertaining and thematically sound adaptation of one of the most riveting books in the Potter series, it’s a standalone stunner: more technically coherent than any other Potter entry, its writing descriptive enough to inform audiences without going into too much background details but breezy enough to warrant rewatchability.
Film adaptations of boxy fantasy novels will never live up to the fans’ expectations—or the books themselves. There’s no succinct way to incorporate all of the nifty details, b-plots and extraneous magical creatures (Peeves the Poltergeist would still like a word!), so there’s honestly no point in trying. There will always be something special—even exclusive—about the books. Attempting to fit it all in is a fool’s errand.
The best a director can do is flaunt his or her creative license and make something different from the book, but just as extraordinary and unique. This was the charge of Cuarón, who pulled it off better than just about anyone in the last 20 years. He made a movie that was so singular and so stylish, you could’ve walked into the theater with no prior knowledge of Harry, Hogwarts and the fictional wizarding world whatsoever and still be stunned and satisfied when the lights flickered back on. Yet, it undeniably shares the spirit of Rowling’s clever book. This is why Azkaban remains an anomalous fantasy flick we were ever-so-fortunate to receive.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.