Adaptation Paper: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, published in 1999, is the third book in the Harry Potter series, written by English author J.K. Rowling. The series’ title character is a young boy who attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the books follow his growing battle against the most powerful dark wizard of all time, Lord Voldemort. The series follows Harry over seven years, from his admittance to Hogwarts at age 11 to his final defeat of Voldemort when he’s 17.

However, Prisoner of Azkaban is the only book out of seven that does not directly involve Voldemort. In this book, Harry learns that he’s being pursued by an escaped convict, Sirius Black, who supposedly betrayed Harry’s parents to Voldemort and got them killed. While the first two books do involve some dark themes (Voldemort living inside another man’s body and manifesting himself as another face on the back of his head, a memory of him in a diary sucking the life force of a young girl and summoning a giant snake, just to name a few), Prisoner of Azkaban introduces a new and even more disturbing villain–dementors. Rowling describes them in Chapter 5:

“Standing in the doorway, illuminated by the shivering flames in Lupin’s hand, was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood… There was a hand protruding from the cloak and it was glistening, grayish, slimy-looking, and scabbed, like something dead that had decayed in water… And then the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow, rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings” (p. 83).

Dementors suck the happiness out of living things to incapacitate them, and then feeds on their souls through what is called a “dementor’s kiss.” Those who have the most intense bad memories are most affected by the dementors, so Harry naturally falls victim, recalling his mother’s piercing screams as she and his father were killed by Voldemort when Harry was an infant. Along with such painful memories, dementors bring with them a numbing cold that “went deeper than [Harry’s] skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very soul” (p. 83). Voldemort may be dark, as a murderous and snake-like wizard, but the dementors added a whole new element of horror to the world of Harry Potter, especially in the way they affect Harry specifically. Readers are more connected to Harry than to any other character, and are allowed the most access to his inner feelings and thoughts. This access makes the dementors all the more terrifying.

Of course, the story also introduces Sirius Black, a deranged and homeless-looking prisoner who’s escaped from Azkaban. He was put there for allegedly betraying Harry’s parents to Voldemort, and everyone thinks the reason he’s escaped is to finish the job and kill Harry. While Voldemort has, to this point, been a vague and menacing threat, Sirius’s direct pursuit and supposed lunacy is potentially even more frightening.

Another cause for growing darkness in the series, according to Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly, is the characters themselves. As they enter their third year at Hogwarts, they also turn thirteen, and are thrust onto the roller coaster of adolescence. Hormones and teen angst begin to rear their ugly heads in our protagonists, and as their voices change, so do their personalities. From this point on, readers are presented with more and more grown up characters who face more and more grown up problems. Not only does Prisoner of Azkaban bring darker subject matter, but it introduces the characters with more challenges as they grow. So it is only natural that the movie adaptation should change as well to accommodate them.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban‘s movie counterpart is also the third installment in a series of Harry Potter movies. It stars Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, and Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry’s two best friends, Ron and Hermione. These three actors were constant throughout the filming of all eight movies, but they were one of very few aspects of filming that were so. Prisoner of Azkaban, released to theaters in summer of 2004, was directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron is most recently known for his Oscar-winning direction of Gravity in 2013, but before Azkaban, he was best known for the sexually explicit Y Tu Mama Tambien. Azkaban was Cuaron’s only Potter film; the first two installments were directed by Chris Columbus, the fourth by Mike Newell, and the final four by David Yates.

While he only directed Prisoner of Azkaban, the choices and changes that Cuaron made started a larger shift in style that was continued by future directors in the rest of the films. In comparison to Chris Columbus’s films, Cuaron was less concerned with keeping his film exactly like the books, and more concerned with expanding on larger themes and subtexts. As the series’ content began to darken, Cuaron picked up on what would become a larger theme among the last few books, and he reacted accordingly. Not only does the subject matter in Prisoner of Azkaban darken, but so do the filming techniques.

One Tumblr user condensed every single frame of all eight movies into a barcode, and the results are stunning (image in Appendix). The first segment is full of bright reds and oranges, representative of Chris Columbus’ two films, but right about where the third should be, the palette notably darkens, and never regains its initial warmth. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian points out that, compared to the first two films, Cuaron’s adaptation of Azkaban is “a touch muddier, a hint grainier in its look.”

Cuaron was also tasked with bringing the horrific dementors to life. Rowling’s description of them (on page 83 and mentioned above) was just as detailed as it was terrifying, and Cuaron and his team took her words to heart, creating a creature that would not be out of place in any modern horror flick. The dark and tattered cloak, the spindly, rotting hands, and especially the gaping mouth–all are products of nightmares, brought perfectly to the screen (image included in Appendix).

Cuaron’s film was met with generally good reviews, and it kept up with its predecessors in the series, grossing almost $800 million worldwide.

3. Since the first two books in the Harry Potter series had already been adapted to film, it was natural that this third one should be made. A huge market for them had already been established, and failure was nigh on impossible. Even with such prospects, those involved still strove to make a great film, and the general consensus is that they succeeded. Marian Kester Coombs, in her article Harry Potter Through New Eyes, calls it a “fine, fun movie,” and asserts that her only problem with the movie was caused by a plot device used in the book itself, and therefore no fault of the film. Sean Smith has even more praise for the film, stating that “The ‘Harry Potter’ books have finally gotten the wondrous movie they deserve.”

Many of the series’ most avid fans were disappointed by some of the ways in which Cuaron deviated from the original text. is proof of this, listing all of the changes in chronological order and categorizing them by the type of change. Many of these are small, almost inconsequential details that only those who searched for them deliberately would notice. Some details, however, affect character relationships. In the movie, Arthur Weasley tells Harry about the dangerous murderer who may be out to get him, while in the original text, Harry accidentally overhears Arthur and his wife, Molly, talking about it. In the book, the Weasleys are basically Harry’s foster parents; they love him like one of their own children, and they seek to protect him from such frightening information. However, movie Arthur oversteps this line, perhaps overestimating Harry’s maturity level.

In spite of this, overall, the film was very faithful to the original story; the characters, plot lines, and general narrative are all preserved masterfully. Cuaron even follows the subtly growing darkness of the series in Azkaban, only making subtle changes that allow viewers to feel this darkness on an even deeper level. Alan Vanneman of Bright Lights film journal addresses some of the subtext that was beautifully inserted by Cuaron in the film that might not have been apparent in the book. He gives Professor Lupin, a werewolf who’s been outed and must leave the school, a line that rings familiar to many LGBT people; “No one wants, well, people like me, teaching their children.” This is a masterful interpretation on Cuaron’s part, especially given J.K. Rowling’s later revelation that she based Lupin’s ostracism for his condition on the archetype of a sufferer of AIDS. The stigma that comes with his condition was highlighted by Cuaron in the film.

Overall, while Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was more deviant from the source text than the first two Potter films, it may be better off for it. Those films were so faithful to the text that they watched almost like plays onstage, while Cuaron’s film truly breathed and explored new territory. Of course, the source material also involved exploration for its characters, but in putting the story on film, Cuaron introduced techniques and subtleties that left a lasting impact on die-hard Potter fans and indifferent film critics alike.

Works Cited:

Movie barcode:

Jeff Jensen for Entertainment Weekly:

Sean Smith for Newsweek:

Marian Kester Coombs for Human Events journal:

Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

Alan Vanneman for Bright Lights film journal:

Appendix of images:

hp barcode
Every frame of all eight movies condensed into a barcode (by tumblr user moviebarcode)

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