Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004

photo courtesy
photo courtesy
  1. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the third of seven novels about Potter, the young wizard who is raised not knowing his magical background until he is ten years old, when he is summoned to Hogwarts School to learn with other witches and wizards. The overall themes are coming-of-age, the importance of friends and chosen family, and the triumph of good over evil. In the third book of the series, Harry is turning thirteen at the start, and the tone of the series begins to change over from “children’s adventure” to take up some of the more serious themes of betrayal and trust and how they begin to outline the story of Harry’s parents’ “chosen family” and their untimely death. The biggest narrative action in PoA is a reveal of the way Harry’s parents were killed when he was just an infant, and the human actors who brought about that betrayal. Voldemort, the villain of the series, does indeed kill Harry’s parents, but in this book it is revealed that he did not act without human assistance, the ultimate betrayal within any family, chosen or blood. While there are still lively and comedic interludes about Harry and his friends (his own chosen family – he truly has no other kind) growing up and going to school, this third novel in the series starts showing some of the true threat facing Harry and the wizarding world.
  2. Alfonso Cuarón’s film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showcases a number of challenges to the director over and above portraying the growing sense of real foreboding in the universe of this film series. The director must work with a large number of actors chosen by another director, he must film on sets built for another director, he must work with some pre-existing (and already-well-beloved) musical cues, and perhaps most dauntingly he must take over the reins of the hugely lucrative film series based on the most successful book series of all time and deliver a film that changes the entire tone of the series. Cuarón takes on these challenges with aplomb, taking the familiar sets of Hogwarts (and other locales such as the Leaky Cauldron and the Dursleys’ home) and infusing them with a new level of menace. The menace in the third film is human, unique to that point in the Potter film series. It appears to be housed within Sirius Black, but when he is shown to be not only misunderstood for his role in the murder of the Potters but also in  his role in their – and Harry’s – lives, it plays up the theme of the harm of betrayal. Cuarón’s lighting and colors are more muted than in both earlier films (each directed by Chris Columbus), which underscore the menace of the dark prison guard Dementors and give a gravity to the increasingly real-feeling dangers faced by Harry. Harry must face them with his friends, his own chosen family, and by building on those established relationships Cuarón begins to set up the striking parallels between Harry and his own parents that will continue throughout the series.
  3. Cuarón’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban faced some truly outsized expectations, and met them all with aplomb and usually with sure-handed success. Working within a highly unique situation, the director needed to frame the next chapter in a hugely popular work of fiction…before the ending of that fiction was written. While it is true that in movie three he could not reasonably be expected to carry any responsibility for movie seven (or eight…), he did need to work under extreme scrutiny from a fanbase versed front-to-back in Harry Potter minutiae. As the books got longer (PoA was longer than either of the first two books in the series), the time constraint of a film became a greater challenge. Fans wanted to see every favorite detail on screen, but Cuarón needed to make a film that advanced the plot and upheld the spirit of the work without taking four or more hours to do so. He also had to add in the first truly human peril, betrayal, anger, and mistrust in the series – the themes were growing up along with the main characters. With his darkened palette, maturing young actors, and new tones worked into John Williams’ beautiful score, the director managed to walk a very fine line indeed.
  4. “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (film)”, no date on page
    The Harry Potter wikia site is one of many obsessively detailed fan sites that is dedicated to all things Potter. This entry includes a helpful, highly detailed list of differences between the book and the film.

    “The Five Worst Book-to-Film Adaptations”, Feb. 16, 2013
    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the top of this list, though the author concedes that he loves the movie as “a stand-alone film” and his most vehement quibble seems to be with the appearance of the werewolf…

    Search history for “prisoner of azkaban movie” at The Leaky Cauldron, various dates
    To showcase further overwhelmingly robust curated fansites, The Leaky Cauldron is where Robyn Joffe’s essay (already included as part of our class readings) also appears…along with hundreds of other articles about the movie.

    Video Game: Harry Potter, various dates
    Part of consideration on this adaptation (the whole series of adaptations) from the start was the way the franchise would play out in other media. The video game industry is hugely profitable, moreso than Hollywood in recent years, and this tertiary level of adaptation of Rowling’s works would have been involved in the earliest talks on the movie, at least in boardrooms. This in-depth clearinghouse of information covers the video game versions of each Potter film.

    “Grade 4 Class Adapts ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ Into Their Own Movie!”, Jun. 25, 2015
    A very recent item from MuggleNet, which claims it is “The #1 Harry Potter site.” It has a long history, like The Leaky Cauldron, as a home for Harry Potter fans. This tale of a classroom of kids in Calgary, Alberta who chose to make a movie instead of doing a regular book report goes to show the enduring visual nature of these books and the long shadows cast by their “original” movie versions as well!

    “CFP: Harry Potter on the Page and on the Screen: Adaptation/Reception/Transformation”, Jul. 13, 2014
    This call for papers (deadline long past, alas) shows one of many online forums for scholarship based on “fandom” activities – around Harry Potter and many other “fandom” worlds.

    (Point of interest: the course abstract for this course as it was presented in Summer 2014 is on page 4 of a Google search for “prisoner of azkaban adaptation”)

  5. One of the greatest achievements of J.K. Rowling’s book series became one of the biggest burdens for the film series of Columbus, Cuarón, Newell, and Yates and most of all the screenwriter for seven of the eight films, Steve Kloves – they were not really just adapting books. They were adapting a cultural phenomenon. The first two films did receive some criticism for being almost “too literal” in trying to keep all the details from the books on-screen, and in both the assigned readings and other research on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban there was outcry over even small details that Alfonso Cuarón (and Kloves) left out. The books and film series straddled the turn-of-the-century, and from the release of the first film adaptation in 2001 it was clear that the new century posed whole new challenges for communicating with an audience via film. Since her book series was not complete when the movies began to film, Rowling consulted on each film so as to help preserve the most key plot points. In the face of overwhelming public scrutiny, this guidance must have been invaluable. With the 21st-century problems of discussion boards, leaked scripts and stills winding up online, online invective hurled over every tiny decision, Alfonso Cuarón took a bold leap with the third film – and also bore some of the heaviest burden of scrutiny to that point in the series. The success of the third Harry Potter film – both financially and critically – is in itself a huge testimony to the degree of work that Cuarón faced in this project.

3 thoughts on “Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, 2004

  1. When you mentioned how Cuarón’s adaptation would not be responsible for what happens in film 7 or 8, it made me realize how much pressure he was actually under. Having changed from the original film format to a darker, more natural style, he also had to consider being true to the story as much as possible. This makes me realize how well of a job he did, being able to balance his own artistic innovative additions with the accuracy of Rowling’s work.


  2. As a huge Harry Potter fan, I am glad Cuaron took the risk of stylizing the third film the way he did. I think it set the tone for the films that followed Prisoner of Azkaban. However, there will be criticism from all ends when you’re dealing with a phenomenon such as the Harry Potter series. It would also be interesting to see how the rest of the films would have turned out if Cuaron didn’t make the third film as dark and haunting as he did. Perhaps they would have made the rest of the films “kid” friendly or cheery, which isn’t true to the tone of the books.


  3. I’d glad one of your entries finally attracted some commenters. Too bad the video of the 4th grade class isn’t available on YouTube. I wanted to see it! 10/10. Joseph Byrne. ENGL329B.


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