June 08, 2004

Alfonso Cuaron and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I'm not usually a huge fan of behind-the-scenes Hollywood gossip: whether I enjoy a movie or not, I don't usually care which of its stars were in the midst of a torrid love affair during filming, and I'm not terribly interested in how a director or an actor succeeded in winning himself a choice part. Delightful as it is to learn that Vin Diesel really wanted to audition for the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, I'd much rather just watch the movie.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. To name just one example, I'd love to know how Alfonso Cuaron came to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and--even more importantly--how he won the authority needed to put his own personal stamp on the film. Cuaron isn't necessarily the first director who leaps to mind for an adaptation of an English children's book, after all. True, he did direct a highly regarded adaptation of The Little Princess, but he's better known for his racy Mexican sex comedy, Y Tu Mama Tambien; according to one press report I've seen, the producers of the Harry Potter series were so worried about Cuaron's influence on the cast that they included a clause in his contract that banned him from swearing in front of the movie's child actors. In the end, however, Cuaron didn't just win the job of director, but injected a real sense of liveliness, charm, and wonder into the series.

The first two Harry Potter films, I thought, never quite seemed like real movies: they seemed like a series of video illustrations of the book. (Chris Columbus, the director, was so determined to avoid deviating from the novels that he never gave his movies a life of their own.) Most film critics agreed with me. In the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell likened the first movie to a "film equivalent of a book on tape" while A.O. Scott compared the first two movies to "a staged reading with special effects"; David Edelstein has even argued that in the hands of their first director, the world of the Harry Potter movies felt like "a synthetic movie theme park." Those movies did a decent job of showing us what the world of the books might look like, but they had no life of their own to speak of.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is visually spectacular, and--under Cuaron's guidance--Hogwarts seems like a real place, full of a charm and character all its own, and not merely like a movie set. The movie's script is quirkier and more charming than either of its predecessors, and even when it departs from the novel, it matches the spirit of Rowling's work far better than its literal-minded predecessors. Every child actor in the film does a much better job than in the past; the pacing is faster and more natural; the film as a whole shows us more of a sense of wonder than either of its predecessors, even though many of its plot elements are familiar to us from Chris Columbus's work. The first two movies, I'd argue, are mildly entertaining for people who liked the books, but the third is an entrancing and delightful story that I'd recommend to anyone.

I don't want to suggest that the movie was perfect, of course. In fact, I can see three major problems with it:

  • First, as entertaining as Prisoner of Azkaban is for fans of the books, if you don't know the basic story of the seriess, then you'll probably get hopelessly lost watching its latest installment. Plenty of details from the books are left unexplained--the murder of Harry's parents is scarcely mentioned, for instance, and concepts like animagi are only mentioned briefly. I suspect that most of the movie's viewers know the books inside and out, which decreases the seriousness of this problem, but just a little more detail would have made the movie more successful in its own right. You might even be able to make the case that you have to have read the book to enjoy seeing the movie, though I suspect that just a little familiarity with the world of the books (or with the past movies) is more than enough.

  • One problem with Cuaron's film, I felt, had more to do with the book it was based on than with the movie itself: like the other books in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has an odd and un-cinematic plot trajectory. The first three quarters of the book are fairly short on action; instead, we're treated to charming interludes from Harry's school year and gradually introduced to clues about the story's underlying mystery. Then, all of a sudden, there's an explosion of activity most of the way through the novel, leading to not one, but two, dramatic climaxes.

    That structure took its toll on the movie, I thought. The early parts of the film often involved rapid-fire movement from scene to scene, with very little transition between them; this gave the movie a slightly choppy feel. The movie's twin climaxes, moreover, make it hard to maintain a feeling of tension, though I thought that each climax was paced as effectively as possible under the circumstances. I worried that the story of Sirius Black didn't get enough attention; in the novels, Black was a specter haunting the book from start to finish, but in the movie, his role is somewhat diminished until the end.

  • Most importantly, the larger story arc of the series gets short shrift. Cuaron never really fills us in about the details of the backstory, and the relationship of the movie's events to Voldemort's rise to power is never fully explained. The movie never tells us that James Potter was an animagus, for example--and so it also never gets around to telling us why Harry's patronus was a stag. We never learn how Harry's parents were betrayed--and without knowing that Peter Pettigrew took over Sirius Black's role as their secret keeper, we have no way of understanding how Lupin suddenly figured out that Sirius was innocent. Moreover, Cuaron de-emphasizes the rivalry between Snape and Black and never tells us that Potter and friends specifically became animagi out of their friendship with Lupin; we never find out that the four friends designed the Marauder's Map, or that Snape was nearly bitten by Lupin the werewolf because of one of Sirius's practical jokes. (Just as importantly, we never learn why Black came to Hogwarts: to protect Harry from Pettigrew.) We do get to see Sibyl Trelawney's prophecy, but Cuaron could have emphasized its significance and driven home the fact that the events of the movie helped Voldemort's rise to power by giving him back one of his most fervent supporters. One short speech by Dumbledore would have helped tie all these threads together.

    If you're a fan of the books, then these oversights might not really matter. (If I recall correctly, the movie series as a whole has deemphasized the rivalry between Snape and James Potter, and generally isn't very good in explaining the backstory.) Based on the script alone, however, the plot of the movie seems like a loosely connected series of events that happened to take place in the same school year; one of the strengths of the book, I've always felt, was that it brilliantly tied the story of Harry's parents and their friends together with Harry's story to produce one intriguing and fast-paced narrative. That element of the books is almost completely lost.

Michael Gambon's portrayal of Albus Dumbledore was, I would argue, a perfect metaphor for the movie as a whole. Gambon's predecessor in the role, Richard Harris, did a decent job, I think--he had the look and feel of the part down just right--but I worried that he was just a little too bland. Harris's Dumbledore, I'd argue, looked more like a generic movie wizard than like any one particular character; moreover, he sometimes seemed a little too sharp and on-the-ball. The real Albus Dumbledore was a great wizard and a majestic figure, but even Ron Weasley--one of his greatest admirers--sometimes wonders if he's crazy, and Draco Malfoy has no problem mocking him for his apparent cluelessness. Richard Harris never emphasized the spacier side of Dumbledore's personality, and I get the sense that he could bite Malfoy's head off if he felt like it.

Gambon's Dumbledore is a much more appealling figure. His voice is livelier, his speeches convey more personality, and the eccentric side of his personality comes to the forefront. My only concern is that Gambon sometimes looks too much like an aging ex-hippy, and too little like a wise old sage; what's more, when you combine Emma Thompson's eccentric portrayal of Sibyl Trelawney with Gambon's Dumbledore, the Hogwarts spaciness quotient shoots through the roof. Gambon and Cuaron have taken an underdeveloped and neglected part of Dumbledore's personality and given it the attention it deserves, but they never really portray him as a complete character. One brief scene, in which Dumbledore debriefs Harry on the events of the movie and explains the significance of Pettigrew's betrayal, would have both added to out understanding of Dumbledore and clarified the larger story arc of the series.

In short, Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban--like Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore--is a brilliant and lively interpretation of the novel, even when it doesn't precisely match my own interpretation. Under Cuaron's direction, Gary Oldman emphasizes the crazy side of Sirius Black but plays down his sinister reputation. There's a romantic tension between Ron and Hermione that's far stronger than in the books. Emma Thompson's Sibyl Trelawney comes across as a crazy ex-hippy, but not necessarily as incompetent. (We don't see too much of her, after all, and in one key scene, she actually utters a prophecy!) You can argue with any of these interpretations, but together, they give the movie a sense of liveliness that was completely lacking in its predecessors.

Even more importantly, the setting of Prisoner of Azkaban is a visually spectacular world with a character all its own. The film comes across as grittier, grainier, and more real; it never seems squeaky clean, like its predecessors, and instead comes across as a dark and gloomy place with lots of personality. (The first films sometimes seemed too picture-perfect: I can almost imagine Daniel Radcliffe's hairdressers leaping up to adjust his hair every time they possibly could during the filming of the first two movies. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see that Harry's hair was often quite messy in the third movie--just as Rowling said it should be!) I often loved Cuaron's interpretation of the movie even when it didn't match my own: Buckbeak's executioner, for example, comes across as a chilling, picturesque, and distinctively English character who could have come straight out of Dickens.

What impressed me most, however, was Cuaron's willingness to move beyond Rowling's text. The script was loaded with jokes that never appear in the book: Cuaron treats us to a delightful vignette of the Fat Lady singing, for instance, and I loved the scene where Malfoy sends Harry a threatening note. I wasn't as big a fan of the many shrunken heads that appear in the movie, but details like this--even when they had no basis in the original novel--were exactly the sort of quirky and charming touches we'd expect from Rowling. Cuaron succeeded in replicating the spirit of the novel even when he departed from a literal interpretation of its plot.

It's easy to quibble about the movie, of course. I'm not sure that Cuaron's film ever achieves the psychological realism of the novel, for example, and I was slightly disappointed in his portrayal of the Dementors: they looked really cool as they hovered in the air, but whenever we moved close to an individual dementor, it seemsed less lifelike and less real. (We also never really see, for ourselves, that they suck all the happiness and joy from their victims, leaving them only with their worst memories.) It would be too much to expect the movie to be a perfect adaptation of the book, however, and I was delighted to see a film as quirky, as clever, as fast-paced, and as visually stunning as this one.

Posted by Ed at June 8, 2004 10:55 AM
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