This post is to argue that the first two Harry Potter films directed by Chris Columbus (Home Alone (1990)) were the best ones in the series in many ways: they were the most faithful to J.K. Rowling’s original stories; the casting choices could not have been any better there; and the movies had very logical and structured narratives. All these things were barely touched upon in the later, much darker Harry Potter films.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit the cinemas in 2001, becoming a blockbuster virtually overnight. The film is a great adaptation of the first Harry Potter book. The film stays very true to the novel, and its casting choices are perfect in every way. Specifically, Richard Harris, playing Albus Dumbledore, is a true likeness of the great wizard. Harris passed away shortly after the American premiere of the second Harry Potter movie, and his replacement, Michael Gambon, is a far cry from the true Albus Dumbledore. It undoubtedly helped that director Chris Columbus repeatedly checked with Rowling minor details of the story and the setting, so that the film turned up, indeed – perfect. This practice should have been followed in the later Harry Potter movies as well. Todd McCarthy compared this film to Gone with the Wind (1939), saying that “The script is faithful, the actors are just right, the sets, costumes, make-up and effects match and sometimes exceed anything one could imagine.” One cannot agree more with this statement. Only insignificant and minor events and characters, such as Peeves, the poltergeist, were deleted during the film editing process, and this was done due to the time pressures. In that vein, and taking account of the film’s amazing soundtrack composed by John Williams, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone becomes a flawless piece of cinematography, and surely, one of the best, if not the best, Rowling’s book adaptations.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) was also directed by Chris Columbus. Similar to the first film, this second one is also very faithful to the book and has a seemingly perfect cast. Although both Jude Law and Hugh Grant were considered to play Gilderoy Lockhart, it is a relief that Kenneth Branagh landed the role, because he is so good in it. It is especially disappointing to see Frank Dillane playing young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. He is nothing like young Tom Riddle, who Rowling portrays as a tall, “very handsome”, “charming”, “likeable” and “persuasive” young man. By far the best young Tom Riddle is in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Christian Coulson landed the role even though he was 23 at the time of the audition instead of the desired age 15 or 17. Christian Coulson is so great in this role and fits the image of young Tom Riddle so perfectly that he should have definitely remained to play young Tom Riddle in the later films (or at the least, it should have been someone resembling him).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is worse than the previous two Harry Potter films in a number of respects. Here, we have a different director – Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)). Although the film could not have stayed much faithful to the story – because of the third book’s greater length (it is, indeed, longer than the two previous books), the film still faults in a way it represents the Harry Potter world. The important details are missed, and most scenes appear very rushed (though the portrayal of the Divination classes are exemplary, and the use of humour is great). Although Gary Oldman and David Thewlis are brilliant in their respective roles of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore is a disappointment, as is the tacky depiction of a Dementor.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
This fourth Harry Potter film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) must be the worst in the whole series. The film is a total “disaster”. Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Mona Lisa Smile (2003)), this fourth film shamefully spoils the most exciting of Rowling’s stories. Although the book includes lengthy and exciting depictions of the Quidditch World Cup and the Triwizard Tournament, the film hardly makes any decent attempt to portray either of these two events as they so deserve. The fourth book was the longest so far in the series, and there were time constraints, but, even so, if the production team did not see a problem in splitting the seventh book into two different movies, why should there have been a problem doing so with the fourth? In fact, splitting the fourth Harry Potter book and making a two-part film should have been the most natural and logical course of action. In that way, the film could have stayed true to the story, without the need to modify a substantial part of the book’s content, as well delete half of the other part to make a viable plot. In fact, watching the fourth movie is like watching a different version of the Harry Potter story altogether, one which was not written by Rowling, but by Mike Newell or whoever wrote that lamentable script.
Apart from the original cast, as well as Alastair Moody and Rita Skitter, the casting choice leaves much to be desired in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The biggest problem is the actors portraying Victor Krum and Fleur Delacour. In the book, both give impression to be “handsome” and successful young people, and yet they are not really so in the movie: the film’s Fleur Delacour is pretty enough (although the book presents her to be of divine beauty and grace), but appears insecure and unsure of herself, and the film’s Victor Krum appears too stereotypically abrasive and hardly the exemplary handsome man of the book. My only explanation for such a cast is that the producers did not want to “overshadow” the main cast, especially Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Cho Chang (Katie Leung), and to a lesser extent Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright).
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The fifth Harry Potter film titled Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) was much better than the fourth, but maybe largely because the director had changed yet again. This time it was David Yates. As the IMDB states, David Yates initially shot a three hour-film and then had to cut-out many bits because the film was forty-five minutes-too long. In that way, maybe it would have been a better decision to make a two parts-movie, then to intentionally spoil the narrative of such an interesting and engaging story. This Harry Potter film is notable for not portraying Quidditch at all, and this is a real shame. On a positive side, however, one of the movie’s highlights is Imelda Staunton in the role of Dolores Umbridge, who gives an excellent performance.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
This forth Harry Potter film was also directed by David Yates. Overall, the film is good, but not flawless. One major criticism here is that the colour of the film is too dark. The Harry Potter films are meant for adolescents, and here we have a completely adult-looking film, which is dark and depressing. The film is not a colourful pallet, and maybe that largely resonates with Voldermort’s return to power. The choice of the cast also remains poor: Albus Dumbledore, young Tom Riddle, Ginny Weasley, to name just a few.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I & II
The answer as to why Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I & II (2010/11) are so good and considered to be the best in the series is not because the films had some superior special effects, but because the producers, for the first time here, had the time to tell the story as it unfolds in the book. Both parts do not rush it, and dwell on the characters’ emotional states and thought-processes, as well as incorporate sporadic sit-com pieces. As the producers had plenty of screen-time “to play with”, the film’s script stays faithful to the book. However, the last two Harry Potter films still suffer from the same problems plaguing the previous movies, including bad casting choices; overly grim settings; and focusing on the “wrong” episodes and details in the book. For example, Helena Bonham Carter is overly enthusiastic in her role of Bellatrix Lestrange, making the latter appear too dramatic to the point of ridiculous, and Bonnie Wright’s Ginny Weasley is unlikely to win any beauty contests soon, even though the book’s Ginny is portrayed as being strikingly beautiful.
Overall, it is only too clear that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets were the only Harry Potter films that truly conveyed the letter, the spirit and the atmosphere of the Harry Potter world, staying very faithful to the original stories. Both films managed to depict Hogwarts’s daily activities, and all the magical atmosphere, with an uncanny precision. Unlike other movies in the series, in the first two films, Hogwarts became almost a film character, having its own unique personality. Even taking into account time constraints when producing later films, it cannot be denied that the first two films were “just right” and “spot-on” regarding everything, from the casting choices, setting and music to the adaptation of great many details mentioned in the novels. Sadly, this exemplary work was not repeated in relation to the later films, which can only now brag about their “darkness”, the use of special effects or action sequences.
11 Comments Add yours
I completely disagree with you about Gambon. Each actor brought something different to the role, and I enjoy both equally. Gambon is rather funny in the Harry Potter series. As for splitting films in two, I think that would have been a bad idea, especially for films earlier in the series (and by the I mean not the last film). It’s choppy.
Well, as I see it, if they did it with the fifth movie, they’d have to do it with the sixth as well. No? I have yet to see the seventh and eighth films back-to-back, but I remember thinking that Part I was too long for what it was… build up.
Whew, glad to know I’m not alone in my criticism of some aspects of the sacred Potter films. As a retired h.s. English teacher, I tread carefully around anything Harry Potter; not matter what, I really am grateful for a series of books that got kids reading again.
Thanks for another excellent review.
I especially agree with your criticisms of Prisoner of Azkaban. That was one of my favorite of the books, but the movie version felt very clunky and didn’t have the wide-eyed charm of the book.
#4 is the weakest, which is a dissapointment because it was a rich novel densily packed with action and suspense. With so many new characters, this story could not work as a single film. Perhaps, fearing the kids would age significantly, the studio fecklessly forced the series forward. Novels #5 and #6 were more contained despite their length – #5 was dragged out – and condensing the stories into single films was all right. I prefer movie #5 to the novel it is based on because it maintains suspense energetically in contrast to the lethargic read. The photography was monotonous in both #5 and #6, however – blue then green tints respectively. I disagree about Cuaron. He’s an inventive director who took on the oddest story in the series – no Voldemort and time travel?! It was only disheartening how the kids had aged.
I am glad I am not the only one who finds film 4 the weakest, and it’s interesting you mentioned ageing kids. For me, older Harry Potter does not really look like Daniel Radcliffe, but he is just about ok…Films 5 and 6 were ok; I do think after 3rd and especially 4th film, they finally got it right, although far from brilliant. And, I have nothing against Cuaron per se. I guess after the first two exemplary films, my expectation were just too high.