2001 was a big year for fantasy films. Two competing adaptations of bestselling books were released within weeks of each other: The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Both have gone on to define the genre, but while LOTR had the singular vision of Peter Jackson and released the full story over a three-year period, it would take four directors and ten years for the complete Harry Potter tale to be told.
The four directors of the Harry Potter series have vastly different styles and backgrounds – one is American, two are British and the other is Mexican. As the books grew progressively darker, so too did the movies, with the bright and breezy innocence of Philosopher’s Stone a direct contrast to the gloom and misery of Deathly Hallows Part 2. Viewing the eight films back-to-back reveal a franchise that evolves and expands, both in terms of special effects and story creativity.
As the tenth anniversary of the series finale approaches, with twenty years passed since it first began, let’s look back at how four unique visions shaped the trajectory of Harry Potter on screen, from humble origins to spectacular climax. Two things unite them all: honouring the original story’s vision and trying to please a legion of fans who would scrutinise their every move.
Many filmmakers had been considered to direct the first film when the rights were initially bought by Warner Bros in 1999. Steven Spielberg pulled out of the running, as did Rob Reiner. Rowling’s first choice had been Terry Gilliam, one of the Monty Python troupe, but the studio decided to hire Chris Columbus instead, who directed family hits such as Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire. The plan had been for Columbus to helm the entire series, but in the end, he would only direct the adaptations of Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.
Columbus’ two films are certainly the most faithful to the novels they’re based on (most of the dialogue is taken from the original books and almost everything is translated) and they are perfectly adequate movies, but they’re bland. Columbus is more of a journeyman director than a proper filmmaker and his desire to be faithful to every aspect of the books causes his films to feel rather flat. Both Stone and Chamber are films made by committee; overlong, slightly tedious movies that are essentially audiobooks with images.
His vision is colourful, and his style is light-hearted and comfortable, which works well enough, but there’s never a sense of identity and purpose in his work. Columbus can be safely described as a safe pair of hands- he’ll get the job done, yet he never takes enough risks. There’s nothing remarkable about either of his films unless you count the dodgy special effects and the occasionally deafening audio.
Columbus does, however, deserve credit for managing to get the series to the screen, hiring John Williams to do the music, and crucially, his casting decisions. The three leads and cast members such as Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman (arguably his most successful decision) were all chosen by him and would remain with the series throughout its ten-year run. He lays the groundwork and builds the foundation, doing just enough to get himself in a place in cinematic history.
When Columbus stepped aside after the second film, the studio decided to take a gamble with his replacement and hired Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican director known for A Little Princess, a modernised version of Great Expectations and is major hit, Y tu mamá también. Cuarón, unlike Columbus, was not an initial fan of the series, but his interest in the emotional development of Harry and the expansion of the wizarding world persuaded him.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the turning point of the series, the moment it comes of age. Cuaron chooses to shoot much of the film on location in Scotland, using real-life locations and altered set design to bring to life a world that had become decidedly stale. For the first time, Hogwarts feels like a real place, full of wonder and intrigue, danger, and surprise. The castle is captured in wide angle shots that emphasise not only its vastness, but the affection that so many people have for it. It’s no longer a place with dimly lit corridors and anonymous locations, but a place where things can, and indeed do, happen.
Harry, Ron and Hermione begin to develop their own personalities and feelings, reflected in the clothing they wear and the relationships they have with each other and other characters. The first two films favoured adventure and simplicity; Cuarón decides that the focus should be on the characters and their continuing education, as students and as teenagers.
Cuarón understands tone and respects the spirit of the book, but he doesn’t allow the movie to become a slavish reproduction of the text. While some fans argued this was the point the series began to ignore the books, nothing in the film betrays what Rowling wrote- in fact, it avoids the fatal mistake of simply regurgitating her writing.
Azkaban is a film driven by its own urgency and a director with his own endgame, who appreciates the differences between literature and visual medium. The pacing is focused, the editing is tight, and the score is dramatic and impactful. His mature approach allows the series to finally be taken seriously in a crowded field. At last, the Potter franchise begins to take its own steps forward.
Although Cuarón’s film was acclaimed, he would never return to director another instalment. For the fourth film, Mike Newell was selected. Newell was the first British director to direct a Potter film, with his best-known work being Richard Curtis’ Four Weddings and a Funeral and the gangster film Donnie Brasco, with Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. Newell faced the unenviable task of adapting the longest book into a two-and-a-half-hour film.
After the strengths of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a let-down. Visually, the movie adopts much of Cuaron’s aesthetic, without the style and with considerably less flair. Newell lacks Cuarón’s grasp of character and pace- too many scenes in the movie feel like they’re just treading water (it’s still mind-boggling why he decided that the dragon task scene that involved Harry being chased all around the school should be the length that it is), while long-established characters seem to have completely different personalities.
Tonally, Fire is caught between the slapstick humour of Columbus and the deeper motivations of Cuarón. Scenes like Ron feeling embarrassed about his dress robes are then replaced by Harry having a nightmare about Voldemort’s return, but there’s no connection between them. Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves (who adapted all but one of the books) can’t decide whether the movie should be a dark comedy, a thriller, a tortured romance, or an action adventure. The same applies to Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, whose performance starts well but slips into pantomime as the series progresses.
The movie only properly works in its final quarter, as it sets up the conflict that goes on to dominate the remaining four films. Too much about Goblet is wearying and Newell’s direction is focused on the wrong things. While the first two films made the mistake of being too faithful, this one does the opposite. It places the emphasis on the unimportant parts of the book, while ignoring the sections that matter. Perhaps the task was just too big for Newell. He lets the film overwhelm him and therefore, it’s arguably the most inconsistent and, consequently, unnecessary of the series.
David Yates, a television director responsible for the original State of Play mini-series, was chosen to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and went on to direct the final three films, as well as the spin-off Fantastic Beasts series. Yates had arguably the least impressive resume when he was hired, but his initial screenings of Phoenix persuaded Warner Bros that he could successfully bring the franchise to a close.
Yates’ four films vary in both quality and tone. Phoenix is politically driven and sees the characters embark on their first steps towards all out rebellion. Yates’ command of the story is strong, and he garners strong performances from the cast, in particular Daniel Radcliffe, whose scenes opposite Gary Oldman and Rickman are terrific- at last, a Potter film that can make proper use of the tension between Harry and Snape.
Yates doesn’t go overboard with the humour, which is better integrated into the overall plot than was the case with Goblet of Fire. The trio are now firmly into the realm of young adulthood and Yates continues to further the development that was started under Cuarón. The film’s signature moment, which shapes Harry’s entire future, is masterfully done without the use of sound. All it takes is a screaming Harry, a laughing Bellatrix and a haunting musical backdrop.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a bit more problematic. It’s by far the most aesthetically pleasing of the eight movies, with some gorgeous cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel and some stylistic flourishes that haven’t been present since Azkaban. The performances are terrific, from Rickman’s Snape to Jim Broadbent’s Slughorn and even Michael Gambon finally finds his footing as Dumbledore.
The movie’s jerkiness between romcom and tragedy damages its tone and pace- some scenes are genuinely painful to watch because of the dialogue and Yates’ insistence that the film not be too dark. Like Newell, he inserts scenes that don’t add anything to the narrative and puts the focus on the wrong elements. There’s also the fact that most of the movie serves as set up to the two-part ending, making it merely a table setter. The film does, however, end with possibly the most emotionally charged moment so far, one that provokes genuine goosebumps.
The two-part finale is a mixed bag. Deathly Hallows Part 1 is unbearably slow. The movie is the most faithful to the text since Chamber of Secrets, which means it inherits the book’s own issues. The camping scenes slow the pace of the film, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione wander aimlessly through the wilderness, sucking the suspense out of the narrative (although admittedly increasing the sense of atmosphere and dread).
Too many other characters are side-lined, meaning the tension between Harry and Ron becomes a bit wearisome (and the dance between Harry and Hermione doesn’t work the way it was intended, an example of a director bowing to fan fiction and straying from the original source).
The film essentially builds up to the final film without ever really doing anything to stand out. There are some nifty action sequences (possibly the best in the series so far) but they are at the expense of narrative momentum. At times, it seems absurd that this mournful, reflective film is even related to the fluffiness that is Philosopher’s Stone.
Deathly Hallows Part 2, on the other hand, is a triumph. The shortest of the eight movies, it is an out-and-out war film, with scenes of tragedy and sadness combined with acts of genuine heroism and the sort of gallows humour that accompanies the absolute best war films.
Yates keeps the film’s broad strokes faithful to the events in Rowling’s novel and adds a layer of cinematic flair. The pace, in contrast to Part I, is consistent and the tone is appropriate and concise. Hogwarts, for the first time since Azkaban, has its own identity, even if this time it’s gloomy and overwhelmed with the forces of evil. If there is a flaw to the movie, it’s the inconsistency in the portrayal of Voldemort, a character who has been noticeably cheapened in the translation from book to screen.
As a director, Yates is considerably more accomplished than Columbus and Newell. His four films represent a unique vision that, if not always perfect, at least give them their own personalities and quirks. Phoenix and Deathly Hallows Part 2 can stand alongside Azkaban as the best films in the series, while Prince and Part 1 have moments of genuine quality as well. Crucially, Yates immerses himself in the Potter world like Cuarón, but unlike Newell, doesn’t let himself become overawed by it.
Over the course of eight films, with four hugely different directors at the helm, the Harry Potter franchise evolved from simplistic fantasy to something more substantive, more mature and, ultimately, more worthwhile. The warm-hearted innocence that opens the story gives way to a reflective quality that reflects the growth of the audience who grew up watching Harry’s adventures.
I was one of them. I started as a wide-eyed kid in awe of the world, who saw himself in Harry Potter and who realised the value of life is not how long it is, but how we spend it. Whatever their own qualities, Columbus, Cuarón, Newell and Yates helped created a franchise that, quite literally, tracked the development from childhood into the frightening, yet always fascinating story that is adulthood.