Harry Potter: Film Franchise–Artist Vs. Craftsman

The publication of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books was such a global literary phenomenon that it was almost impossible to treat the franchise’s first two films, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, factually, as movies. The juggernaut hype labeled the series as one of the biggest cultural events in history. Now, with a more detached perspective, it’s easier to reassess the artistic merits of the franchise and three movies made.

Chris Columbus’s renditions of the beloved wizard’s adventures were well-made, likable pictures that pleased their primary target audiences, the books’ fans. However, from an artistic viewpoint, the first two Harry Potter movies were not exciting on any level. They strain at being magical in the vein of seminal children fantasies. Indeed, unlike great fable-fantasies such as “The Wizard of Oz” or “E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial”, which were movies about children made for adults, the first two Harry Potters came across as movies about and for children.

When the first film was released, critics speculated about what a visionary director like Spielberg (who at one point considered making the movie) could have accomplished with similar material. But Columbus, a prot of Spielberg whose best work is the “Home Alone” pictures and “Mrs. Doubtfire”, is a craftsman whose technical proficiency at best matches the level of his material but never rises above it. Consider some of his other efforts: the sappy melodrama “Step Mom” with Julia Roberts, the broad and slick romantic concoction “Nine Months”, starring Julianne Moore and Hugh Grant.

In adapting the first two novels to the big screen, Columbus slavishly made smooth, functional films that felt like visual illustrations of the thick texts on which they are based. Astute viewers quibbled with the clash–and resulting compromise–between the helmer’s uniquely American cinematic sensibility, which is cheerful, bland, and middlebrow, and the specifically British roots of his literary source.

The first two Harry Potter films reflect the sensibility of a commercial American director working his craft. Despite sophisticated technology and glitzy special effects, Columbus’s Harry Potter movies are old-fashioned–works which are not grounded in any particular era or identifiable style. Columbus, who had to audition for the first assignment, shows great passion for the book and knowledge of its details–perhaps too much so– but he is unable to lift the narratives to a magical level. He is a director accustomed to making simple, wholesome fare, seasoned with juvenile and satirical elements.

One of the main problems of the first films is their tendency toward repetitive structure. Every dialogue scene leads to a big special effects sequence. Lacking a dynamic tempo and unified vision, the films feel like strings of disparate set pieces, only a few of which are inventive or dazzling.

When Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron approached about helming “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, the third of Rowling’s celebrated novels, he had just completed work on “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and wasn’t familiar with the Potter mythology. However, after reading Steve Kloves’ screenplay and the novels, he was hooked. “Even though on the surface this is a story about creatures, it was the issues explored in it that were so interesting to me,” says Cuaron, who previously directed the enchanting family tale “A Little Princess” and was nominated for the Screenplay Oscar for “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” Relevant issues about growing up, identity, relationships with friends, the lack of parental guidance, and the search within. There are also issues about social class, injustice, racism–things that affect all of us around the world.

Though they are vastly different, there’s a thematic link between Cuaron’s latest pictures. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” is a story about the rites of passage from adolescence to manhood, just as the new Harry Potter film is about the journey from childhood to adolescence. In both pictures, Cuaron shows a keen understanding, and a more realistic view of the nuances of teenage life.

The producers knew that Cuaron was one of the most visually exciting directors working today, blessed with a unique storytelling sense. Their goal was to continue the adventures with the characters audiences had grown to love, and at the same time, expose the viewers to a totally new perspective.

Choosing another director to depict Harry Potter’s world was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Curaon inherited a pre-established universe with sets and cast already in place. But the arguably that “inheritance” gave him more time and more freedom to focus on the story, the characters, and the performances of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint.

Unlike Columbus, Cuaron decided to be faithful to the spirit of the books, but not to be too literal with his interpretation. His goal was to “honor” the Harry Potter familiar universe, while imbuing it with his own signature. Miraculously, Cuaron was able to bring his own point of view, his vision, to the new film.

Realizing that the actors knew well the universe around them and the technical aspects of the story, Cuaron asked them to think about their characters’ psychology, to explore the emotional territory more deeply than they had done before. Cuaron focus was the inner journey, one in which the characters’ fears manifest themselves from within, rather than from without. Harry isn’t so much dealing with the threat of magical creatures or mythical creatures as with revelations about his own life, discoveries about his past that force him to grow up fast.

Cuaron taps into “the teenage angst” in Rowling’s novel. In this film, Harry is angrier and more socially awkward than in the first installments. No doubt, this is a function of the character’s advancing age, but it’s also a result of the director’s singular perspective.

In keeping with the new themes, Cuaron establishes a more mature tone in the characters’ dialogue and the overall look of the film itself. Since most teenagers are hyper-aware of pop culture and fashion trends, Cuarakes them more contemporary and naturalistic. After visiting British schools, he observed the way the kids wore their uniforms. No two were alike. The teenagers’ individuality was reflected in the specific way they wore their costumes. He then asked the kids in his film to wear their uniforms as they would if their parents were not around. Playing an older, more self-aware Harry, Radcliffe opted for clothes that are less formal and less childish.

Finally, the heavy reliance on special effects, which dominated at least half of the first two films, is noticeably absent from the third one.

All three films are based on screenplays by Steve Kloves and music from John Williams. But to execute his vision, Cuaron brought an entire new production team aboard. Hence, cinematographer Michael Seresin replaced John Seale, and editor Steven Weisberg took over from Richard Francis-Bruce. Jointly, the new crew has created a film that boasts a decidedly different look and feel.

Now that two directors have put their imprint on the franchise, it will be interesting to see what British director Mike Newell would do with the fourth Harry Potter film.