Fine Day Sunday

in my opinion, best day of the week

Ranking the Harry Potter Movies

Posted by finedaysunday on July 20, 2014

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It doesn’t feel like it’s been three years since the Harry Potter series of films came to a conclusion, or even that the final book was released seven years ago. I believe that really speaks to how strongly this story resonates with me, and I know I’m not alone in that regard. What other series of fantasy novels, what other entertainment franchise, has meant as much to so many generations living today as Harry Potter?

Being the hopeless fan that I am, I’ve decided to tackle something I had sworn off doing for a long time: picking the movies apart and ranking them according to my personal preference for them. We’ll start with my least favourite and work our way up to the Totes Best Movie in the Series. This should be fun.

A few points before we begin: First of all, yes, we are sticking with the movies for this list. I’ve read each book many times, but I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I’ve watched the movies. It really might be closing in on 100 viewings split between eight films. That’s a lot of time invested in Hogwarts. I could recite most of these things by heart, and in fact many nights have been spent with friends providing hours of running group commentary as we watch them for the millionth time. We know our Harry Potter.

Secondly, you might be wondering from what angle am I supposed to judge these movies? Strictly on their own merits, or their strengths as adaptations of the books? What changes do they make from the source material, and how do those changes affect the final film? What about pacing? Casting? A well-timed musical cue? The overall tone and editing? That ever-elusive “feel”? I have taken all of these into consideration and measured them against each other to see how well each film gels together, and have done my best to set them into some sort of personal hierarchy.

Lastly, I mentioned above that I’ve been hesitant to rank these movies for years. The honest-to-God reason is that I have a great deal of affection for all of them. I cannot in good conscience dislike any of them, even the one I consider my least favourite. My helplessly rose-coloured perception of these films is pretty potent, I can tell you. That being said, with the benefit of years of hindsight, it is possible for me to lay them out side by side and tell you what I feel works for each movie and what does not, and that’s why I’m confident I can finally pull this off. Enough stalling, let’s dig in.

~ ~ ~

HP GOBLET

Structurally, Goblet of Fire is kind of a mess. The enforced progression of one school year per movie gets what was supposed to be a shot in the arm with the Triwizard Tournament, but instead the movie itself collapses under the weight of the implausibility of it all. Where to even begin? The dastardly plot which requires Harry to be manipulated every step of the way through absurdly convoluted methods and endless instances of dumb luck? The willful ignorance of every single person in Harry’s life to the true nature of the villain’s scheme? The fact that, despite being the second longest film in the series, no time is taken to explain why the Wizarding World suddenly has a traditional blood sport event that forces teenagers to spend much of the school year in mortal peril? Yes, I know it was explained in the books, but if there were ever an appropriate place for the movie to indulge an exposition dump, the backbone of the plot would be it.

The nature of the Triwizard Tournament also messes with the pacing quite a bit. It comprises three tasks (including the build-up to each one), plus a school dance right in the middle. It’s all jilted and awkward. The central mystery would be more solid if it were given more time to stretch out a bit without so many elements to distract from it. This is where foreknowledge of the book hampers much of the experience of watching this movie. See, I might know what’s going on underneath all the vague misdirection because I went into Goblet having read the source material, but I’d have to think anyone going in cold would be hopelessly lost, even while the movie does its best to give away the identity of the villain pulling the strings. (Side note: I’d love to hear from anyone who watched Goblet without any knowledge of the book. How well were you able to keep up?)

But it’s not all bad! There’s plenty here to like. McGonagall, Snape, Filch, and the Weasley twins steal every scene they’re in, and the Yule Ball is just plain fun. What little we see of Rita Skeeter is spot-on comic timing. Brendan Gleeson makes a terrific Mad-Eye Moody. Robert Pattinson does a fine job capturing what makes Cedric Diggory work so well in the book. Here’s this charismatic, universally liked honour-bound good sportsman who repeatedly kicks Harry’s ass in every contest (even taking Harry’s crush to the Yule Ball for good measure), and yet Harry can’t help but grudgingly like the guy. Great stuff. And I still hold up that last scene with Cedric’s father as one of the most powerful in the series.

The movie also earns points from me for the stuff that didn’t make the cut. Rita Skeeter’s mystery subplot? Ludo Bagman? That awful sphinx encounter in the maze? Gone. All very smart and mercifully necessary omissions to make. Seriously, go back and read that conversation between Harry and the sphinx and tell me how well that would have gone up on screen.

But no Blast-Ended Skrewts? Really? To the bottom of the list you go, Goblet of Fire.

HP CHAMBER

Chamber of Secrets has a lot to love. The world is still a new and scary place to Harry and, by extension, to us as well. Despite coming out ahead in his deadly encounter at the end of his first year, the horrors of the Wizarding World have not been sleeping. Evil is in the very walls of Hogwarts, the entirety of the student body mistrusts The Boy Who Lived, and Harry is left to question his own identity as a Gryffindor, as a force for good. We get plenty of wide shots of flooded torchlit hallways, cobweb-coated forest clearings, bloodstained walls, and subterranean caverns from which death may strike at any moment. We get our first taste of the ugly culture of prejudice by way of blood purity that would come to haunt the series to its conclusion. We get two spectacular additions to the cast in Jason Isaacs and Kenneth Branagh as Lucius Malfoy and Gilderoy Lockhart respectively. And while wishing no disrespect to Michael Gambon, we get one last moment to admire Richard Harris, one last moment to admire just how wonderfully he embodied Albus Dumbledore.

So what gives? Why so low on the list?

Chamber of Secrets is long. Very long. It’s the longest movie in the series and the only one to really feel like it every time I watch it. This is the one that I believe was most in need of another pass in editing, to make the “whodunnit” murder mystery plot into the much tighter experience it really deserved to be. Each of the first two movies were directed by Chris Columbus, and still stand as the most faithful adaptations of their source material, for better or for worse. Where that approach succeeds is in its world-building. We are still very early in Harry’s journey, after all, so perhaps a more literal translation from page to screen was justified. It even plays to Columbus’ strengths. There really is an identifiable emotional tone in his movies; a brash, adventurous youth in way over his head in an environment that wants him to suffer. You might say that sums up the Harry Potter story as a whole, but there really is something different at play in these first two movies, something far more sinister. Maybe it’s because this is still the “innocent” era in Harry’s life, which allows the darker surroundings to really stand out. Harry is still too young and inexperienced to have the battle scars he’ll eventually develop over the years. That’s all at play right here in Chamber, and it’s still very effective when watching it today.

The flipside is that slavish faithfulness to the source material can only carry a film adaptation so far. This was still very early in the series when I suppose it seemed smarter to take fewer risks. The few bits from the book that Chamber does leave out are absolutely the safest and most obvious ones. Can you imagine how much more this movie would have dragged if it included the bit about Filch being a Squib? How about Nearly Headless Nick’s deathday party? Yikes. It wouldn’t be until the third movie when the entire production began playing fast and loose with its adherence to the source material, and in many ways the franchise is better for it. Eight films with Chris Columbus at the helm would have been a very different beast.

HP HALLOWS 2

I was genuinely surprised when I laid out all eight movies end-to-end and found out that Deathly Hallows Part 2 had the shortest running time. To its credit, it packs a lot of content into the finale of the franchise, while still allowing it room to breathe between the big moments. My only wish is that those quiet moments had been granted even more room. The plot is in such a hurry to get Harry and company back into Hogwarts for the final showdown that we don’t get to see one of the book’s greatest triumphs: that it is in Deathly Hallows, more so than in any of the previous novels, that Harry grows the most as a character, as a human being. His decision to cast aside the temptation of the Hallows, to continue to trust in Dumbledore despite having his pristine image of the late Hogwarts Headmaster shattered, is the biggest decision of his life up to that point. Harry has always been an impulsive and headstrong person, often to his detriment. Hermione once aptly called it his “saving people” thing. He rightly recognizes his decision not to race Voldemort to the Elder Wand as one of monumental consequence, resolving for the first time not to act on his long-standing compulsion to leap recklessly into danger. It’s a bit of a shame that this crucial moment in Harry’s character arc is entirely absent from Deathly Hallows Part 2.

Is it fair to hold that against the movie? Well, no, not really. All of that growing and changing and resolving of character arcs was already covered in Deathly Hallows Part 1. That one was all setup, putting all of the pieces into position for the big showdown while letting the trio air out their dirty laundry. Part 2 is the follow-through. It’s almost entirely a straight-up action movie with an admirable helping of emotional beats to remind us that this really is the end of an era. It bears that weight with relative ease, with all of the meaningful looks and tearful goodbyes that go with it. “That scene” in the Great Hall still fills me with dread.

As thrilling and emotionally fulfilling as all of that is, I selfishly wanted more. The reference point I keep looking at is Return of the King. Now there was a movie that knew how to give a proper send-off. People always complain that it had “too many endings and blahblahblah”, but that was not just a fitting way to bid farewell to a film franchise as meaningful as The Lord of the Rings: that was an unqualified triumph. It was perfect. Harry Potter absolutely deserved as much. Remember that roll call of the entire cast in the end credits of the last Rings film? Tell me Deathly Hallows Part 2 didn’t need a curtain call like that one. I would have gladly accepted a longer running time if it meant getting a more satisfying and well-rounded conclusion. Instead, we’re given an ending that feels like it’s in too much of a hurry, capped off with a painfully awkward speech from Harry in which he reveals he was able to beat Voldemort thanks to a “finders keepers” technicality. That one still makes me cringe a little.

Major props for leaving out that Fiendfyre nonsense, though.

HP HALLOWS 1

Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a movie I like more and more each time I watch it. It’s slow, measured, patient, brooding, hopeless, lonely, and everything it’s second half would prove not to be. I am confident that its distinctly somber tone was a deliberate creative decision. We aren’t in the familiar territory of Hogwarts, after all, and the theme of isolation resonates strongly throughout the film. Why not let the lead characters learn and grow as human beings while they’re out here in the wild unknown? Why not let them test the limits of their trust in one another and their willingness to make sacrifices for what really matters? Why not take away every last piece of Harry’s innocence, all of the things that have made him unique since he was a child? Broomstick, owl, wand, the image of a wise and benevolent Dumbledore? All gone. This was all fantastic thematic material in the book, and I was very pleased to see it make the transition to film. We even get all of the major action sequences along the way, giving the movie a terrific flow of rising and falling tension.

I recall this particular aspect of the book being panned at the time of its release. “Lol camping trip” was the general sentiment. That’s a pretty dismissive way to look at all the growing pains Harry and his friends go through here. We are intentionally shown only brief glimpses of what’s going on in the rest of the world. We know the Ministry has been taken over by a hateful, fascist regime, and that those of questionable blood purity are being hunted down and executed. The media is an endless stream of propaganda and hate speech, save for a lone pirate radio station giving the people hope. Fugitives who are unable to forge passable credentials flee abroad and must constantly fear for their lives. And through all of this, our focus never strays too far from the core trio as they wander the outskirts of the civilized world, chasing vague half-clues that may or may not help them defeat Voldemort. We see them struggle and fail disastrously at every turn, as promising leads turn up empty and they appear to fall further into despair. We see them cling desperately to the radio as it spouts an endless stream of names to add to the death toll. We see them hiss panicked whispers and exchange mistrustful looks. We hate to see them crumble and we root for them to succeed. It’s powerful and evocative, and it separates Deathly Hallows Part 1 from every other movie in the series. And of course, you really do have to stand up and applaud that “Tale of the Three Brothers” animated sequence. Perfection.

Seriously, ask me again in a few years and this one may climb much, much higher on my list.

ET.0627.Potter5.05

In my particular circle of Potter nerds, Order of the Phoenix was (is?) considered the consensus least favourite book in the series. Its length was exhausting, eclipsing even Goblet and Hallows as the longest entry by far. Its tone was often pessimistic and aggravating, and it introduced the most universally hated character in the series. Harry suddenly seemed to embody every negative character trait you could have expected from a moody teenager, and let it out in frequent impulsive bursts of rage and frustration. It was definitely a raw take on Harry’s increasingly maddening struggles, no doubt, but you couldn’t help but feel just how jarring the effect was. That general unpleasantness, combined with the sheer volume of chapters dedicated to less urgent business like Grawp, Cho Chang, Divination, O.W.L.s, and the increasingly out-of-place Quidditch matches combined to make Phoenix an ordeal to read at the worst of times.

And that is why it came as such a spectacular surprise to me that the film adaptation of Order of the Phoenix is a tightly focused and downright brisk movie. The editing job it must have taken to trim this down and turn it into something not only digestible, but actively exciting and engaging deserves plenty of praise. Only the eighth and final film clocks in at a shorter running time. The frustrating and weary tone of the book is almost entirely absent. In its place we get a refreshing interpretation of what can poignantly be seen as the last of the lighthearted Hogwarts adventures. What truly stands out to me as the movie’s claim to fame is a pair of montages which, make no mistake, prove to be a great way to trim some of the book’s greatest excesses, condensing them into something much more approachable. In the first of these, we see Dolores Umbridge’s rise to power at Hogwarts, restricting students’ freedoms one Ministry decree at a time (and it must be said, hats off to Imelda Staunton for taking a truly loathsome monster and turning her into the sort of villain you love to hate). The second showcases the secret society known as Dumbledore’s Army, in which the students assemble to learn the practical survival skills that Umbridge’s new regime has denied them. It also serves to highlight the brighter and more optimistic side of Harry’s character that the book initially seemed to set aside in favour of mopey angst. Reluctantly or not, Harry is a natural leader who inspires confidence and loyalty in others. I’d also like to make special mention of Evanna Lynch’s performance in taking a character like Luna Lovegood, who could easily have ended up looking like just another manic pixie dream girl up on the screen, and instilling her with a warmth and likability none of Harry’s supporting cast had yet been capable of.

If there’s one area in Phoenix that leaves me wanting, its in regard to Sirius Black. See, he was never my favourite character, but I would certainly call him the most well-developed aside from Harry himself. The previous two books may have given us a strong helping of his backstory (the third book was even named for him!), but it’s right here in Order of the Phoenix that he comes into his own with a complete character arc, and a very strong one at that… which makes it all the more disappointing that we only get fragments of it in the movie. Oh well. That is definitely worth exploring further in its own post one day.

HP PRISONER

Now this is going to be fun. Prisoner of Azkaban is a great movie. Not only does it represent a new standard when it comes to adapting the books (namely, a looser and far less literal approach to the material), but it is also unmistakably the work of its creator. This is very much Alfonso Cuaron’s film, from the Gothic-flavoured re-imagining of Hogwarts to the soaring and sweeping transitional shots. The excellent musical score positively drips with mischief and melancholy. A thick and tangibly ominous mood is draped over the entire production, as evident as the perfectly realized Dementors prowling the grounds of Hogwarts. More impressive still is that Cuaron handles the new interpretation with ease and earnestness, never descending into Tim Burton-esque cynicism. This is a palpably optimistic movie.

It’s also a pretty divisive one, in my experience. This is the movie that drew a line in the sand between the unyielding faithfulness of the first two adaptations and the freeform interpretations that would define every future installment. And God bless it for that. There is so much to unpack in Prisoner (and it would only get more daunting with each future book) that someone had to make the call to start making significant cuts before the films grew so unsustainably burdened with stuff that they collapse under their own weight. Prisoner of Azkaban is the most extreme example of this new philosophy, with the significantly shorter running time that goes with it. This is a movie that knows the difference between being faithful to the source material and being a slave to it. Frankly, I’m glad to see the shift away from following the books almost to the letter. That we got one of the best (many would even say the very best) films in the series as a result is a terrific surprise, and the surest sign that it was the right decision.

HP PHILOSOPHER

And now let me completely go against everything I just said above. I love Philosopher’s Stone. I think too many people look back on it today and give it a mild and half-hearted “well, it gets credit for starting the series” sort of approval. It deserves far more praise than that, and it’s going to be hard for me to get through this without simply gushing about it. I really do think it will come as a surprise to a lot of people that I rank this one so high on my list.

I love the way the movie encourages us to view this new world with the same wide-eyed wonder as Harry himself. Every corner of the Wizarding World is introduced with unabashed enthusiasm, from the cinematography to John Williams’ now iconic score. It all feels like a well-paced ceremony welcoming us into the theme park of our childhood dreams. None of it would have been nearly as effective if we didn’t spend the first act of the film mired in Harry’s mundane life in the cupboard under the stairs, which makes the gradual yet inevitable transition to something greater all the more exciting. This is a film confident in its own strengths, and in spite of everything I said in the previous section about faithfulness to the source material, the fact that this is the first entry in the series is license enough to translate virtually the entire story from page to screen. Being the shortest and easiest to digest book in the series by far certainly helps.

The series’ unmatched cast all began here, and one of Philosopher‘s greatest strengths is in giving each one of them their chance to shine (John Cleese’s Nearly Headless Nick, unfortunately, being the lone exception). MVPs Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman need no introduction of course, but special mention must be made of Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, John Hurt’s Ollivander and, let’s not kid ourselves, Richard Griffiths as Vernon Dursley. I mentioned Richard Harris as Dumbledore earlier, but you really do have to stop and appreciate having someone so solid and warm and grandfatherly to be there for Harry (and by extension, for us) every step of the way in this new and enchanting world. Most importantly of all, this is where the trio who would become our link to this universe for eight movies made their debut, and watching every step of their journey from three unknowns to full-fledged human beings with such a strong chemistry may be the Harry Potter series’ greatest feat of all.

HP PRINCE

I knew very early on while reading Half-Blood Prince that I was discovering my favourite book in the series, and time has not changed that. The carefully measured approach to shining a light on Voldemort’s past in the hopes of discovering his weaknesses, the very welcome exploration into the murky waters of moral ambiguity (as I wrote back in ‘Sluggish’), the significant step back from the dour tone of Order of the Phoenix thanks to a refreshing dose of levity that never clashes with the seriousness of the central plot… All of these elements combined left me eager to see the inevitable on-screen adaptation.

I don’t know if I should have been surprised by this or not, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is beyond all doubt my favourite film in the franchise.

With the possible exception of Prisoner of Azkaban, this is the smartest Potter movie. Despite clocking in as one of the longer entries, it never wastes a moment on filler moments (and yes, I am including the chase at the Burrow partway through). Every scene carries a distinct tone meant to mesh into something cohesive and deliberately paced. This is a movie tinged with mystery and intrigue that knows when to show rather than tell. See, one of the greater difficulties in adapting Prince was always going to be the glimpses into Voldemort’s former life as Tom Riddle. Each of these chapters was bookended by a long-winded story from Dumbledore that came across as a lecture and served as little more than unapologetic exposition. Intriguing and fascinating exposition from a reader’s point of view, certainly, but problematic to sit through in a movie. Prince avoids this pitfall by streamlining the finer details of Tom Riddle’s story (even if, sadly, it means leaving out many of these flashback scenes) and simply trusting that the audience is smart enough to follow along. The purpose of these exchanges between Harry and Dumbledore remains the same, leaving the movie free to distinguish itself in other areas.

Those distinguishing characteristics prove to be many of the most fun sequences in the series. All of the memorable beats from the book make the transition with admirable ease: Harry’s discovery of the Prince’s Potions book, Ron’s Quidditch trials, Lavender Brown, the Slug Club, the cursed necklace, the love potion, Sectumsempra, Felix Felicis to name, er, most of them. ‘The Cave’ deserves special mention as it takes one of my very favourite chapters in the franchise and perfectly showcases its sense of silent and creeping dread, its mounting horror as Harry and Dumbledore venture into the abyss.

So we know how admirably the movie is able to adapt the key moments from the book, but if that was all there were to recommend about it, would it really have ranked at the very top of my list? What is it about this film that stands out to me and makes me increasingly confident to call it my favourite every time I watch it? The answer is that it’s not solely in what the movie says, but in how it says it. Simply put, the atmosphere in this movie is tangibly haunting. That distinct tone I mentioned above is equal parts ethereal and human. We are treated to the now-standard sweeping and majestic shots of the castle, set to angles best suited to be flattering, impressive, foreboding and, at times, inviting. The whole film is painted in a distinct palette of earthy colours and textures, most notably a muted green and brown. None of it feels forced or overpowering (or quite as on-the-nose as in, say, The Matrix). Lastly, I can’t say this for certain without having checked it myself, but this movie really does feel like it has very little dialogue. Nowhere is this more evident than in Draco Malfoy’s scenes laden with visual symbolism, his silent and secretive visits to the Room of Requirement. It lends the whole enterprise a personal and art-film vibe. One of my favourite flourishes is a terrific shot of Snape in the eleventh hour, as he stands silhouetted and framed in a window. That heavy blanket of intrigue is palpable and resonates throughout the film, and goes a long way towards separating Half-Blood Prince from the rest of the series. That is why it’s my favourite of them all.

~ ~ ~

And there you have it! Thank you for sticking around long enough to read way, way too much about Harry Potter. I really am proud of this undertaking as I look back on it now and, who knows, it’s possible that the order in which I rank the films will change at some point in the future when I watch them for the millionth time. I’ll make a point not to write quite as much about it, though. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to know.

“Mischief managed.”

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