I finally got around to screening the DVD of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and then went ahead and watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the theater this last weekend. Both movies——indeed, all three movies counting Sorcerer’s Stone——were very good, as far as they went; however, there is something missing——particularly from Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, though there will be some details from book and movie that I will have to mention here.

Where PoA, and indeed the whole series, is good, it is very good indeed——the CGI has improved a great deal since Sorcerer’s Stone, and the thespians who play the kids and teachers are almost all spot-on for how I pictured them in my head. Hogwart’s looks and feels very much like I had imagined. Whoever designed and decorated those sets should win an Oscar of some kind.

The problem with translating the Harry Potter books to the screen is that J.K. Rowling is, more than most authors, a consummate master of fine detail. She sprinkles all these myriad little details in the stories that may not mean anything now, but wait until the end of the book——or even wait ’til three books down the line! Character names dropped as throwaway references in the first chapter of the first book may become important characters in the third or the fourth or the fifth. Incidents that seem to have little significance will prove extremely important down the line. These little details add to the reread value (if you know XYZ is secretly 123 from Book 5, you can go back and see all the little hints that were dropped in Books 1 to 4, and things take on whole new shades of meaning), and also help to “sell” the setting as a genuine, living, breathing world.

When adapting a book to a movie, 90% or more of those little details simply can’t be represented on the screen——so they must be either changed or dropped altogether. And PoA ended up dropping more than either Philosopher’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets——it was the longest book to be filmed thus far in the series, yet it became the shortest movie. Peeves the Poultergeist was absent (though granted, he was absent from the first and second movies as well); Nearly-Headless Nick (John Cleese) was missing, too (though the Headless Hunt from Book 2 did appear); many little omissions were made.

Yet, in most cases, this didn’t hurt anything as far as the movie is concerned. Looking at the movie on its own merits, it doesn’t matter if we don’t get to see Hagrid’s classes on flobberworms or Sir Cadogan’s brief tenure as keeper of the Gryffindor Tower door. They’re not necessary to the condensed version of the story the movie tells. I even found myself liking some of the changes, such as the expansion of a sequence where Harry gets to ride on a magical beast: covering just a couple of paragraphs in the book, in the movie it becomes a several minute sequence of wonder comparable to the dragon ride from Neverending Story. One change that I do have a particular quibble with is that Harry is seen practicing an illumination charm in the first few minutes of the movie——something that would have been cause for expulsion in the books!——but that’s just a minor nitpick.

The thing that makes Prisoner of Azkaban break down has to do with an important confrontation about 3/4 of the way through the story. In the book, this runs on to dozens of pages of talky conversation as details of characters’ motivations, actions, histories, and so on are all related. Things that were puzzles all through the book were explained, minor details tied together, and a clear light was shed upon many things that had been murky. This was my favorite part of my favorite book in the Harry Potter series. But one can easily see that to a filmmaker this massive chunk of exposition would present a problem, much as the similarly-talky Council of Elrond scene did for Peter Jackson when adapting Lord of the Rings. Most audiences——particularly child audiences——are not going to sit still as 15 minutes of conversation brings the pacing of the film to a dead halt.

So the conversation——and thus the movie——was gutted, cut down to its barest essentials about who betrayed who and who (or what) certain people really are. It entirely left out how the betrayal happened, and why certain people really are who (or what) they are. Furthermore, certain details and plot points that did make it into the movie——the true identities of a certain set of cartographers, the reason for the shape of Harry’s patronus, how and why Sirius escaped from Azkaban, why a black dog showed up in the beginning of the movie to startle Harry out of his wits——are left entirely unexplained, where the book renders them clear as day. In the end, many key details of the story are left murky. This may not bother many readers of the books, who already know the answers, but someone who hasn’t read any of them could be left puzzled.

Thus, the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban suffers from a large sin of omission. Perhaps if they had been able to make them four hours each, as Peter Jackson did with Lord of the Rings…oh well; to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, we’ll always have the books.

So, if you’ve never read the books or seen the movies, which should you do first? It’s an interesting question, because if you read the books first, it will spoil your enjoyment of the movies…but if you read the movies first, it will give away most of the plot from the books. I would be inclined to say that the better of the two works is the one that should be perused first, so it’s the worse one that gets spoiled—so, by all means, read the novels before you see the films.

On an unrelated related note, here’s a link to a terrific LiveJournal essay on the politics and justice system of the Harry Potter universe. It runs to ten parts, plus an appendix, but is it ever a worthwhile read (if you’ve read all five books, mind you; it contains some major spoilers)! It is certainly the greatest scholarly work I have yet seen on the internal workings of the Potter universe, and that includes entire litcrit books I’ve read on the Potter saga. Don’t miss it. (But do read all the books first!)