In case you live under a rock, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released this past Sunday, July 31st (birthday to both Harry and author J.K. Rowling, in case you aren’t as big a nerd as I am). This series has proven to be immensely popular over the years, since its release back in 1997. I, for one, found the series in 2002, and fell instantly in love with the characters. I have attended two book releases and three film premieres for it, and will forever be a proud Ravenclaw. So I couldn’t think of a better Wednesday Listicle than something Harry Potter related.
Now, ranking the books in the series is a lot like choosing a favorite child, so that is a task I will put off for the future. However, the movies are 100% fair game. The film series remains, even to this day, immensely popular, launching the careers of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Robert Pattinson (sorry, Rupert Grint), as well as providing some of the greatest British actors their juiciest roles, particularly Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, and in particular the late Alan Rickman. It just seems right to base today’s list on them. There’s just one problem: there’s massive debates over how to consider the Harry Potter film series. You see, the best film in the series is also one of the worst adaptations of the books. And one of the most faithful adaptations of the books is also one of the blander of the series. The fans are very much split over how to consider these films for that very reason. So I propose this: I will give you all two lists today: a ranking of the most faithful adaptations of the books, as well as the best films in the series. Sometimes they will overlap. Sometimes they won’t. However, no matter what, they all do one thing remarkably well: capture the magic and the spirit of one of the most beloved literary series of all time. Spoilers, duh.
Oh, and it should be noted that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is one film. Don’t let Warner Brothers’ cash grab fool you into thinking otherwise.
Most Faithful Harry Potter Books:
7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: The Harry Potter film series ran into a bit of trouble around 2005. They had lost three directors, and their usual screenwriter had other commitments, keeping him from being able to write the fifth screenplay. For their director, they picked television magnate David Yates, who was known for lean, mean storytelling. Unfortunately, with a novice screenwriter and a director who was very cut-friendly in the editing room, the film lost several of the book’s most memorable moments: no Dobby, no Rita Skeeter, no Quidditch and changes galore. Sure, changes are necessary to bring an 870-page behemoth to the screen, but surely there was some way to bring fans these beloved scenes. It’s telling this is the only time J.K. Rowling had to tell the director to stop cutting. And I’ll never forgive them for cutting the Occlumency scene, which shows James Potter’s cruel treatment of Snape, but not the more-important “Mudblood” scene, which may single-handedly be the most important scene in the series.
6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Another example of attempting to adapt a lengthy book gone awry. Goblet of Fire is an improvement over the excessive snipping of Order of the Phoenix, but not by much. Essentially, what fans are treated to is a paint-by-numbers version of the book, capitalizing on the most important moments only, and ignoring the nuance that can be seen in this, the most beloved of the series. As an adaptation, Goblet of Fire leaves much to be desired.
5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Ahh, here we have a controversial one. I will be writing about this one a bit more in the Quality section of this article, but as a fan, I must admit that this film is a bit lacking as an adaptation. Alfonso Cuáron was admittedly more interested in making a coming-of-age film instead of a straightforward adaptation. In terms of the theme, the film is closer to the book than any of the other adaptations ever dream of getting. That being said, in terms of adapting the novel, too many important moments are moved around or cut to make this a proper adaptation.
4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Another example similar to Prisoner of Azkaban. The interesting thing about Half-Blood Prince is that it is a fairly close adaptation to the book. However, two things keep it from keeping its accuracy. The first is the year it came out. Released in 2009, Half-Blood Prince was the first film released after all seven books were on the shelves. This meant the filmmakers no longer had the element of surprise, and were forced to address later plot twists, in order to keep fans happy, even if this meant sacrificing major plot twists or arcs. When Snape kills Dumbledore in the books, it is shocking and horrifying, as we no longer know which side the infamous character is on. When he commits this act in the movie, you can almost feel Yates and Rickman winking at the audience, as if to say, “We know the truth too, guys!” The second thing working against the film is the realization of what they’d cut in Order of the Phoenix. Now that the book was out, Yates and the studio were forced to panic: they had cut too much, and now Deathly Hallows risked being an incoherent mess. So they had to shoehorn everything, just to make sure that they weren’t completely screwed on the next film. Good for the series, good for the film, bad for an adaptation. Therefore, this one receives a few knocks in terms of adapting the story.
3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: If there’s one thing Chris Columbus knew how to do for the first two films in the series, it’s remain faithful. Chamber of Secrets is one of the more faithful book-to-film adaptations in all of history. Hell, if you watch the deleted scenes, I’m pretty sure every damn page of the book is in there. However, there’s one thing it lacks: the themes. Sure, you have Dumbledore waxing poetic and Harry learning a lesson, but the whole thing just feels kind of…childish. And I know that’s what the early books are prided on (I’m even going to contradict myself later in this article), but the second book never felt as silly as this film does. So while it’s a straightforward adaptation, I have to mark it down for missing the themes.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Bring out the haters. Yes, I know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows isn’t a perfect adaptation. There are a few cuts here and there, and there’s a dance scene that has notoriously pissed off many a fan. However, if you watch the deleted scenes, the film really does tick off almost every box possible, and unlike Chamber of Secrets, manages to understand the themes at play in its story. No matter what you think about the shipping of “Leville” (or “Nuna” if you prefer), the film is about as accurate to the book as you can hope. Unless, of course…you hope for an adaptation as accurate as…
1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: In terms of both adaptation and capturing the themes of the book, Philosopher’s Stone takes the cake. Almost every scene is present in the film, there are almost no changes to the plot, and it captures the childlike wonder of the book while never betraying the themes playing out in the background. This film should serve as a template for how to adapt a beloved book.
However, just because a film adapts a book faithfully, that doesn’t mean it’s a good film. A movie must stand on its own, appealing to a mass audience without the aid of having read the books. So now, based solely on filmmaking, not on adaptation abilities, I present the Non-Negotiable List of the Best Harry Potter Books, ranked from worst to best.
Best Harry Potter Films, Ranked
7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: This is a fact that cannot be argued: Goblet of Fire was whittled down to an incoherent mess. Details are left out that explain character motivations. Plot points are raised and then easily forgotten (remember when Harry finds Barty Crouch’s body? Yeah, that’s never mentioned again). And if you try to defend anything about this film, I have one sentence for you: HARRY DID YOU PUT YOUR NAME IN THE GOBLET OF FIYAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH?!?!?!?
6. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Once again, this film appears low on the list of Harry Potter films. As I mentioned above, the fifth film in the series needed to make cuts to be a better, more cohesive film. You can’t very well have a seven-hour film, and the Quidditch scenes, while important to the book, don’t really tell the story onscreen. However, what is important is getting across the story to the audience, and the cuts not only made the story that Yates was trying to tell incoherent, but also made scenes in following films incoherent. Why is Dobby all of a sudden onscreen? He hasn’t been around in five films. Who is this Tonks girl? Why is she important? She’s only been onscreen for three minutes. This film not only damaged its own standing, but put the next three films at a serious disadvantage. If David Yates didn’t redeem himself in the following outings, this may very well be the worst of the Harry Potter film series.
5. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: Remember when I said Chamber of Secrets failed to understand the themes of the book? Well, I hate to say it, but despite the skillful adaptation on display, the film never displays the fear or danger that exists in a world where a mysterious force could literally kill someone at any given time. Despite the fantastic performances from newcomers Toby Jones and Kenneth Branagh, the film always feels too cutesy and lacks the magic the rest of the series possesses.
4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: This is the moment where we start looking at these as “great” films. Sure, a healthy amount of the book is whittled down. And sure, I’m pretty sure the “Felix Felicies” scene is the moment that Daniel Radcliffe realized he needed to enter rehab. However, what is on display is a gorgeously shot treatise on young love. Radcliffe, Watson, Grint and Bonnie Wright capture the magic and heartbreak of being sixteen, all while also learning how to save the world and fight evil. It’s a truly magic film, laying its success at the feet of the one magic the books strive to comprehend: love.
3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Philosopher’s Stone gets a bum rap. Critics look at it and say, “Oh, it’s just a kid’s film, it’s childish, it’s goofy, it’s not as good as the darker later films.” Yeah, that’s all true, but that’s like saying, “E.T. is just a kid’s film” or “Looney Tunes are just children’s shorts.” Yeah, it’s an accurate statement, but that’s to ignore the love and skill that went into making it, and the true wonder that it brings to the screen. Is Philosopher’s Stone as dark as, say, Goblet of Fire? No, but it isn’t supposed to be. It’s about an optimistic world where magic exists, and it is a masterpiece in that regard. And it should be treated accordingly.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Yates’ most successful treatise is Half-Blood Prince. However, as a whole, his best film is the final film in the series. It is many things at once: a dystopian thriller, a Holocaust metaphor, a chase film, a character study and a fantasy epic, with the final battle on par with the Battle of Helms Deep from Lord of the Rings or the Battle of Hoth from Empire Strikes Back. Obviously, the entire cast of young actors are game, but the real standouts, for once in the series, are the adults: Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, and Julie Walters all have standout moments, but this film truly belongs to Rickman. Obviously, he has the most material to chew through, and Rickman always would find a way to stand out, even if he had no lines (Goblet of Fire is really terrible, you guys), but here, in the most heartbreaking sequence in the entire series, we see the real range of Rickman’s acting ability. If you don’t melt at the line “Always” or openly weep at the image of Snape holding Lily’s dead body, you may have experienced the Dementor’s Kiss, because your soul is missing.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Alfonso Cuáron is truly a gifted director. There’s a reason Rowling lists this as her favorite in the series, and it’s because this is the film that truly gets to the heart of the series’ characters. We see Harry’s goodhearted nature competing with a darker side he doesn’t fully understand. We see Hermione coming to terms with herself as a genius dealing with her emotions. And we see Ron just trying to eat and say witty things. This is the film where they stop becoming recreations of figures in the books and full flesh and blood characters, people we can root for. This is a coming of age story, both for the actors and for our characters, and it makes the film all the more impressive because of it. Furthermore, we get the fantastic additions of Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, and above all Emma Thompson. And, perhaps most importantly, we get Cuáron’s little touches: the beauty of Harry’s Hippogriff flight, the darkness of the Dementors, and the surrealist humor of the Knight Bus sequence. There’s a reason only one director from the series has won an Oscar as of this article, and it is because Cuáron has a true vision, and luckily that vision allowed us to see these characters the way we always hoped to see them: realistic, human characters, just like us.
So, that’s my list. Have your own opinion? Post it in the comments! Tell me how I’m wrong. I’d love to hear it. And respond thusly: