One of the greatest things about the Harry Potter series is that, at the time they came out, the books grew up alongside the audience. Kids who were Harry’s age when the first two books came out were ready for a more challenging story and more complex characters by the time Book 3 was released. And lo and behold, in 1999, “Prisoner of Azkaban” came out and brought with it just that: more dark under- and overtones and more complicated characters with checkered pasts and motivations. It was able to appeal to its aging demographic while still being able to pull in the younger readers just getting into it for the first time (J.K. Rowling would let readers be grounded in the world of childlike innocence for one book more.)
The movie adaptation, which came out in 2004, followed the same path, changing its style with the help of a new director, Alfonso Cuarón. Instead of filming immediately after the previous movie, the actors were given an extra year, making the difference in the character’s appearances and the actors’ abilities from “Chamber of Secrets” to “Prisoner of Azkaban” the most remarkable movie-to-movie shift in the series.
A key thing about “Azkaban” is that, unlike the first two movies, it doesn’t try to simply summarize the book. The first two films weighed in at 152 and 161 minutes, and while “Azkaban” is the longest book to this point by about 100 pages, the movie is 142 minutes. This helps keep the movie moving at a steady pace, something that reflects the flow of Rowling’s works. The transitions from season to season not only serve to show off the CGI and design of the Hogwarts castle (these had already been done before in “Sorcerer’s Stone), but keep themes and important points (the dementors, the giant pendulum of the clock tower, the Whomping Willow) in the forefront of the audience’s mind throughout.
Of course, the faster pace opens the door for key moments being dropped on the cutting room floor, such as the argument that rages through the better part of the book between Ron and Hermione and the exciting Quidditch matches. However, removing or minimalizing these works in the movie because it keeps the film on point, never drifting too far from the core story: convicted murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the wizard prison and supposedly is looking for revenge against Harry. However, the big climax (confronting Sirius and uncovering the truth behind his murders) felt rushed in the movie, whereas Rowling gave it a few chapters to breathe and build. The actors seem to hurry through their lines in order to dump all of the exposition on the audience.
There are some fantastic moments unique to the film, such as when Harry discovers Sirius is alleged to have betrayed his parents to Voldemort. Using his Invisibility Cloak, Harry sneaks in to where the staff is discussing the aforementioned events, leading to an emotional roller coaster after he learns the truth and he is alone with his friends. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson pull off a really touching scene, and these two young actors continue to shine throughout the movie. It’s one of the few moments throughout the series that I prefer to the book’s version of events. In the book, the three just happen to overhear the adults. The movie makes Harry more proactive and dangerously adventurous, which is truer to Harry’s personality. Several other additions also help bolster the story, such as Ron and Hermione accidentally holding each other’s hands at class.
That doesn’t mean all of the changes add to the story. Just look at when Harry loses his treasured broom. Both versions have Sirius, who turns out to have been wrongly imprisoned, sending him a replacement broom, the legendary Firebolt. The book places this about midway through, leading Hermione to ask school officials confiscating it and stripping it down to check for jinxes and other sorts of foul play. This causes major tension in her relationship with Harry and Ron, part of the bitter feelings between Ron and Hermione that rise and fall throughout the book. In the movie, Harry doesn’t get the Firebolt until the very end, after Sirius’ true nature has already been revealed. Not only does this leave the situation without any tension, this decision forces the scene to be played for laughs (and, more importantly, end the movie on one of the weirdest freeze frames I’ve ever seen).
There were other alterations that didn’t mesh well with me, such as never showing Sirius in his dog form mistaken for the foreboding Grim throughout the story and the gratuitous CGI showcases on the Knight Bus and during Harry’s first flight on the hippogriff. And the book is a lot more subtle about Hermione using time travel to take an inordinate amount of classes (the movie has her popping in at the front of classes constantly — I think someone would notice that!). But in the grand scheme of things, those issues are minor. Overall, “Prisoner of Azkaban” was the first Potter film to feel like more than just a Sparknotes version of the book. It’s also one of the few that comes close to the level of its source material.