Why Does Everyone Think Alfonso Cuarón's Awful Harry Potter Adaptation is Great?

With part one of The Deathly Hallows arriving in just two weeks, it seems that Harry Potter Fever has spread through the Internet with the velocity of Bieber Fever. It's gotten so all-encompassing that even bloggers of a certain age like the Jeffrey Wells have trekked into the fray. "No one of any taste cares very much about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," Wells writes, goosing millions of Hogwarts fans in the process. "The franchise peaked six years ago with Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Except for the fact that it didn't.

Wells isn't alone in his thoughts, of course. Even before I had ever laid eyes upon any of the Harry Potter film adaptations, I assumed Cuarón's The Prisoner of Azkaban would be the best of the franchise lot. After all, not only did the talented filmmaker direct the wonderful Y tu mamá también, but he went on to helm Children of Men, which has to stand as one of the best films from the last decade. "An auteur like Cuarón obviously had to do great things with Harry, Ron and Hermione!" I excitedly thought to myself as I put The Prisoner of Azkaban in my DVD player. "Especially coming on the heels of the hack-work turned in by Chris Columbus in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

Then I saw the film.

Here's the thing: I'm a late arriver to Harry Potter, having just finished the books recently, and then, subsequently, tearing through the movies. And while I don't even pretend to be an expert on the world created by J.K. Rowling, I'd like to think I'm aware of two things: Good movies and good adaptations. Cuarón's The Prisoner of Azkaban fails at both.

As an adaptation, it's mostly trash. Though since adapting Rowling's dense narratives has proved almost impossible (the lone exception being The Order of the Phoenix), that can be forgiven; the Harry Potter books aren't the first to be poorly translated into films, and they won't be the last. Specifically, though, Cuarón's film suffers because it simply doesn't make sense -- massive chunks are left out of the story to the determent of logic and enjoyment. (For instance, Harry is never told that Lupin was best friends with his father, something that probably should have been deemed important information; likewise, Harry is never told that Lupin made the Marauder's Map.)

What makes The Prisoner of Azkaban much worse, however, is that the film never captures the spirit of Harry Potter. That's the transitional film in the series -- when Harry goes from plucky boy wizard to tortured tween wizard -- and yet Cuarón and screenwriter Steve Kloves fail to present it as such. Azkaban is visually pleasing -- even if it feels like warmed-over Guillermo del Toro -- but the central story about Harry's push-pull relationship with his Godfather-turned-possible-murderer, Sirius Black, never reaches a compelling fruition. Unfortunately, that failure is something which has negative effects in future installments; as solid as David Yates' Order of the Phoenix is, you can't help but feel that Sirius' death would have had more meaning if a greater foothold was achieved in Azkaban.

All you really need to know about Cuarón's The Prisoner of Azkaban happens in the final moments: Harry gets his Firebolt broomstick from Sirius (never mind that this occurs much earlier in the book), laughs with his friends and flies away into the sky...and into an embarrassing freeze frame. Cuarón is better than that, Harry Potter is better than that, and the chattering class on the Internet should know better than that. Isn't it high time we all stopped pretending Alfonso Cuarón's is the only director to nail Harry Potter?


  • Cristian says:

    I started to read your review and felt it was ok, then I got to the part when you acclaimed Order of the Phoenix... WOW. Then I just knew that I can't rely on your opinion.
    I mean, EVERYTHING is wrong about that movie! The editing is LAME and sometimes confusing for those who didn't read the book, the soundtrack is not as awesome as you expect it to be, the subplots about Neville are totally cut off, as many other characters. Steve Kloves should have made the script and it MIGHT have been better, but it's deffinitely the worst. The only thing that makes sense in the movie is the perfect Cast (Luna, Bella and Dolores), but any other element just feels out of place. I think you should see the movie again and stop it just before the group goes to the Ministry... Is it a good movie? No, it's just lame.
    Thanks to Cuarón the saga turned to be darker and interesting. If he hadn't done this movie the way he did, we probably would have been stuck with those shiny bright colours of the first two of the franchise. Even the post-Cuarón directors have said that thanks to him they had a model to follow. The editing is magical, the soundtrack is just amazing, cinematography... uf! just incredible, and the over acting of those little kids in 2002 are improved in a fantastic way in 2004.
    Just check your arguments again and you'll se you're wrong.

    • Paul says:

      I started to read your comment and felt it was okay, then I got to the part when you acclaimed Prisoner of Azkaban... WOW. Then I just knew that I can't rely on your opinion.
      The pacing is exhaustingly all wrong (slow in the parts it should be fast and high-action while glossing over vital story details and genuine moments that made the book such a good transitionary tale). The soundtrack is all right, but definitely tired (I wonder if fatigue factored into John Williams leaving the franchise one film later). The only thing they did right was in casting Sirius, Peter, and Remus with some of the best actors across the ocean. Scenes from the main plot are hacked away at haphazardly (which probably contributed to the stop-and-go broken Jalopy feel of the pacing) to the point where I couldn't even be sure if Sirius and Harry had a relationship at all (and I'd read the book. I KNEW the arc they went through, gradually, naturally, like it would actually happen. In the book, Harry is unsure about what's really going on. It's the first time in the series he realizes he may not be right, and it shakes him thoroughly. I've always seen it as one of Harry's greatest personal trials with one of the largest rewards, which makes the events of Order of the Phoenix all the more tragic for him. In the movie, Harry hates him to the point of wanting to kill him throughout most of the movie. Then, one scene whizzes by, and suddenly they're pals. You want to talk about not understanding things if you hadn't read the book? Try watching a film adaptation of a book abandoning the main plot for a collection of scenes of a teenager slightly resembling Harry Potter moping about and whining about his dead parents that he had already mourned two books ago.) They even INSERTED a scene of their own fabrication (because it's not like they could just fill time with, I don't know, a moment from the source material) which is LITERALLY Harry sobbing and declaring his intent to murder Sirius Black (rather loudly for someone who's supposed to be incognito, did I mention Cuarón's Harry isn't quite as bright as he is in every one of the other films?). The scene feels totally out of place, completely unnecessary, counterintuitive to the whole purpose of the plot (which was to develop Harry's awareness that the world isn't black and white), and served only to portray Harry as the stereotypical "angst teen" which would attract hordes of "angsty teens" later to be known as "Twilight fans".
      Thanks to Cuarón, I hated the Harry Potter movies until Order of the Phoenix, which not only reminded me that it's okay for movies to depart from the source material as long as it's done with the proper respect, but also reconciled Goblet of Fire for me. I didn't even think Order of the Phoenix was that great of a film, but it was so much better of an adaptation than Azkaban that it allowed me to forgive the transgressions of previous films and love them again (all except for Azkaban, which I still loathe with a burning passion for making me hate the films in the first place).
      I won't be a pretentious dick and tell you to re-read your argument and see that you're wrong. I'm sure you have perfectly valid reasons for enjoying Prisoner of Azkaban. The whole point of this reply is to show you that opinions are subjective and should never be treated otherwise. Maybe instead, you'll re-read your argument and notice how much of a douche your comment makes you sound like.
      Oh, and salutations are for the beginning of a message, not the end, smartass.

      • Lo says:

        The last time I read the Harry Potter books was probably like three years ago, but I'm currently rewatching the movies and was shocked that everyone seemed to LOVE Prisoner of Azkaban. I don't hate it, but I didn't understand why it seemed to be #1 on everyone's list of movies either. They really never explained the Marauder's Map or why Sirius is an animagus or any of that; I never liked the casting of Lupin and still refuse to acknowledge the actor as him; and everything just seemed over-extreme and melodramatic, which most of the movies are, but especially this one. (I did like the time-turner timeline though--thought it was clever.) I was reading your review and saw you compliment The Order of the Phoenix and just thought, "Good, I'm not the only one who liked it." Maybe it's because I just finished watching it or maybe because it was my least favorite book of the series so I forgot some of the details, but I actually enjoyed it. That isn't to say it's my favorite movie, and it does have its flaws (rushing Snape's memories of James into a blurry ten seconds, for example) but for some reason I enjoyed much, much, much more than my first four viewings. But yes, I agree, if only we had seen more of Harry and Sirius's relationship develop maybe I would have felt more remorse at his death, because I felt almost none, and I do blame that all the third, fourth, and fifth movies.

        For me, the first one was empty of emotion (and the actors/actresses obviously haven't gotten the hang of acting yet); the second one could have been really clever but kind of wasn't; the third, as I said, was missing a lot and is majorly overhyped; the fourth just didn't fit my image of anything (and it was my favorite book!); and I'm off to watch the last three tomorrow.

        • André says:

          Cuaron's Azkaban was the best made FILM of the entire Harry Potter franchise. Like all the novels and their films alike there is a mystery element that Rowling slowly uncovers throughout the entire series. in 'The Philosophers Stone' it was uncovering the mystery of the philosopher's stone and introducing Harry to the real threat to his life. In 'The Chamber of Secrets', it was uncovering the truth about the chamber of secrets and its true secrets, and so on with the Order of Phoenix and the prophecy, to the search for the horcruxes.

          What Cuaron's film does so well is capture this adventure with a tone that is obviously far more threatening, as is the situation for Harry himself. Effectively, the actors perform marvellously, each playing their part and fulfilling it's role with overacting and portraying a much more mature tone and attitude. Whilst the previous 2 films we're respectable for their lighter yet dramatic tone, Cuaron's film takes on a sense of maturity much like the growing of Harry and his friends, and the appropriately allows the audience to experience the progressive change of Harry throughout the year. Most crucial to this film's success was its well balanced tone, which was masterfully handled by the delightful John William's in his score, and the effective use of sound editing and mixing helping to successfully create this more hauntingly mature tone. Lastly, the film editing has proven to be more effective, featuring a larger variety that takes the audience through much more than the interior brick layers of Hogwarts.

          It was a shame he did not direct the remaining films, as every director who was appointed the opportunity to masterfully replicate the art of perfection and balance that Cuaron sustained in his individual piece did not do as successfully.

      • Alex says:

        I think that both your comments sound arrogant. The original text itself was pretty obnocious itself too. You both have opinions and that's great, but you must have some respect for all veiws. Just because you say something that does not make it that way. I think the series was quite well adapted and for the audience it was aimed at it did amazingly. Honestly critics can say what they like but I'd like to see them do better ( that and get a real job you parasites) my opinion is that the series developed and never really peaked. The films were just different and because of Thetis pleased a larger audience that had it justo been te more childish first two films or the darker style adopted later on. I would have liked to see the third film take more from the book and perhaps that was a mistake, but my view is that the less than spectacular emotional impact of Sirius' death was the running time of that film because they included more. Really what I'm saying is who really cares and stop taking yoursves so seriously. PS your not that funny either of you

  • Ritvik Shergil says:

    For me it was, it is, n it will always be Prisoner of Azkaban, the best Fantasy movie ever! The way Alfonso Cuaron directed it, was simple awesome! Agree hardcore book fans still doesnt like it very much, but even me myself is a hardcore HP book fan, n had read all the books ASAP! The way POA potrayed the emotions, the bonding, the Trio relationship is just awesome! For those who say "this wasnt told, that wasnt told!", I'll tell you to grow mature! Lupins relationship with Sirius, James, Pettigrew, Lily n Harry need not to be told via words. It was very well told with the flow! For me its the only standalone harry potter movie which even every one (including non HP readers n fans) loves to watch!
    Rowling herself accepted in an interview that she got "GOOSEBUMPS" after watching it for the things mysteries it revealed for the then unreleased OOTP, HBP n DH! N the music, this is only HP movie (except GOF also) where the music is used as an effective tool! Only this movie made me listen to the actual soundtracks, though Hedwigs Theme is my all time favourite! Double Trouble, A window to the past, Buckbeak's flight- these tracks are awesome n have been well used in the movie! I loved Harris n I even loved Gambon, for the change in charater potrayal! I always wished Cuaron had directed the finale!
    N those few who think OOTP was best n Yates is best among all, I'll ask them to get a life! You people know nothing about Cinema n Movie! U all are like flock of sheeps which is destined to dismal!

  • Film Buff says:

    Cuarón is an auteur like a dime-store rhinestone is the Hope Diamond.
    My beef, I must admit, is not with Harry Potter, but with two of his other films. A Little Princess sucked all the life and meaning out of one of the greatest novels ever written. It was a Hollywood hack job, transforming a story about individual triumph of an extraordinary girl into a silly little syrupy confection that might as well have starred the Olsen twins.
    And Children of Men. What another shame. I am a huge fan of the dystopian genre and rented this with great anticipation. How is it possible to make such a gripping story so slow and dull, devoid of drama and excitement? There was no pacing, no heart, absolutely nothing to interest me. This succeeded neither as Hollywood fluff nor as an art film. It seems simply to have served to allow Hollywood to pretend it made at least one movie with merit.
    So as for Cuarón, like him, or hate him, it's your option--but please don't ever pretend that he is a creative genius, an independent thinker. He is just another hack who managed to sell himself to Hollywood, the qualifications for which seem to me to be fairly random but involve mainly being willing to let the same group of talentless producers run the entire show according to the paint-by-numbers formula.

  • are you kidding says:

    As a big fan of Cuaron's adaptation, I went into this review trying to keep an open mind about what you had to say, but like the previous commenter, as soon as you praised the utterly horrendous OotP film I lost all faith in anything you had to say. You criticise Cuaron for a few minor details left out from the book, and yet you acclaim the barely-recognisable-as-an-adaptation-of-Harry-Potter OotP? Really? As a big fantasy reader I'm well acquainted with the limitations of film adaptations, I was an Eragon fan for god's sake, but I have never been more disappointed in a movie than I was in OotP.
    Harry was completely out of character, Luna and Ginny were butchered, it spent too much time making Umbridge a humorous character to make her truly hateful, and the sheer amount of detail lost was unforgivable in the sight of all the unnecessary detail added.

    Are you sure you read the books?

    • chaosportalwonders says:

      Are you sure YOU read all the books? Cuarón's film saw Harry sobbing and screaming to the heavens when he was supposed to be incognito (a scene that was not in the book, by the way, completely fabricated for the movie). You complain about the pacing of Order of the Phoenix, yet you forget that Prisoner of Azkaban completely glossed over the development of Harry's relationship with Sirius, which took all the punch out of his death for Order of the Phoenix. OotP wasn't great, but Azkaban ruined things FOR LATER MOVIES. Order of the Phoenix tried to save it by re-emphasizing Harry's and Sirius' relationship, but it was too little too late, and it's entirely the fault of the adaptation of the Prisoner of Azkaban.

  • Liz says:

    Prisoner is my favourite of the seven book but the movie is my most hated of the series, he just got it soo awfully wrong, I left the cinema opening day completely in shock that this abomination was allowed to be filmed at all... I still cringe when watching it today and find myself counting errors and pointless additions, the only part of the whole movie I find enjoyable is the boggart despite its short falls.

  • Dee says:

    Sorry to be so late to the conversation. I never read The Prisoner of Azcaban; hence, I love the movie. Going into the theater, I had no expectations, so I couldn't be disappointed with the content and its fidelty to the book. I loved this movie because of the numerous exciting story lines.

  • Aline_lu@msn.com says:

    Finally someone who says everything that I think! I had this 'thing' where I read the books again before the movies. So my reaction was as bad as you can think when I left the theater . I simply don't understand why they keep saying this is one of the bests movies at all. It doesn't tell the history, because of that all the other directors had to throw details in the face of everyone! I had to explain the parts that were left off to the people who hadn't read the book at the time. I literally just google 'prisioner the azkaban the worst movie' because I was tired of good reviews of this terrible movie that doesn't make any sense finishing the movie with almost the beggining of the book! Well done Alfonso -.-

  • Lilith says:

    I dislike the third movie. Everything has this sepia-green colour and I just think they added more slightly darker and not-that-funny references. It's close to (unnecessary) insulting jokes.
    I'm not saying that it's racist to use a stereotypical Jamaican shrinked head in the Knight bus, but the part where Tom (that's his name right? The Leaky Cauldron's Landlord?) makes this Stereotypical-Severely-Mentally-Challenged noise and acts like he's a mental patïent, only to quickly silence himself when Fudge looks up and frowns at his strange laugh, was just cringe-worthy.
    Tom was never severely mentally challenged in the book, as far as I know. I think this was insulting.

  • Enila says:

    I agree. Worse adaptation and he made the dialogues and the acting totally unnecessary and overreacting sometimes. Just like a Johnny Depp movie type.

  • S.M says:


    I am so sick of listening to people be all bent out of shape that PoA was the best movie in the series, when it absolutely was not. I would argue it was the worst, in fact. Meaningless scenes took up a lot of time that should have been used to reveal important information at the end, the character dynamics were all completely off, and the characters were acting like they got a personality transplant.
    I also agree with you that as far as adapting gigantic books into a single movie goes, they did a decent job with Order of the Phoenix. No such problem with Half-Blood Prince, cause hardly anything happens in that book, and they got 2 movies for Deathly Hallows...

  • Lilith says:

    I think it was just the never-ending unusual and un-harrypotter-like things that the director pushed into this, to make it more interesting. Instead, for many, the atmosphere because dark, uncomfortable and freaky. Like a woman that keeps spiders as pets and puts their legs on, as fake eyelashes, after they die. Uncomfortably weird.

    It started with the error of Lumos Maxima and underage magic, but quickly went to the shrunken heads, which were borderline racist (sorry to drag race into this, but it was just unnecessary to make them Jamaican) and instead of friendly and goofy idiots, the driver and conductor seemed more or less dangerous and sociopathic.

    Then, somehow, the moments in which nothing happened, seemed to be dragging on. It was like every useless moment of walking, was shown and every action-moment was gone before you realized that there was action.
    The movie, thereby, had green-yellow colourchoices and somehow the entire 'feel' to it, was greasy, if you'd ask me. Like I was watching this while being ill or homeless. It very much set the tone for me, unhealthy and uncomfortable. And sure, that's great in a movie where it revolves around Sirius himself. But not when it's Harry Potter ánd the prisoner. Everything just seemed more depressing, hopeless and (I'll say it again, because it fits so well) uncomfortable. Everyone looked grey and sick too, like covered in grease and dust.

    Then Tom comes up, which is the highlight of offensiveness. In the first movies, he's still able to talk to Hagrid; 'Hello Hagrid! The usual?' 'Not today Tom.'
    But in this movie, he's changed to a Voldemort-hunchback mute with a hint of stereotypical Downsyndrome.
    He moves his head up and down for no reason, other than a tic, mumbles things to himself and grins widely with ugly teeth. Then, when someone makes a joke or some kind, he goes; 'MHhhuuUUHhh! MhhhHuuuHHhuhh!' like a Downsyndrome nightmare-laugh.
    After the minister looks at him degradingly, he immediately bows down as much as his hunchback allows him to, submissively like a dog. He's not able to speak, only grunt. Like Gollum.
    Maybe it's just me, but I remember being horrified and ashamed once this came up in the theater. I was watching with a non-Harry-Potter fan, who wasn't sure whether he was a mentally challenged person or not.
    And whether he was being made fun of (which in the end, turned out, he was. His laugh was meant as somthing ridiculous, rather than a normal, excentric laugh.)

    Then Hermione started worrying about her hair looking strange from the back, as if she didn't have better things to do. Instead of it being the result of being overworked... she simply 'suddenly went dark' and smashed Draco's face.
    The dragging conversation between Lupin and Sirius, that was (as far as I know) even worse compared to the books,
    It seemed like nobody was aware of any acceptable social rules at that moment. Lupin and Sirius, forgetting about anyon or anything in the room and wanting to chit-chat, being genuienly flabbergasted once someone reminds them that they were in a situation, other than their cup of tea-conversation.

    And overall, all the other dragging moments, mistakes in continuity and facts mistakes.

  • Oscar Gerardo says:

    First off everyone with real understanding of movies, directing, casting, producing, acting, editing all agree Alfonso took the leap the Harry Potter Franchise needed. Rowling herself said the POA is the best movie in the series. Most people would even say that he saved the series. The first two movies felt vague and really were just made to grab the attention of young children. Although those were introductions to the series, the movies left a lot of details out from the books. So it amazes me that because Alfonso left a few details out of the movie (like all 8 movies did), they label it 'the worst'. Everyone that knows about the movie industry will tell you that it's impossible to take everything from a book into a movie without making the movie extremely long which bother a lot of movie watchers. I hear them complaining all the time. So they have to keep the movies as short as average. Secondly to the comments above saying that the Order of the Pheonix is the best movie, are you out of your mind? They took the longest book in the series and transforemed it into the shortest movie in the series (nice logic), yet no one is questioning in the comments above but a few, how they left extremely important scenes out of the movie. It was the more boring, dull and rushed movies in the series besides the Deathly Hallows. It was Harry's most important year and they clearly did a bad job of interpreting that into the movie. They failed to show his true struggles we read in the books. And the Battle scene at the end between the Order and the Death Eaters, what a joke! Alfonso saved the series and took the childish, bright, happy go lucky tone, from the first movies to the more serious, dark, mature and brilliance the books have. Sadly, the directors after that did a horrible job to continue this. In my opinion, they should have took the 4th, 5th, and 6th movies and split them into two parts with a decent director (should've been Alfonso). POA remains my favorite film after watching each movie multiple times and comparing them to the books multiple times. Alfonso did a great job, no doubt, critics agree.

    • Rowling has said it´s her favourite. Cuaron worked very closely with Rowling, and did his best to serve the story. She had considered Cuaron from the start. Enough said.
      If you keep whining about how it left things out then you have no idea how movies work. Think time constraint and money issues. That being said, the movies aren´t made exclusively for the fans of the books. And, if you are a fan of the books, then you´ll always have your own movie in your head.