Adaptations are not easy, especially when the source material is attempting to create an entire fantasy world from scratch. If you’re a TV producer who needs to fill a season of television, you’re incentivized to include as much of that detail as possible. the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film franchises both debuted in the same year (2001), and had slightly different techniques for making approachable movies out of dense books. Peter Jackson filmed a lot of material he knew would never make a theatrical cut, and bless him for doing so. David Heyman and the shepherds of the Wizard World chose to instead be hyper-vigilant about what they even allowed in their scripts. That’s fine when you’re filming the first couple of Potter books, which are linear broom rides of relatively short duration. By the time the producers got to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a 766-page statement of purpose for what the third act of the book series would be unleashing on its audience, they had to ask themselves some hard questions. Including: do they cut the narrative into two films, as they probably should’ve done for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fireor do they take out their scalpels and start slicing off crucial bits?
They chose scalpels. phoenix, in book form, is an author taking their penchant for executing tragedy and leaning into it. Their penchant for carefully threading clues, and taking painstaking notes, all in service of loading the gatling gun of satisfying payoffs that is deathly hallows. The film they made from phoenix is the shortest in the series, despite it being the longest book its author ever wrote. It’s the only entry made without Steve Klovers, their chief screenwriter, with his deep compatibility with the material. And so, in movie form, it does not feel like the stage being set for the dangers of the future. It’s likely the producers felt they could afford this adaptive shrewdness because they had just unwittingly set the stage in Goblet of Fire.
Alfonso Cuaron‘s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is often remembered as the moment the Wizarding World films started commanding serious critical attention. despues de Chris Columbus dutifully assembled the cinematic infrastructure with journeyman efficiency, an indie director from Mexico swooped in with artistic finesse to spare, so much so that Azkaban functions as a bit of a stylistic reboot. Cuaron’s ability to coax somewhat natural performances from his actors de él —amid the chaos of tentpole filmmaking, and the largeness of the material—helped teach studios that it wasn’t necessary to hire action directors to make this kind of expensive picture work. Hire someone cheap and good with actors, then let the visual effects companies run wild with the money you’ve saved.
With this new wisdom, Mike Newell boards a ship run by a studio (Warner Bros.) and a producer (David Heyman) with the mission of helming an altogether different kind of blockbuster, where it’s understood that production, design, and second unit steering are doing as much as the director. This made Newel’s job largely about the pacing, emotion and energy of dialogue exchanges; tone setting, personality crafting, subgenre establishing.
Columbus’s Wizarding World films are fantasy pictures and children’s movies. Whimsey and cuteness are tasted in nearly every bite. they are fantastic, but this relative artistic conservatism leaves them with an air one might describe as “serviceable.” The relevant gift of Prisoner of Azkaban is its functionality as a fantasy film, a time-travel mystery, and a gothic monster movie in the Universal Pictures vein. Not even Universal Pictures was pulling that off. What this instills in the audience, is that this is a world where one’s imagination can run wild, for anything is possible with magic, but also that trauma is the springboard of this franchise’s story, and that, for Harry Potter, more trauma is on the way.
There is no sense of a pulled punch in that movie, but in retrospect, it’s mostly a collection of convincingly threatening threats, without the punch truly being thrown. The scary monsters of Azkaban hung the worrying pall of death over these children’s heads without having to actually kill anyone off.
Enter Mike Newel, the director of crime thriller Donnie Brasco, with a punch, tasked with us it to up the stakes. Luckily, he is adapting a novel that he understood his own assignment. For all her seeming determination to alienate the decades-old fan community that loves her, JK Rowling was a sharply focused writer in the era during which the books were still being written. She seemed to take seriously not just the responsibility of her publishing deadlines, but the responsibility that each entry in the book series needed to both dig deeper into what was present in previous installations, and expand on possibilities her fictional world of her that were left untapped .
She was not writing—or so it appeared—with the beats or runtime of a mainstream movie in mind. That was the screenwriter’s job, along with Newel. With hindsight, the British director of an American crime film is an obviously wise choice to shape this crux of the franchise. Perhaps it didn’t seem that way at the time, with names like William of the Bull being thrown about. But, underestimated director in tow, the immersion of the wizarding world becomes the star, and Newel steeps it in danger while presenting it as a buoyant thrill ride.
There are two sequences crucial to pulling this off. The first takes place in the first act, as Harry, Hermione, Ron and the Weasleys introduce us to portkeys (magical objects that allow teleporting) and Robert Pattinson‘s Cedric Diggory. The Trio then take us to the Quidditch World Cup. Referencing real-life World Cup football, the audience is given a look at magical life outside of Hogwarts, and outside of the obvious plot, seemingly, with shots of roaring crowds and a sea of tents as families and sports fans get together for what amounts to a big tailgating party.
This wholesome glimpse is quickly turned on its head, as Potter fans are shown something we’d not seen before—shots of this community, young and old, fleeing for the lives, en masse. Men in pointed hoods and billowing robes on a hostile march, launching hostile spells. The Dark Mark of Lord Voldemort emblazoned in the sky above the now desolate Quidditch World Cup campsite. It’s our first look at the torch-wielding Death Eaters, who cut a figure like a real-world clan of infamous terrorists. It’s a look that would be altered going forward, but one that nonetheless sears itself in audience memory. One look and we know exactly what kind of witches and wizards stand under those robes. There’s nothing cute about the sequence, and the point is made—this world is becoming destabilized, and Harry’s isn’t the only life in danger.
The second sequence comes at the very end of the picture. The Triwizard Tournament—the film’s plot engine—has thus far been a chance to create angsty, interpersonal drama, as well as trailer-friendly, summer-cinema spectacle. Tested friendships, romantic foibles, fantastical dragons, and Snape being mean to children already under a lot of stress. Each challenge in the competition puts the participants in mortal peril, in a somehow fun way. It ends with the tournament’s dual winners—Harry and his charming schoolmate Diggory—agreeing to claim the Triwizard Cup (the fiery goblet of the title) in unison. Sportsmanship over competition. It’s a moment that would be sweet if the audience didn’t palpably sense the dread in the air.
It turns out the goblet is another portkey. As soon as they’re transported by it, the dread ticks up, even though the audience doesn’t know what’s coming. Where they’re taken is a graveyard that would look at home in a Tim Burton movie. A leveling Death Eater we met in the dramatic climax of the previous film steps out of the shadows for another round, cradling in his arms a pale, malformed creature bundled like a baby. The sniveling villain issues the franchise’s first killing curse, cast on the likeable, well-adjusted Diggory, giving fans yet another first—their first corpse. One whose name they knew, who had his whole life ahead of him, and who was a friend to our hero even though the plot had them in competition. Just like that, the party’s over.
It’s a jolt that’s followed by Harry being restrained by gravestone, which is followed by forcible blood magic and the dunking of that pale baby-creature into a cauldron, which gives birth to one of popular culture’s greatest antagonists, Lord Voldemort, given human form after a four movie wait. He engages in a bit of Bond villain theatrics, a prelude to a duel of starwars proportions. When Harry transports back to Hogwarts—by the skin of his teeth—there’s that corpse again, wide-eyed and given lingering shots to drive home the point: all of these characters are in danger, and being young will not save them from the horrors yet to eat.
Goblet of Fire did not get the most Oscar nominations (Deathly Hallows – Part 2 did), is not held up as a singular artistic achievement (Prisoner of Azkaban tends to be, along with the two deathly hallows), and did not make the most money at the box office (Deathly Hallows – Part 2, yet again, takes that crown). One could even argue that it’s not even based on the novel that represents the turning point of the book series. That would of course be phoenix, which, in book form, is a blockbuster in black and white, a tipping point. But by cutting out a lot of minor subplots and world-building of the goblet novel, and letting breathe the inherent sense of mystery, the film lands the uppercut slug that Azkaban only alluded to.
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