I'll be forward with you. I have not read all of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. I read the first three a few years back and quickly lost interest. It's not the style of prose I'm drawn to. I will say, however, her ability to create characters, environments, and engaging conflict is strong. It's why I've been drawn so much to the films. I've seen them all in theaters and enjoyed myself at all of them. Sure, some are better than others, but there was something to the world created onscreen. Hogwarts is gorgeous, the official school knitwear is beautifully made, and the music is always good.
On this, the week of the final Harry Potter film release, I figured it would be a good time to share a few thoughts on each of the films. Then I thought I could have much more fun by ranking the films from best to worst without any real knowledge of whether the adaptations are faithful or not. This is the ranking guide for a Harry Potter non-fan drawn into the world.
Let's get going.
7th Place: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Here's what I remember about this film: there's a giant snake in the basement and a crying girl ghost in the boy's room. Moaning Myrtle remains one of my favorite characters in the film series. You'll see rather quickly that I like the annoying gimmicky characters.
Otherwise, I feel like the film was a missed opportunity. Harry may only be a second year student here, but you're dealing with what could have been a fantasy/monster movie hybrid. Instead, we get a bunch of exposition, some jaunty library searches, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith serving stern teacher realness, and beautiful scarves. Oh, the scarves. I have a collection of handmade ones for each of the houses, but that's besides the point.
I won't turn this film off if it comes up on ABC Family, but I won't actively seek it out, either.
6th Place: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Here's what I remember: Dumbledore drinks a lot of water for about an hour of the film at the climax. I bumped into a cute co-worker and got her number in the parking lot. Luna Lovegood is introduced and quickly replaces the hole in my heart created by the fact that my Dolores Umbridge will not be appearing in this film.
I can't tell if the problem here is staying too close to the book, not staying close enough to the book, or trying to make the longest and most epic of the Potter novels into a single film. I'm pretty sure it's the last one. I remember my one friend chewing my ear off explaining all the "obvious" stuff I missed that wasn't actually mentioned in the film.
The dark tone is good, and I do enjoy Helena Bonham-Carter screaming like a madwoman, but the film bored me.
5th Place: Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
Here's what I remember: there is terrible CGI in this film. All attempts to establish a cohesive plot are pushed aside to set-up the characters for the rest of the films in the series. The knitting could bring tears to my eyes. The introduction of Hogwarts is beautiful, especially the Sorting Hat sequence and banquet.
I just think the film didn't actually have a purpose beyond cashing in on the huge fanbase of the books. It's not a bad film, just an unambitious one. There's a lot of good production design, but the adult cast is wasted outside of Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. Why even cast the best of the best of British thespians if you're going to give them a few lines each and have them otherwise sit behind a table?
The first film is already creaky a mere 10 years later, but it's worth seeing for the physical, non-digital design elements.
4th Place: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1
Here's what I remember: everyone is horny. The main trio spend a lot of time in the woods playing "pass the crazy-thought-producing amulet" and dancing together. Something about tabloid smears and the return of my beloved Dolores Umbridge. Voldemort kills a really pretty lady by floating her over a table.
This film is more confusing than Half-Blood Prince's never-ending climactic scene. However, the performances are very good. The production design team had to create a whole bunch of new environments and they are far more exciting than anything since Goblet of Fire. There's a level of emotional maturity that most of the films lack. The film actually builds good suspense. I eventually got what was going on, but now I'm afraid I won't remember any of that when Part 2 opens this week.
So help me, it's actually a suspenseful, emotional, and rather quiet fantasy film with good acting.
3rd Place: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
What I remember: the Tri-Wizard tournament. The opening quidditch match that doesn't show any actual quidditch. The introductions of the other schools. The brutal introduction of Voldemort. Amazing new costume designs and strong special effects.
When I set out to write this piece, I assumed I would put this at number one. It's the film in the series I will drop everything to see. The cast is great, the action works, and seeing the darker side of the professors in the Harry accusation scene is shocking. Plus, Rita Skeeter is an awesome character. I wish she'd come back. It's great fun, but there are some flaws. The underwater challenge is very muddy. I still don't know what happened to Fleur as the alleged sea-critters did not stand out enough for my eyes to tell the difference between the lake and the attacking monsters. There are a bunch of dropped subplots and the tone is inconsistent.
This is a solid action/fantasy film that still (water challenge aside) looks very good.
2nd Place: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
What I remember: my beloved, the glamorous and fair Dolores Umbridge, is unfairly vilified by J.K. Rowling and the entire film production. What a delightful woman. Did you see her cat plate collection? Or how she believe that education should be about theoretical explorations of wide subject matter? Or how she put that little snit Hermione in her place? Spare the rod, spoil the child. If only we had more educators like Dolores Umbridge, the special snowflake syndrome would be non-existent in America.
Oh, the film? It's great fun. Order of the Phoenix really is about setting up exposition for the rest of the series. However, unlike the first film, it actually does it in a narrative-driven way that doesn't feel like a portmanteau of a year at Hogwarts. The new cast members are great and the non-Harry cast is given a chance to act for the first time since Prisoner of Azkaban. Plus, it brought the love of my life, Dolores Umbridge, to life with an award-worthy performance from Imelda Staunton.
This is a genuinely good fantasy film with a dark streak of humor and a consistently dark and cold tone.
1st Place: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
What I remember: a beautifully constructed time-traveling fantasy with more genuine emotion than any other picture in the series. It deals with serious real-world issues in the constructs of fantasy and establishes the actual personalities of the characters in the films as three-dimensional.
What can I say? This film is beautiful. The way they handle the introduction of the dementors, Azkaban, and punishment in the wizarding world is admirable. Alfonso Cuaron pushes the actors to actually live in the moment without winking at the audience. It's a startling change from the previous two pictures and still stands out from the rest. It's the closest to a perfect film that the Harry Potter series has achieved. It also, unlike most of the series, actually works as a self-contained narrative. If someone made a film in which a group of young wizards had to use a magical amulet to turn back time and save the innocent from horrible fates, it would work without the Potter universe. I think this is the best story Rowling came up with in the entire series.
If you can only see one Harry Potter film, make it this one. Even my Potter-hating friends admit it's a good film.
So have I completely missed the mark? Potter fans, sound off. What have I missed? What have I misrepresented? And why do you actually hate sweet, kind, fair, and gentle Dolores Umbridge? Sound off.