The Ins and Outs of Book to Movie Adaptations: The Harry Potter Movies (Part One of Two)

by Theo Sloan


October 26, 2020

Harry Potter is one of the most successful franchises ever created. It has movies, books, its own website, ridiculously detailed lore, merchandise, video games, guidebooks, its own theme park, and much more. However, I haven’t been to the theme park, or played the video games, and I don’t really have time to talk about the website. Instead, I am going to review the first four movies and compare them to the books a bit. I’ll both rate each movie as a separate entity from the corresponding book and as a book adaptation, then take into account details such as faithfulness to the source material, specific casting choices, and plot changes that either work or don’t work.

I do have some preliminary thoughts. I firstly want to say that the Dursleys, portrayed by Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Harry Melling, are excellent in every movie that they’re in, so I don’t have to repeat that in all of my reviews. Their standout moment is in The Chamber of Secrets during the beginning dinner party scene. And a quick disclaimer is also necessary: I am aware that the books these movies are adapted from are written by J.K. Rowling, a controversial figure. But I will not get into her politics in this review, and I am not praising her by praising her books and the Harry Potter movies. It is possible to separate the art from the artist. 

The first movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Great Britain, came out in 2001 and was directed by Chris Columbus. It took the world by storm, making a whopping $975,000,000. But is the movie any good?

Easily the best aspect of this movie is the wizarding world itself. Every single set design in this movie is absolutely perfect and brings the world to life in the best way possible. From Hogwarts Castle to Diagon Alley, the world is vibrant, colorful, and filled with intrigue. This movie is the foundation of the rest of the series, and if even one of the important locations fell flat it would have put a serious dent in the success of the future movies. The second best thing about this movie is Alan Rickman as Professor Severus Snape. He plays the role perfectly. He is so great in the role that when I reread the books after watching his performance, Snape sounded like Alan Rickman in my head. I do think all of the senior actors do a very good job here, especially Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall. I also like that the crew decided to play this movie relatively safe, in the sense that it is a very straight adaptation from the book to the movie. There aren’t any added scenes, or many big changes, and the details they did change were mostly cut for time. The subsequent movies had a lot of experimentation, for better or worse, and it’s always nice to return to this movie and just enjoy seeing the first book brought to the big screen. 

I don’t think I’m being controversial when I say that the performance of the child actors in this movie is mediocre at best. It is often cringeworthy or wooden, but it still falls into the category of things I felt were so-so, not completely bad, the reason being that all of the child actors grew into their roles well in later films. I challenge you to think of someone better than Daniel Radcliffe to play Harry Potter, or someone who embodies Hermione more than Emma Watson does. 

The biggest problem with this movie is that it is kind of forgettable and not very rewatchable. When I want to sit down to watch a Harry Potter movie, nine times out of ten I will be watching one of the other movies, and so I have to dock some points from the movie for that reason. I also feel that the childlike wonder this movie manages to capture during the first viewing wears off on repeat viewings. Furthermore, some scenes from the book were cut out, such as Harry’s second Quidditch match or Snape’s protection, making the plot a bit too simple.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a great introduction to the series, with great casting, and even better sets, yet the story is somewhat boring, and the child acting is quite bad. As a movie alone, I’ll give it 6.5/10; however, as an adaptation, I think it deserves an 8/10. 

Onto the second movie: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was released in 2002 and was once again directed by Chris Columbus.

Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart is the best character in the movie; he is essentially the comic relief, but he manages to steal every scene he’s in. His duel with Snape halfway through the film and his appearance in the ending scene inside the Chamber of Secrets are especially memorable. He also has a post-credit scene in the movie, which is arguably the funniest thirty seconds in the entire movie. Another great aspect of this movie is the action. There are three big action set-pieces in the movie: the flying car scene at the beginning, the scene with the spiders in the middle, and the finale in the Chamber of Secrets. Moreover, Dobby the house-elf makes his first appearance in this movie, and he is just as charming and fun as he is in the books. Even all of the child actors are better in this movie. Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson do a better job than Rupert Grint, but he still improves. Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy, is similarly good. It also goes without saying that Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are once again excellent, as well as Richard Harris as Dumbledore.

Yet the movie had glaring issues with the pacing and the runtime. Nothing from the book seems to have been cut at all, and as a result, the runtime is two hours and fifty-four minutes, making it the longest movie in the series. It certainly feels boring and unnecessarily prolonged at points. But what’s even worse is that the three hours of runtime deviate from the mysterious air of the book. The Chamber of Secrets book is surely a mystery; it lays out the clues throughout its pages, and the reader finds the solution in the end as the hero confronts the villain. However, the movie plays much more like a series of wacky happenings at Hogwarts. I think some excess parts should have been cut out from the movie so that a few more clues could be added in to truly make it a mystery.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has some thrilling action set pieces. It has some fantastic new actors in it, and the child actors all have improved performances. But the movie is also very poorly paced and makes the dangerous mistake of not cutting enough from the book. I have to give Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets a 6/10 as a movie, and a 6.5/10 as a book adaptation. 

The third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, came out in 2004. Alfonso Cuarón replaced Chris Columbus as the director. The third movie was a major success, making $796,000,000 at the box office. However, sales do not always equal quality, so let’s dive into the movie, starting with the good.

The acting in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban truly shines. The main trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione is almost unrecognizable when compared to The Chamber of Secrets, in the best possible way. Alfonso Cuarόn pulled fantastic performances out of the child actors. Among other activities, he had Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson all write an essay on what their respective characters meant to them, and how they grew and changed throughout the story. The rest of the cast is also in top form, with the newcomers all distinctly standing out from the rest. For the first time in the series, there’s a cast change: most unfortunately, between the second and third movies, Richard Harris died. Dumbledore was recast with Michael Gambon. Gambon invents Dumbledore as carrying a certain ferocity to him that Richard Harris never brought to the role. David Thewlis, another newcomer, is just fantastic as Lupin. He embodies what that character represents in every possible way. Besides the acting, the pacing in this movie is notable. Every scene goes on for just the right amount of time, and the story all flows together really well. In general, this is a very solid adaptation of the third book. The dialogue is great, it’s funny, the dementors are horrifying, the special effects are cool, the Marauders’ Map is visualized really well, and the list just goes on. The confrontation with Sirius Black in the Shrieking Shack is done really well too.

The movie does begin a downward trend with Ron and Hermione that needs to be addressed. The movie cuts out fights between Ron and Hermione that display both characters’ flaws in a concise way. It doesn’t really affect this movie that much, but it makes it so that Ron and Hermione are less developed characters in future movies, and changes the context of a few scenes from The Goblet of Fire.

There really is not very much that is bad about the movie; it is a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, does a good job cutting unnecessary scenes, and the few small changes that I don’t love don’t bother me much. 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has good acting and compelling characters. It’s a great adaptation of a great book. As a movie, I’ll give it a 9/10, and as an adaptation, I’ll give it a 9.5/10. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out in 2005. It was directed by Mike Newell. The movie was also successful, making $896,000,000 at the box office, but it wasn’t a good movie — in fact, I’m more inclined to call it a mess.

There are some redeeming qualities. The cast are once again all great. A few standouts include Brendon Gleeson as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody and David Tennant as Barty Crouch Jr., but the main trio are all in top form once again. I also think that the set is especially strong here, arguably even better that the one in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There are so many excellent designs, from the arena for the first task of the central competition, to the black lake, to the maze, to the graveyard, but the absolute standout is the Great Hall for the Yule Ball scene. The computer-generated imagery is also quite good, especially in the scene with Sirius’ head in the fireplace. The Priori Incantatem scene is beautifully done as well; it’s a true emotional standout in the series. But the movie does have many flaws. I’d go so far to call it a butchered adaptation.

The director, Mike Newell, is rather famous and talented, but he didn’t read the corresponding book before making the movie. As a result, even though the story is generally the same, the movie lacks the theme of corruption critical to the book. The book version of The Goblet of Fire is a coming-of-age story that revolves around a sporting competition between wizarding schools. Our heroes begin to develop romantic feelings, and we start to see the deep corruption of the wizarding world. Along the way, we have some splashes of angst, action, and mystery. However, the theme of the book is corruption. This all leads to a very satisfying twist that is very difficult to see coming unless you read the book many times. It’s a great book and I like it a lot. The movie completely neuters the message in every possible way, and it does this through its handling of Barty Crouch Sr., Ludo Bagman, and Cornelius Fudge. 

In the book, Crouch first appears as this uptight, squeaky clean ministry official. We then learn how he essentially led the fight against Voldemort in the ministry, but over time we lose our respect for him as we learn of his deep corruption — it could even be argued that Voldemort’s return is his fault. But in the end his character is still a bit sympathetic. The Goblet of Fire movie essentially cuts all of this. Crouch only has one or two scenes, and he is more for expositional dialogue than anything else. Ludo Bagman doesn’t even appear in the movie. Bagman is the super cool head of the Magical Sports Department. He used to play Quidditch, and he is always friendly toward Harry, yet it turns out that he is a corrupt gambling addict. This again furthers the corruption theme. And there’s Fudge, whose denial of Lord Voldemort’s return only lowers our already low opinion of him. His refusal to believe that Voldemort is back is cut. So unfortunately, the theme of corruption is completely abandoned in the movie. The presentation of the tasks and Newell’s portrayal of Lord Voldemort are other significant issues. The way Newell decided to act out Voldemort is bland at best and cringeworthy at best. Voldemort’s character never recovers from the awful portrayal for the entire rest of the series. 

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a letdown. It is one of my favorite books, but the movie adaptation is thoroughly mediocre at the best of times. The acting is average, the story is butchered, and the script is rather bad. However, it does have some fantastic sets. So I think as a movie I’ll give out a 6/10. I still enjoy it, even if it’s rather weak in comparison to some of the others. With a heavy heart, I have to give it an adaptation score of 3.5/10. It’s very disappointing. 

And that’s the first four Harry Potter movies. I hope you come back next month to hear my opinions on the final four movies as well, and I’d love to further discuss these movies with anyone interested.

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