Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban

Random thoughts on leaving the cinema:

 

Toward the beginning of the film we see Harry and some friends in the dorm. One lad has tied his tie around his head, in the manner of a Red Indian. They are eating magic sweets and giggling, slightly vulgarly. The sweets, which make the person eating them roar like a lion or hoot like a steam train, are a sort of coy metaphor for belching or worse. The scene is filmed in a documentary style: the camera is eavesdropping on the boys. This is the first time, in three movies and five increasingly rambling books, that I have believed that Hogwarts is a boarding school, with children in it, as opposed to a sort of wizard-themed Butlins camp. Similarly, the relationship between Harry and Prof. Lupin resembled the relationship which real boys might possibly have with real teachers.

J.K Rowling's franchise was overdue for an encounter with reality: a pity it took a third-party film-director to arrange it.

 

On average, there is about the right amount of acting in the film. The adults act far too much, the kids don't act nearly enough, so it evens out. Emma Thompson goes slightly over the top; Dawn French does so completely, and Alan Rickman is Alan Rickman.

If I were a gambling man, Hermione is the only one of the three leads who I would put money on still having an acting career after her balls drop. In a manner of speaking. She delivers lines in several different tones of voice, and sometimes reminds you of real thirteen-year-olds you have met. Harry, on the other hand, runs to three expressions—bewilderment, fear and anger. Ron can manage exactly one. (The posters for Philosopher's Stone depicted Harry looking surprised and Ron looking afraid. The whole repertoire in one photo.)

 

Being a film, it omits all the amusing little details about school life, which Jaykay does really well, and concentrates on the main plot, which she is really crap at. Stone and Chamber had enough of the rollicking yarn at their heart to survive this  treatment and still be relatively fun movies. They both turn into a sort of Indiana Jones in Short Trousers in the last half hour, but then, so do the books. But Prisoner was the book where the rot really set in. The charming world of Jennings with Magic got mired in its own back story and spent the next 1,000 pages disappearing up its own highly profitable backside.

It has become clear that the story which Jaykay really wants to tell is the one about the schooldays of the previous generation: Pettigrew and Riddle and Harry's parents and Voldemort's rise to power. Harry is only the lens through which we see this history take shape. The plot of Stone and Chamber were, roughly “how Harry defeated a monster in the school's cellar”. The plots of Prisoner and Order are “how Harry pieced together a little more of the story about what happened to his parents at school.”

It's a deeply nostalgic, even a reactionary, fantasy. Nothing that happens to us will ever be as important as our schooldays. The apocalyptic conflict between good and evil is an extension of a playground spat. The Dark Lord was once a very naughty boy, and the only person he still fears is his old headmaster. The battle of the Pelannor was won on the playing fields of Hogwarts.

This is why adults like the books so much, I guess. We all believed that us and our school pals were really important people,  the ones who would change the world. Well in this world, it's true. (This is the real 'fantasy' element in the story. Flying broomsticks and shapeshifting rats are quite down to earth by comparison.  )

In the book, we have a long, tense build up about an escaped murderer. The history of previous generation slips out only a little at a time. Here, we lose most of that build up, and fast-forward to the exposition, which comes in one enormous dollop. At best, it's bewildering; at worst, a let down.

 

I  wonder what people who hadn't read  the books made of it. Did  I blink and miss the explanation of who Padfoot, Moony & co were?

 

The film looks quite different from the last two. Hogwarts has suddenly remembered that it is in Scotland. Conversations keep breaking out in cloisters and courtyards and on mountain paths with Scenery in the background. When we left it last June, Hogwarts was a minor English public school; when we returned after the holidays, it had become a very benign monastic academy. (Someone has replanted the whomping willow in a different location, too). A Cathedral School is more convincing model for a school for wizards than Eton. I had a sense that the director had set himself the task of imagining what a magician's school might really be like, and was only half-heartedly interested in Jaykays plot.

Apart from the silly double decker bus, all the glossiness of the first two movies has gone. Everything is grey. There are few house points, no detentions, and hardly any Quidditch. It isn't the shiny, sunny place that Harry adopted as his home at the end of the first film—but it is actually a place. Old Hogwarts one was tempted to say, was really just a film set.

 

I liked it. The first two films followed the books so closely as to be redundant.  I felt I'd  already seen them before they started. This felt fresh. But one wonders if the series is about to collapse under its own weight. How is a straight adaptation of Goblet of Fire going to follow on from this semi-abstract riff on a theme by Jaykay Rowling?

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