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The Many Directions of “Harry Potter”

Like any long-running series such as James Bond, the adventures of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan or any of the far-stretching horror franchises still active, directors come and go. Either “recommended” to leave by the studio or simply possessing the urge to branch out to other projects, their departures inevitably alter the themes, moods and interpretations from film to film, and in some cases are the ingredient that keeps the saga fresh. The Harry Potter series is no different from its other cinematic brethren, having seen four auteurs tackle the beloved material from J.K. Rowling. With part one of the highly-anticipated finale due to hit theatres Friday, Player Affinity will take a look back at the filmmakers who got the series to where it is today.

 

Chris Columbus (“The Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Chamber of Secrets”)

philstonepicThough Chris Columbus never received the chance to explore the darker side of the series, which rose towards the end of the saga, his grasp on the mood of the first two books in the series is both beguiling and whimsical — pure family entertainment. Looking through Columbus’ filmography (which includes such entries as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire), his mantra seems to imply a lighter-take. His handling of another high-profile fantasy book series with Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief further bolsters that perspective.

Also to his defence, tackling a series with no benchmark standard is a daunting task to undertake. All successive directors of the series were able to tweak and skew the bones of the books; sometimes context is everything. To that effect, the actors were also new to their roles and in the case of the principle trio of young wizards, were child actors through and through. Their maturing over time should neither be a blight on Columbus’ adaptations nor should they be hailed as a main facet of a future director’s success.

By far the shortest and least action-heavy of the bunch, Columbus was able to expertly craft the sequences into tense games of cat and mouse. Scenes in The Chamber of Secrets such as Harry’s battle with the basilisk or the quite deadly game of chess are handled exceedingly well. Columbus was originally slated to helm all seven films, but apparently got “burned out” and after producing the third left the series entirely. Though the first films in the series are universally considered to be the most forgettable and “kid” oriented, they are great examples of how the spirit of a book can translate effectively to the big screen.

 

Alfonso Cuaron (“The Prisoner of Azkaban”)

When looking at a man who was behind such films as Y tu mamá también and Children of Men, the obvious choice would be to automatically omit him from the choice of directors who would helm a “Harry Potter” movie. As it turns out he was more than an intriguing consideration and easily wonazkabanpic critical praise for his work, in spite of “The Prisoner of Azkaban” being the lowest grossing of the series. The cinematography is entrancingly bleak, and in contrast to the first films the Hogwarts castle becomes a character of its own. The ancient structure in context to the grounds becomes a brooding ominous force that was not explored previously.

The details of his passage remain sketchy (though the films aforementioned box office performance was certainly at play) Cuaron expressed interest at the release of Children of Men saying he would “love to have the opportunity of revisiting the “Harry Potter universe”. Alas that was not the case, and though I personally found he misrepresented my favourite book of the series, his handle on atmosphere and mood is undeniable. His greatest contribution (aside from the set design) was by far his concentration of the human element of the novels. Again, though Columbus has only Rowling’s “beginning” with which to work, it seems as if filmmaker Cuaron jumped at the chance to deepen the narrative. One shot and one shot only, Cuaron nevertheless made his mark on the series with decisive flair.

 

Mike Newell (“The Goblet of Fire”)

gobletpicBy far the most energetic and thrilling of the series, The Goblet of Fire” was the one (and perhaps only) film of the series that struck the perfect chord between glowing audience reaction and positive critical reception. Yet again the subject matter of the novel is inevitably reflected in the film and this fourth instalment has all the white-knuckle action and foreboding doom that make the “Harry Potter” universe what it is. Newell understandably makes the Tri-Wizard Tournament the main focus here, and though lacking the tense build-up to each challenge the book evokes, incredible special effects, maturing actors and a handle on the essence of the books more than make up for a shorter (than the book) running time.

“The Goblet of Fire” is also the first film to embrace death, not of a spirit or Voldemort host, but of a true character in the form of Cedric Diggory. Despite the fact “The Prisoner of Azkaban” took the first dark turn for the series, the director was not afraid to make this the first fully mature entry. The climactic maze sequence and inevitable duel with the snake-eyed sorcerer are handled among the best of any the series has to offer. Romance also flirts with story here, as hormones take over and the characters become far more human (far more muggle?) as a result. The supporting British cast is as sensational as ever and never fails to elevate the flashier material whenever given the chance. As pure entertainment and as a book-to-screen adaptation, Newell’s take is nothing short of rousing.

 

David Yates (“The Order of the Phoenix,” “The Half-Blood Prince,” “The Deathly Hallows I & II”)

pheonixcpicThe first director to be signed for more than two films, David Yates started things off on an incredibly high note transforming the most bloated and dull book into the most intellectually complex and thrilling of the bunch. There are few faults to be found in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; all the principal players come into their roles, we get out first glimpse of a wizarding duel and the interpretation of a number of the key facets of the book (for example the secretive Number 12 Grimmauld Place) into marvellous displays of on-screen fantasy.

The Half-Blood Prince, while holding true to the overall tone of Yates’ films, took by far the greatest focus on the human element than ever before. Light on action overall, the sixth chapter is entrancing for, not weakened by, the relationships between the characters we have watched for so many years. Though sporting the highest budget yet in the saga, most of the focus seems to be on atmosphere and calculated bursts of action unlike the grandly mounted “Goblet of Fire.”  Like “Goblet” and “Phoenix,” mortality and a sense of impending doom perforates the narrative, and with the death of a beloved staple of the books, the bleakness is locked in forever.

Two films yet to come, and already the “Harry Potter” films are cemented into popular culture; embraced by those young, their parents, and those who grew older with the series itself. Yates has yet to prove himself with the divided finale as a true visionary for the series, but when looking at the continued quality of the series one can’t help but be more than optimistic.

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