Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Written By G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Warner Brothers, PG rating

Harry Potter fans who have been eagerly awaiting the bespectacled young wizard’s return to Hogwarts will not be disappointed. Like its forerunners, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, The Prisoner of Azkaban is adapted from the astonishingly popular book series of British novelist, J.K. Rowling. (see also The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix). The books and their cinematic adaptations follow the young wizards, Harry Potter and his friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, through increasingly sinister and sometimes hilarious adventures at boarding school. Fantasy and fact, magic and reality—liberally doused with English folklore, crumbling castles, and mystical, foggy, oh-so-British scenery—all come together in the Harry Potter world.

From a cinematic standpoint, suffice it to say that the new direction of Alfonso Cuaron brings a much appreciated subtlety and deepening of suspense to the series. The subtlety comes as we see Potter and friends growing into adolescence, prone to violent outbursts of temper and early awakenings of romantic attraction (Ron and Hermione “innocently” hold hands at a couple of points in the movie). As for the suspense, Prisoner of Azkaban, especially the last hour of the movie, will not let you rest. Harry and friends unravel the secret of Sirius Black, the prisoner of the book’s title, fight off the soul-sucking dementors who hover over Hogwarts, and witness teacher Lupin’s transformation into a werewolf. For movie entertainment, you can’t go wrong with The Prisoner of Azkaban. But it does more than entertain.

The movie develops several themes that reward the perceptive viewer. At the core of all the Harry Potter books and movies is the very human need for parental love and identification. Harry may be a precocious wizard capable of casting the “patronus” charm that will ward off the power of death. He may ride the fastest broom in the annual quidditch match and be able to divine the future. But underneath the burdened and charmed life of the youthful wizard is the hunger for the very thing that Harry has been denied—the love of a mother and father. That his parents sacrificed their own lives to save Harry from Voldemort, the prince of darkness, only sharpens the pain.

When Sirius, Harry’s godfather, tells him, “ You look so much like your father, except your eyes, which are your mother’s,” we can almost touch Harry’s longing to know them, to understand himself through his forever absent parents. We want to believe Sirius when he tells Harry that “The ones who love us never leave us." But with Harry we know that loss is real. The death of one’s parents, whatever the circumstances, leaves a scar as painful as the one upon Harry’s forehead.

Harry is marked. The mark that he received through the original struggle with Voldemort signifies a certain calling and responsibility. Harry is the one who can ultimately face the power of darkness, and because he can, he is called upon to sacrifice again and again. But Harry’s willingness to risk himself—for Sirius, for Buckbeak (a magical half eagle, half horse), for his friends—seems more an act of human courage and loyalty than reliance upon superhuman powers.

This is part of the movie’s deepest appeal. Harry is never quite sure if he will prevail, but when circumstances require it, as in the saving of Sirius Black’s life, Harry is willing to risk his own life on behalf of others. At one point in the movie, he even pleads for the life of the rat-like Peter Pettigrew who betrayed his parents. Harry’s actions inspire others in the movie—Ron and Hermione for example—to give themselves away on behalf of others. Such self-sacrifice and charity seems terribly out of step with a narcissistic culture that urges “self-actualization.” Countering this culture of self-absorption, Harry the orphaned wizard points us in another direction — towards concern for others. Though gently, and without the use of heavy-handed religious symbolism, The Prisoner of Azkaban raises a deeply human and spiritual question: for what and for whom are we willing to risk ourselves?

At the end of the movie, when Harry, Hermione, and Sirius Black jump upon the back of the majestic and magical Buckbeak to complete Sirius’ escape, the music soars. Could J.K. Rowling, like her British literary forebears J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, have, if not a specific biblical scripture, at least an allusion in mind (“They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint”)? For a few moments, at least until the next Harry Potter installment, goodness has found its wings. The oddly gratifying thing about it is that for all the movie’s enchantment, the majestic ending is not so much the fulfillment of fantasy as the result of a joining of compassionate human hearts and sturdy hands with all the earthly forces that conspire for goodness.

Copyright @ 2004 Lee Ramsey