In the evangelical circles of my childhood, Harry Potter was anathema; when I was allowed to read the books in high school, they still carried the sense of something forbidden about them, though by the time I reached college, J.K. Rowling was suddenly accorded the reverence due a long-lost member of the Inklings. Suffice it to say that Christians exhibit a distinct tendency to overreact to Harry Potter, in one way or the other; personally, I came to the series too late in life for it to make a deep impression on me, and usually find such dramatic claims faintly laughable. As a rule, I think the books are appealingly imaginative, thoroughly enjoyable, and, for a myth, modern to a fault. Rowling’s cosmos is too limited, too down-to-earth, to evoke much sense of the numinous or transcendent – a strange paradox for a series centering on magic. There is some fine human drama to be found in their pages, but supernatural drama? Not so much.
But enough context; I have probably already said enough to ruffle some feathers, and this essay is not the place to weigh the merits of seven books, nine films, and however much other stuff has been produced under Potter’s banner. It is enough to confess that I am not a devotee, and that although I like fewer than half of the Harry Potter movies, I absolutely adore Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Christopher Columbus’ first two entries set a deeply unfortunate precedent for the film franchise. They are plodding, wordy, stagey affairs, slavish and uninspired translations of the written page, and even the best of the later installments directed by David Yates cannot wholly overcome the inescapable sense of being filmed books rather than proper films. Only Cuarón’s third chapter is alive, from start to finish, with a genius that is vividly, uniquely cinematic. Prisoner of Azkaban is remarkable not only for its aesthetic and technical success – unparalleled visual inventiveness, a vibrant musical score, and career-best performances from its cast – but for its emotional nuance and thoughtfulness. This is not only a well-crafted film; it is also an extraordinarily spirited one.
Crucially, the thematic and dramatic construction of the film is not beholden to Rowling’s text, treating the book as raw material to be shaped into something new, rather than a rubric to fill out. Prisoner of Azkaban becomes something truly special because of this willingness to follow its own emotive rhythms without putting them into words. Instead the film works, as a film should, primarily in the realm of pure sensation: of sight and sound, images and editing. In so doing, it bypasses the mediating language of consciousness – the written or spoken word – to touch the unconscious with rare directness. The result has something special about it, something primal and profound. Yes, this is still a Harry Potter film, but it’s also a film that makes me want to write about it in sweeping terms, as something more.
We begin in a world of darkness, alone with two sounds: the opening notes of John Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme,” and Harry’s whisper of the illuminating spell, “Lumos!” – let there be light.
Williams’ theme music is light and mischievous, and the overall effect of the scene is one of bemused – and perhaps wistful – recognition. After all, Harry is enacting a magical version of a scene we all recognize from our own childhoods: surreptitiously reading a treasured book by flashlight under the bedsheets. Yet there is something faintly ominous about the utter blackness that threatens to engulf Harry. The scene concludes with an iris, a silent film technique in which a black circle closes around a particular point; visually, darkness surrounds and overwhelms what is depicted onscreen. Cuarón will use this device throughout the film to conclude scenes of significant distress or trauma. To stave off this darkness, Harry needs illumination – not only literal light, but the act of learning, of revealing some hidden knowledge. (Here, significantly, he is using the light to pore over a magic textbook.) Illumination is not always a pleasant process, though: the knowledge Harry faces in Prisoner of Azkaban is more complicated and challenging in nature than the heretofore simple joys of childhood.
In the very next scene, Harry’s anger over his deceased parents causes the lights in the Dursleys’ kitchen to flicker, and shortly after, he storms out into the night and finds himself alone at an abandoned playground, where the street lamps flicker again. The innocent curiosity of childhood is threatened by Harry’s growing awareness of mortality – certain forms of knowledge are painful to contend with. First, he is dwelling on the deaths of his parents; then, at the empty playground, he encounters the Grim, an “omen of death.” In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry’s journey will push him beyond the boundaries of youth into a world of fluctuating emotions. This process is arduous, difficult – but necessary if Harry is to mature. Perhaps there is a suggestion in a visual parallel: when Sirius Black’s soul is coming out of his mouth, it is a small, round, pulsing blue light, just like the illumination produced from Harry’s wand. It is with the soul that one learns; to learn is to deepen one’s soul.
This deepening, however, is fraught with dangers. Throughout Prisoner of Azkaban, there is a persistent sense of adolescence as something fragile and tenuous. Happiness – delighted children eating candy with their friends – is protected from the despair-inducing Dementors outside by nothing more than a window. (Cuarón’s camera frequently drifts straight through glass, as if to emphasize the delicate nature of these separations.) To remain innocent forever is not an option; in the end, one must come to terms with knowledge of the world. Thankfully, this knowledge, this illumination, brings its own kind of comfort. According to Dumbledore: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Let us begin with self-knowledge. In moments of introspection, Harry considers the reflection of his own face; first in the rain-streaked window of the Hogwarts Express, and later, while flying with Buckbeak over the rippling surface of a lake. Like all adolescents, Harry is growing increasingly conscious of his own person; one recalls the quizzical reaction of Bambi’s young hero upon first seeing his mirrored self in a pool of water. Thanks to Jungian archetypes, water is often a symbol of the unconscious, and it is by plumbing these unacknowledged depths that Harry begins to come to greater self-knowledge.
Harry’s quest to know himself is guided primarily by Professor Remus Lupin, who teaches him how to fight two different dark creatures: Boggarts, shapeshifters that take the form of whatever their victim fears most, and the aforementioned Dementors, which suck the joy (and soul) from their prey. Both of these monsters attack Harry on a specifically personal level; they cannot be battled simply with physical or technical prowess. The fear of the Boggarts must be combated by laughter, the despair of the Dementors by happiness. To fight them, self-reflection is needed: one must know what one fears, what makes one happy. It is no accident that Lupin’s students face themselves in a mirror before facing the Boggart. William Connor Devlin has already written about this scene at length: he compares the Boggart to a Jungian shadow, suggesting, “what frightens us is often the darkest side of us, the thing about ourselves we are most wary of.” Perhaps this is why Harry, wandering the corridors at night, is momentarily frightened by his own reflection in a mirror.
To protect himself from the Dementors, Harry must understand himself even more completely. In order to produce the spell that will shield him from the despair caused by the Dementors, he has to recall a memory – per Lupin, “A very happy memory, a very powerful memory.” Harry selects the memory of the first time he rode a broom, but this is “not nearly good enough.” The delights of childhood, though genuine, are too shallow to repel the deep despondency caused by the Dementors. Harry must search for a source of real joy – and real joy is almost always tinged with real sadness. “It’s not happy, exactly,” he tells Lupin. “Well, it is. It’s the happiest I’ve ever felt. But it’s complicated.”
Harry cannot defeat the Dementors with mere pleasure; instead, he must identify the deepest yearnings of his soul. In How To Be Unlucky, Joshua Gibbs posits that because the truest happiness is derived from closeness to God, it behooves a man’s spiritual wellbeing to dwell on the happiest moments of his life. Contemplating real happiness, which is found only in virtue, frees one from enslavement to the cheap substitutes offered by vice – per Augustine, “[earthly] goods after which only those pant who cannot imagine anything better.” Harry’s search for a memory reveals longings that can never be satisfied in this world: “I was thinking of [my father]. And Mum. Seeing their faces. They were talking to me… Just talking. That’s the memory I chose. I don’t even know if it’s real. But it’s the best I have.” To call this a leap of faith would be overstating matters; the ethos of Harry Potter is too secular for that. The literal reality or unreality of Harry’s memory of his parents is beside the point. The point is that, in essence, Harry uses them as inspiration to will himself to be happy.
The film begins with Harry defending the memory of his parents from loathsome Aunt Marge; during the ensuing humorous altercation, Cuarón keeps cutting to a cuckoo clock going haywire. Harry’s consideration of his past brings him to another kind of knowledge: knowledge of time. He finds solace in a magical photograph of his parents, but time threatens to carry him further and further away from them. A wizard is briefly shown with Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and clocks – particularly Hogwarts’ massive timepiece – are a major visual fixture in the film. Williams’ musical score even incorporates ticking. Cuarón pays special attention to the passage of the seasons, marking time with wordless vignettes of the Whomping Willow losing its leaves or shaking off snow. Harry’s childlike loyalty to the past helps him grow into a virtuous adult. He fashions his identity – as all children do – out of his parents’ traits: his mother’s kindness and his father’s nobility. “You’re more like them than you know,” Lupin tells him. Later, Harry stops Lupin and Sirius from taking murderous revenge on his parents’ betrayer. His simple reasoning: “I just didn’t think my dad would’ve wanted his two best friends to become killers.”
Harry’s love of the past guides him in the present, but also entails a wider sense of responsibility. Lupin chides: “Your father never set much store by the rules either, but he and your mother gave their lives to save yours, and gambling their sacrifice by wandering around the castle unprotected, with a killer on the loose, seems to me to be a pretty poor way to repay them.” Loyalty to the past comes with obligations. It is a mark of childishness to live with an awareness of only the present moment; maturity involves seeing oneself on a continuum that also takes past and future into account. Prisoner of Azkaban‘s time travel climax finds Harry and Hermione watching the actions of their own past selves – an extension of the self-reflection motif. In one of his most ingenious visual flourishes, Cuarón bookends the time travel sequence by sending his camera out through the clock face and back in again.
Roger Scruton contrasts the “minimal self” – a creature who expresses and understands only his present mental state – with the “maximal self,” who “projects himself forward and backward in time, and lives according to the logic of a human biography.” The minimal self is not an animal, by virtue of having a first-person perspective, but the fully developed human must also have the maximal self, whose “self-attribution leads towards intention and responsibility.” When Harry and Hermione go into the past, they are able to learn from their previous actions, and also to affect their outcomes in the present, with a view towards their desires for the future. This is a mark of maturity, of wisdom: per Dumbledore, “When in doubt, I find retracing my steps to be a wise place to begin.” Of course, the distinction between past, present, and future selves becomes increasingly blurry, for human persons are eternal. Here is a marvelous suggestion of some ineffable continuity: Harry’s future self, watching his past self get hit in the head by a rock, rubs his own head, as if hurt.
But the passage of time brings with it the awareness of mortality. Movement into the future is also, inevitably, movement toward death. This knowledge can be crippling. Professor Trelawney, who teaches Divination class, wears massive glasses and prattles on about the “sight” and the “inner eye.” However, because her sight is fixated on the Grim – an omen of death – she seems unable to do anything but watch. When Harry sees a dark cloud shaped like the Grim during a Quidditch match, he is wearing giant round goggles that visually resemble Trelawney’s glasses. His subsequent encounter with the Dementors renders him unconscious and concludes with another iris out; Cuarón employs the same device after Trelawney prophesies that “Innocent blood shall be shed.” Adolescence’s first fumbling attempts to reckon with mortality are simply overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of death.
After the prophecy, we iris in on an axe being sharpened while a clock tolls. The axe belongs to the executioner who is supposed to kill Buckbeak – a symbol of childhood innocence, seemingly doomed to fall victim to the inexorable passage of time. Immediately after Harry, Ron, and Hermione think they have witnessed Buckbeak’s death, the Grim makes its appearance again.
“The Grim,” however, turns out to be Sirius Black – supposedly the betrayer of Harry’s parents, but actually their dear friend, and his godfather. In Trelawney’s class, Ron fumblingly interprets some tea leaves and tells Harry, “You’re gonna suffer, but you’re gonna be happy about it.” Although it seems like a throwaway joke, this line may be the most succinct expression of the film’s thesis. The omen of death turns out to be something that brings comfort. It is something to be accepted, not opposed or fled from, for the only way to become truly mature is to accept sorrow and joy together. The light that brings knowledge is also a revealer of harsh truths. Moonlight lays bare Lupin’s true nature as a werewolf and, in the process, snatches away Harry’s potentially happy future living with Sirius. The past cannot always be changed, and as the knowledge dawns on Harry, causing his dream to collapse before his eyes, the frame is flooded with blue moonlight.
Lastly, Harry must come to terms with his father’s death. Believing he saw his father from afar, Harry is tempted to deny the reality of mortality. He tells Hermione his father saved him and Sirius from the Dementors. But Hermione perceives: “Harry, no one’s coming… You’re dying… both of you.” Harry’s father is dead; all that remains is for Harry to take his place, saving his past self and Sirius from the Dementors. The film began with a child trying to bring light into his world and ends with an act of illumination in which the son becomes his father, as all sons must.
“It’s cruel,” Sirius tells Harry before his departure, “That I got to spend so much time with James and Lily, and you so little.” Yet the joys of adolescence, through memory, are immune to the cruelty of time. In his essay on Prisoner of Azkaban’s music, Tom Upjohn draws a connection between the memory of flight that could not repel the Dementors and the flight that concludes the film. Flight – on a broom, on the back of Buckbeak – is associated with the fragile, dreamlike quality of childhood delight. “In dreams,” Dumbledore intones, “We enter a world that is entirely our own. Let him swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.” Dreams, of course, are tenuous things, but their transience does not invalidate their beauty. Harry tells Hermione that he would like to live with Sirius, “Someplace you can see the sky;” in the end, Sirius flies away on Buckbeak. The happiness Harry found with him and Lupin – friends and reminders of his parents – cannot last forever.
As Harry grows up, he is thrust into a world where flights must always end, a world forever teetering between joy and despair, a world where the seasons perpetually cycle through life and death. The passage of time is commemorated by the deaths of flying things – innocent birds killed abruptly by the sentient branches of the Whomping Willow. In the film’s final scene, however, Harry receives a broom from Sirius, along with one of Buckbeak’s feathers. Childhood may die a thousand deaths, but it need not die eternally. Harry and the other students walk out into the courtyard, beneath the endlessly swinging pendulum of the Hogwarts clock tower, and he takes off.
Prisoner of Azkaban ends on a freeze frame, lingering on this snapshot of fleeting happiness, achingly impermanent but immortalized in memory. Harry’s face is stretched with the same effect that accompanied the Dementors’ attempts to suck out his soul, for time is slowly sucking away his happiness, but he has accepted it – and, for a few precious moments, he is still smiling.