As we’ve discussed before, I haven’t reread the Harry Potter books in over a decade. For Prisoner of Azkaban, that probably puts the last time around late 2003 or early 2004. This is where the darkness of my own timeline greatly affected my reading of the series, and the meaning I have pulled from the books over time. You see, my own dad passed away in 2003 and I had just been sent home from university for failing to maintain my grade point average, which was caused by the worst episode I’ve had to date of depression.
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When I finally came out of the haze of profound depression and the immediate ramifications of the loss of my father, I was surrounded by the life I could still have, but it was no longer possible to have exactly the life I was on the path to before. I visualized it as a ball rolling down a hill, and as my ball of life headed down the hill, it had just hit an enormous boulder that prevented it from proceeding straight ahead. I could go back, I could go to either side, or I could go around and get where I was eventually going, but with some new terrain added in. This concept brought me a sense of peace. I imagined Harry in this story as experiencing the same kind of cataclysmic feelings. He could still be the Harry Potter who is building his life as a wizard with all of his new friends and found family, but following the events of Prisoner of Azkaban, it is impossible for him to get there in the way in which he thought he was going. A very large boulder (or several) was now in the way.
I do not know if I will ever be able to read this book through another lens.
Structurally Prisoner of Azkaban wastes not one drop of ink in its development. Everything is important, everything is linked, and the narrative is headed somewhere. This is still a book meant for a YA audience and its crisp, economic delivery of events is a positive, regardless of my feelings that it all comes together a smidge too neatly.
In traditional Potter plotting, Harry needs to get out of Privet Drive, but for the first time in the series he is the instigator of his own escape. In the previous books, Hagrid or the Weasleys have come to rescue him. In this book Harry inflates Mr. Dursley’s sister and takes off into the night to escape retribution. Through a bit of luck the Night Bus fetches our boy and gets him to Diagon Alley. During this time, Rowling is able to layer in the goings-on in the greater wizarding world while we’ve been away, including the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban.
The reality of Azkaban is made all the more clear to us, following its introduction in Chamber of Secrets, as the Dementors attack the Hogwarts Express and Harry (and the reader) glimpse for the first time the power of these beings. It is also the introduction of the best Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher to grace the halls of Hogwarts during Harry’s time: one Professor Remus Lupin. The debates amongst the Weasleys to tell Harry about the link between himself and Sirius Black, and Lupin’s hesitation to introduce himself properly or tell Harry what the Dementors are when questioned on the train, feed into what Prisoner of Azkaban is about. By the time we rejoin the characters, this is no longer simply a story about a boy finding out he’s a wizard, this is becoming a narrative about learning to be an adult. Rowling, through the lens of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, is looking at how in our teenage years we all need to learn that the adults around us make mistakes and underestimate the young.
The year at Hogwarts follows the traditional school year, as much as any Potter book does. We trail our main three as they endeavor on new courses as they prepare for the eventual O.W.L.S. in their fifth year (this is another time when having the Weasley Twins two years ahead of our main three serves to introduce the larger world of Hogwarts to the reader), Hermione is working herself to the bone, everyone fights because they are 13, and the Dementors seem hell bent on ruining Harry’s life including their part in the destruction of his precious Nimbus 2000. As time progresses we track Harry’s progression to defiant youth – he is now in possession of both the Maurader’s
Map and the invisibility Cloak and not afraid to use them to get to Hogsmeade even though everyone warns him against it. He is also so typically teenage in that he does seek a way to protect himself, and not rely on others, against the Dementors. But, he also does it largely so that he doesn’t let down his fellow Quidditch team players again should the Dementors return to the pitch.
But with this we get the introduction of the last crucial piece of magical know how that will be in great use in later books: the Patronus. It seems hard to imagine now that this is the first time we’re introduced to such an important piece of the Potter lore. I don’t know that Rowling gets enough credit for the heartstrings she is able to pluck and pull with her creative endeavors. We get our first glimpse of it when the solution to fighting a boggart is to make it ridiculous so that you are able to laugh at it. We can fight our greatest fears through the power of laughter. But then, with the Patronus, Rowling expands this idea that our happiest memories, full of love are what we need to fight what sucks the joy from our lives. It is a nearly perfect analogy for depression (with chocolate being the substitute for SRIs and the like).
Is this book perfect? No. I struggled the first time with monologue after monologue that is the discovery of the truth of Peter Pettigrew in the Shrieking Shack and it was only marginally improved by the audio version and my memories of the movie. Also, the fighting between Hermione and Ron. I understand it, but having the two go through virtually the same arc for two books was tough. We go from how happy Ron and Harry both are to see Hermione return at the end of Chamber of Secrets to instant bickering and fighting about the animals. Sure, we needed to focus on Scabbers, but ugh. Generally, it drags a bit in the middle and the final few chapters contain so much information it can be hard to process all of it.
With all of these things happening, it seems there couldn’t possibly be more, but there is. The past is still very much with us (those boulders again), and adults are dumb because they don’t tell us things we ought to know. Which gets us to the next point that what Harry doesn’t know can hurt him. By attempting to shield Harry from the painful truth, the various adults in his life simply ensure that he will hear about events pertinent to his life in the backhanded and incomplete ways, he will be isolated with his newfound information, and continue to feel as though he cannot trust the adults in his life. The adults in his life who do not keep everyone in the loop cause Harry’s isolation, which will grow to be his true weakness and failure to reach out to others. This happens to us all throughout our lives; it is a harsh but necessary truth. As we see time and time again with Ron, Hermione, and Harry when we have knowledge we are able to more ably fight our battles, even when we lose (Buckbeak).
As to the movie adaptation. While I personally missed a bit of fluff about the edges that the book did still offer (the extended Night Bus scene, the squid in the lake at Hogwarts), the movie is heading in an interesting direction, if slightly thin. We are moving away from the kid movies of Christopher Columbus and into more interesting and intricate fare with the addition of Alfonso Cuaron as director. This is the last movie produced by 1492 Productions, with things handed off to Warner Brothers starting with Goblet of Fire. In its way movie three is the beginning of the teenage phase, shaking off its own childhood. But in that, it is itself loses a lot of its own identity. Cuaron focuses on the physical settings of Hogwarts, grounding the audience, but the screenplay functions as a cliff’s notes as opposed to proper adaptation.
As with the book itself, my favorite section of the movie is (like Angry Dimples) Hermione and Harry re-playing the previous evening as spectators and sometimes participants. My affection for these forty minutes of screen time had erased over time my memory of how much Cuaron and screenwriter Steve Kloves carved out of the original story arc. Rowling’s vision for this sequence works so much better in the visual media, even if it is full of moments, which leave fans annoyed (why can’t our heroes freeze Pettigrew? They did it to Neville in book 1!) We see practically no Quidditch, no House Cup, few classes, and no proper discussion of Hermione’s intense workload and Ron’s continuing concern about it.
Which brings me to perhaps my largest complaint about the book to movie adaptation problem: the Assassination of the Character of Ronald Weasley.
There are people who do not enjoy the character of Ron Weasley. I am not one of them. I love Ron, even when he is being a childish brat. Everyone is allowed to be a brat from time to time. The true measure of who we are, both in fictional realms and out here in the real world is how we learn and grow and pick ourselves up off the floor once we are done with our temper tantrums. Ron excels at the picking himself back up part.
I wrote extensively in my review of Chamber of Secrets about Rowling’s use of Ron v Draco, and by extension their families, to hammer home the theme. I also mentioned that one of Ron’s best lines was given to Hermione. In this adaptation when Professor Snape is subbing in for Professor Lupin, trying to drag the class to guess that Lupin is a werewolf, and being his terrible self (as usual) to Hermione, Ron is not given his defense of Hermione and instead speaks the childish answer that everyone thinks in the book. Even when they are fighting, even when he cannot stand her, she is his friend, he is loyal to her, and he will defend her. It goes for any of the other main people in his life. This is the Ron Weasley that we love, and it’s no wonder that only movie watchers don’t get always get him.
But the movie does give us badass Hermione punching Draco in the face, so I will forgive it. Mostly.
This re-read will be traveling through all the Harry Potter books in this the 20th anniversary of the first book, The Sorcerer’s Stone’s publication. This review is also preceded by The Chamber of Secrets and is followed by The Goblet of Fire.