Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ranking the "Harry Potter" Books and Movies

We’re only a few hours away from the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, signaling the end of a franchise that has defined so much of my childhood and adolescence.  I’ve tried not to get to sentimental this past week, publishing a ridiculous fan-fiction about Potter dominating Twilight rather than my usual reminiscence on the Potter phenomenon; the tears will come tonight at midnight, as the series draws to a close, and I’m sure tomorrow’s review of the film will say all the things I’ve left unsaid over the past four days.

But before it’s all over, I want to quickly take one last look back at the standing of the series, both the books and films.  I’ve read these books so many times, and enjoyed the movies for so many years that I’ve lots and lots of time to decide how they all stack up against each other.  Today, it seems, is as good a time as any to crystallize those thoughts in article form.  So I’m quickly going to share my rankings of the seven books, from least to most favorite, and the seven movies.  Where will the eighth film fall?  We’ll find out tonight.

Read More After the Jump…

 Ranking the Books – A Set of Masterpieces

This is the hard part, because I love all seven of J.K. Rowling’s books fairly equally.  Ranking them critically amounts to splitting hairs.  They are all A or A+ works, and it just comes down to which books satisfied my desires as a fan most intensely. 

7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
I love this book, I really do, but when I think about the series, this is the story that usually comes to my mind last.  It doesn’t have the whimsical discovery of the first book, the heart-crushing emotional spine of the third, or the palpable darkness of the series’ back-half.  That makes it slightly less memorable.  What it does have is a cracking good mystery, one that is full of tension and suspense, one that kept me up at night when I read it as a seven-year-old.  It fills its place in the series quite nicely, expanding on the universe, introducing us to the racially charged ‘pure blood mania’ themes, and giving young readers a primer on the kind of darkness we eventually came to expect from the books.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I have more nitpicks with this book than any other novel in the series – the tent scenes go on too long, the ending is too abrupt, etc. – but that hardly matters when you think about the scope of Rowling’s conclusion.  There are so many incredibly memorable moments in this book, satisfying pay-offs for nearly every character, and more tear-jerking or edge-of-your-seat sequences than any other entry in the series.  It’s fantastic, and what’s most effective is how Rowling illustrates the sheer horror of the Trio’s situation, lost in the wilderness both physically and metaphorically as the world crumbles around them.  It’s a terrific book, and a near-perfect cap to the series.  That it’s on the bottom half of this list speaks more to the quality of the next few books than any faults of this one.

5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
I’ve read this book so many times that, if asked, I could probably recite quite a few passages.  Of all the books in the series, this one may be the most flawless.  It’s an expertly precise introduction to the universe, and from the first chapter onwards, Rowling illustrates this dense, complicated world with authority and clarity.  In her mind, it simply exists as a fact of life, and she has no trouble whatsoever in bringing us along for the ride.  Every character is expertly brought to life, and the underlying mystery is the perfect story to establish the universe and those who inhabit it.  To this day, I can read and enjoy this book as much as the first time I read it.  Simply by virtue of being the first installment, it’s inherently less interesting than some of the later entries, where Rowling gets to play with the Wizarding world to greater effect, but if it weren’t for this book, there would be none of the brilliance to come.

4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince   
The fantastic film is arguably more memorable than the book, but don’t let that fool you – Half-Blood Prince is an absolute masterpiece on the page, too.  The relationship between Dumbledore and Harry takes center stage as they delve into Voldemort’s fascinating past, but most of the novel is lighter fare.  It’s the calm before the storm, and the book’s greatest message, one that even the film doesn’t quite get across, is that war never completely stops life.  Life goes on, and indeed, Half-Blood Prince has some of the most insanely fun material of the series, as Ron dates Lavender Brown, Harry follows the instructions of the mysterious titular prince while pining for Ginny, and Hermione and Harry are inducted into Horace Slughorn’s “Slug Club.”  But there is darkness too, and much of it has nothing to do with the war.  Ron’s relationship with Lavender nearly destroys his friendship with Hermione, Harry’s desire for Ginny hurts him more than it heals him, and Horace Slughorn is a far darker, flawed figure than some of the more comical material would suggest.  And, of course, the Half-Blood Prince subplot turns out to be nightmarish, rather than whimsical.  Rowling’s subversions of our expectations are fascinating and heartbreaking, and no matter what, we are never allowed to forget the cloud of war that lingers over the proceedings.  It’s such a mammoth balancing act that it’s a wonder the book even works at all, but Rowling knows exactly what she’s doing, and it’s one of the best books in the series, sending us into the final chapter brilliantly.

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Rowling’s first foray into giant, extravagantly-long novels was also one of her best, as Goblet of Fire transitions us into the series’ darker second half expertly while touching upon many of the most fundamental aspects of growing up.  Fire is remembered for the Triwizard Tournament, a thrilling competition in and of itself made better by the incredible mystery Rowling weaves in the background.  Voldemort’s resurrection is the result of an amazingly complex series of steps, but that complexity is what makes the climax so heart-wrenchingly horrifying.  Yet Rowling never shies away from the darkness of adolescence, either, treating Harry’s crush on Cho Chang, Hermione’s relationship with Victor Krum, and Ron’s seething jealousy with the both of them with as much validity as anything involving the Dark Lord.  The Yule Ball in one of the greatest extended character-building sequences in the series, as 3.5 books worth of development converge in one disastrous dance.  Most of us haven’t fought dragons or faced an evil lord of darkness, but we’ve all had to suffer through a terrible high school dance; that balance of fantasy and reality makes Goblet of Fire one of Rowling’s most stirring epics.

2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
This was one of my favorites from the moment I first read it, and to this day, I can’t quite explain why.  My favorite material in the series has always been the day-to-day stuff; Harry and friends attending classes, playing Quidditch, hanging out, getting into trouble, exploring new corners of the Universe, etc.  That stuff is just addicting to me, and Order of the Phoenix, by virtue of being the longest book, has the most of that material.  But it also has Delores Umbridge, providing a greater sense of weight and meaning to the day-to-day material than in other books.  Through Umbridge and Harry’s subsequent revolt, Rowling hones in on two of her most prominent points in the series: her clear, seething hatred for irresponsible and incompetent government (place your bets – which real world Prime Minister is Fudge supposed to be?), and the responsibility of each generation to take it upon themselves to build a better tomorrow.  That’s exactly what Harry does with Dumbledore’s Army, strengthening his generation even as the preceding generation starts to crumble away for good.  The movie got this thematic content exactly right, but you lose the richness of the material on screen, and Phoenix is easily one of the richest installments in the series. 

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
My reasons for putting this at number one are quite simple, really.  Phoenix may have more of the fun day-to-day material, but Azkaban has the best day-to-day material.  There are the classes, more memorable here than anywhere else thanks to Professors Lupin, Hagrid, Trewlawney, and as always, Snape.  There’s the introduction of Hogsmeade, and the largest Quidditch subplot in the series.  Then there’s the actual plot of the book, an emotional story that tells us more about Harry and his past than every other novel combined.  The tale of Moody, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs is absolutely heart-breaking, and Rowling sets up the climactic exposition beautifully by making the mentor-student relationship between Harry and Lupin the focal point of the novel.  Sirius Black is a fantastic character as well, and when everything goes to hell in the final chapters, it’s arguably more maddening than any other ‘world on fire’ sequence in the series.  Then, of course, there’s Chapter 21, “Hermione’s Secret,” arguably the best single chapter in the series, where Harry and Hermione get to go back in time to re-do the novel’s climax Back to the Future 2-style.  It’s brilliant, it’s flawless, and it defines all the magic, emotional wonder of the series.  I thought long and hard about some rankings on this list, but there’s never really been a question as to my number one choice – Azkaban is the best, hands down.

Ranking the Films – A Saga of Increasing Returns

Just because one book is great doesn’t mean the movie will be too – indeed, ranking the films is very different than ranking the books, but one thing is very clear: if you take one particular movie out of the equation (hint: the series peaks early), then the films simply get better as they go along.  They are very easy to rank.  Rowling knew what she was doing right out of the gate, but the filmmakers took time to get it all right, and that means that, for the past ten years, we’ve been treated to increasingly better films each time out.  That’s the magic of the films, and that’s what will make Deathly Hallows 2 such an emotional experience.

7 and 6: TIE between Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets
The first two Chris Columbus films are, for all intents and purposes, variations on the same film.  Columbus is not necessarily a great filmmaker, but he cast the characters perfectly, and the greatest joys of these first two movies lie in being introduced to the world and the characters.  In that way, Philosopher’s Stone is more memorable and meaningful; it’s also, technically speaking, the weakest film in the franchise, thanks to the limitations of child actors (though to their credit, they are very good even at this young age), and the rather lifeless adaptation.  Chamber of Secrets is an improvement in some ways; the actors are better, the visuals grander, but the adaptation is still too stiff, and it lacks the immediacy of the first picture.  So, to hell with it, I say they’re a tie.  Columbus’ films are by far the least cinematic, but they are a strong foundation, and if Columbus hadn’t been this meticulous, then I doubt the rest of the series would have worked so well.

5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I’ve been terribly unfair to this movie over the years, but watching it recently, I’ve realized how much I love this movie.  Adapting the mammoth book is no easy feat, but writer Steve Kloves did a fantastic job, keeping in more memorable moments than anyone expected while whittling down the labyrinthine mystery to its bare essentials.  In this way, the horror of the climax is retained, and there’s a terrific sense of intensity throughout.  Director Mike Newell was a good choice for the job – he’s not as good with the actors as some other directors, but he fills that role just fine, and his visual contributions more than make up for any sore spots.  Goblet of Fire looks great, the pacing is confidently rapid, and many of the book’s subtler emotions are brought to life with amazing precision.  I have some nitpicks – Dumbledore is far too harsh under Newell’s direction – but they are inconsequential in the end.  Goblet of Fire stands on its own as a great film, and coming off the heels of the masterpiece Azkaban, it established a successful precedent of making every film in the series a unique experience. 

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
David Yates, who helmed the entire back-half of the film series, did a wonderful job his first time out turning the longest book into the shortest movie.  Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg cut out a lot of stuff – Phoenix is the most altered of all the adaptations by far – but it’s all in the name of making a great movie that, most importantly, is true to the spirit of the book.  That’s the strength in all of Yates’ Potter films, and Phoenix hones in on everything that made the book matter.  It is a precise, expert adaptation, and there are a handful of terrific visual moments to keep things interesting, like the climactic duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore.  But most important of all, Yates understands these characters and their relationships, and starts to forge a unique working relationship with the young actors, a relationship that would pay off in the next few films.

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
An absolute cinematic masterpiece.  Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is gorgeous and awe-inspiring, while the performances have never been better.  Yates capitalizes on five films worth of expanding chemistry here, telling a story that can be riotously funny and heartbreakingly emotional all in the same scene.  Yates even manages to improve upon Rowling’s tragic climax; both the Cave sequence and Dumbledore’s death resonate with amazing power.  That any series could be this good this late into its lifespan is a wonder – that the franchise still had two more great films to give?  That’s just unbelievable.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I’m assuming that, when all is said and done, Part 2 will stand alongside Part 1 as one cohesive film at this spot on the list.  For now, of course, I can only talk about Part 1, another total masterpiece.  Yates brings the same terrifying atmosphere of Rowling’s book to the big screen, crafting a film that is almost unbearably tense at times.  But it’s the emotions that Yates nails here, and this is why Hallows had to be split into two films.  Part 1 is our last chance for some down-time with the trio, a chance for the characters to reflect on who they were and who they have become, and what they mean to each other.  It’s a chance for Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson to prove that they aren’t just children in costumes, but real actors giving once-in-a-lifetime performances.  I love everything about Hallows Part 1; it’s the culmination of so much, and it is satisfying in every possible way; it even improves upon the book in many areas.  But it’s only half the story, and Part 2 will have the advantage of working with the better half of Rowling’s book.  When both films are put together, side by side?  That will be something special.  It may even bump the next film from the number one spot.

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Although I seriously doubt any movie, however perfect, could dethrone this picture as the best of the Potter film franchise.  Prince and Hallows are both masterpieces, but Azkaban transcends that word.  It is, simply put, my second-favorite film of all time, next to only Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Director Alfonso Cuaron understands Rowling’s universe better than any other person who has ever been involved in this franchise.  Visually, Azkaban simply exudes magic.  Every frame is a work of art, and on a purely visual level, Azkaban is the greatest movie I’ve ever laid eyes on.  The color scheme is gorgeous, cooled down but not muted, and the cinematography is perfect in every last shot.  This is the most cinematic of all the movies for many reasons, but Cuaron also challenged writer Steve Kloves to craft a flawless adaptation, one that takes great care to ensure every single scene matters.  Cuaron and Kloves cut out an awful lot of Rowling’s best book, keeping in only the essentials; it’s what they do with those essentials that makes the movie so good.  Cuaron also gets the most out of the actors, be they children or adults, and it took a long time for subsequent directors to get these kids back to the same level.  I can’t really talk about this movie coherently; to me, it is the definition of cinematic perfection, distilling all my love for Harry Potter into 141 minutes.

And that’s that!  I’ve written about 50 pages in the last six days about Harry Potter, and tomorrow morning, I’m going to write some more.  After that, I’ll be done for at least a little while (yes, you will see other material on this blog), and that’s a sobering thought.  Harry Potter has been an important part of my life for so long, and part of me never wants it to end.  As I wrote in my “Harry Potter Memories” article last November, I would not be the man I am today without this series.  I would not be a writer, for starters.  But all good things must come to an end, and even though we have only a few hours left before “it all ends,” as Warner Bros keeps reminding us, Harry and friends will stay in the hearts and minds of fans for the rest of our lives. 

I can’t wait to finish the journey.  Rest up, enjoy the midnight premiere, and come back to tomorrow morning for my review of the final film.   

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