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Are the Harry Potter Films Better Than The Books?

on November 13, 2018, 10:30am
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Feature Artwork by Cap Blackard

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Vs. This time, we figure out if the Harry Potter books or films are more magical.

In 2001, J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter books kicked off their parallel journey as the kind of sustainable, decade-long film franchise that modern movie studios have come to covet above most other things. The depth of Rowling’s world was tailor-made for film adaptations, the novels so rich in detail that any filmmaker with even a little bit of vision could make incredible things out of them.

Yet at times, it’s difficult to truly compare the two. The film series, by the nature of film and the necessities of making movies that could equally appeal to both die-hard fans and newcomers, had to cut so many of the smaller stories and side journeys that made the books so rich. Likewise, the films had the advantage of paring the stories down to their most essential elements, in hopes of translating the novels’ deep emotional and social resonance in far less time. Each offers its own pleasures, and preference is often as simple a matter as which one you grew up with. If you grew up reading the books, that relationship will always be different. If you’re among the people for whom ad nauseam replays of the movies on ABC Family (or sorry, Freeform) were a childhood touchstone, you might be of a different opinion as well.

We won’t pretend that we can settle the debate any more definitively than anybody else who’s tried, but that’s hardly deterred us from taking a crack at it all the same. We’ve put each of the novels and films head-to-head and hope to help continue the discussion of which work stands at the forefront of accomplishment. If you’ve had trouble shedding light on your own feelings about this, let us offer a helpful lumos. In the head-to-head debate, who’ll emerge as Head Boy of the respective series?

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Film Editor

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone

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Here’s where it all began, first in 1997 and then again in 2001. It’s an origin story with a hell of an origin story: Jo Rowling dreams up a boy on a train, and by the time she deboards, he’s a wizard with a magical school in his future. After years of writing in cafés and typing (and re-typing) on an old-fashioned typewriter, of being turned down by agents who almost certainly now feel like they missed out on the chance to draft Michael Jordan, her novel was picked up by Bloomsbury and her whole life changed. She’s toured libraries, bookstores, classrooms, and movie theaters around the world. Accio, New York Times Bestseller list; Petrificus Totalus, the financial worries of a single mom.

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Sure, all origin stories fit the same mold, but this is a solid one. It begins with a tragedy that’s also cause for celebration, then jumps to an unhappy child’s life suddenly becoming magical — literally. Is this the most profound entry in the Potter series? Of course not. This is the place in which we are introduced to not only Harry, but the entire wizarding world. No time for sociopolitical commentary; we’ve got Hagrid to meet.

While the biggest social and political themes in the series don’t emerge in full force for a bit yet, they’re still present here, from Harry’s first interaction with Draco Malfoy to the big moment where selflessness becomes the most important magic one can possess. Both possess a level of subtlety nowhere to be found in Chris Columbus’ 2001 film, a faithful adaptation that spends so much time trying to get the book just right that it forgets to add the most important ingredient in this particular potion: imagination.

 Are the Harry Potter Films Better Than The Books?

Sure, this is a movie anchored by three very young, somewhat green performers, and that’s going to be a little tough, no matter how charming the kids in question. That’s nothing compared to how flat Columbus’ magical world feels. Take the moving staircases of Hogwarts as an example: one moment they lead to one place, the next to somewhere else entirely. There’s a trick step you always have to jump and shortcuts and false walls around every corner. How does Columbus bring these silly wonders to life? He has them slowly swing through the air like a giant piece of industrial equipment. How dull, how slow, how utterly not of this world.

Still, it’s not … terrible? Faint praise for the film version of a book that got the whole world reading.

Head Boy: The book, by a long shot.

–Allison Shoemaker

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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The second installment of Harry Potter was arguably the most validating for the series. In the novel series, book two was the sequel that had to live up to the first story and keep readers interested. In the film format, Chamber of Secrets had to prove that Potter was worthy of becoming a motion picture series and keep the franchise afloat, lest it go the way of the Divergent series a decade later, which will culminate with a downgrade to a TV movie in 2017.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets brought us back to the world of Hogwarts after a long, lonely summer alone with the Dursleys. It brought us the irritatingly devoted house-elf Dobby, the Weasley family home, a sniffling spirit in a bathroom, voices in the walls, and a young Lord Voldemort. But where the film really pulled out all the stops was with the casting. Julie Walters had already made a brief appearance as Mrs. Weasley in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but her opening scene in Chamber of Secrets showcases her seamless performance, as she scolds her children while coddling Harry at the same time and really establishes the character we would all eventually grow to wish was our own mother. The iconic Mark Williams brings a humanization to Mr. Weasley that the books alone did not provide; in the novels, he was more on the stiff and bumbling side, a bit stale with a spark of unearthed imagination well-hidden. The film version is much more relatable, and Williams turns Mr. Weasley from a bland “Muggle lover” into a more heartwarming and relatable Ministry official. And then there’s Gilderoy. Kenneth Branagh’s Gilderoy Lockhart is like the page brought to life, played in a lovably pretentious manner that exudes finesse, charisma, and smarm throughout, culminating in his villainous contention at the film’s climax. He creates a version of Lockhart that lives boldly onscreen and forever in the mind’s eye.

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But beyond the performances is the unplanned.

I don’t know about you, but my 12th year was arguably my most awkward — I had big, bulky glasses and wiry metal braces in an array of colours that at the time I thought were cool, but in retrospect just brought even more attention to the dental apparatus. I was awkward and lanky and changing and not sure what was happening. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets features a prominently 12-year-old cast of characters and begins to address their budding puberty in an all-too-familiar way. Ginny’s silent, star-struck crush on Harry is resonant in the book, but nothing beats the awkwardness of puberty on the silver screen. Her wide eyed, stiff-as-a-board reaction every time she encounters Harry is equal parts Petrificus Totalus and preteen love. But better yet is Daniel Radcliffe’s actual voice changing. Throughout the film, Harry’s voice varies between high and squeaky, low and mature. In a twist of fate that no one could have planned, the actor’s actual puberty contributes to the film in a way that the novel can’t fully translate. And the fact that an entire cast has their puberty filmed and retained in the annals of history for all time is reason enough for the film to beat out the book in a battle royal. Puberty for the KO.

Head Boy: The movie. 

–Hilary Klein

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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And here’s where things take a turn for the mature. Prisoner of Azkaban is among the most crucial Potter stories on both the page and the screen, because while the first two novels offer their own shares of danger, Azkaban serves as an introduction to the real wizarding world, one just as full of centuries-long conflicts and bad political decisions and reckless endangerment as our own. Through the introduction of Harry’s estranged godfather/avidly wanted criminal, Sirius Black, the story not only expands on Harry’s fated role in the coming revolution, but illustrates just how tumultuous the world was long before the young wizard ever got his acceptance letter.

That’s to say nothing of the Dementors, the hideous joy-sucking prison guards of Azkaban tasked with roaming the Hogwarts grounds in what some think will be a protective measure while others see it for the reckless witch hunt and fit of child endangerment it is. The Dementors are just one of the facets of Alfonso Cuaron’s much-loved adaptation that has become part of Potter lore; ask somebody what they think of when they hear “Dementor,” and the odds are good that they’ll cite the character designs outlined by the film, revolting creatures made of nothingness and cloaked in flowing robes.

Cuaron’s visual aesthetic, far darker than the one Chris Columbus explored before him, would also become the house style for the remainder of the series. The dark greens and muted grays Cuaron used to signal the irreparable shift in the world of Hogwarts would become synonymous with the films, though the series rarely felt more grim than it does here. It’s hard to say whether Cuaron would have continued to succeed as well as he did were he to be retained; Azkaban’s darkness is only amplified as the films go on, but it could have become oppressive without the lighter touches David Yates eventually found to balance out the bleaker stuff.

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Regardless, his work here makes for one of the more faithful onscreen adaptations. Rowling’s novel is an equally drastic departure from what preceded it, another year at Hogwarts dressed in the trappings of a crime thriller, as Harry struggles to unravel the mystery of Sirius’ obsession with tracking him down while he deals with both a school that’s no longer the place that he came to call a new home and a third consecutive Defense Against the Dark Arts professor who may or may not be a serious threat to his safety. (That said, Remus Lupin was the king of all DADA professors, and we as a public scarcely deserved him.)

The Prisoner of Azkaban as a film took some liberties with the source material, if small ones; this upset purists of the novels, but ended up setting a sterling example, from early on, of how to condense Rowling’s labyrinthine storytelling in a way that might still work for the layman viewer without sacrificing the rich details that make the Potter stories worth reading. And in what’s otherwise a largely dead heat between two stories far closer in detail than most of the other book/film pairings, that’s enough to give Cuaron’s playfully unsettling adaptation a slight edge.

Head Boy: The movie, if only by the length of a shrunken head. 

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

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As the longest book in the series up to this point, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire introduces us to a whole new wizarding world that we had only heard about in snippets before — the world of international wizards. Until now, we had remained safely (though that’s a loose term) tucked away at Hogwarts, but now we get to see a growing world of wizards join our already established bunch in northern Britain. Both the book and movie first head to the Quidditch World Cup, where we meet the Irish and Bulgarian teams. We then arrive at Hogwarts to find out that, for the first time in years, Hogwarts will play host to the Triwizard Tournament, pitting students from all over Europe against each other in a three-part challenge to be named the ultimate student wizard. It is here that the books and films begin to diverge, as the film showcases only female students attending Beauxbatons and male students at Durmstrang, unlike the all-inclusive schools of the books. Moviegoers leave thinking only seductive French women can be taught magic and only Eastern European men have an affinity for the Dark Arts.

Aside from the introduction of new students, we also get a whole new Dumbledore. This was Michael Gambon’s second portrayal of the wise, old wizard after Richard Harris’ death, but his delivery as Dumbledore leaves much to be desired here, notably when Harry’s name comes out of the Goblet of Fire. Dumbledore, who has always been a quiet, stately wizard, suddenly bursts into the room, runs at Harry, grabs him by the collar, and shouts in his face. Not only is this a more aggressive Dumbledore, but it’s totally uncharacteristic of everything we know him to be. Where Harris played Dumbledore in the same manner as he’s described in the book, Gambon’s Dumbledore seems to not take into account the wizard’s intellectual side and instead focuses more on the emotional. Moving forward in the films, Gambon is continually a more brazen Dumbledore who seems to react, rather than act.

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But while Goblet of Fire showcases many new characters, including Lord Voldemort himself, there is one character who not only is not new, but becomes an amalgamation of multiple characters in a filmmaking attempt to not include anyone extraneous. Yes, Goblet of Fire is one of the longest books in the series and transforming that to film would inevitably result in cuts, but some of the changes hurt the characters, rather than continuing to develop them. Rather than the filmmakers paying to animate Dobby the house elf, who we last saw in Chamber of Secrets, they simply give Dobby’s entire role in the story to Neville Longbottom. So instead of Dobby stealing gillyweed for Harry to use during the Triwizard Tournament, the cautious and rule-abiding Neville instigates and steals it himself. This is not only out of character for him, but also a huge blow to Dobby’s later storyline, which, at the time of filming, had not yet been published.

This was an unknowing developmental scene for Dobby that was meant to keep readers enamored with the undying devotion of the house-elf, but instead, moviegoers aren’t asked to think of Dobby at all, a price that would have to be paid in later films. Ultimately, when you create a film before the story is completed, this is always going to prove problematic. There is no way to know what characters and information will later be necessary to the ultimate ending, and this cut was an unfortunate gamble. This happened several times during the Potter films simply due to the fact that the books were not all published at the time of filming. (During the 5th film’s production, yet another house-elf was cut, but Rowling insisted that they rewrite Kreacher back in because of his importance later on. The result in that case is a quick scene of a muttering elf that feels misplaced because it has no full direction yet.) This film proves that not all change is for the better, and furthermore, when in doubt, don’t cut the house-elves out!

Head Boy: The book.

–Hilary Klein

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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“But Harry’s so whiny,” moaned detractors of the fifth book in the series. “He’s so angry. We’re supposed to like him.”

Those readers are wrong. There’s no rule, written or unwritten, that the protagonist of a book must be likable at all times. In giving Harry a big, ol’ chip on his shoulder, Rowling did something sort of wonderful, even if it isn’t much fun: she let this poor kid react poorly to trauma, persecution, survivor’s guilt, and loads of other really awful shit. Harry’s palpable pain, and his dogged refusal to allow more loss to enter his life, makes this perhaps the darkest book of the series, even without a devastating character loss, an ominous prophecy, and a villain that stacks up against the best in literature.

Dolores Umbridge kicks Voldemort’s ass. What makes her such an evil creature is her furious belief that she’s on the right side of history, that her bigotry, ignorance, and cruelty are all serving the greater good. Pure evil can be plenty scary, and Voldemort’s no slouch in the villainy department either, but how much more terrifying is a monster convinced she’s on the side of the angels, child abuse and all? You can sum up the horror in five little words: “I must not tell lies.”

Harry Potter I Must Not Tell Lies GIF

Unsurprisingly, it’s also Umbridge that makes the film version of Phoenix work as well as it does. The Potterverse grown-ups are excellent in nearly every case, but perhaps only Robbie Coltrane and Alan Rickman were better cast than Imelda Staunton. From her frightening little giggle, which seems to bubble up without ever reaching her lips, to her Mary Poppins-esque demeanor when she’s playing the caring schoolteacher, Staunton’s practically perfect in every way. Like Rickman, she brings out the best in the film’s young actors, Radcliffe in particular; like Coltrane, Rickman, and Maggie Smith, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else making such magic happen.

There’s another wizard at work on Phoenix, however: screenwriter Michael Goldenberg, who turned the longest book in the series into the second-shortest film. The shortest covers only half a book. Wrap your mind around that. While Goldenberg’s cuts robbed the story of some of its potency (particularly in the house-elves department), he also created a tension that begins to build from the earliest frames and rarely lets up. One moment Dudley’s menacing Harry in a deserted park, and in no time at all, Sirius Black falls behind the veil (an admittedly silly visual effect) and out of Harry’s life forever. Radcliffe’s scream of terror feels like a breaking point, for both the film and the series — on one side, childhood, on the other, war.

Head Boy: The book.

–Allison Shoemaker

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

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If you’ve never read the books, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would be your pick for the best film of the series. It’s as emotionally resonant — perhaps only the first Deathly Hallows film packs a bigger punch — as it is visually breathtaking, with Dumbledore and Harry’s quick jaunts back in time filmed in a sick, otherworldly light, as if even the memories of Tom Riddle suffer from jaundice. Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon are better here than in any other film in the series, and Half-Blood Prince also benefits from the presence of Jim Broadbent, who lends a deep sadness and remorse to a character who might read as merely buffoonish in lesser hands.

It also does right by Tom Felton, whose Draco Malfoy had previously been given nothing but sneering, some ominous threats, and the occasional bit of comic relief. Call it the Passion of Draco Malfoy, if you will. We see Draco go from callous confidence in his new role as a would-be murderer to sheer, unadulterated terror. He learns that murder isn’t easily done and sets himself (and his family) on a new and painful course. Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates give us a much more intimate look at Draco’s journey than the novel, and it’s to the film’s great benefit — if only because Felton, one of the best of the pack of young actors who grew up on these sets, gets a chance to do some real work for a change.

Kloves’ screenplay serves Draco Malfoy well, but the same can’t be said of the book from which it’s adapted. Half-Blood Prince begins as a sort of calm before the storm. The world beyond the walls of Hogwarts is blighted by violence while inside plans are made and fear takes hold. It’s a story that leaves room for such trivial matters as broken hearts, which are cast aside when real damage is done. Most importantly, it offers a look at the boy who would be Voldemort, and in doing so, forges a new relationship between Harry Potter and the mentor who guides the way through Tom Riddle’s mysterious past.

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It’s Dumbledore who fares least well in Kloves’ screenplay, and that’s no small matter, as he’s so central to the tale that Half-Blood Prince has to tell. On the page, Dumbledore’s “private lessons” with Harry tell us much, not only about Tom Riddle, but about Dumbledore himself: his years-long, solitary study of Riddle’s life, his unshakeable belief that Harry can stop him, his keen intuition regarding the Dark Lord’s weakness and understanding of Voldemort’s thirst for greatness. Seen through the lens of the final book in the series, those scenes take on a new resonance, but on their own, they’re masterfully done. All that quiet preparation leads to one of the most terrifying sequences Rowling’s ever written (though the cave scene works in the film as well), followed by death at the top of the tallest tower.

On the page, it’s a long, slow burn to calamity, and all the better for it, because just when you think the worst has happened, the real disaster strikes. On screen, it’s a quick hop, skip, and jump to Avada Kedavra, and so much of that moody, beautiful stuff is nowhere to be found. Liked the movie? Great. Now pick up a copy and see exactly how much you missed

Head Boy: The book.

–Allison Shoemaker

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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One book, two movies, and everything to live up to. No matter how great of a setup you have, if your finale falls short, that is all anyone will remember (see: How I Met Your Mother), so Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows certainly had a lot riding on its shoulders. In many ways, the book itself was separated into parts (Part one: Camping, Part two: Battle of Hogwarts), which was both a blessing and a curse for David Yates. By this point, someone had finally figured out that chopping details to fit large stories into movie-sized bites wasn’t going to cut it, and so Deathly Hallows parts one and two were born. However, because the book was so nicely split, the films fell into ranks, and we were left with Part One: Camping and Exposition and Part Two: All Climax, All the Time.

In prose, the long, drawn-out camping scenes were just that. And yet, isn’t that what made them great? Didn’t we, as readers, feel like we were camping and waiting and camping some more? Those scenes allow the reader to become Harry in those moments, due to the sheer anticipation peppered with exposition that you spent hundreds of pages flipping through. The main issue here is that part one of Deathly Hallows doesn’t have a ton of forward momentum, so much as it’s full of developmental exposition. This is where Harry learns what exactly the Deathly Hallows are. This is where Harry learns all about Dumbledore’s life and backstory prior to becoming the mentor we all know and love. Yes, Luna’s father does betray Harry, and yes, the trio does manage to destroy one of the remaining horcruxes needed to defeat Voldemort, but because of the two-part format, those pieces (meant to build up to the action in the second half of the book) are left to stand alone in the film as the action. Of course, each part is meant to be a piece of a whole story, but to an extent they should also be able to stand alone as their own stories.

The movie colors in the camping scenes with both the trials of the trio’s friendship and some polarizing, heartwarming moments. I’m admittedly a fan of the scene in which Harry and Hermione dance to “‘O Children”, but know and understand why so many people were so against it. To some, it was two friends leaning on one another during a stressful moment, and to others it was an uncharacteristic nod to an online ship that J.K. Rowling had staunchly diffused years earlier. And when the filmmakers realized that the natural ending point of Part One would be the death of our favourite house-elf, Dobby, a collective, “Oh crap…” swept through the room as they began working immediately on how to bring back the once-cut elf and make us not only remember him, but grow to love him in just a few short hours in order to effectively break hearts at the end. (Maybe you shouldn’t have skimped on that CGI back in Goblet of Fire, huh?)

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Then we have Part Two — the battle. Both the book and film have some really heartwrenching scenes, but Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Snape in the Prince’s Tale still gets me every single time. Here is where brilliant performances really drive home the story. Reading through Snape’s memories is emotional, but watching them is a total sobfest — always. Not all the scenes are as resonant on the big screen, though. Fred’s death has more impact in the pages of the book than it does on screen; the same can be said for Lupin and Tonks, who almost feel glossed over. In the novels, Rowling always makes sure that all characters, even lateral or background characters, have well-rounded personalities that readers can identify with, empathize with, and eventually mourn for if necessary. Everyone can find someone who they can relate to. However, in a cinematic release, the focus tends to stay on more central characters, rather than on all the peripheral ones.

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At long last, we reach the final battle — in the book, Harry and Voldemort battle in the Great Hall with all eyes on them watching with bated breath. Harry vanquishes Voldemort with a well-placed Expelliarmus, and the villain collapses, defeated, on the ground. In the film, the scene is the same but occurs away from anyone else. Harry is fighting Voldemort all alone, and rather than dying outright, Voldemort molts and wafts away into the wind in a bit of a head-scratching moment for viewers.

At the end of the day, it’s a difficult task to condense 759 pages into a handful of hours, even if spread over two films. Things inevitably have to be sacrificed in order to keep the plot moving and the viewers engaged. Because the novel allows for so much more detail, it will almost always beat out an abridged version made for film, especially when it comes to a finale where closure is key. However, the films did what they set out to do: they told their story and wrapped it up nicely. The screen version of Deathly Hallows may not have been as precise as the original manuscript, but in both versions, all is well in the end.

Head Boy: The book.

–Hilary Klein

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