Ranking the Harry Potter Films

Believe it or not, it’s been two and a half years since the last Harry Potter film was released (six and a half since the last novel).  Like the Up Documentaries, which have tracked the lives of fourteen everyday Britons every seven years since 1964, the Harry Potter films are an impressive and important cinematic project.  The eight films were completed over ten years with nearly the same cast (the key exception being of course the late Richard Harris being replaced by Michael Gambon after the second film) and four directors, and more or less stay faithful to the story told in the novels.

I’ve been watching the films again recently, and the thing that I notice most about them is that their quality level generally tracks the novels (exceptions noted below).  Anyway here’s my ranking of the films (with corresponding ranking of the novels):

8. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Directed by Chris Columbus, 2002)

Chris Columbus’ second effort suffers from a variety of problems.  Much ink has been spilled pointing out that the CGI Dobby is needlessly annoying, unlike the charming, silly character in the books. Furthermore, the main cast had yet to settle into their characters.  The main problem, however, is the source material, in that Chamber is the weakest of the Potter novels, suffering from a convoluted plot resolved only through a series of endless deus ex machina moments.  It is still an above average film, as is the novel, but suffers in comparison to the rest of the story.  (Book Ranking – #7)

7. Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, Part I (Directed by David Yates, 2010)

If any of the books should have been split into two parts, it should have been Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  As good as Deathly Hallows is at times, it suffers from slow pacing in the first half of the book, so the first part of the movie has similar issues.  While the cast has at this point perfected their portrayals of the characters, splitting the last book in two just doesn’t work creatively, and this movie doesn’t work as a stand alone film unless you are going to watch the second, superior half in short order. (Book Ranking -#2)

6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone (Directed by Chris Columbus, 2001)

I find the first two Harry Potter novels to be the weakest, and the films bear this out.  Granted the adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone does a magnificent job setting the tone for the series, but John Williams’ music and Stuart Craig’s production design can only carry the film so far.  Richard Harris captures Dumbledore’s sense of humor and warmth, but fails to capture some of the character’s more iconoclastic qualities (it could be argued that Michael Gambon takes the character in the opposite direction).  And like Jo Rowling was a young, inexperienced writer, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson were extremely young, inexperienced actors.  (Book Ranking – #6)

5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Directed by David Yates, 2009)

Half-Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix suffer from “middle book syndrome.”  While Order of the Phoenix is bloated, it is also arguably the lynchpin of the series.  The same can’t be said about Half-Blood Prince.  The book is all background material and set-up for the next book, and it doesn’t do a lot to advance the story considering its length.  The love story between Harry and Ginny feels even more tacked on in the film than the book, and the film fails to do justice to the book’s climax by cutting the important battle and funeral scenes.  Still, the cast has improved a lot by this point and Yates does a good job with the story’s numerous flashback scenes.  (Book Ranking – #5)

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Directed by David Yates, 2007)

This is probably the most divisive of the Harry Potter novels, in that some people rate it as their favorite and some people despise it.  The movie tamps down on some of the less successful aspects of the novel, like Harry’s teenage angst and ennui, and emphasizes what the novel does well.  This, after all, is the lynchpin of the plot of the entire series, it is where Harry learns about leadership, initiative, the cost of war, and the dangers of uncontrolled anger.  (Book Ranking – #4)

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Directed by Mike Newell, 2005)

Goblet of Fire is the best of the Potter novels.  It doesn’t suffer from the slow start of Deathly Hallows and is structurally richer than Prisoner of Azkaban.  The Tri-Wizard Tournament is the best framing device of the entire series and the ending is both heartbreaking and terrifying.  The problem with Newell’s film is that it shrinks down the novel too much, and focuses too much on the characters’ frustrations (most notably Ron’s and Dumbledore’s).  Still, it does a good enough job of capturing the successes of the novel to be ranked in the top three films.  (Book Ranking – #1)

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (Directed by David Yates, 2011)

I toyed with putting this one as #1, since it focuses on what I consider the best written part of the entire series: the last third of the last book.  As with the end of any series, Rowling’s creative choices are much debated, and the final epilogue reads like Rowling wrote it fifteen years before the rest of the book (she actually did).  This film redeems the awkwardness of the written epilogue, but goes back on one of Rowling’s better creative choices (the final battle between Harry and Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort takes place in an isolated location in the castle and not in full view of the surviving armies).  Also, packing the weaker, first two thirds of the novel into their own film breaks up the action a bit too much to rank it ahead of number one.  (Book Ranking: #2)

1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, 2004)

Prisoner of Azkaban the best of the first three, “short” novels by far, and its adaptation actually improves upon the story.  As a shorter novel, it is easier to adapt, but it also had the best director in the Harry Potter films, Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Y Mama Tambien, Children of Men).  This film is a compelling argument that Cuarón was instrumental in cultivating the acting talents of the three leads and setting the darker, more serious tone of the rest of the series.  (Book Ranking – #3)

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe