Something Wicked This Way Comes: A Re-Review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
I’ve finally come full circle; I finished re-reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
I started this journey last year, re-reading and listening to the audio-book for Goblet of Fire; I started there because, a year or so prior to that, I’d just re-read the first three books, giving up at four because it was very long and I had other books I wanted to read.
Last year I went through the final four books. While I’ve read them all before, the audio-books a brand new experience for me. And when I’d finished, even though I’d recently read the first three books, I couldn’t help but feel I’d missed out, since I hadn’t listened to those audio-books yet.
With each books finished, I wrote some form of a review. On some I had clear ideas on what I wanted to talk about with revisiting the stories, on others I simply discussed stray thoughts that came to mind. I compared the movies, I talked about artwork and different ways to take in Rowling’s beautiful works. And now, with book three, I’d like to do more of the same.
First and foremost, Azkaban has always been my favorite. Favorite book, favorite movie, favorite soundtrack. I just love it. I love it for starting to build connections, like with the arrival of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin and their relationship to both Harry and Snape. I love it for Rowling beginning to unravel the narrative threads, letting us see that there’s so much more behind her characters than meets the eyes, and that there is so much more yet to discover. And, of course, I love it for the time travel, which is one of my favorite elements of science fiction/fantasy (for reference, my favorite Star Trek films involve time travel, my favorite Artemis Fowl book involves time travel, and Back to the Future is one of my favorite movie trilogies of all time… no pun intended).
Revisiting it now, however, I realize I love Prisoner of Azkaban most because it is the first book where returning to Hogwarts actually feels like returning home for me. Of course the first book didn’t have that sensation; Sorcerer’s Stone had to introduce us to everything. And Chamber of Secrets, likewise, was still introducing us to an awful lot. It was the most “sequel” of the sequels, and so while it was technically returning us to Hogwarts, we were still learning the castle, and making sure that the first book’s magic wasn’t a one-hit wonder.
But in Azkaban, returning feels to me like a comfortable October night. It feels like returning to something we know, and something we’ve missed. We now look forward to returning to Hogwarts as much as Harry does. Perhaps because this is the first trip to Hogwarts that is semi-normal- no house elves blocking the barrier to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and no sense of wonder at the Hogwarts Express itself. Sure, Dementors board the train, but that’s almost a normal day for Harry and friends compared to entering the Chamber of Secrets or facing off against a man with two faces.
Writing-wise, Rowling is also getting better by this book. Not saying she sucked before; she’s been exceptional from the beginning, but Azkaban shows her growth as a writer and more importantly as a plot-weaver as the story gets tighter and bolder from here. Not coincidentally, Harry loses some of his sense of wonder at the Wizarding World, and the story gets darker. Compared to his previous encounters with variations on Voldemort, this story feels smaller, but that isn’t a bad thing; with a smaller story comes a more personal one. This is Harry’s first real encounter with people who knew his parents, and knew them well. While being one of only two books in which Voldemort doesn’t feature, this is our first- and perhaps best- look into Harry’s family and what he’s lost. It is the first time Rowling tackles that loss head-on, through Harry meeting the friends of his parents, and through him hearing their final moments when the Dementors attack him. I previously said Chamber was the starting point for the greater narrative, but dammit if this book isn’t the turning point for Harry’s emotional journey. It is where the Wizarding World stops being some awe-inducing magical realm and starts becoming a real, tangible, human place, just as flawed as our world, with the same problems we have, even if they are cloaked in magic. And it is, simply, beautiful. If you ever asked me at which point did Harry Potter become my favorite book series… this was it.
Now, I’d like to ruminate on some random thoughts I’ve had while revisiting this story:
- Severus Snape was vile. And I truly don’t think people who have only seen the movies truly understand it. They see Snape as an unpleasant teacher, but ultimately one of the heroes who helped Harry defeat Voldemort. And don’t get me wrong; he is a hero, and Alan Rickman’s performance of him was masterful, but the moviegoers never truly saw how utterly cruel Severus Snape was. Snape was a bully. He was vindictive, he was pryyu, and he was offensive. We know how he treats Harry- and we know why, even if we can’t agree with his hatred of the boy based on Harry’s father- but look at how he treats the other characters: in this book, he berates Neville, threatens to poison his pet toad by feeding it Neville’s shrinking potion (which Snape already knew was incorrectly brewed and probably deadly; he even takes away house points from Hermione for helping Neville fix the potion), and even interrupts Lupin’s class to point out how useless Neville is. And that’s all in one chapter. No wonder Snape is Neville’s worst fear. And even that says something: Neville’s worst fear is his teacher. Not giant spiders, like Ron, or mummies or banshees, liek Parvati and Seamus. Not any kind of monster or thing that could kill him. His teacher is his worst fear. That goes a long way to showing how cruel a bully Snape is. He has no reason to treat Neville the way he does, he can’t even justify it by arguing that he hated Neville’s parents like he did James Potter. Not to mention Snape’s reaction to Sirius’ escape at the end. This book went a long way to showing just how remorseless Snape was. Severus might have been a layered character, he might have been crucial to the plot, he might have suffered and been a tragic character, and one of Rowling’s best creations, but never forget that for all the good Snape did in the series, he was a horrible person. And the movies only capture a 10th of it.
- Also on Snape, the movies leave out that he was present at the beginning of Lupin’s Boggart class, which took place in the staff room. Snape quickly dismisses himself- he says he doesn’t want to witness whatever Lupin’s class was up to- but I wonder if he really was leaving because he didn’t want to see what the Boggart would turn into for him, which, no doubt, would have been Lily Evans dead in his arms. That would have been awkward for Harry…
- On a much lighter note, it amuses me that in Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore after three years where both Voldemort and Sirius Black broke into the school, where students were attacked by basilisks and mountain trolls, apparently thought it had been too quiet around Hogwarts and decided to hold dangerous, international wizard Olympics to liven things up. Like Harry hasn’t nearly died enough in the last three years (and sure, you could argue that Dumbledore tried to protect Harry- among other younger students- by restricting the age of the contestants, but I mean, it is Harry, he always finds himself in the middle of things whether he wants to or not, it could not have been a surprise to old Dumbles when Harry’s name came out of the Goblet).
- I first thought about it in Chamber of Secrets, but more so now with the arrival of Sirius and how they reacted to it, but I wonder if Arthur and Molly Weasley knew James and Lily. Did they know Sirius and Peter Pettigrew? It might have been answered at some point, but I don’t remember. But I wonder if hearing that the Weasley’s had become Harry’s surrogate family would have been a comfort to Lily and James, and if, when Harry is first sitting across the breakfast table from Arthur Weasley, does he see in Harry the face and emerald eyes of his long-dead friends?
- Rowling is a master of misdirection. It is utterly fascinating going back through chapters such as when Sirius broke into Gryffindor Tower and was hovering over Ron’s bed with a knife, how she made us think with ease that Sirius had just chosen the wrong bed- got Ron’s instead of Harry’s- but now knowing it was because he was looking for Scabbers, who should have been in Ron’s bed. It never ceases to amaze me.
- In regards to the films, Azkaban is special to me. It was the first movie to embrace the darker landscape that Rowling was crafting for us, and works well enough as a stand-alone story, especially compared to the other films. It is a good one to simply enjoy for exactly what it is. Not to mention, John Williams wrote one of the most beautiful and haunting scores that I’ve ever heard, a highlight in a career of magnificent works. While the prior two movies might have been closer adaptations to the books, this movie captures the tone and emotion of the adjacent book with such a unique voice. It is unlike any of the other movies in the franchise, and while none of the movies are perfect adaptations, this one is perhaps the most important. And, frankly, the brilliance of this one probably go a long way to my feeling Goblet of Fire is the worst of the films. It just didn’t stand a chance following up this one.
- Azkaban also has the honor of introducing a lot of my favorite characters, such as Remus Lupin and Professor Trelawney, and of course Sirius Black. Lupin in particular has always been one of my favorite characters, to the point that my nickname in middle school was Moony (and yes, my friends nicknames were Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs, and I wonder if any of them will remember that). Lupin’s was also one of the first wands I purchased when I went to the Wizarding World in Florida for the first time.
- I’ve already said as much above in the proper review, but I think this book is particularly special for giving us a more emotional, personal journey. I think it is this book when we realize Harry’s story isn’t just going to be magic and adventure, but something important. Rowling has a lot to teach us, and I think this book is clearly the beginning of her lesson.