Ranking the Harry Potter Films (and the Spin-Offs)

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good

Right, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and what with me staying in and avoiding human contact (which is what I normally do, but now I have an excuse) I thought i’d take this opportunity to do something a bit more long-form.

I grew up with Harry Potter, my generation were the first to really ‘grow up’ with the books, my dad used to read me the first few books when I was about 4 or 5, and I seem to remember going to watch all the films in the cinemas.

One of the great things about the series is, it’s something that I enjoyed as a child, and my parents enjoyed with me, it was very rare the three of us ever made a cinema trip together when I was young, but we always did for the new HP films, even now, we routinely re-watch them all about once a year, it’s something we share as a family.

So it’s safe to say I’m well in the ‘Potterhead’ camp, I have all the books, watched all the films, even got sorted into a house on Pottermore (Hufflepuffs, represent) but as a critic an an analyser of films, I can watch these without the rose-tinted goggles should I wish, and I do recognise the flaws in the adaptations (where was Peeves? You cast Rik Mayall as a prankster poltergeist and then cut him out? unbelievable)

I should say before we start that there hasn’t yet been a Wizarding World film that I’ve considered bad, there are ones that are worse than others naturally, but I’ve always found something to like about them, despite their flaws, a point no more evident than in the first (or should that be last?) entry:

10: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (2018) – Directed by David Yates

There was trouble with this film before the cameras even started rolling. With the casting of Johnny Depp seeming at the time to be inappropriate, and the further casting of Jude Law as Dumbledore also proving unpopular, the deck was set against Crimes of Grindlewald from the outset.

The resulting film was also deeply flawed, going against series canon in a way that turned fans away, and seemed very perplexing given that JK Rowling herself was behind the script, making the lapses in established canon seem even more incongruous.

It also suffers from feeling like the middle part of a story that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, so therefore it lists without really driving the series ahead.

There are a few positives, Eddie Redmayne is as charming as ever as Newt, and Jude Law managed to win around a few doubters along the way, apart from that, the film is a rather glaring mis-step.

9: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) – Directed by Chris Columbus

The second film in a series can be a stumbling block for any franchise, so flush with the success of the first adaptation, expectations were high for HP’s second big-screen adventure, sadly those expectations were not met.

I think what eventually kneecaps this film is the stunted progress of its child actors. While most, if not all, the children featured in the series would go on to be pretty solid actors, and even showed signs of promise in the first film, they regressed somewhat here.

They seem less at ease with being in front of the camera, looking more like rabbits caught in headlights, even Kenneth Branagh isn’t immune, seeming overly hammy and insufferable as the already pretty irritating Gilderoy Lockhart.

there are bright moments, the confrontation with the Basilisk in the titular chamber delivers sufficient action, and Harry’s hand (or should I say foot?) in freeing Dobby towards the end, to name just two, but the film ultimately suffered with weak performances, and a bit of a stale atmosphere, a worrying sign for just the second film.

8:Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) – Directed by David Yates

Up until recently, this film sat at the bottom of my HP rankings; only edging its way up after another series re-watch.

The main underlying problem with Order of the Phoenix should really be obvious to anyone, it’s the longest book in the series, yet one of the shortest films, it’s clear that not enough time was given for the narrative to breath.

The decision to split the seventh book was, I feel, a shrewd one, and could have been a good call for this adaptation too, of course this leads to the inevitable problem of the rapidly ageing main players, who would have been even older come the final film had more films been two-parters.

But with the truncated run-time comes a rushed final product, missing a lot of details from the book; while I’m not too hung up on getting EVERYTHING from the book in the films, it does feel like a strange decision to turn an 870 page epic into a film that barely stretches over two hours.

Elsewhere, the murkier backdrops are at their murkiest, the palates of the film haven’t yet found a comfortable balance, but there is some nice acting here, Radcliffe in particular goes from strength-to-strength in each film, even if Harry isn’t particularly the most interesting character, even in a story bearing his name.

The final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore is what ultimately takes this film above Chamber of Secrets but it had to work hard to achieve even that.

7: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) – Directed by David Yates

Spinning-off from the main Harry Potter series isn’t in itself a bad idea. There are many conceivable possibilities within the Wizarding World for new and exciting stories.

I’m not saying Fantastic Beasts doesn’t meet this criteria in some ways because it’s a fun little story within itself, but only really becomes consequential to an overlying narrative in the closing stages; it could have quite easily been a stand-alone adventure without the need to start a new series of films.

Sure, standing on its own, it might not have the same stakes as the main series, but not everything does, you’re unlikely to match the stakes of the final two Harry Potter films, and it would have been a misstep to even try, the story of Newt travelling America looking for magical creatures would have made a nice palate-cleanser between the main series and the overarching Grindlewald arc that it bends over backwards to include

I think the best praise I can give the film is that it’s ‘charming’. Eddie Redmayne has a very lovable energy to him in the first place that translates well to Newt, Dan Fogler has the similar effect as Jacob Kowalski, as do Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as Tina and Queenie Goldstein, respectively.

My main issue is that these characters charms are pushed to the limit by tying them into a larger narrative. Jacob has a nice end to his story by the end of this film, so his inclusion alone is jarring, leave alone Tina and Queenie, whose quirks are quick to irritate with repeat visits.

As I say, subtract the films links to the Grindlewald story and it’s a cute little stand-alone adventure, with that aspect it’s stretching its seams, yet still has enough life and fun to appeal to HP-loving audiences.

6: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) – Directed by Chris Columbus

There was a lot riding on this film as the first of the franchise; everything it did was under scrutiny from the lovers of the books, and JK Rowling herself, who insisted on the series having an all British cast.

While she got her wish for a British cast, an American took charge behind the camera. Chris Columbus (no, not THAT Chris Columbus) had experience with crowd-pleasing blockbusters; he was after all, the man behind Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire, so it was a good fit for this series.

The first film has inevitable teething problems, having a cast so heavily featuring child actors will always face an uphill battle, especially with the calibre of the actors they were opposite, it also feels like the most tonally incongruous film in the series when compared with later instalments.

That being said, however, the child actors are nowhere near as bad as they could have been, there is a lot of promise on show, foreshadowing the very capable actors they would become (maybe having the man who directed Macaulay Culkin helped in this regard) and Columbus’ usual imagination is on show in bringing Hogwarts to life.

In many ways,m the first film is the measuring stick to which all the subsequent films were to be compared to, it would of course be surpassed when the stakes of the story were raised, but it’s a solid first step for the series to make, setting out its stall for the future.

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

This was a tough one to rank, probably one of the hardest on the list, in fact. On one hand, it might be the film with the most glaring differences from the book on which it is based, but on the other, it shows David Yates’ growing comfort with the franchise and its darker tones, with some franchise-best performances thrown in for good measure.

This is an issue for many a book-to-film adaptation, no matter how close you get to the book, the die-hard fans will find something you’ve missed, it’s unreasonable to expect a perfect adaptation of any book, or non-visual media, into a film, there often simply isn’t the time, or something might not work on screen.

Whatever your view on adaptations, and what they miss out, it’s hard to deny that the stakes are unmistakably raised with each installment, with the crucial involvement of Horcruxes being introduced in this story, and the all-important plot developments at the films conclusion that all come together more clearly in the two-part finale.

The performances are also of the highest quality in this film, Michael Gambon has well and truly established himself as Dumbledore by this point, having taken the reins three films earlier, and the great wizards increasing vulnerability.

Not only Gambon stands out here, however, Alan Rickman continues to build the complexity of Severus Snape, as he continues to grow into the series most complex and interesting characters.

Also, from a film-making standpoint, the cinematography is also a triumph, after a stagger in the atmosphere and tone in its predecessor, this installment feels more comfortable in its own skin, and like the director has come to grips with the material.

So, despite being a bit of a mixed bag, the film still ticks enough boxes to lift it above the worst in the series.

4: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) – Directed by David Yates

I must be honest, I love both parts of the two-part finale to the series. All of the series developments in character, atmosphere and narrative come home to roost in a fittingly massive conclusion, so massive in fact, that one film alone couldn’t contain it.

Now, while I still think the film is amongst the top tier of the HP series, it does suffer with the obvious problems of being the first part of a story, so its conclusion can’t help but feel anticlimactic, and more an advert for the next film than an actual ending, but in the circumstances, that can’t really be helped.

One thing i love about the films as they develop is how they build the Wizarding world, and how much it has changed come the final two films; there’s a feeling of desperation to everyone’s actions, they’re all afraid, and acting out of character in the hope of self-preservation, it all makes sense, and builds a sense of dread around all of the films events, there’s only one way for this story to end, and our nerves are shredded with the anticipation.

The performances continue to show how the cast have grown as actors over the course of a decade, I could understand if Radcliffe, Grint and Watson might have mixed feelings towards the series that made their names, but they really do grow through the experience of being Harry, Ron and Hermoine, respectively.

At this point, the character have endured a lot and their performances reflect this, giving the impression of growing tired as their journey takes them around the country, aggression bubbles up, and gets the better of them at time, but the strength of their relationship and chemistry still shine through. While the three main characters might not be amongst the most interesting in the series, their relationship is part of what makes them work.

Inevitable anticlimactic ending aside, this is a great show of escalation in a franchise which has been raising the intensity since the beginning, and we’re getting close to boiling point here.

3: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) – Directed by David Yates

For this film, take everything good I said in the previous entry, and add a satisfying conclusion to it.

I do feel like both parts are actually better viewed as one whole film, that way you get the best of all sides, but we play the hand we’re dealt, and as it stands, because this film actually has an ending, as well as everything that made Part 1 good, it has to be judged as the better of the two films.

There’s not much I can really say about this film that I haven’t already said in the last entry, suffice to say it all looks very nice, is acted very well, and its atmosphere has gone past boiling point and is now practically volcanic.

All the loose ends are left tied up, and the journey is at an end, the battle-weary Harry we see at this films conclusion is a million miles away from the wide-eyed little boy we met all the way back at the beginning, the same could be said for all the characters, for the most part, they’ve all undergone their own arcs, friends and loved ones have been lost, but the film’s finale still holds hope for all those who survived the final battle.

I suppose the only thing I can talk about now, that I haven’t already said, is where all the characters end up, there seems to be a plan that Rowling has for every character years after the films have finished.

I happen to be amongst the minority who likes the fact that Hermoine marries Ron, and not Harry. I don’t think their relationship needed to be romantic, it showed that a platonic relationship between a male and female hero can be just as strong as any other, plus, they say opposites attract, right? You can’t get more opposite than Ron and Hermoine. I also felt more more romantic chemistry between Harry and Ginny, so that made more sense, so there.

2: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) – Directed by Mike Newell

It was only when I re-watched this a few weeks ago when I realised how good it actually is. It’s probably the most underrated Potter story in the franchise, outshone by other instalments, it’s forgotten among the discussion of the best adaptations, I think unfairly.

This is probably the best film visually in the whole series, maybe second at the worst, it’s very much a turning point story-wise in the series arc, marking Voldemort’s return to full-form, it’s very much the middle point of the whole saga, and the films atmosphere and direction exemplify this excellently.

It takes cues from its immediate predecessor in its darker tones, but paces itself too, knowing that it can’t descend fully into darkness too quickly, it needs to leave some room for future stories, so it feels very controlled, with just the right amount of darkness mixed into the series’ familiar fantasy overtures.

I like the story in this film too, how it shows us that there’s more to the world than just Hogwarts, its introduction of the other two magical schools, with the Triwizard Tournament as a framing device, allows the series scope to expand organically, and introduce a few lingering minor plot points that will stick with the series right until the end, and beyond, into the spin-offs.

I really enjoy the characters introduced too, and feel like there’s more that could have been done with a few, especially Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) who pops up in later films, but never enough for my taste, he’s a wonderfully entertaining presence, and the later character twist is very intelligent.

It also has some of the series’ best set-pieces, the dragon sequence and the maze towards the end are stand-outs, in fact, the final third in general is some of the franchises best, action-wise, and acting-wise.

Speaking of acting, this and the film before it show a lot of development of the three leads as actors, Radcliffe and Watson in particular (to be honest, Grint as Ron kind of rounded off at this point and stayed the same right until the end, his mood swings in Deathly Hallows notwithstanding) grow into great performers right before our eyes.

A great adaptation that would be the very best in the series, if it weren’t for…

1: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)_ – Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Here we go, the very best of the series.

When I broached this topic on my Facebook page, a few people seemed to think that this is the only acceptable answer to the question of ‘Which adaptation is the best?’ While I agree that Prisoner of Azkaban is not only the best adaptation, but the best as a film in general, I will concede that most of the films have their arguable merits, and I won’t disagree if you prefer another film (unless it’s Chamber of Secrets).

To be fair, this film has a lot going for it; arguably Azkaban is one of the best books in the series too, and it also has the most talented filmmaker the series ever had behind the camera. I remind you that Alfonso Cuaron is the director behind Gravity and Roma even though these films are still in his future at this point, it’s still one hell of a coup for such a studio franchise to pull to bring in such an auteur.

The series improves itself by taking a break from established franchise lines. It takes a different path than the usual ‘Harry vs Voldemort’ path (although that is tangentially involved) and in the process builds one of the franchises most intriguing plots, one that explores Harry’s parents closely, and the relationships they had when they were at Hogwarts.

The introduction of Lupin, and more pressingly Sirius Black (David Thewlis and Gary Oldman, respectively) lays more groundwork for the series’ future, and introduces two of the series more interesting secondary protagonists to boot.

When I was a kid, Sirius Black scared me in this film, such was the way he was portrayed, and the way we were being led to judge him, to throw us off the scent of the real villain is masterful storytelling, and making the real villain someone who has always been in plain sight all along, without any of us expecting it is a further masterstroke.

I always felt that Rowling killed off Sirius too soon, I know this is a tangent, but indulge me. I understand that his death was part of Harry’s character development, and that by taking away a little more of Harry’s possible happy future we sympathise with him further, but I always thought a duel between Sirius and Voldemort would have been incredible, maybe he could have met his end that way, and he could have at least spent a few summers with Harry, but then, Harry was never meant to have happy summers was he?

Anyway, it’s an absolute diamond of a film, not just as a part of a franchise but as a film itself, it’s the series first flirtation with a dark atmosphere, and it produces the best possible results, the way Cuaron used the Dementors, even in very brief snaps, just added to their danger, the fear factor, and helped make this the most atmospheric film in the series.

It’s also the only film I feel competes with Goblet of Fire for ‘Best Looking’ film in the series, as previously said, Cuaron is a master of cinema, and he uses all the positives of the franchise to add to his then-growing reputation, almost as if he’d resolved himself that if he had to make a studio franchise film, he’d make the best studio franchise film he possibly could.

Well, that’s pretty much that, my quite exhaustive look at the Harry Potter franchise so far, it is worth bearing in mind that there are currently three further Fantastic Beasts films planned, so we’ll see in the future where they fit in.

Thanks for reading, and sticking around with my site during this strange time, I hope it took you mind off what’s going on in the world, even for ten minutes, and if you’re a new reader, feel free to make yourself comfortable and read a few more of my posts, it’s not as if there’s anything else to do right now

Mischief managed.

 

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