Harry Potter is a defining moment in nerd-dom. For most of us, it was our first fandom and the first that we openly engaged with by addressing the faults of canon and its problematic aspects. Then there’s the movies.
Long story short, they’re great. Short story long, they’re fun, if flawed adaptations that committed to the spectacle and brought the world we loved to life. Some were faithful in sequence, others in atmosphere. But which have aged the best? Which stand solidly as films?
Well, I’m giving you a Semi-Definitive Ranking, wherein I’ll acknowledge you will interpret this order very differently, but mine’s most accurate. Let’s jump in at the Harry Potter film ranking.
7. Order of the Phoenix
A ranking of the actual eight films would put Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 at the bottom of the list and I think that’s unfair.
Not because this entire gimmick of splitting your finale into two movies doesn’t rub me the wrong way. It’s because I’ll acknowledge when a movie is giving the story and characters time to breath and build up to a climax that will mean something.
The two very best things in Order of the Phoenix were Evanna Lynch and Imelda Staunton.
Lynch is an alias and that was the real Luna Lovegood visiting the set. That’s a certified fact. She killed it. Staunton, meanwhile, played Umbridge with just the exact note of “delightfully despicable”. Where’s her Oscar?
As for the adaptation, Order of the Phoenix shows what happens when you approach the book by condensing and pushing plot without introspection.
The book holds a special place as one of the most grueling reading experiences I member. It came after a long hiatus and confronted us with the bureaucracy, the underbelly, and the bleak side of the Wizarding World. It was quite the experience. Rowling’s style, the Weasley hijinks and the joy in Harry’s self-validation as a teacher keep the darkness from turning to apathy, but the mileage varies.
I respect the movie’s wanting to make the story lighter on the viewers, but there’s a difference between that and missing the point.
Harry wasn’t angry because he was “becoming more like Voldemort”; he was angry, depressed and confused because Voldemort might possess him. Not quite the same effect, is it? What was Occlumency here? If the film coincides with the last book’s release and the makers have access to the Snape reveal, wouldn’t they want to seed that for denouement instead of giving some blurry flashbacks that nobody could make sense? I’m aware that they shot an extended scene with Lily, but it never made the cut so, what gives?
The film is the “checklist effect” in motion: The filmmakers narrowed down the plot to the essentials, yet withheld the necessary information to make it meaningful.
Who sent the Dementors after Harry? Why did Voldemort want the prophecy so badly? Neither this one, nor the ones after, disclose any of this.
Even Sirius’ death, the most tremendous, soul-shattering twist in a book full of them, is botched. They failed to adapt the precise hubris and misinformation by which Harry was convinced Sirius was in danger and then breezed his death away for the next action sequence.
However, I would argue that no character suffered most than Cho Chang. I am not a fan of Rowling’s scripting of her, but the film takes that disdain to a whole other level. In the situation they created there is no reason why Cho wouldn’t press the matter or why Harry wouldn’t immediately go and apologize for not listening and treating her like shit.
Oh wait, there was a reason: so Ginny could tie his shoelace in the next one. Such a pity.
This is why you need to fic.
Do it for her.
6. Chamber of Secrets
Chamber of Secrets is often dismissed as a repeat of The Philosopher’s Stone. The adaptation doesn’t help its case because Chris Columbus made the same movie for each of them.
The repeat is uncanny: The plot structure is identical, they’re roughly the same length and even the musical themes match.
Voldemort is behind the scenes? The Face of Voldemort.
A monster in the Forbidden Forest? Meeting Aragog.
For the film itself, the creature animation holds up rather well, but the spellcasting is stale and cheesy. But what really puts Chamber of Secrets so low on the ranking is the complete lack of emotion. Once again, your mileage will vary, but it never feels suspenseful or emotionally gripping outside an action sequence.
Take, for example, Harry and Ron infiltrating the Slytherin common room. Does the scene build tension or frame it in any way that worries us? No. It’s just them sitting in a couch. Ginny’s entire ordeal wasn’t given enough space outside one conversation in the fifth book, but at least she was crying when she woke up. Here? She’s a mannequin. The film doesn’t use the book’s cues that were pointing towards her and she. Does not. Emote.
Chamber uses the book as the script, which I respect in theory, but this leaves copious amounts of filler that don’t go anywhere. The entire subplot with the Mandrakes took place entirely offscreen so there’s no emotional investment there. Had they cut most of the first act (Knockturn Alley, Ron’s Howler, and the classes) and the film would be all the tighter.
While it entertains me as a part of Harry Potter, it leaves a lot to be desired as a movie.
5. Half-Blood Prince
Half-Blood Prince is the most gorgeous of the series. The cinematography is by Bruno Delbonnel from Amelie and it’s lovely. The yellow palette and hues create are reminiscent of Rembrandt. Depending on the scene, they can feel warm and vibrant while still conveying an ominous mood. By contrast, the scenes involving Voldemort (the cave and the flashbacks, all two of them) are done in green.
It’s the most accomplished film in terms of music and cinematography. It’s also the film most detached from its plot. Oh sure, there’s something about smashing objects to kill Voldemort, but the specifics are all left to quick-cut montages, you’ll just have to wing it.
J.K. Rowling and company understood that, like in Empire Strikes Back, love blossoms in our darkest moments. Unfortunately, they forgot to write it well.
I don’t have the space to dissect every discussion Lavender Brown, but trust me, they’re valid. From her in-narrative ridicule for being (gasp) girly and love-truck to being recast and whitewashed as soon as she had a speaking role, there’s no dearth of problems.
As for Ginny….
I’m curious if Harry/Ginny shippers actually liked how the film treated their character.
Half Blood Prince has the most stunning visuals and sense of atmosphere in these movies, yet it missed the book it was adapting.
4. Philosopher’s Stone
Let me drop my Serious Film Analysis and gush here.
Time has not been kind to The Philosopher’s Stone: the effects are terrible; the introduction of the ghosts is ghastly in the wrong sense of the word; the Quidditch game is risible and the child actors…God bless them, they were learning.
Even for the first film in a line of 7 to Godknowshowmanymore, 2 hours, 45 minutes is an excessive run-time. Once again, it’s theoretically admirable to use the book as a script, but concessions have to be made with the material.
Yet it nails it. Flaws and all, this is The Philosopher’s Stone.
It captures the childlike wonder of finding the Wizarding World with rose-tinted glasses; it captures the banal mundanity of Harry’s abusive life and validates the escapism in finding a world full of hope and dreams. Whereas Chamber is the more technically accomplished film, this one actually hits the necessary emotional marks: It could be melancholic, it could be dark and it could be funny. Unintentionally funny at times, but I’ll take it.
It’s one of the rare pieces of media that I don’t feel cynical in calling “nostalgic” or “full of heart”. It is the opposite of cynical. As I’ve grown jaded and more self aware of the tropes and conventions, I respect a movie that can bring that can disarm me intellectually and make me feel like a kid again.
3. Goblet of Fire
There’s plenty to like: the action is great, the effects are phenomenal and it does a very good job at condensing the book and hitting the essentials. The problem?
That’s all it really does. It’s the Checklist Effect in action for the Nth time.
The book is more accommodating to this: three tasks and the rise of Tom Riddle as the denouement. Yet every vital in-between ends in the cutting room floor. The house elf crusade was omitted because Steve Kloves didn’t want Hermione to be mistaken on anything.
Barty Crouch Jr. (arguably, Rowling’s greatest villain) was reduced to a token psycho and the non-book readers have no idea who he is or how he accomplished everything; and the choice to make Beauxbatons and Durmstrang gender-exclusive is still absurd. By Rowling logic, Beauxbatons is the only school in France, while Durmstrang covers Germany, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Making them gender-exclusive messes the demographics up even further.
By coding Beauxbatons as exclusively feminine and fan-servicey and Durmstrang as manly and VERY fan-servicey, the filmmakers amped up Rowling’s already flawed gender politics.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how horribly they handled Ron/Hermione. I didn’t ship them. In fact, I think Rowling should abstain herself from writing romance. But the film consciously took a scene where Hermione called out Ron on his dumb, entitled behavior and made her shrill and making a scene.
These are core problems and I can definitely understand why people don’t like it. Yet, for what my ranking is looking for, Goblet of Fire is quite successful.
It’s entertaining, it actually captures the frenzy and sense of dread in the higher moments and it creates a fun, familiar environment that makes it all the more gut-wrenching with the tragedy and horror to come. It’s a fun and effective adaptation.
(oh and they took the acromantulas and sphinxes and instead made the Labyrinth some Stephen King monster. What’s up with that?)
2. Deathly Hallows (Pt. 1 & 2)
It turns out playing it fair completely screws up the ability to judge each film in-depth without going overboard.
To reiterate, I respect Pt.1 for letting the story breath and making the journey more introspective. It captures the fugitive angle and the sense of disconnect in being so far off from Hogwarts and the familiar environments. It even includes Ron! They adapt Ron’s arc of conquering his fears of inadequacy and asserting his worth for his friends and family to himself. Crazy, right?
It also gave us the animated segment of The Tale of the Three Brothers, a perfect microcosm of all the themes in Potter. Even if the Five Fantastic Beasts decided to adapt Beedle the Bard, they could not capture the nuance and beauty in these three minutes.
Now, I have to address the wasted character opportunities:
Despite the foreshadowing given to Dumbledore’s past, his connection to Grindelwald (and its overall connection to the movie’s title) is relegated to the production extras, much like Snape’s flashback in the fifth movie.
Speaking of Snape’s flashbacks, the creators miss the point of Lily again. She was integral part of his life and informed his character. If you omit the relationship and Snape’s mistakes as a youth, you are implying that his love for Lily was just “admiration from afar” and that he respected her.
They didn’t even get the eye colour right. Although Snape is a richer character than the fandom assumes, the film’s interpretation is skewed towards “unproblematic romantic”. In that regard, Snape’s scripting and Alan Rickman’s performance make him out as far more cool-headed and dignified than how he is in-text.
These faults notwithstanding, Deathly Hallows is a fun, enjoyable set that’s definitely better on DVD.
Pt. 1 is the character’s coming of age and the build-up to the inevitable; Pt.2 is the pay-off and the special effects extravaganza. Between the action, the wonderful character moments and the generous loans from Return of the King, it’s a resounding and definitive climax to a franchise that we had all been invested in. Wait, Cursed what now?
1. Prisoner of Azkaban
I’m none too proud of how they botched the Marauder’s backstory. I know some of the jokes fall flat (yes, Hermione, worry about how your hair looks from the back) and I do realize Daniel Radcliffe was still learning to act (“He was their friend!”). Yet, given the choice and free time, if I have to watch any of the lot, it’s this one. Hands-on-heart, it’s the best one.
Because the journey is introspective: it’s about confronting Harry’s fear and his past, which is brought to flesh by the Dementors and their effect on him. Because Dementors are the most horrifying creatures on this world and they fascinate me. In fact, if any of the Fantastic Beasts took the time to explore them in-depth and the concessions that kept them working in Azkaban, I would be okay with that.
Moroever, they serve a clear narrative purpose. The emphasis on the depressing memories they induce puts the focus on Harry as a person, beyond “the Boy who Lived” and “the Chosen One”.
This ensures that the resolution is given by his agency and his choice to master the Patronus charm, as opposed to being saved by the MacGuffin at the last minute. Without a visible Voldemort to hate on, the enemy comes from the grief (the betrayal of Harry’s parents) and from within (the intrusive effect of the Dementors). This easily reflects the shift into adolescence when most of us barely understood what our place in the world was. Even into adulthood, many of us still don’t.
Who am I? Why am I here? How do I stand up when I feel worthless and the world seems so bleak?
The film took a grittier and darker look back in a time when “gritty” and “dark” meant something. The cinematography is colder and more chilling. It suits not only the higher stakes and the looming perils in Hogwarts, assuming it even was safe in the first place (thanks Albus), but the general outlook of a teenager.
The book marked Harry Potter‘s transition from a Roald Dahl-esque self contained fantasy to an overarching epic and I think that’s also true for the movie.
While the familial dynamic of the Marauders could have been established much better (hey, that’s what movies 4 and 5 were for), I appreciate the concessions Alfonso Cuarón took with the material. If you have to convey a tone and atmosphere, keeping it character-driven is the way to go.
Keep the focus on Harry’s past and his fear; his choices and ability to trust and love when the world seems determined to get him. Keep it on his arc and his personal training. He sought a savior in the Patronus’s caster so he became that person. He sought his father and found he could make his own legacy.
And while it certainly has corny moments and deliveries that fall flat (“I’m gonna kill him”), you get the feeling that Radcliffe was being challenged as an actor and pushing the emotional envelope. It’s an effort that I appreciate.
The hypocrisy is not lost on me that I’d defend and gush over Prisoner when I’ve dismissed the technically better sequels for less. There’s a lot to criticize as a Potter booksnob, but, as an adaptation, it got the essence. I love how dark it gets and how hopeful it gets.
It’s one of my personal favourites and, in my not-so-humble opinion, the best Harry Potter film.