This feature originally ran in November 2018.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the still-expanding Wizarding World cinematic universe.
A viewer of a certain age will remember what the run-up to the release of 2000’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone felt like. Just a couple of years earlier, the Boy Who Lived arrived on American shores with a slightly altered first installment title and the many wonders of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world in tow. Potter phenomenon was already well underway, but the idea of being able to bring Hogwarts and its inhabitants to life set the excitement at a fever pitch. Everything from the gentle John Williams score to the first images of Daniel Radcliffe as the onscreen Harry suggested that fan expectations were about to be delivered upon.
Whether they were or not from that point is really a matter of perspective. To some Potter-heads, the films can never truly match the richness and depth of Rowling’s ever-expanding universe. To others, they’re to be taken as their own version of the Potter story, adaptations comprehensive enough to work (or not work) as their own retelling, independent of the books. Others got to grow along with the series, watching its actors age onscreen as the characters did on the page, growing up as Harry and Ron and Hermione had to as the story progressed. To many, at least these days, they’re the eight movies always playing on some cable channel somewhere.
Regardless, 18 years and billions of dollars later, the Potter books have spawned eight adaptations, two spin-offs (the Fantastic Beasts films), and a lifetime of book vs. movie arguments. As Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald apparates into theaters around the world, we’ve decided to take our best shot at dissecting the magic of those ten films, what makes them tick, and which manage to best match (or even add to) the story that created a new generation of dedicated readers and fans. Accio ranked list!
(A quick note, before we begin: the “Cast” section for each main series entry, after the first, will only include additions per film, to avoid re-naming a who’s-who of European acting royalty along the way.)
— Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Runtime: 2 hrs. 54 min.; one of the shortest books gets the longest film in the series.
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Warwick Davis, Tom Felton, Richard Griffiths, David Bradley, Matthew Lewis, and the many, many others within the walls of Hogwarts and beyond. The three big names joining the festivities are Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, the ever-underrated Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle, and Kenneth Branagh as fraudulent dreamboat Gilderoy Lockhart. It’s also Richard Harris’ last appearance as Dumbledore — he died shortly before the film’s release.
Revelio Premise: Harry may know he’s a wizard now, but that doesn’t mean his home life is one bit better. Confined to his room and prevented from doing magic by the laws of the wizarding world, Harry’s bad situation gets even worse when a house elf named Dobby shows up to warn him against going back to Hogwarts. He goes again, of course, but when someone or something begins attacking “Muggle-borns” — wizard kids born to non-magic parents — and he’s suspected, his previously wonderful school life becomes more hostile and somehow even more dangerous. Who’s behind it, they can’t tell, but the titular chamber seems to hold the answers.
Artistic Pedigree: You’ll read more about director Chris Columbus in the Sorcerer’s Stone section (hint: you won’t have long to wait there). While his efforts to bring the films to the screen are laudable, and his obvious respect for the material endearing, the director of Stepmom was not perhaps the best choice to bring a story of a kid who experiences almost unending loss, pain, scrutiny, and cruelty to the screen. He’s good on fuzzy moments, not so much on layered, messy, emotional stuff.
Put a Spell on You: When Harry and Ron make their way to the Chamber of Secrets — and more specifically, when Harry goes on alone — there’s suddenly some legit atmosphere. That’s thanks in no small part to Christian Coulson, who was unfortunately too old to return as Tom Riddle in later films. Here, he’s absolutely chilling, displaying a palpable intelligence that makes the young Voldemort seem every bit as formidable as the one we’d later meet in the form of Ralph Fiennes. The crazy cave and giant snake ain’t bad, either.
I cannot state this plainly enough, this children’s movie is six minutes shy of three hours long, that is absolutely bonkers, what the hell: And yet it still feels rushed. Interminable, and yet rushed.
Five-time Winner of Witch Weekly’s Most Charming Smile Award: The adult actors in the Potter series are not to be fucked with. For the most part, they don’t phone it in — Dame Maggie Smith would never — but even in that crowded field, Kenneth Branagh’s giddy commitment to being just the fucking worst is something to marvel at. Reportedly, Hugh Grant was the first in line for this job, and while the future-and-forever Phoenix Buchanan would play a number of self-obsessed cads to great effect throughout his career, it’s impossible to imagine this film without Branagh’s glinting teeth and feckless scrambling. He’s perfect.
Expecto Verdict: Allow me to just say this one thing about Chris Columbus — who, again, seems to genuinely love these books, bless him. In the Potter books, the Sorting Hat is, of course, capable of singing a yearly song to outline the qualities of each of the Hogwarts houses through a rip in its brim. However, it’s also capable of whispering directly into the ear (or brain) of the student who wears it, while it reads what exists in that student’s mind (and thus heart). Chris Columbus imagines those conversations as the hat bellowing out its thoughts for all to hear. It’s not intimate. It’s public. It’s about observation, not essence. It shows us the most literal version of what happens, without thinking about how it feels, or what it means.
That’s the Chris Columbus take on the Potter world in microcosm. The most faithful adaptation by far is also, in turn, the least magical. That precedent would be broken with the very next film in the series, but we’ll always wonder what a director with more imagination — more magic — might have done with Harry’s first two years at Hogwarts. — Allison Shoemaker