Stevi Costa links Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood to the ten-year anniversary of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, two narratives about time, in a new re-view of Cuaron’s foray into Rowling’s world.
Last Saturday, I saw Richard Linklater’s new film, the incredibly novel Boyhood, in which we watch a boy mature from age 6 to age 18 in just under three hours. Boyhood was filmed in just 39 days over 12 years, so we literally get to watch 6-year-old Eller Coltrane grow into thoughtful, sensitive 18-year-old Eller Coltrane. It’s a remarkable feat which moves seamlessly through the boy’s life, spending moments, both long and short, in each year. Rather than emphasizing the shift in time, Linklater allows it to flow over us, marking Coltrane’s character’s aging by a change in fashion and a skillful use of pop music as cultural currency. Certainly, it’s the novel conceit and utter magic of watching Eller Coltrane grow up on film that makes Boyhood’s very everyday slice-of-life narrative so compelling.
In some early scenes in the film, Coltrane’s Mason bonds with his mother (Patricia Arquette) while reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Years later, Mason dresses up as Harry Potter to go to the midnight book release party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with his siblings, who are also decked out in Hogwarts robes. (His stepbrother makes an adorable Draco Malfoy.) Linklater spends a fair amount of time in these quick scenes delighting in Rowling’s language, and the physical weight of the enormous Half-Blood Princehardcopies in the child actors’ tiny hands.
I loved seeing Harry Potter appear in Linklater’s Boyhood because, like the pop music that marks the year, the use of Rowling’s novels and the rituals of bedtime reading and midnight release parties conveyed a specific sense of time. Like Mason, I too can mark my life byHarry Potter.
And so, just a few days after seeing Boyhood, I sat down to rewatch 2004’s cinematic installment in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Azkaban is my favorite of the films because it is the most cinematic. Alfonso Cuaron understands magic, and magical realism, in ways that prior helmer Chris Columbus never could. Columbus’s movies are kiddie fare – sweet, but ultimately unsatisfying like so many treats from Honeyduke’s. Cuaron’s film is a great visual and narrative feast that understands the everyday magic of growing up.
Azkaban is a film about time, and what we can do with it; its limits and its possibilities. Cuaron makes this clear to us through the frequent ticking of gears in the Hogwart’s clocktower, the sands in the hourglass of Hermione’s time-turner, and the Whomping Willow’s vigorous shedding leaves, snowy shakeoffs, and sudden blossoming. A lot can happen in a year. Seasons change. Children grow.
As I was rewatching Azkaban, it occurred to me how perfect it is that Boyhood includes Harry Potter so explicitly in Mason’s childhood – and not just as a marker of how much time has passed between one scene and another. To read the Harry Potter series is to read about Harry growing up, and watching the films, then, very explicitly shows us how much the young actors playing our heroic trio (and all of their friends) also grow before our very eyes. Boyhood collapses the work of all eight Harry Potter films into one three-hour everyday epic. Over the course of the Harry Potter films, we see Daniel Radcliffe grow from an adorable mop-headed imp to a fine actor with a strong, square jaw. Rupert Grint transforms from scrawny redheaded weirdo to a brawny redheaded weirdo. And Emma Watson from a frizzy-haired precocious girl to a woman of poise and calculating intelligence. Prisoner of Azkabanis really the first film in the series that marks this shift for us, where suddenly the children we knew in Chamber of Secrets have become teenagers with teenage bodies, thoughts, and fears.
Cuaron’s Azkaban also takes the characters out of their school robes for the first time, which I like to think of as his way of creating magical realism within the Harry Potternarrative. In the previous films, students are always shown wearing their Hogwarts robes and uniforms on school grounds, as if to heighten the magical nature of the boarding school environment they inhabit and contrast Harry’s upbringing in the Muggle world, which is the only other time prior to Azkaban where we see wizard characters wearing regular clothes.Azkaban still features robes, of course, at official functions, such as the welcome feast in the Great Hall, and in classes, but nearly all other times, especially when characters are in their dormitories or are headed off campus to Hogsmeade Village, they’re in jeans and t-shirts and zip-up hoodies. Or, on one occasion, fancy winter wear, which is notable because I am fond of Malfoy’s fur hat and leather gloves embroidered with a shiny Slytherin crest. These wardrobe choices create a blend of what we know to be magical with what we know to be real, giving Rowling’s fantasy magic a more magical realist quality.
This change in wardrobe also lets us really see how much the actors have grown up in just a year. The t-shirts clearly show Radcliffe’s broader shoulders, Watson’s breasts, and Grint’s guns. Their faces have obviously matured, which we’d notice in or out of robes, but the use of everyday street clothes throughout the film amplifies this maturity by showing us the actor’s bodies. (As I write this, I now see the logic of my years spent in a Catholic school uniform. They tell you it’s to make everyone look the same so we’re not concentrating on being jealous of each other’s clothes/mocking those with less access to fancy stuff, but it’s really about obscuring the reality of our growing human bodies, and all that this entails with respect to sexuality and the explorations its very existence might invite.)
All Harry Potter properties are framed around the narrative timeline of the school year, so we are primed to accept a certain amount of time passing, from fall to spring, before everyone returns to their homes on the Hogwarts Express for the summer and spends three months pretending they’re not a wizard. Harry’s inability to do that when he blows up his aunt for insulting his late parents at the dinner table is where our narrative begins, and I found in this rewatch that this was a part of the film I was genuinely not interested in. I wanted to get into Hogwarts as quickly as possible and into the time frame of the school year, which is where plot happens. I was even a little bored with the train sequence until, of course, the Dementor makes its first appearance, alongside saintly Remus Lupin, one of my favorite of Hogwarts sundry Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers.
Lupin is the perfect addition to a narrative about time. As a werewolf, his existence is temporally conditioned. And as his lesson on defeating Boggarts demonstrates, the lunar calendar is something that one such as him should truly fear. The addition of Lupin to the narrative offers a counterpoint to the possibilities found in Hermione’s time-turner, which provides her with the ability to maximize her academic schedule by being in two places at once. Like every other kid who really likes school, I recall reading about the time-turner and immediately wishing I had one. Imagine all the stuff I could learn if I had more hours in the day! All the things I could do! By eradicating free time and optimizing her optimized time, Hermione is achieving so much more stuff than I am.
Both Lupin and the time-turner matter to the narrative of Azkaban. Lupin serves as a narrative foil for his friend, Sirius Black, the titular Prisoner of Azkaban, who was framed for ratting out Harry’s parents when, in fact, it was actually human rat Peter Pettigrew who turned his back on ol’ Moony, Padfoot, and Prongs and hitched his Wormtail to Voldemort’s wagon. As Lupin teaches Harry and the other students how to conquer their fears, the world of Hogwarts is simultaneously engulfed in fear and suspicion that Black may make his way to Hogwarts to kill Harry Potter. We’re trained throughout the film to be suspicious of dogs and wolves. Snape, in an attempt to out Lupin, delivers a lecture on werewolves. We are warned about The Grim, which happens to take the shape of a large black dog, by loopy Trelawney. The Fat Lady’s portrait is torn to shreds by something which has claws. Just as the Chosen One could either be Harry or Neville, this fearsome dog might be Sirius Black, or it might be Remus Lupin. Those of us who know even the tiniest bit of Latin can easily see that Rowling has set these men up to act as foils. Remus Lupin’s name invokes the man who might have founded Rome, if only his wolf-suckling brother Romulus hadn’t offed him first. Sirius Black is the dog star. Both could have frightened the Fat Lady, or been The Grim in Harry’s teacup. There’s little difference between Moony and Padfoot, and Rowling’s text pushes on this to heighten the atmosphere of suspicion. But they’re both good men, too. Lupin becomes a mentor for Harry, a connection to his father, and Sirius, ultimately, assumes his position as godfather and cares for Harry after he’s saved. But the narrative has to exploit the possible evils of these men further before it can resolve. In the confrontation that takes place in the Shrieking Shack, Black insists that he would never turn on his friends, only to have to do so in the following scene, in which Lupin is transformed by the full moon into the werewolf self he most fears. Black, in his animagus form as a large black dog, then fights his own friend in a CGI battle to protect him from himself, and to protect his godson, Harry, and friends.
After the fight, Harry and a badly wounded Sirius retreat to a lake, where they are terrifyingly attacked by Dementors. As their souls are being sucked from their bodies, Harry tries to remember the lesson Lupin imparted about casting the Patronus charm, a being of pure light culled from one’s happiest memories that can repeal the pit of soul-sucking darkness that is the Dementor. Just as he is running out of time, a miracle happens: the Patronus he couldn’t cast himself appears on the other side of the lake, glowing bright enough to expel the Dementors and save both himself and Sirius.
When Harry later awakens, he learns that Sirius has been captured and is to be sentenced to death via the Dementor’s Kiss. Here, the main plot about the titular Prisoner of Azkaban meets up with an earlier plot in the film involving another death sentence. Hagrid’s newest animal friend Buckbeak the Hippogriff has also been sentenced to death for “attacking” Draco Malfoy (who mostly was just being a git and not respecting the rules of conduct Hagrid had asked him to follow). Buckbeak had been “offed” earlier in the film, but this is only implied, which is why, when Dumbledore suggests that Hermione and Harry use the time-turner to prevent Sirius from meeting the awful fate he’s sure to meet, that if they do it right, “more than one life will be spared tonight.” And so Hermione and Harry travel back three turns on the time-turner and find themselves lurking outside Hagrid’s cabin just moments before Buckbeak’s scheduled execution.
It’s notable that JK Rowling and Cuaron get time travel very right in this film, as many other more sci-fi endeavors do not. Hermione and Harry see themselves inside Hagrid’s cabin as executioner Filch approaches, and she notices the strange snail-like stones that she’d seen mysteriously break a pot in Hagrid’s cabin earlier in the film. Her present-self-in-the-past has already been accounted for: the stones were always already thrown to alert her past self of her future presence. Likewise, while past Harry & Friends are overlooking the “execution” scene, present-in-the-past Hermione and Harry have already freed the Hippogriff and the only thing Filch gets to sink his blade into is one of Hagrid’s giant pumpkins. Present-in-the-past Hermione and Harry save themselves from Lupin by imitating a werewolf’s cry to distract him, and then watch in horror as past Harry and Sirius almost die at the hands of the Dementors. Present-in-the-past Harry, who was so convinced that he’d survived the Dementor attack because his father somehow cast the stag Patronus on the other side of the lake from beyond the grave, realizes that it was his own Patronus, and that he had saved himself all along. The pair then fly Buckbeak back to the tower where Black is imprisoned, and set the two off into the night together just in the nick of time. This all works because the only thing that actually changes is the present. The past remains as it always was – it is simply not the reality of the past that either the characters or the audience had realized.
Azakaban is an impeccably tight film, and a tight narrative because it has to be. Time as a concept may be something that we’ve invented, but it does become very real and immutable when mapped on to the tangible qualities of life, death, and growing up as it is here inPrisoner of Azkaban and in Boyhood.
– As the producer of a Harry Potter-themed burlesque show, I have a lot of strong feels about Harry Potter, and many of my rewatching/rereading experiences are irrevocably changed by the acts my friends and collaborators have made. For instance:
- I cannot look at Argus Filch without seeing Hattie HellKat, and when I see him in that executioner outfit, I am both repulsed by and attracted to the idea of her stripping out of it and covering herself in pumpkin seeds in a blind rage. (Her Filch act is about how much he wants to sleep with his cat, but I think executioner fetish Filch is the next step for the character.)
- The 2013 edition of Accio had a Dementor act followed by a Patronus act, and they both so effectively capture the emotional arc of the scene at the lake in Azkaban, as well as the visual style of the film. As the Dementor, Seraphina Fiero is a furious terror of strobe lights and industrial music. As the Patronus, Sara Dipity is nothing but pure, beautiful light and happiness. I am getting a little bit misty just thinking about the two of them, as I do when I watch the scene at the lake and hear Radcliffe finally find his voice and save himself because the two performers bleed so much into the narrative fabric of Azkaban for me.
– Emma Thompson as Sibyl Trelawney is perfect and looks exactly like my college Russian professor.
– The relationship between Lupin and Harry is utterly lovely in this film. Lupin makes a great mentor/substitute father for Our Favorite Orphan especially because he knew James so well. Other than Dumbledore, Lupin really is the first teacher in the series that we see actually teach Harry something of value, not just about the subject matter in class, but about navigating an increasingly hostile world.
– Plus, can we talk about just how good David Thewlis is as Lupin? He has the right kind of poetic sensitivity for a character whose worst enemy is himself.
– The art direction of these films just gets better and better when they get out of the hands of Chris Columbus. My favorite addition in this film? The spine candles in Lupin’s classroom.
– One of the things I hate most about the Columbus films is how awful the CGI is. Cuaron’s film makes a vast improvement on this. The animals are a little touchy, but still really good for 2004. Buckbeak is an achievement. He looks a lot better than the werewolf and the black dog do, but those look less silly than the Whomping Willow. For the first time, the CGI actually looks really magical and, most importantly, still holds up ten years later. These canines are 100% better looking than all the werewolves in Twilight, that’s for sure. And the scene where Harry flies Buckbeak over the lake and the Hippogriff dips his talons in the water is breathtaking. But not as breathtaking, of course, as the Dementors, which look spectacular and are scary as hell. The Patronus charms and the Boggart sequence are great uses of the animation. All in all, this one’s a keeper as far as CGI is concerned.
– Oh, and, by the way, the Marauder’s Map is some of the coolest looking CGI work done in any one of these films. It actually feels like magic, and I love that the Marauder’s Map is the end-credits sequence. It’s perfect.
– Things I Own: A hand-painted Marauder’s Map corset. It’s also perfect.
– I really appreciate how much the HP series is about British history and culture filtered through this magical world. The Hogwarts chorus performing the Witches’ song fromMacbeth during the feast creates a neat intertextual connection between Shakespeare and JK Rowling as makers of British literary history. As an Americanist, it raises my hackles a little bit because I wonder then why American isn’t also magical and stuff like that. And then I remember what happens when Americans try to write boarding school magic fantasies like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and I immediately take back that wish. YOU WITH THIS TIME, ANGLOPHILES!
Thanks to my friend Jessica Campbell for letting me take this entry into the Harry Potterseries. I just reread her lovely look back at Sorcerer’s Stone and her justified deconstruction of Chamber of Secrets. You should read them, too, because then you’ll just keep having Harry Potter feels. Always.