J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter epic is a thematic trojan horse: What starts as an innocent tale of magic and empowerment sheds its exterior to comment on the abrasive social plagues of racism and totalitarian politics. It’s a series that grew up with its readers, and the same can certainly be said for its film translations, whose releases span a decade. As with many modern fictions of good vs. evil, the Boy That Lived has assumed a renewed degree of relevance in the wake of a new political regime proud of its unsubtle ties to racism and white supremacy. That heady mix of real-world volatility and adolescent power fantasy resulted in nearly $8 billion dollars in worldwide receipts.
Prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, released last week, also knows how to summon a bushel of cash. The film is written by Rowling and directed by David Yates, who helmed the final four Potter films. Though it was the lowest debuting installment out of the bunch—by approximately $3 million—it still beat stiff competition from Marvel and didn’t benefit from the de-Potter-fied title.
Paste took a weekend (or much more than a weekend) to dive into Rowling’s cinematic oeuvre, putting on our own critical sorting hat to see which films hold up and where the most recent contribution fits into the legacy.
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9. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Director: Chris Columbus
The Chamber of Secrets isn't a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it did demonstrate severe growing pains. The story revolves around a secret chasm underneath the magician training ground of Hogwarts that threatens to release a reptilian monster that would, in no uncertain terms, commit genocide against students born of non-magic lineage, and Steve Klove's screenplay is never able to amend that austerity with the buoyant escapism that occupies much of the runtime. The narrative flits from centaurs and baby dragons to ethnic cleansing at a breathless pace, never meditating on the sheer horror of what it's proposed—a horror that will come three films later.
The movie shines when it hints at the sweeping canvas Rowling had already woven. Harry's view into the past at arch-villain Tom Riddle and a beardless Hagrid shows a staggering degree of forethought and consideration that would unfurl throughout the next six iterations. The film also confirmed its greatest strength: a cast of British thespians who could turn goofy spell incantations into Shakespearean drama. Big American "stars" would have hijacked the characters and their eccentricities, but with Kenneth Branagh as preening, narcissist Gilderoy Lockhart and Richard Harris (RIP) as paternal grand wizard Dumbledore, immersion was a certainty.
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8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Director: Chris Columbus
Director Chris Columbus tends to be neglected for what may be the most valuable contribution to the Potter film dynasty: producing a debut feature successful enough to warrant a sequel. Think that's a foregone conclusion for a fantasy book series with a built-in audience of millions? Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass sold 3.5 million copies in the United States before its film adaptation from Chris Weitz firmly tanked any prospects of its two sequels visiting the silver screen. Even Tim Burton's adaptation of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children grossed $85.2 million in North America, leaving the orphanage's filmic future in jeopardy.
Columbus built an accessible, charming introduction to Rowling's cosmos, accumulating more than $317 million in America alone. It doesn't quite dive into the realpolitik overtones that flavor the later, superior entries, but neither did its source material. The film channels Rowling's Roald Dahl adulation of whimsically awful adults oppressing youth—it's no surprise that Harry's buffoonish aunt and uncle became far less prominent in the mythos as the saga progressed and Rowling developed her voice. Production Designer Stuart Craig gave the magic a grandiose tactility, most noticeable in the ornate, warm halls of Hogwarts. Though Sorcerer's Stone may not flaunt the epic, good-vs.-evil dynamism of its successors, and though it sports some thrift store CGI, the first film did create a stable scaffolding that wouldn't have existed if Rowling had employed her first pick—the more imaginative, and far less consistent, Terry Gilliam.
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7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II
Director: David Yates
For a saga that revolves around the power of undying love and intimate personal history, this final installment feels strangely antiseptic and impersonal—if grandiose. Professor McGonagall (the immaculately played by Maggie Smith) finally casts more than stern looks in a brilliant bit of spellplay against Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), and Harry and his crew's infiltration of Gringotts Bank offers more enthralling world building and dragon hijacking. But the final clash between Voldemort and Harry is confusingly anticlimactic—the concluding plot mechanic relies on esoteric wand lore instead of any larger commentary on heroism, fear or persecution.
Severus Snape's flashbacks stand as a highlight, coloring past events with a new blanket of bittersweet drama and motive. The movie's a confirmation that Harry and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) were the least nuanced characters in their own story. Whereas the book could dive into the reactions and ramifications of the warfare fatalities, the film tosses the limp bodies of soldiers like Tonks (Natalia Tena) and Lupus (David Thewlis) aside in seconds. Though the site of marching stone soldiers and spells that cast protective snow globes are certainly impressive, we all expected a bit more from this finale.
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6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I
Director: David Yates
The first half of Harry's concluding year may be the hardest to qualify: It features a handful of visually arresting, smart action sequences, but it also grinds to a staggering halt for an overwhelming chunk of its middle. Director Yates can't be totally blamed for the tedium of watching Harry, Hermione, and Ron camping, arguing, and watching magical hallucinations of themselves hooking up that most definitely weren't in the book. This cloud-before-the-storms banality also occupies much ink in Rowling's prose, and its excision would have possibly cut the concluding chapter down to one film, or at least this movie into a feature briefer than two and a half hours.
Aside from pondering how to eradicate Horcruxes—antiques that hide portions of Voldemort's soul—the film does feature a nice chase sequence between the Order and the Death Eaters, as well as the most heroic act by an owl in cinema history. As a whole, though, Deathly Hallows is a springboard for an ending that also lacked the soul of its previous chapters.
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5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director: David Yates
Franchising isn't a new thing, but of late it has gotten worse in the sense that movies are becoming more conscious of their serialization. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that dynamic splits the production into two parts: one concerning fantastic beasts and, yes, the appropriate methods of finding them, the other concerning Standard Issue Dark Wizard Shit™, the latter all the proof you need of the film's intrinsic taint prior to buying a ticket. Remember that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is derived from the Potterverse, where it's nothing more than a required textbook for all first-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, rather than a distinct story of its own. Just turning that text into narrative requires major storytelling gymnastics.
Stitching it to the Potterverse's overarching clashes with the baddest hombres of the wizarding world, though, requires something more, like an insatiable hunger for box office revenue. It'd be a crime of sorts to turn Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a hapless, shy, gratingly twitchy wizard who accidentally sets a handful of magical creatures loose in 1920s New York City, and who must catch 'em all before things get out of hand. (The Pokémon GO tie-in jokes are as obvious as they are endless. Unlike that game, though, the film actually has a conclusion, such as it is.) But that'd be more of a misdemeanor than a felony. By contrast, portentous material involving a spate of unexplained and destructive attacks throughout the city, coupled with the search for the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, feels like murder. —Andy Crump
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4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Director: Mike Newell
Kudos to screenwriter Steve Kloves, who translated all the Potter films save Order of the Phoenix, for funneling a 734-page tome into one coherent movie. Though Goblet excels in economy and distillation, it also left many Potterheads wondering where S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) and a riddle-spouting sphinx had disappeared to. On its own terms, though, the near three-hour movie flies by faster than a Golden Snitch. The entry expands the world past Hogwarts by introducing competing schools in a tournament that, among highlights, pits Harry and a very young Robert Pattinson (playing Cedric Diggory) against vicious mer-folk.
The climax also sees the grand, corporeal debut of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, who had been relinquished to CGI in previous entries. If there was any question whether this villain and his cronies, the Death Eaters, were stand-ins for Nazis, casting the bad guy from Schindler's List should answer that question. The development ratchets up the tension before sliding into some confusing plot logic regarding wand science that also reemerges in Deathly Hallows. But (spoiler alert) damn if the sight of Harry cradling the corpse of Cedric Diggory isn't one of the most evocative visuals from the canon. It's also a scenario that punctuates the following four Potter movies as the casualties increase.
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3. Harry Potter and the Order of The Phoenix
Director: David Yates
Order of the Phoenix may reference a group of benevolent freedom fighters operating under Dumbledore's leadership, but this new, dark status quo was defined by the creeping evil that had usurped the press, the government and, slowly, Hogwarts. Curiously, that maliciousness didn't revolve around the resurrected Voldemort, but a middle-aged woman with a fondness for cats and corporeal punishment. Senior Undersecretary Dolores Umbridge, played with saccharine malice by Imelda Staunton, is a highpoint of the series and a far more memorable adversary than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Umbridge matter-of-factly denied the existence of the Death Eaters and Harry's ordeals, normalizing apathy and providing an all too relatable proxy for so, so many real world events. She was also a secret sadist who also reveled in watching children etch apologies into their own flesh.
Despite Umbridge and a grand finale that pitted Voldemort and his cronies against the magician equivalent of the Justice League, Order feels more like interstitial tissue than its own singular beast at times. Umbridge, while standing in as the primary antagonist for much of the film, is unceremoniously dispatched to allow the overarching mythos a last-minute spotlight. That said, who can complain about a showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore featuring water prisons and hellfire snakes?
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2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Director: David Yates
The first thing you'll notice about Half-Blood Prince is that it's gorgeous. Director Yates had gotten his footing in Order of the Phoenix, and this follow-up displayed a stylishness that elevates his best contribution to Rowling's cosmos. Cinematographer Bruo Delbonnel desaturates the color palette while adding casts of green, gray, auburn and crimson. It's a timeless, high-drama approach which calls to mind the claustrophobic surrealism of Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari when the action escalates, as well as the wartime romance of films like Casablanca as the emotions flood.
While the Deathly Hallows films may offer the most Wagnarian spectacle, Half-Blood Prince remains the personal climax of the Potter saga. It's a trippy, bold descent into the psyches of the characters and a statement to the complexities that separate them from their imitators in less nuanced fantasy. Snape and Dumbledore—respectively embodied by Alan Rickman and Michael Gambon—etch out a dynamic that never stops surprising, and the films become infinitely less interesting with their respective exists.
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1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Unlike predecessor Chamber of Secrets, third entry Prisoner of Azkaban straddles a sublime balance between childhood revelry and encroaching doom as Harry, Hermione and Ron age into an ambivalent future—the same tonal tug-of-war also defined Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron's earlier efforts, including A Little Princess and Y Tu Mamá También. Cuaron introduces a brisker pace and, in many instances, a sheer goofiness that can't be found anywhere else in the books or movies. The Potterverse reaches peak Dahl homage in the film's opening scenes, when Harry warps his aunt Marge (Pam Ferris) into bloated balloon, mirroring the actions of another alliteration-named magician who happened to run a chocolate factory. Shrunken voodoo head bus navigators, a monster book of monsters and Professor Snape in heels round out a feverish, lighthearted romp through the Wizarding World.
But this film wouldn't rank this high for those reasons: Azkaban firmly yanks the rug back as it progresses, painting a severe contrast between Harry's past years and his future peril. The titular prisoner, Sirius Black, introduces a new moral ambiguity which exposes the HP epic as a metaphor for totalitarianism and racism. The books and movies' magic never became more meta than when it asked its young wizards to funnel their happiness into the Patronus spell—a weapon against wraith-like spiritual parasites that miraculously passed a PG rating. Those scenes alone confirm Potter as an eternal pop culture emblem for hope in the face of seemingly hopeless futures.