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How “Harry Potter” Became the Gold Standard of Film Series Adaptations

The magic of conscientious recreation

By Ben UlanseyPublished 4 months ago 5 min read
How “Harry Potter” Became the Gold Standard of Film Series Adaptations
Photo by RAMSHA ASAD on Unsplash

It’s hard not to be a little biased when the first Harry Potter film came out not long after your fifth birthday, but there’s a magic to these films that extends well beyond the wizardry. I can think of no film that’s done more justice to the fantastical world of its source material than the colossal Hogwarts castle and the hallowed grounds around it.

J.K. Rowling has attested that the world was brought to life in ways that were in line with some of her loftiest visions; the recreation of Diagon Alley was the spitting image of the written word. Few sets have ever been designed as thoughtfully as those of the Harry Potter films.

The Harry Potter series was a perfect coming together of cast, scenery and score. It’s difficult to even talk about Harry Potter without hearing that most famous melody. And if you don’t know the one I’m referring to, there’s a good chance you’re not reading Harry Potter articles to begin with. By the release of the second movie, John Williams’ already enduring musical career would be indelibly intertwined with the family-friendly franchise.

From the whimsy that colored the early films to the measured darkness that slowly overtook the series by its climax, fans like myself got to truly grow up alongside the characters. The release of each new book was already a rare event that had kids lining up outside of book stores, desperate to flip their way through Rowling’s newest installment. But the opening nights of each new movie were far more frenzied affairs.

Premiere nights across entire nations saw Potter-costume clad fanatics equipped with scars on foreheads parading through the neon facades of cinemas into popcorn-scented lobbies. For the multitude of us children who weren’t yet avid readers, the films were an escape with little parallel.

With the personification of nearly any novel, though, there are bound to be changes and omissions. Subplots will be missing, characters left out, and narratives altered. But in the case of Harry Potter, the changes made were largely wise ones.

The Harry Potter universe is large, but not too massive to be fairly encapsulated within the eight separate movies its producers were given to work with. By comparison, Tolkien and George R.R. Martin have both crafted worlds that are far more unwieldy. The sprawling realms of Middle-Earth and Westeros have lent themselves to some of the gravest of omissions in being brought to the big screen. Those who read the source material for either never found a pure justice to their beloved novels in the world of film.

Game of Thrones managed to capture the grandeur of its historied, Westerosi source material in its first four seasons, but faltered famously by the time it reached the finale. There’s hardly a fan of the books alive willing to speak in defense of the colossal missteps the show’s creators took in their mad dash to the nearest goal post.

It’s true that there’s plenty in the Harry Potter books that didn’t make it to the big screen. But maybe that’s a good thing. The personal politics that would define so much of Rowling’s post-Potter career had begun poking its head through the surface of even the series’ earliest pages. Her questionable attitudes toward equality culminated in some of the series’ greatest pitfalls. Among the omissions made in the adaptation of the series are some fairly heinous parts of her wizarding world that most would prefer to forget.

Throughout the written series, Harry and Ron make their attitudes toward slavery clearly known. And some might be disheartened to learn that this attitude is one of non-committal support at worst and light-hearted indifference at best. Throughout the series, the horrible plight of the house elves is one that Harry pays little mind. As Hermione righteously champions their freedom, Harry and Ron can hardly be bothered to participate.

“If they’re happy in their enslavement, what’s the problem?” the two male protagonists more or less reasoned as they quietly removed their moral champion cloaks on more than a couple of occasions. It wouldn’t have made for very wholesome family viewing.

From the exclusion of Winky the house elf and the meandering subplots with Nearly Headless Nick and Peeves, there was nearly nothing that was removed that truly took away from the overall feeling of wonder the franchise instilled in its viewers.

Of course, antisemitism did linger in the movies’ depiction of goblins, and at least one change in moving between the books and movies wasn’t the most well-received by Potterheads. But by and large, the four directors that traded batons throughout Harry Potter’s decade long tenure in Hollywood were astute in the changes that they made. Each director brought something wonderful and different to the table in their approach to the blockbuster movies, and each pulled something new from the characters and the world they inhabited.

I can think of no more perfect casting in my lifetime than Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione. Of course, hardly less iconic were Richard Harris and Michael Gambon in the role of Dumbledore, and Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith as Professor Snape and Professor McGonagall.

Each actor has been uniquely stamped by their roles in a way that only the most successful films can manage. Though all three of the main triumvirate have gone on to have prolific careers in acting that have stretched well beyond the confines of Rowling’s storied world, for so many of us they’ll always continue on in our heads as that famed, magical trio.

In an era in which film adaptations seem to release on a near-monthly basis, Harry Potter stands as a masterclass in translating the written word to visual spectacle. While films come and go, the Harry Potter series has left a legacy that seems to regain its magnetic appeal anew each passing autumn. And with the wistful arrival of the Hogwarts Express comes the warm blend of narrative, personality, wonder, and imagery that enthralled and enchanted a generation.

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About the Creator

Ben Ulansey

Ben is a word enthusiast who writes about everything from politics, religion, film, AI and videogames to dreams, drones, drugs, dogs, memoirs, and terrorizing Floridians with dinosaur costumes.

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