Novel * J.K. Rowling * Wizard Injustice * 1999
The first time I read through this series, approximately one million years ago, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the point where I said to myself: “oh, this shit is for real, yo.” Considering that this was in the early 2000’s, that’s probably an exact quote, followed by a rousing chorus of “Nookie” and being scared of Al Qaeda or whatever the hell else we were doing then. Anyway, in contrast to the first couple of books in this series, Azkaban is where Rowling starts dialing up the reality quotient in terms of theme and her world building. Most people who are familiar with Harry Potter are well aware that as the series progresses, the stories get darker. That’s true, but I think a better way to describe this progression is to simply say they are about growing up. If nothing else, Harry Potter is a year-by-year, detailed examination of getting older. This being the third book, Harry and his friends are all officially teenagers, and the tone proceeds accordingly.
Think for a moment, if you dare, about being thirteen. It was exciting! Finally, you’re not just some little kid anymore but a teen. I think for a lot of people, this is the year where you start becoming more aware of the wider world, and start the arduous task of forming some kind of personal identity. The process is just awful, of course, and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to think about the cringy, embarrassing, dumbass things we said and did during this process. It has been observed by many of my generation that it’s a good thing social media wasn’t a thing then, because hoo boy. That said, this was also an age of discovery. I don’t know about y’all, but this general age is when I first started becoming invested in politics and world events. I was 13 when the L.A. riots popped off, and I was riveted. It was like, oh shit there’s this whole entire world where things are much different and much worse than they are for me. It takes a while to wrap your head around, and if we’re all being honest, it’s kind of a lifelong struggle.
What makes Azkaban special, then, is Rowling’s ability to deftly navigate the treacherous nature of thirteen, while simultaneously expanding her own world to account for her character’s growth. It becomes more apparent and obvious as the series moves on, but these are some accurate depictions of teenagers, and they resonate with my own cobwebby recollections of being a youth. Harry and his friends are not always likable, because they are sometimes insufferable teens. That’s realism for you. Likewise, as we learn more about the wizarding world at large, we find out that it’s not all whimsy and delight. As we learned in Chamber of Secrets, wizards and witches are humans, and as such sometimes they do terrible things, even outside the parameter of a dark super-villain. Again, as we move on in the series, these themes only get stronger, but they all appear very early on.
Prisoner of Azkaban begins a trend of more and more complicated plots which branch out and include an ever-larger roster of characters. As the principal trio grow up, they naturally meet more people and do more things, so as a world builder, Rowling never runs out of things to do. This is the one where we start learning more about the Ministry of Magic, are introduced to the Knight Bus and learn what dementors are. Harry is given the Marauder’s Map and the Firebolt, we learn about the village of Hogsmeade and we learn what Patronus’ are. Toward the end of the novel we get some valuable insight into Harry’s father’s past, and this is maybe the high point of Quidditch, insofar as narrative is concerned. It’s a very busy book which manages to hint at the more grave events that will happen down the line.
Sirius Black is a strange character, and his relationship with Harry only gets stranger as the series progresses. As the titular prisoner of Azkaban who escapes after 13 years of torment, Black haunts these pages without actually showing up until the very end. To that point, this book may as well be called Harry Potter and the Big Fat Red Herring. Black is in prison because he was accused of a magic massacre. After the fall of Voldemort he was on the run as a presumed supporter who had betrayed his good-guy buddies. Rather than come quietly he blew up a street and killed a bunch of Muggles. He was captured and left to the mercy of the dementors who, to recap, suck all happiness and hope out of people. Sometimes they suck your very soul out (just like Hunson Abadeer!). Anyway, Black escapes and everyone freaks out. The Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, responds by sending dementors abroad to protect Hogwarts in general and Harry in particular.
Harry gets jerked around a lot, and his entire existence is just one big emotional roller coaster. Part of this, naturally, is simply being an adolescent. More than most, though, Potter has a lot to sift through. He’s a celebrity from birth, although his entire upbringing has been a borderline child abuse situation in which he lived in total obscurity. The weirdest shit continues to happen to him, although to be frank Harry brings a lot of this on himself. He’s hardwired with a temper and a deep sense of self-righteousness, never mind his propensity toward recklessness. By this third book, there’s something of a template to Harry’s year. We begin with summer, and Harry is miserable. Then he gets out of the Dursley’s, and it’s rad. Then his term at Hogwarts begins, which is great until weird shit starts happening and then everyone hates him for a while before everyone comes around and loves him again. The thing is, it never feels formulaic. Yet the end of this novel really sets the poor kid up something awful.
Of course Sirius Black isn’t evil. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and unjustly accused of being the worst kind of betrayer. Harry’s feelings are all over the place in this final act. He swings from murderous rage to blind optimism and cautious love in like, zero seconds. It’s weird. My main man Lupin probably has much to do with convincing Harry that justice is not always served, and finally Harry takes it upon himself to show mercy to Peter Pettigrew, the little bitch-rat that was actually responsible for the death of Harry’s parents. Because Harry is a hero, naturally. There is a complication, however, when Severus Snape shows up and allows his bitter school memories to overcome his good sense (a not uncommon occurrence, as we’ll continue to see). Anyway, there’s some time travel nonsense and Black gets away, but is still presumed by the public to be a dangerous evil baddie.
The Ministry of Magic, led by Cornelius Fudge, is not terribly interested in alternative explanations for Black’s accusations. Fudge, as we begin to suspect in this book, isn’t a great Minister of Magic. He’s worried about image and optics more than justice, and he’s more convinced of his own power than he is understanding of people’s reservations about the dementors. It’s a small thing in this particular book, but this aspect of the story become extremely important later on. Rowling is not a huge fan of government, it seems. That aside, everything mostly works out. It’s pretty much the last time one of these novels ends on a high note. Harry, who has a new father figure/pen pal, has pulled off more cool shit successfully, and is able to look forward to a better summer than previously. For all the danger and revelations, the tone of Azkaban is still mostly light and adventurous. Harry might be on the cusp of adolescence, but there is still a measure of childlike wonder both in himself and in the story as a whole. Like everything else, this changes. And that change comes at you quick.
A Note on the Movie
The third film welcomes a new director, and as such a new vision of Hogwarts and the wider world. Alfonso Cuarón brings a crisper version of Rowling’s world, one where the school seems a touch less cozy and touch more dangerous. This, of course, fits the tone of the book pretty well. There’s still a general sense of wonder, and I forgot how hard Cuarón brings the jokes. There are a ton of silly one-off bits that pop up throughout the film which generally have nothing to do with anything, but they help keep things light to balance out all the dementors and hippogriff beheading. This movie also marks the point where the novels become too complicated to adapt intact. There’s quite a bit of story that gets left on the cutting room floor, and I’m totally fine with that. These movies all work better once you’ve enjoyed the source material, and therefore obvious sacrifices must be made when trying to make it work for the screen. The movie does a good enough job streamlining a complicated plot while capturing the overall feel of the novel that I have little to complain about. I don’t really need to watch a full season of Quidditch, after all. Adaptations are always going to miss fun details and make arbitrary changes, but nothing here is a deal breaker. Besides: jokes!