Though not really related to Christmas at all, there’s something very festive about the Harry Potter movies, which explains why ITV are showing every single one this December. Maybe it’s something to do with the series’ sense of childlike wonder and magic, its lazy Sunday afternoon vibe, or even, like Bond, its quintessential Britishness – there’s something about the series which appeals during the festive holidays. There’s something comforting about the series – these are the sort of movies you could watch when hungover, or sick – and though I’d never consider myself a die-hard fan (I loved the books as a child/early-teen, but so did almost everyone else of my age bracket in the world) there is something impressive about a seven-book-long series adapted, with a consistent cast and crew, into eight unique movies.
As such, and as its Christmas, it seemed fitting to rank the Harry Potter movie series, from worst to best. I’ll be looking into adaptation, the cast and the directing, and highlighting the franchise’s strongest and weakest moments.
8: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
The first film of the series, and easily the worst. The film works like a photocopier – it transfers JK Rowling’s original tale onto screen almost page by page, but fails to capture the novel’s sense of world building, wonder and magic. It’s an awful adaptation, rendered worse by the fact that Stone had to cover all of the series’ exposition and character-introducing, which leads to a slim 200-page children’s book being turned into a 152-minute-long endurance test.
Kids loved Harry Potter at the time, but it’s hard to imagine many 10 year-olds sitting comfortably through this now. Columbus is a bland director and fails to give the movie any sense of artistic character – this is a completely by the numbers children’s blockbuster with weak, unimaginative cinematography (compare Hogwarts here to it post Prisoner of Azkaban) and dodgy effects, though it does boast an iconic score by John Williams, which is the best thing about it. The young actors at this point were terrible actors and there’s some clunky, cringe-inducing line deliveries. It seems likely that Warner Brothers, afraid to step on the toes of any (money spending) young viewers, encouraged Columbus to straight-up copy the book’s content without letting any potentially audience dividing creativity get in the way; this is probably why Columbus was attached to the project, as opposed to say Spielberg, who may have made a great movie at the expense of the text. As such, this is the franchise at its dullest – skip this one if it’s on TV.
7. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The Chris Columbus movies are by far the weakest in the series, and whilst Chamber of Secrets is an improvement on the first film, there’s still a long way to go at this point. The problems attached to the original movie apply to this one; it’s simply too long, with the screenplay desperate to accommodate every word of the book without making any effort to do something interesting. It’s a kind of ‘How To’ on not to adapt a property to screen.
Chamber is the longest film in the series, based on the second shortest book, which says a lot. Watching the movie is a lot like reading a Wikipedia summary of the story; there’s no heart, which is a shame, because in the right hands Chamber could have been amazing. It features a fantastic creature-focused mystery which a better director could have worked wonders with, and though the final scenes with the basilisk are good and the stakes higher throughout, this is simply too cumbersome to really be engaging. The cast haven’t got much better yet either.
6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
JK Rowling loved this one, and whilst it’s a considerably better movie than some of the others in the series, it suffers from the weakness of the source material. As with all long-running franchises on their way to climax, there’s inevitably got to be a moment towards the end where the story stops for breath; The Half Blood Prince is one of the least interesting books in the series for that reason – very little happens and the story treads water. This was the book where, as a teenager, I realised I’d lost interest in the series.
It says a lot that extra scenes – the destruction of the Millennium bridge, the Deatheater attack – are added in to pad out the action. On top of this, certain key moments, such as Dumbledore’s funeral, are removed, and so the movie seems to lack a resolution. It can’t really stand on its own terms. This isn’t a problem so much in the original novel, as it’s easier to get away with this kind of running plot in a book series, as books have their own pace – but film is a different medium, and the ‘television-serial’ style of adaptation never works.
The romance elements feel tacked on, but then they did in the book too. On the plus side, the cinematography is beautiful, there’s a great sense of dread, and some of the best acting in the series – Daniel Radcliffe gets to show off his comedic side which is always nice, as he’s actually pretty funny. Yates is comfortable with the material, it’s just with this one, there’s not a great deal to work with.
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The final in the series, and not bad at all. There are some fantastic moments – the opening sequence in the bank with the dragon is great, and the final battle of Hogwarts is as big and impressive as you’d expect. All of the cast are on top form and there’s a certain sadness from seeing these characters for the last time, having watched them grow up on screen. Ralph Fiennes as ever is a wonderfully wispy and snake-like Voldemort, and Alan Rickman gets his best moment as Snape. That said, the tacked on epilogue adds nothing – it was awful in the book too and you get the feeling Rowling only put it there to cancel out any potential sequels.
There’s a lot of good-will towards this one; it leaves the audience feeling stirred up, which is what it’s meant to do, but in terms of story, this is one of the weakest entries in the series, and it really only gets the praise it does because it’s the finale. There are better and more complete movies in the series.
4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Mike Newell’s fourth film, Goblet of Fire, impressively manages to condense a very large book into a single movie. This partly works very well – the Tri-Wizard Tournament allows the film to be broken down into a series of manageable set-pieces (dragon, lake, ball, maze) all of which are handled very well. The problem with the adaptation however is that in condensing such a large book, the pacing becomes dreadful, meaning certain elements are padded out far too much (the ball – it’s nice to see these characters growing up, but this drags) whilst others – the opening, and mainly the climax, are left lacking.
It says a lot that the wand-related Deus-Ex-Machina isn’t even explained, and for non-book fans, parts of this ending must be incomprehensible. That said, the cinematography and world-design here is top-notch, the movie feels bigger and darker than what’s come before, and the action is good. Fiennes makes his first and best appearance as Voldermort, Michael Gambon gets to loosen up Dumbledore and the young cast, finally growing up, are actually starting to flex their acting chops here.
3. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
David Yates’ first shot at directing the series, a role he’d keep for the rest of the run. Yates gets this material and Order is perhaps the most confident film in the franchise. It’s a transitional plot, one which opens the series up from small, who-done-it mysteries into all out battle of good versus evil, and Yates does a great job adapting these changes. The opening scenes with the Dementors is stunning to look at – Order being so visually far removed from the drab Columbus days, and there’s some wonderful set-design throughout; the Ministry of Magic in its ebony glory is particularly striking.
Daniel Radcliffe really grows into the role here, we get the Dumbledore/Voldemort battle we’ve been waiting years for, a lot more Gary Oldman (always a plus) and Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge, a brilliant passive aggressive villain and one Stephen King (based on his villains in The Mist and Misery) would have been proud of. A pretty perfect Christmas movie this one.
2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Perhaps the most surprising entry on this list, Part 1 should have been terrible; it’s based on half a book, and a weak half at that – as previously stated, I’m not a fan of movies being split into two halves. The film, however, is actually an improvement on the material – it’s a very tense movie, with a great sense of hopeless dread and escalating chaos, and by this point, it really feels like all bets are off. The movie does a lot with its meagre plot; the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is both funny and tense, the scenes at Godric’s Hollow haunting and scary, and the scenes of Harry, Hermione and Ron wandering the woods are good – mainly because of the young cast.
Watson and Grint give their best performances in the series here – they’ve really grown into these characters and feel allowed to do their thing here. The core trio have great chemistry together, and convincingly feel like a group of old friends. Part 1 is a much stronger movie than Part 2, which is surprising. And with its sweeping shots of various UK hills and mountains, the film possesses the most beautiful cinematography of the series. The animated story of the Deathly Hallows is unexpected and striking, a bold and impressive move this late in the game.
1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
This one has a lot going for it, mainly because of its director Alfonso Cuarón, one of the best directors working today – see Gravity and Y Tu Mamá También. Cuarón breathes new life into the series after the tired and half-arsed Columbus films, and everything is improved; Hogwarts is completely redesigned, as are the sets, costumes, and the style – which makes the film feel more organic and natural than what came before. For the first time, the series steps up and takes on a cinematic identity.
The remaining Harry Potter movies are completely shaped by this one; its influence is important to the cinematography of all the future films. It’s helped that Cuarón gets the sense of magic which comes with the books and translates that wonderful atmosphere into his movie. Prisoner isn’t afraid to stray from the source, so never feels as creatively dead as the Columbus movies, and has the benefit of a stand-alone and complex mystery plot with some clever time travel elements. Of all the movies, this is the only one which really functions with its own narrative, and it’s by far the best movie in the series for this reason. When critics look back on Harry Potter in years to come, this will be the one they remember.
That’s all! A run down and ranking of all the Harry Potter movies. Feel free to let me know below if you agree or disagree in the comments below. As a note, this post was originally written by myself for Vada Magazine and re-adapted for the Christmas season.