Choosing to care about wizards has often, but rightfully so, been irritating in the late 2010s, thanks in part to the new series of films based on the Harry Potter spinoff, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, and the creator of the series, J.K. Rowling’s newest additions to the lore. However, today (June 4th) marks the 15th-anniversary of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón — the lowest grossing but highest regarded installment of the Harry Potter film franchise — and, if I may say so the only good Harry Potter movie. What makes this even better is how Guillermo del Toro called Alfonso Cuarón, the Oscar-winner, an arrogant bastard because Cuarón didn’t want to direct it at first.
It gets a pass for a couple of reasons, the largest of which was that Prisoner of Azkaban sets the building blocks for J.K. Rowling’s most compelling story in the Wizarding world. One she mostly does not touch, The Marauders — the friend group of Harry’s parents — James Potter and Lily Evans. My memories are admittedly a little hazy of when the movie first released in 2004. I remember being seven and on my tiptoes, digging my chin into my older sister’s shoulder, as she hunched over the shared family laptop like a tortured computer hacker, watching the trailer for the first time: Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore raising his arms in a decked-out shimmering robe, the movie feeling distinctly more modern than I realized, and thinking Harry’s hair is kind of cute.
Prisoner of Azkaban was a film of firsts for the series and its fans: a new Dumbledore, a new director, a big bird thing (a hippogriff), and the kids wore real-life people clothes instead of running around like prep-school kids 24/7! The last one made my sister fume in her seat — she subscribed to a lot of teen magazines that no longer exist, glossy pages filled with Hermione in pink sweaters and Harry in jeans, and for the first time they didn’t look like kids from the 1800s. “This isn’t right!” my sister said with a fiery kind of passion and she probably would have used the word canon if it was a common thing a decade ago.
Years later, my sister still reflects: “Can you believe I thought that was the deal breaker for me?” I guess she couldn’t have imagined Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald back then. It was during this — bored and nostalgic — that we watched the movie again during the Great Michigan Polar Vortex, and it felt like my super cool girl apathy towards J.K. Rowling was shaking, just a bit. Even with the godforsaken poop tweet on my mind.
Harry’s years at the wizarding school are rarely gentle but he runs into a problem quite quickly this time after being warned that a deranged serial killer named Sirius Black has escaped from prison and was specifically looking to kill Harry. Reasonable Adult #2, ranked after his wife, Arthur Weasley begs Harry to not go looking for Black. Harry — in a line that literally everyone makes fun of — wonders why he would go looking for someone who would want to kill him, as if he hadn’t been doing that since he was 11.
However, Harry finds out that Black was formerly his parents’ confidante, betraying their location to Voldemort, and leaving their infant son an orphan. Driven by a new sense of vengeance, Harry quickly learns that the truth is far more complicated than he realized. Prisoner of Azkaban operated as a closed story, somewhat divorced against the larger arc of the war against Voldemort. This is about Harry, his family’s history, and his need to have his parents in his life. It laid the groundwork for new richer mythology, especially that of the adults.
The film touches upon the legacy of Harry’s parents in subtle notions. It’s a little hard to realize it now but as a kid, the “dead parents” were just people for our scrappy protagonist to just be a tiny bit sad over, as the first two films felt more similar to, say, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. James and Lily live only in Quidditch awards, sweet pictures on Harry’s bed-stand, and comforting platitudes. We very rarely get overt signals about James and Lily throughout this film — they are mostly demonstrated through new professor Remus Lupin and the aforementioned Sirius Black. Lupin doesn’t even mention that he and Harry’s father were incredibly close — close enough that James broke the rules for Remus on a regular basis as school kids.
David Thewlis’s Remus is a steady, comforting figure through the film — the cool teacher who provides Harry a getaway when his obvious status as an orphan keeps him apart from his classmates. Contrasting against Sirius, who is now unstable from being convicted for killing someone he considered closer than a brother, growing up in an abusive household, and being locked away in a hellish prison. But once Sirius’s innocence is revealed, it is a comfort on the screen— an adult solely dedicated to Harry’s well-being and whose love for Harry’s parents is bold and open (slam this AVPS song here). Even while Sirius was never portrayed to be 100 percent in the right in the later films, his devotion was for James and Harry — not the war.
Daniel Radcliffe’s giddy portrayal of a more hopeful Harry has always left me emotional — see his quick “Can I live with you?” as a response to Sirius’s uncharacteristically shy question — reminding me that our protagonist isn’t just the face of a worldwide phenomenon but just a sweet character on his own. I like moments like that— when the young adult franchise steps back and remind you that among the monster slaying and death threats, your main character is basically a child who wants to be loved and protected.
There’s the Marauders’ Map in the hands of the Weasley twins who kindly give it to Harry because they think he’d need it more, not knowing that it belonged to Harry’s father. It is never clarified within the film that it belonged to James. It is just an artifact of his adventures Remus never mentions, just quietly tucking it into his robes. Halfway through the movie, Harry sees the ghostly image of a deer — a Patronus charm that wards off the Dementors (the prison’s guards) — and believes it to be his father. The recurring symbols of James Potter’s life just emphasis his impact on the backstory of the story— the tragedy of a loving family Harry could have hard, slipping between his fingers.
I am not one to insist that childhood nostalgia is untouchable — the portrayal of the shrunken heads is deeply questionable, Jesus — but there is a warm feeling in remembering Hogwarts. Of being a kid and being awed by an immersive world that once felt so alive. My engagement with the Harry Potter franchise is generally pretty low on a fandom scale— I was at the age where I was too young to tackle the later books. My familiarity lies within my sister, six years older, who generally steered me through the franchise with motions of a dedicated stage mom. She told me which books to read, which movies to watch, and blow dried my already unruly hair so I could be Hermione each Halloween.
My sister has always been a fan of the Marauders’ myth rather than the main line of the story. The 5th book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released in 2003, where Harry learns more about the dynamics of his parents and their friends. Mostly, that James was popular but also a douchebag and Lily hated the shit out of him. Harry, who had been bullied throughout his life, stresses overseeing this revelation — even going as far as to wonder if James had forced Lily into marriage. (The fifth movie barely touches upon this scene, opting for an unclear, shaky flashback that leaves more questions than answers.) Sirius and Remus sort of shrug in response: James was fifteen years old and had cleaned up his act. Who would have thought that Harry Potter’s dad would just be his generation’s version of the Weasley twins?
James and Lily’s relationship resembles prime enemies to lovers stuff. And then there is the core of the Marauders, a closeness on its own. James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter (the traitor) had nicknames, adventures, and protective love. Their friendship — and its implications — echoes throughout the series, its vibrancy now just a worn out pale afterimage.
And that led to the fully functioning Marauders’ Era base — its own subcategory within the Harry Potter fandom, where my sister and her friends thrived, and as the little sibling, I watched and listened. Where she stayed for hours on Unknowable Room, she would stitch their story together for me, telling me about them in detail as if it was a mystery to solve. She would read the forest chapter to me, the one where Harry says goodbye to the Marauders’ ghosts, the day the Deathly Hallows came out before she even got to the ending of the book. It made me the type of person who is interested in dissecting everything story and media-wise today.
After watching Prisoner of Azkaban, it was bizarre for me to relive the allure of the Marauders’ Era that engulfed my sister. I have been told I always get to things a little too late. “It’s so sad, lmao like they were all happy, and then they all end up dead or alone” I texted her a few months ago. “Yeah, that was like what we ate up back then,” my sister replied, kind of over this resurging interest. “Like coming up with all of these happy stories and knowing they were doomed.”
As J.K. Rowling rewrites the canon of Harry Potter years later — see Pottermore, see Fantastic Beasts, see the poop tweet — The Marauders have mostly been left alone. There were one or two short stories immediately following the series (“It’s unisex”), but the film franchise has mostly not even tried to shoehorn them into their new movies even though Fantastic Beasts has been a bundle of convoluted shout-outs. (Or maybe it has! I’m not really following anymore.)
A part of me wonders if I truly do want something like a Marauders Netflix limited series or short story. We have so many prequels— from Superman’s Hot Grandpa in SyFy’s Krypton to Peter Jackson’s somewhat middling Hobbit series to the upcoming Lex Luthor/Lois Lane Metropolis TV show (Wow, Clark can’t catch a break, huh!). And I choose strange examples for comedic effect, obviously there are very good prequels out there — Better Call Saul is one — but for now, I tentatively say no.
Because leaving the Marauders’ past as an undefined era has been kind of perfect. The tragedy of learning about the complex, bright young people James and Lily were through the stories of battle-hardened, broken people, and through snippets of unreliable narrators, has been the most nuanced way to approach loss and grief within the Harry Potter series.
And that’s what I believe draws me to the Prisoner of Azkaban — this underlying story — the spark and implication of a bigger story in the background that you can spend your time theorizing about. I’ve always been a sucker for legacies, as the movies make me remember being a kid, listening to my sister’s lectures about the series’s lore, and makes me feel a little closer to her even now that we are adults, countries apart.
Here’s an interview with the trio (Harry, Ron, and Hermoine) in the DVD extras I used to watch religiously when I was eight. It features the famous essay story. It’s cute.
(P.S If you are also vaguely starved for a similar dynamic — I would suggest Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle — soon to be gracing our television screens by The Catherine “Forks” Hardwicke.)