Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling

Raincoast/Bloomsbury, 1999, 317 pages, C$11.95 tpb, ISBN 1-55192-478-1

Truth be told, I’m not unhappy to be the last one on my block to read the Harry Potter series. As a rabid reader with a serious hundreds-books-per-year habit, you could expect me to keep up with the fantasy bestsellers. But I’ve been content so far to follow the series along slightly behind the movies, trying to find a happy medium between being a cinephile and honouring my semi-rigid rule of waiting until the last volume of a closed-ended series has been published before reading it. Hey, it’s been working for me so far: Wait for the movies to come out, see film, read book, repeat… until volume seven comes out, that is.

I’ve been generally satisfied by the movies so far, except for moments in HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN where crucial scenes seemed to run too quickly without the necessary information. As the crowd around me oohed and aawed in recognition, I started suspecting something had been lost in adaptation.

Even a cursory reading of the original novel confirms these doubts. Oh, the basic thrust of the story remains the same: Harry escapes evil foster parents, goes to school (third year!), tries to follow classes but ends up stuck in yet another skirmish between the forces of good and evil. Harry learns a little bit more about himself, we learn a little bit about the world surrounding them and more magic ensues. How complicated can it be, truly?

Quite complicated, as it turns out. I’m just about the last critic to make the wide-eyed discovery that the Harry Potter books are growing along with the characters, and so this third volume is much more darker in tone than the previous volumes, following the trend traced by the second book. Themes are more serious (even though there’s less emphasis on the muggles/wizard class divide this time around), stakes are higher and even the magic itself is getting more serious. (Just wait until Harry’s hormones kick in: I’m expecting riots and ravishings by volume seven)

But Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban isn’t just more somber: It’s downright tragic. The biggest twist of this third volume is the growing realization that poor Harry and his friends are stuck in paths traced by their parents. Harry, Hermione and Ron would love to live the life of normal students, attending classes, making friends, playing quidditch and having fun. But no: Thanks to events having happened decades earlier, they’re constantly stuck in mortal perils not of their doing, trying to atone for the sins of their fathers. And that, in my book, is pretty damn tragic.

Otherwise, well, there isn’t much to report. Readability remains sky-high, thanks to Rowling’s careful prose and steady re-use of common fantasy elements. I do like the way that her universe is expanding and coming together, though the big breakthrough in this matter so far remains the second volume. Still, Harry’s education is always a delight to follow. On a sentence-per-sentence level, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does honour to the high standards of the series, though some lengths are found here and there.

What’s unfortunate is that the wrong lengths have been excised from the film version. If you want to talk about the adaptation buts-and-bolts, I can always point out at the missing pets material (there’s a lot more in the novel, and even a quarter of it would have been nice to see in the film). Interestingly enough, the film includes hints of a budding romance between Ron and Hermione while completely ignoring the first appearance of Cho (blame it on casting), whereas the book scrupulously avoids any romantic foreshadowing except for Harry’s early infatuation with Cho. Hmmm.

But not much of this really matters (including this review), because the Harry Potter juggernaut rolls forward, critic-proof and flush with accumulated good will. Has the third volume changed my opinion of the series? Not a bit: I still think it’s quite wonderful. Do I have any intention of altering my current reading schedule for the series? Not really. Is this review bringing anything new to the discussion? I really don’t expect it to.

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