Reality leaves a great deal to be desired. Reading the morning paper feels like an ongoing suicide pact with the universe, and listening to NPR without several doses of Prozac in hand can threaten one’s tenuous grasp on sanity: Iraq, terrorism, environment, fundamentalism, economy, abuse, AIDS, drought, refugees, church and politics (a.k.a. church politics). The world is such a botch, one might be tempted to ask, as the great political philosopher Casey Stengel once said of his pathetic Mets in the early 1960’s: “Can’t anybody around here play this game?”
Adults have been slow to realize that the world is a scary place. Children have always known that ogres, witches and monsters lurk under the bed, waiting to strike once the lights go out—no sensible child would ever deny that fact of life—but for centuries they’ve learned to cope with their horrifying vulnerabilities by retreating into a world of imagination. Yes, the bad people are out there, ready to do terrible things, but with a little pluck, the most threatened and abandoned child will live happily ever after. As Tug McGraw, the relief pitcher for the World Champion Mets of 1969 said so well: “You gotta believe.” Lesson to be learned: If belief and hope don’t fit into the real world, create a new one where they will.
American filmmakers have been brilliant in marketing alternative universes to adult audiences grown tired and terrified of the one they’ve got. Over the past decade or two, cinematic fantasy has borrowed heavily from a world of comic books, from the classic “Dick Tracy,” “Superman” and “Batman,” to the more recent “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Spiderman” (soon to have a sequel) to “Cat Woman,” which seems to be Spiderman stuffed into a differently shaped spandex jump suit. Whatever. No matter how dire the circumstances, these imaginary heroes can call upon their supernatural powers and make it all better with a flick of the cape and an orgy of bloody retaliation. If we can’t fight back in the real world, our fantasies can do it for us.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third of the adaptations of J. K. Rowling’s wildly popular series of children’s books, provides another twist on the theme of threat, restoration and revenge that dominates so much popular culture. The series is maturing along with the principal characters, and this latest installment may find an even more receptive audience among adults than its predecessors. To state the obvious: fantasy is not just kid stuff. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has marched fearlessly into adolescence. As the film opens, he sulks, talks back to his stepparents and to his odious aunt, and then in a fit of teenage rage, after playing a nasty little trick on Auntie, packs his trunk and storms out of the house with no particular destination in mind. The opening scenes establish that Harry is no longer the helpless victim, a role that children living in a world of big people understand so well, but a kid ready to dump childhood and get on with his life on his own terms.
Harry’s sidekick, Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) is not quite ready for the Cat Woman suit, but she looks like she can’t wait to get her hands on a credit card and head for the mall with her own personal mobile. She’s traded in her pleated skirt and clunky shoes for jeans and sneakers. Her know-it-all attitude, which made her endearing in the earlier films, has made her a trifle obnoxious, but she knows it and she’s, like, really trying. Really, really, like trying. In keeping with the spirit of the times, she decks the snobby Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) with a most unladylike roundhouse right to the jaw. Get the Cat Woman suit ready. It won’t be long.
The prisoner of the title is Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a super villain, who was doing hard time in the slammer for killing Harry’s parents on directions from the archfiend Voldemort. When Harry and his friends get the news of his escape, they conclude that Sirius must be heading to Hogwarts Academy to kill Harry and thus eliminate any possible challenge to V’s sinister plans for ruling the world. The school undergoes a security upgrade worthy of Tom Ridge on red alert, but strange events in the school raise the possibility that security has already been breached. As Harry puts the pieces together and plans his own counterattack, he reveals a nasty side to his personality. Threatened as he believes he is, his thoughts turn from mere survival to revenge for the murder of his parents. As a young adult, he may be facing the first moral decision in his life. His audiences face a similar moral test: Do they want him to remain an innocent child who withstands life’s most terrible assaults, or do they want him to take the war to the enemy by morphing into a pubescent Charles Bronson working through grisly revenge scenarios?
Since Harry must face grown-up problems, the director Alfonso Cuarón and the cinematographer Michael Seresin have transformed Hogwarts and its forests into a darker, more shadowy world, like a film noir episode of “Sesame Street.” Mr. Cuarón, from Mexico, is best known for “Y Tu Mamá También,” another story of adolescent self-discovery. In his earlier film, the young people wrestle with sexual awakening; in “Harry Potter” they face far more complex social and ethical issues in their journey toward maturity. The bulk of the action takes place in the depths of the psyche. The trappings of fantasy, the werewolves and griffins—more precisely, hippogriffs, part bird and part horse—function as images from a dream. They embody terrible threats, but can be faced down with courage and, oddly enough, compassion. The script takes several improbable U-turns, but in fantasy literature, as in dreams, the narrative often veers off toward incoherence. Atmosphere and images carry much more weight than storylines.
Despite the somber turn, this Harry keeps its good humor. The faculty of Hogwarts includes characters almost eccentric enough to fit into contemporary academia. The world’s premier school for witchcraft provides a glorious stage for cameo appearances by famous actors who seem to delight in their bizarre roles. Emma Thompson, for example, makes her Professor Trelawney a mixture of Berkeley new-age lunacy and Cambridge starch. Coiffure by Don King; eyeglasses by Hubble. Her course in divination shows a mixture of enthusiasm and befuddlement, which doesn’t go down well with Hermione and her sophisticated teenage critics, who dismiss the subject matter as lightweight, but it’s, like, required. Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster, is both dotty and wise. Alan Rickman makes Prof. Severus Snape a truly hissable villain before he says or does anything. The gentle giant, Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), seems by contrast to his colleagues a monument of practical wisdom, but as head and sole professor of the zoology department, he finds the grotesque animals of the forests more congenial than the other odd creatures found in the faculty room at Hogwarts.
While the series brilliantly captures a child’s point of view toward a world of monsters and other assorted horrors, in this episode Rowling and Cuarón have incorporated a powerful adult fantasy that gives this Harry a bit of a melancholy twist. When the situation becomes hopeless, Hermione produces a magic pendant that allows her to take Harry backward in time, to relive the past and do a few things differently that would have kept them from their present predicament. This is the fantasy that comes with maturity: “If I could only do it over again, knowing then what I know now.” Well, this is fantasy literature, and they can do it over again to secure their happy ending. Maybe Rowling, like Harry and Hermione, is beginning to push against the frontiers of childhood. If the Hogwarts team continue to do it this well, they’ll be able to bring more old people (that is, the over-15 crowd) into their fan club.
Frankly, I don’t care what new audiences develop for the Harry Potter series. I’ve been on board the Hogwarts Express for years, and I intend to stay there in my reserved seat. My senior-citizen discount ticket makes the trip even more enjoyable.