Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: Harry Potter (Series)

by J. K. Rowling
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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2969

The Books

Author: J. K. Rowling (b. 1965)

First published: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 1998)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)

Harry Potter and...

(The entire section contains 2969 words.)

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The Books

Author: J. K. Rowling (b. 1965)

First published: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 1998)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1998)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

The Films

Directors: Chris Columbus (b. 1958), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Alfonso Cuaron (b. 1961), Harry Potter and the Prince of Azkaban

Mike Newell (b. 1942), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

David Yates (b. 1963), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2

Screenplay by: Steve Kloves, Michael Goldenberg

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson


In the first years of the twenty-first century, the moviegoing public in the United States seemed particularly drawn to fantasy films. Following the events of September 11, 2001, the United States was at war, and the stresses of the real world were felt heavily by many. During that era, a number of films captured the imaginations of moviegoers with their magic, unfamiliar worlds, and battles between good and evil that bore little resemblance to events occurring in the United States or overseas. At the same time, such films often featured subtext and themes of trauma that some scholars argue allowed audiences to work through their feelings in an indirect manner. Films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which began in December of 2001 with The Fellowship of the Ring and concluded two years later with The Return of the King, performed well at the box office and earned critical accolades during that period, ushering in a new age in fantasy filmmaking.

More popular than even those films, however, were the films in the Harry Potter series, based on the best-selling novels by British author J. K. Rowling. The novels, intended to be read by children and young adults, attracted a devoted adult fan base as well, and by 2001 anticipation for the first installment of the film adaptation was high. Known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the United Kingdom and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the United States, the film premiered in November of 2001 to a positive critical and fan response. Following the success of that film, the remaining six books in the Harry Potter series were adapted into films over the course of the next decade.

The success of the Harry Potter film franchise inspired the adaptation of many other children's and young adult fantasy books, which remained wildly popular until late in the decade, when trends began to shift more toward paranormal romance and urban fantasy following the blockbuster success of Twilight in 2008. Even as the Twilight series and later films sparked new trends in publishing and filmmaking, the Harry Potter series remained as popular as ever through the release of the final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, in 2011.

Film Analysis

Largely adhering to the events of the Harry Potter novels, the Harry Potter film series follows the adventures of the titular Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), an orphan who, on his eleventh birthday, learns that he is truly a wizard. Over the course of the series, he progresses through his schooling at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry under the guidance of the school's headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris; Michael Gambon). With the help of his friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Harry repeatedly battles the agents of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the evil wizard who murdered his parents, and eventually comes into direct conflict with Voldemort himself. By the end of the series, Voldemort's dark magic and ceaseless pursuit of power threaten both the wizarding world and the mundane (or Muggle) one, and Harry must make terrible sacrifices to save everyone he loves. As a long-running series with numerous characters and plot lines, the Harry Potter franchise presented a set of unique challenges to filmmakers, many having to do with the difficult process of adapting a much-loved series of books for the screen. While it would be impossible to translate the books completely and directly into films, the stylistic and directorial choices made by the filmmakers nevertheless made the Harry Potter series a successful and enduring part of popular culture.

Between 2001 and 2011, the seven Harry Potter novels were adapted into eight films: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001; Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the United Kingdom), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011). As the eight films in the series were directed by four different directors, each of whom brought a unique take to the series, there is no one definite directorial and aesthetic vision to the series. However, as all but one of the films were written by screenwriter Steve Kloves—the screenplay for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix having been written by Michael Goldenberg—there is a sense of internal consistency to the films' events. In addition, Rowling retained a degree of control over the adaptation process; as Kloves noted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times blog Hero Complex, Rowling provided additional details about character backgrounds and motivations when needed and at times warned the filmmakers against including new dialogue or events that would contradict events in the not-yet-released books.

The first two films in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, were directed by Chris Columbus, who at the time was best known for directing films such as Home Alone (1990) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). Columbus's two films were relatively straightforward adaptations of the novels and had the difficult task of introducing viewers to a secret wizarding world that all of the subsequent films would build on. Like its source material, the first film features a degree of danger in the form of the final conflict between Harry and Professor Quirrell (Ian Hart), whose evil actions signal the approaching threats that Harry and his newfound world will soon face; however, both the film and the novel only hint at the true scope of danger to come. In an interview with Empire magazine, Columbus noted that while the first film was relatively light in tone, the books themselves grow progressively darker as Harry ages; as such, the film of Chamber of Secrets takes on a somewhat darker tone, introducing the strong possibility of mortal peril into the series.

A significant stylistic shift takes place in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the film significantly expands upon the world of the first two films, taking on a darker tone than its predecessors, introducing new locations in Hogwarts, and providing a more detailed glimpse at the emotions and mindsets of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. One particularly interesting aesthetic choice that is readily apparent in the film concerns the cast's wardrobe. In the previous two films, Hogwarts students were generally seen in school uniforms or wizards' robes; in the third film, however, Harry and his friends wear more ordinary styles of clothing during their free time. This decision carried on to the later films, giving a greater visual sense that the characters are in many ways ordinary teenagers. Much like the source novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, directed by Mike Newell, serves as a turning point in the series. The darkest film in the series to that point, it features the first onscreen deaths in the series, most notably that of Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson), whose murder by Voldemort signals to both the viewers and the parts of the wizarding world willing to listen that a dark new era is beginning.

The remainder of the series was directed by David Yates, and thus those films have a somewhat more cohesive directorial vision. The films continue to take on a darker tone, which is reflected visually, and both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince have interesting psychological and political notes. The length of the films had long been a subject of concern, as Rowling's novels grew progressively longer as the series went on and thus presented a challenge to the filmmakers. Typically, the need to meet certain time constraints was dealt with by cutting scenes, characters, locations, or plot points. For the final book, however, the filmmakers opted to split the film in two, ultimately releasing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in two parts, in 2010 and 2011. This decision would start a trend in Hollywood; the final films in both the Twilight series and the dystopian Hunger Games series would later follow suit. By splitting Deathly Hallows in two, Yates and Kloves were able to devote more time to various aspects of the plot as well as to delve more deeply into the complex dynamics among Harry, Ron, and Hermione, whose friendship is tested as the three attempt to locate and destroy Voldemort's Horcruxes, magical items that contain pieces of the dark wizard's soul.

In adapting the Harry Potter series for the screen, the series' screenwriters and directors faced a number of major challenges. First and foremost was the need to meet the expectations of the series' devoted fans. By the time Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone began production in 2000, the first four books in the series had already been published, and the series had garnered numerous fans in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere, with high expectations. Another major concern was the length of the books and the amount of characters and extensive world building they feature. In order to adapt the books into films of a standard length, it was necessary to change and omit various sections of the ongoing narrative, sometimes major ones. Finally, the filmmakers had to consider the differences between written and visual media when adapting the novels, at times adding new scenes to shed light on events only mentioned or alluded to in the books.

Many of the changes made for the film adaptations involve the omission of scenes and plot points or changes to minor details. One change that generated significant controversy among fans of the novels concerned Harry's eye color; in the novels, Harry has green eyes, while in the film, they are Radcliffe's natural blue color. Although this change attracted significant attention, it was ultimately merely a cosmetic one. Another change that was quite apparent to fans of the novels but largely did not affect the overarching plot was the omission of most scenes in which Harry plays the wizarding sport Quidditch. The books devote a good deal of time to Quidditch, as Harry's success in the sport is one of the major components to his feeling at home at Hogwarts and in the wizarding world in general. In the films, however, most Quidditch scenes are omitted. Even the Quidditch World Cup, a major event at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is largely omitted, as the film focuses instead on the events leading up to it and its immediate aftermath. This omission was likely necessitated both by time constraints—indeed, there are enough vital plot points in Goblet of Fire that the World Cup may be considered a trifle in comparison—and the fact that Quidditch scenes require extensive special effects. Ultimately, the omission of many of the series' Quidditch scenes was a disappointment to some viewers but did little harm to the films as a whole.

At times, however, the omissions made in the attempt to condense the narrative prove detrimental to the storytelling. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, vital information that characters provide in the novel, including enlightening insights about Harry's father and his school friends, is not mentioned in the film. This has the effect of rendering the plot confusing for readers unfamiliar with the book. In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert deemed the plotting “a little murky” and noted that the film “needs to explain more than it should.” Similarly, a change made in adapting Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for film had far-reaching consequences, as the fifth book in fact laid the groundwork for a vital plot point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In the novel, a locket found in the ancestral home of Harry's godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), proves in the seventh book to be one of the Horcruxes Harry and his friends seek to destroy. Having left the locket out of the fifth film, the filmmakers were instead forced to introduce it in part 1 of Deathly Hallows. While Harry and friends ultimately destroy the Horcrux, the locket's omission from the fifth film removes a degree of the foreshadowing that is a characteristic aspect of Rowling's series.

Despite such issues, a number of changes made during the adaptation process made valuable contributions to the film. One such change occurs in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to which the filmmakers added a scene in which Voldemort's followers, known as Death Eaters, attack London's Millennium Bridge, a footbridge over the Thames. An attack on a bridge called the Brockdale Bridge is mentioned in the first chapter of the novel, but the incident is not shown as it occurs. In the scene added to the film, several Death Eaters emerge out of the storm clouds above London, flying through the air in streaks of what appears to be black smoke. (This too is an addition to the film, as the Death Eaters generally ride brooms or Apparate—a process akin to teleportation—in the novels.) As the Death Eaters fly through the streets of London, the camera takes their perspective, rendering the scene dizzying and frenetic. After the Death Eaters reach the wizarding enclave of Diagon Alley and complete their business there, the camera returns to an external perspective and follows the smoke-shrouded dark wizards as they attack the bridge, snapping the cables. The bridge twists and begins to fall, Muggle pedestrians run for their lives, and the camera pulls back and watches from above as the bridge sinks into the river. The Death Eaters fly toward the camera and past it, leaving their incredible destruction behind them. Although not in the book, this scene provides a powerful depiction of the intrusion of dark magic into the Muggle world, giving the already-dark film an increased sense of menace. In many ways, this scene underscores the increasing darkness of the series: both of Harry's worlds are no longer safe—if they ever truly were.


As the massive global popularity of the Harry Potter novels predicted, the film adaptations were incredibly popular, earning billions of dollars in box-office revenue and transforming its three young leads from unknowns into international celebrities. In addition to sparking the production of toys, companion books, costumes, and other licensed merchandise, the films inspired the creation of a theme park, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, at the Universal Resort in Orlando, Florida. The theme park, which includes attractions based on Diagon Alley, the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, and the Hogwarts Express train, features rides, shops, and themed restaurants. Even more significant than the series' financial success is the extent of fan involvement with the novels and films. Inspired by the source materials, fans have devoted themselves not only to in-depth discussions of the works but also to the creation of stories, songs, and even full-length musicals based Rowling's characters and world.

The success of the Harry Potter films was widely recognized by the film industry, and in an attempt to duplicate that success, film executives greenlit numerous film adaptations of other children's and young adult fantasy books that they believed would appeal to Harry Potter fans. Films in this wave included The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), based on C. S. Lewis's 1950 novel, and The Golden Compass (2007), based on the 1996 Philip Pullman novel of the same name (published in the United Kingdom in 1995 as Northern Lights). Less successful attempts to recapture to Harry Potter zeitgeist included Eragon (2006), based on the 2002 Christopher Paolini novel, and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007), loosely based on the 1973 Susan Cooper novel The Dark Is Rising. Although some of the young adult fantasy films released during the first decade of the twenty-first century proved popular with audiences, none matched the popularity of the Harry Potter films, nor did they develop as enduring a following among fans, critics, and academics worldwide.

Further Reading

  • Heilman, Elizabeth E., ed. Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
  • Thomas, Scott. The Making of the Potterverse: A Month-by-Month Look at Harry's First 10 Years. Toronto: ECW, 2007. Print.


  • Brown, Noel. The Hollywood Family Film: A History, from Shirley Temple to Harry Potter. London: Tauris, 2012. Print.
  • Columbus, Chris. “Christopher Columbus Remembers Harry Potter.” Interview with Helen O'Hara. Empire. Bauer Consumer Media, n. d. Web. 28 Feb. 2015 <>.
  • Ebert, Roger. Rev. of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Ebert Digital, 3 June 2004. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <>.
  • Fowkes, Katherine A. The Fantasy Film. Malden: Wiley, 2013. Print.
  • Kloves, Steve. “‘Harry Potter’ Countdown: Steve Kloves on a ‘Haunting Moment’ in ‘Half-Blood Prince.’” Interview with Denise Martin. Hero Complex. Los Angeles Times, 17 June 2009. Web. 28 Feb. 2015. <>.
  • Pheasant-Kelly, Frances. Fantasy Films Post 9/11. New York: Palgrave, 2013. Print.
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