So I’ve spent the last ten minutes staring at a blank screen trying to decide what I could possibly contribute to anyone’s life by writing about the eight Harry Potter movies. This is the highest-grossing series of all time based on the best-selling book series of all time, an iconic pop culture franchise of ultra-scrutinized adaptations that pretty much everyone and their grandma has seen ten times.
How popular are the Harry Potter movies? Each one ranks among the top 50 highest grossing movies of all time, and every one except Azkaban ranks among the top 35. In other words, Harry Potter movies make up about a sixth of the top 50 highest grossing movies, and exactly one fifth of the top 35 highest grossing movies. If their combined receipts were a nation’s GDP, it would would be about the 140th biggest country in the world,
I suppose I could rank all eight movies, but this is a little bit harder than it looks. I don’t want to spend too long critiquing the stories and the characters of the Harry Potter series just yet (we’ll get there), and the best stories generally made the best movies.
I could use this article as a referendum on the series’ faithfulness to the source material, but the only major complaints I’d make would be the Burrow burning down in Half-Blood Prince (what’s the point?) and the exclusion of the backstory on Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs in Azkaban.
Instead, I’ll just relive some of my favorite scenes. These are fifteen of my favorite moments from the movies (film number in parentheses), with special consideration for how the filmmakers brought passages from the book to cinematic life in a way words just cant:
Hagrid Breaks In (1)
All of Hagrid’s first encounter with Harry is iconic. “Excuse me, but who are you?” and “You’re a wizard, Harry!” are two quotes the Internet loves to quote and gif and play with. But I just love the rapid-fire WTF of Hagrid storming in the hut, being friendly, doing magic, and overwhelming the Dursleys.
Ollivander’s Shop (1)
Ollivander was always my favorite one-scene character in the Harry Potter universe before he prominently returned in Deathly Hallows. There’s something so enticing about a magic wand shop and a borderline-deranged magician who remembers every wand he’s made, every patron he’s had. The book had to tell you that this guy is creepy; the movie showed you.
Arrival at Hogwarts (1)
This has become THE iconic shot of the series. Chris Columbus, director of the first two films, wasn’t quite as good at capturing emotion or tension as his successors, but damn if he didn’t nail the aesthetics and images perfectly.
The House Cup (1)
The intra-Hogwarts competition stuff — prefects and Quidditch and the House Cup — ultimately proved trivial in the grand scheme of Harry’s saga, but it also gave us some of the most triumphant and emotional moments of the story. That moment when Neville gets ten points — fantastic.
Tom Riddle’s Diary (2)
One of my favorite moments from the second book plays out just as eerie as I first imagined it in my head. (I couldn’t find a clip of Harry actually being sucked into the book, which is my favorite part.)
The Dementor (3)
Alfonso Cuaron (did you forget he directed a Harry Potter movie?) ditched as much of the boarding school feeling as he could in the third movie, forgoing the Hogwarts uniforms and almost entirely removing Quidditch. Instead, he focuses on the creepy, mystical elements (and the Whomping Willow), with the spine-chilling entrance of the Dementors one of the series’ all-time iconic moments.
Hermione at the Yule Ball (4)
The development of Ron and Hermione, both independently and as a romance, were definite highlights of the second half of the Harry Potter saga. The movies made their lives a little bit more soap opera-y than the books, but it by and large worked. One important moment was the Yule Ball, the first time Emma Watson’s attractiveness was really noted by the films, a point where her tension with Ron comes to a head, and the moment she transforms from girl to young woman.
The Dark Lord Rises (4)
The unsettling resurrection of Voldemort was even creepier in the movies than in the book. I love the skeletal, serpentine look of Voldemort — something only partially human. Mike Newell only directed one movie, and had the burden of turning a huge (and troublesome) book into a good movie, but he did about as good a job as we could’ve expected.
”I Must Not Tell Lies” (5)
Umbridge is the third best villain of the series behind Snape and Voldemort — and I would even acknowledge the case that she’s more interesting and hateable than Voldy. Phoenix’s depiction of her was perfect, just as garish and vile as she is in the books (but even more pink).
Voldemort vs. Dumbledore (5)
David Yates took over as director starting with the fifth film and stayed on board for the entire second half of the series (despite constant rumors of A-list directors lined up for parts 7 and 8). He depicts the climactic battle between Voldemort and “the only one he ever feared” perfectly and epicly. It was a sight to see in 3D on a huge IMAX screen. (Side note: The beginning of this clip shows Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, whom I somehow did not make room for otherwise in this list. She is perhaps my favorite bit of casting in the whole series. So impish and deranged and gleefully evil.)
Ron Drinks a Love Potion (6)
Maybe the comic highlight of the entire series. I still think Rupert Grint is the best actor of the three leads, here showcasing his fantastic comedy chops. Just a great, funny scene despite its abrupt turn towards danger at the end.
Snape Kills Dumbledore (6)
The signature moment of the series, both in the books and films. While I think the “AVADA KEDAVRA” moment has more gravity in the book, the framing of the tower scene in the film is so tense and perfect. The reveal of Snape pointing his wand at Harry is gasp-worthy, and that slow-mo shot of a dead Dumbledore is, along with the end of the Game of Thrones pilot, my favorite fall from a tower in all of film.
(Here’s where I will note how perfect Richard Harris was as Dumbledore and how much of a disappointment Michael Gambon was. Seriously hurt my enjoyment of the Dumbledore-centric later movies.)
The Tale of the Three Brothers (7 pt 1)
Everyone wondered if and how the movies would depict the Tale of the Three Brothers, and it’s hard to imagine a better adaptation than this spooky, mesmerizing animated version.
Ron and Hermione Kiss (7 pt 2)
Finally! The best kiss in the film series (here’s a recap), and one that had been built up to for a long time. I love how it starts so quickly. Great moment, great payoff.
Neville the Hero (7 pt 2)
More on why Neville is probably my favorite character in the series in a later entry, but there’s no question he’s the real hero of Deathly Hallows Part 2. His slaying of Nagini is probably the most cheer-worthy moment of the series… they (we) definitely cheered in my theater at the midnight screening, at least.
A note on Harrodies
There are basically too many Harry Potter fan projects and parodies to count, but I tip my hat to “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” a strange and hilarious narration over the entirety of Sorcerer’s Stone and Starkid’s A Very Potter Musical, honored at length in one of Brian’s Film Favorites articles (after the Dr. Horrible recap). And, of course, there’s the Mysterious Ticking Noise. There are some more serious tributes, like a well-done student film about Dumbledore and Grindelwald and an “alternate history” fanfiction called The Methods of Rationality which has earned raves. (The latter is a tribute more to the books than the films, I know, but I wanted to mention it while I was thinking of it.)