subject: Harry Potter (the movies)
overview: Believe it or not, but you've got the movies to thank for the popularity of the books. Not every book that features young kids becomes a blockbuster phenomenon. The publicity machine for Harry Potter began when a Hollywood producer figured J.K. Rowling's creation could make a good movie. The deal was signed in 1998, the same year Scholastic released the first book in the U.S. The first movie was released in 2001, fortuitously at the same time as Peter Jackson's first Lord of the Rings flick, The Fellowship of the Ring, and together they helped create an entirely new franchise culture that endures to this day.
Original filmmaker Chris Columbus opted to make the first few films family friendly, which was appropriate because they featured a remarkably young cast: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger. For adults, watching a virtual who's who of British actors in supporting roles was a huge part of the initial draw, starting with the perfect casting of Alan Rickman in the crucial role of Severus Snape. John Cleese now appears to be an oddity and leftover from this era as Nearly Headless Nick. Of course, the bulk of the novels had yet to be written at this point, so no one really knew how powerful the saga would ultimately become (not that John Cleese can't be taken seriously). Kenneth Branagh (who also added credibility to Thor as director) was an obvious standout in the second film. John Williams provided the basis for the distinctive scoring that would accompany the entire series.
Columbus was replaced in the third film by the more artistic-minded Alfonso Cuaron, who had the benefit of adding Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon (replacing the late Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore) to the cast. Mike Newell established a more neutral and epic tone in the fourth film, while David Yates guided the remaining four films to the story's conclusion.
There are eight films in all, the seventh and final book being split in two (a precedent the Twilight Saga ran with, and Peter Jackson himself has used to some controversy for his adaptation of The Hobbit). Radcliffe, Grint and Watson remain at the heart of the films, and as they grow older bring greater maturity and weight to their respective roles. Gambon, Rickman, and Ralph Fiennes (as Voldemort starting in the fourth film) continue the tradition of masterly representing a more adult presence, for anyone who still needs such an excuse to enjoy the series. The eighth and final film was released ten years after the first, in 2011.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) The highlight of the first film is Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid, the friendly giant of a groundskeeper who is Harry's introduction to his wizarding heritage and future. His presence isn't condescending, however, but frequently comical.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) As in the book, Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart is the standout element, while Radcliffe and Grint exhibit their only noticeable growing pains, especially in the sequence with the flying car. Jason Isaacs introduces himself to American audiences as Lucius Malfoy. Dobby the impish house elf steals the show.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Oldman begins his second career in understated supporting roles (see also: Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy). While I'm not exactly disappointed with the movie, it doesn't compare with my love for the book, which remains my favorite in that version of the series, though the sequence of Harry riding Buckbeak the hippogriff is a standout.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) Nailing the scope that the book didn't quite capture, this is my favorite film. Everything works perfectly, especially the climactic sequence featuring Fiennes' debut as Voldemort. Also features the first significant work of Robert Pattinson, and it's because of this that I become a fan, and why I struggle to care about the Twilight movies.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Featuring the best wizarding duel of the films (between Dumbledore and Voldemort) as well as the standout performance of Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) Harry and Dumbledore go the full Lord of the Rings in this one, while Jim Broadbent does his share of scene-stealing as Horace Sloghorn, and Tom Felton has his best showing as Draco Malfoy, the would-be assassin of Dumbledore.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) The beginning of the end sees Radcliffe, Grint and Watson with some of their best material and the tragic death of Dobby, as well as an innovative animated sequence featuring the origin of the title artifacts.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) The end of the end features the best of the previously hapless Matthew Lewis's Neville Longbottom, the dramatic reveal of Snape's true arc, and the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort, plus one last visit from Dumbledore.