Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is almost universally accepted as the best of the eight films in the franchise. Under Alfonso Cuarón‘s direction, the film brought depth to the characters and the franchise, honoring the world Chris Columbus had built in the first two films while subtly changing the look and feel of the franchise. Cuarón set the direction and formula for the franchise going forward, cementing it as one of the most successful franchises in Hollywood history. However, after Columbus stepped away from the franchise following Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, citing health concerns and lost family time as reasons, Cuarón was only one of a handful of directors that Warner Bros. were looking at to take over the helm. Another name was also on that list, one that series star Rupert Grint mentioned in an interview with British GQ: M. Night Shyamalan. It leaves one to wonder just what Prisoner of Azkaban would have looked like had Shyamalan come on board… and if Warner Bros. dodged a bullet by not bringing Shyamalan into the fold.

Let’s say, for kicks and giggles, that Shyamalan did helm Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A very brief recap: the film is set during Harry Potter’s (Daniel Radcliffe) third year at Hogwarts. It’s learned that the imprisoned Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), one of Lord Voldemort’s supporters, has escaped Azkaban Prison. Sirius, having betrayed Harry’s parents, is seemingly en route to kill Harry, his godson. Only we learn that Sirius was framed for the act, and that it was actually Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), who has been disguised as Ron’s pet rat Scabbers, who told Voldemort where to find the Potters. Unfortunately, Pettigrew escapes and Sirius, as a result, is unable to clear his name. But with the help of Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and time travel, Sirius makes his own escape on the back of Buckbeak the Hippogriff (who was also saved by the time-traveling pair).

Overall, the film wouldn’t have looked all that different, at least from a filmmaking perspective. Both Shyamalan and Cuarón are strong visual storytellers, who pepper moments over the course of their films that add meaning and foreshadow events that play out as the film progresses. For example, Cuarón places shots of clocks throughout the film, alluding to time, which in turn alludes to the time-travel plot device towards the end. Shyamalan, leading up to his career-defining twist in The Sixth Sense, likewise drops hints about the fact (SPOILER) that Bruce Willis‘ Dr. Malcolm Crowe is already dead. The two use that strength to build up the atmosphere, with Cuarón using that build up to drop his own Shyamalan-level twist. That’s not to say that there wouldn’t be any differences, albeit speculative.

Shyamalan trusts his actors to know their characters well enough that he can give them allowances to try different things, so how the characters are portrayed could be slightly different. Faith and optimism are key themes in almost all of Shyamalan’s films, so the ability to cast a Patronus charm would likely focus more on faith as opposed to “happy memories.” And as good as the twist is in Prisoner of Azkaban, one has to believe that Shyamalan expertise in the area would have made it even better. Think about it. “Harry, the truth is… YOU are Lord Voldemort!!.”

Regardless of the similarities between the two directors, M. Night Shyamalan would never have been a good fit for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and there are a number of reasons why. Career-wise, Shyamalan was entering a definitive low point in his career with the release of The Village in 2004. Famed movie critic Roger Ebert gave that film only one star, calling it “a colossal miscalculation, a movie based on a premise that cannot support it, a premise so transparent that it would be laughable were the movie not so damn solemn.” Shyamalan films are almost wholly original, a trait that extends beyond the story and into the set designs and imagery. He has also stressed that his goal is to make movies for the lowest amount of money that still allows complete freedom, so adherence to studio demands and even connections to the original book become problematic.

While not the only movie Shyamalan has made without source material (2021’s Old is based on the French-language Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters), The Last Airbender, based on the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, is his most high-profile project with a known commodity, and it was a spectacular failure that couldn’t marry the original content with Shyamalan’s usual thematic elements. On the same lines, with the fact that the Wizarding World on film was already created by Columbus, it’s unlikely that Shyamalan would have been keen on playing in someone else’s sandbox like Cuarón was able to. He couldn’t even play in a sandbox of his own creation, with his one and only sequel, Glass, a far, disappointing cry from what made both Unbreakable and Split so successful.

In fairness, without actually having seen what Shyamalan could do with the franchise, it is entirely possible that his mark on the franchise would have been just as successful, if not more, than what Cuarón was able to achieve. Yet it’s hard to argue that Cuarón was not the best director for that film and for that moment in the franchise’s history. He not only made the best of the Harry Potter films, but laid out a blueprint, one that put the emphasis on Harry’s storyline in the novels, that made it significantly easier for the films that followed to achieve success. Potterheads may have taken umbrage (“offense or annoyance”, not Dolores Umbridge) with the subplots from J.K. Rowling‘s novels not being included, but it did give necessary focus to the films (besides, the Harry Potter TV series will assuredly remedy that). But a “Buckbeak the Hippogriff is really… Lord Voldemort!” Shyamalan-twist would have been epic.

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