Sunday, December 11, 2005

Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: A Harshly Fannish Perspective

First things first: unlike many fans of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, I've never found the books' film versions to be terrifically important. I've seen all four, but I can't imagine going out of my way to do so, or even renting them on DVD if they hadn't come to a nearby movie theatre (in fact, I suspect that in most cases I saw the films primarily because I wanted to be able to discuss them intelligently). I wouldn't be heartbroken to hear that no new films were being made, and the endless discussions of whether or not the kids playing Harry, Ron and Hermione are going to stick around for the rest of the series are of absolutely no interest to me. I am honestly baffled by the fact that a Harry Potter news site like The Leaky Cauldron should report on the doings of every actor and cast member even remotely connected to the films, and I've watched the site's transformation, over the last few months, into the Goblet of Fire film site with exasperation and distaste. Most importantly, neither the films' look nor the actors cast in them have overridden my own personal images of Hogwarts and its denizens. To put it simply, I think of the Harry Potter films as incidental to the books, no different or more influential than Harry Potter notebooks or t-shirts.

Even more importantly, I've long since realized that I'm not capable of viewing these films as independent works of cinema. I don't know why this should be. I've loved and enjoyed Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and the various Austen adaptations of the mid-90s. In spite of the fact that Tolkien and Austen's books are far more important to me than Rowling's, I was able to use my feelings for the written works to accentuate my appreciation for the films, even when it came to massive deviations from the text. I can't do this with the Potter films, and my best guess is that unlike Jackson's trilogy and the Austen films, the Potter franchise drips with the standard Hollywood conviction that any sufficiently successful literary phenomenon must be made into a film as the next step in the work's life-cycle (see Da Vinci Code, The). These films haven't been made because a director or a screenwriter was burning to bring a beloved world to the screen. They were made because this is what Hollywood does with successful books, and it shows in the final product. Permeating every frame of the four films is the existence of the committee of studio executives who sat down one day to count the money this franchise would make them. The notion that these pale, unremarkable films, as pleasant as they might occasionally be, might for some people actually exist as the definitive version of the Harry Potter universe is mildly offensive to me.

In other words, don't expect this to be a review of Mike Newell's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I liked it better than the first two films in the series, but then that's no great accomplishment. I can't quite decide where it stands in relation to Alfonso Cuarón's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Of the four films, Cuarón's is the only one that came close to feeling like an independent creation which drew from a written source but found its voice and tone elsewhere. On the other hand, Prisoner so thoroughly bungles the climactic and pivotal Shrieking Shack scene that the entire film falls apart, whereas Newell does an excellent job of putting his scenes together. Although he produced a less coherent whole, Newell did a much better job than Cuarón with the film's parts, and there are some lovely scenes in the film that capture not only the tone of the book but an original tone, unique to the film.

The obvious complaint against Goblet is that it is rushed. I'm not going to get into the discussion of whether this was justified given the length of Rowling's book, whether the book itself needed some pruning (it probably did), and whether the film should have been longer (no) or split into two pieces (again, probably not). Whatever Rowling's faults as a writer, the fact remains that Steve Kloves, who wrote the script, and Mike Newell knowingly chose to adapt a leisurely, episodic, meandering story into a 150 minute roller coaster ride. That the results are mixed is no one's fault but their own. I thought the rushed opening sequence, in which the viewers are carried along with Harry to the site of the Quidditch world cup, was quite brilliant in its brisk pacing and brevity. By rushing the action and providing almost no explanations, Kloves forces us to sympathize with Harry--a virtual outsider to the wizarding world. We feel his confusion and his exhilaration without being drowned in frankly extraneous detail. This economical approach works even for the Death Eater attack that follows, but when Harry arrives at Hogwarts and the film continues to move at breakneck speed, the narrative flow collapses. From a coherent story, Goblet is reduced to a rapid succession of set pieces.

The first casualty is, of course, character development. Although I appreciated Newell's focus on Harry as a typical 14 year old boy, who is often brusque and rude even to his closest friends, I thought he dropped the ball when it came to what is arguably Harry's most important character arc in Goblet of Fire--his first serious fight with Ron. This rift is tragic precisely because of the ways in which Harry unwittingly prolongs it, primarily through his own stubbornness and quick temper. Were the writers afraid to show us a Harry who would chuck a 'Potter Stinks' pin at his friend in a fit of anger and frustration? The Goblet of Fire rift is also Ron's first real chance to show a bit of depth. Since the films don't stick to Harry's point of view as slavishly as Rowling's books do, we might have seen a bit more of Ron's anger and jealousy, thus developing an important character. But instead, Ron is once again given nothing to do except be silly and act as unfunny comic relief. I'm also not quite certain what to make of the 'Ron told Harry about the dragons' twist. Are we meant to assume that both Ron and the fake Moody told Hagrid to reveal the dragons to Harry, or is there some more subtle twist here that I'm not seeing?

The character of Cedric Diggory is another point in which the film sacrifices nuance to brevity and cheapens the entire work. In the book, Cedric's death hits the reader hard because he's been such a good person. Rowling paints Cedric as the ideal English schoolboy--handsome, friendly, honest, decent, athletic, a born leader and all-around mensch. Although Cedric's role in the film is perfectly cast, and Robert Pattinson brings a great deal of earnest friendliness to the role, we see so little of him that it's hard for us to care when this promising, blameless young man is cut down for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, Harry and Cedric's most important shared scene, in which they decide to take the cup together, is horribly botched. There is a profound beauty to Harry and Cedric's unwillingness to take the cup for themselves in the book. It's a quiet, vitally important scene. As in the film, Harry battles with his own selfish desire to win the tournament, but instead of presenting us with a monstrous Harry who hesitates before saving Cedric's life (which also makes no sense given what we've already seen of Harry's actions in the film), Rowling gives us a Harry who has victory offered to him as a reward for unthinkingly stepping forward to save Cedric's life (and a Cedric who would walk away from that victory out of a sense of obligation). More time should have been spent on Cedric and Harry's choices in that scene, and on their decision to take the cup together, but Kloves was obviously loathe to slacken the scene's pace. This is, in a nutshell, the fundamental problem of all the Potter films.

Which is not to say that the entire film was a loss. As I said, Newell films excellent scenes even if the whole doesn't come together, and I was particularly fond of the interactions between Harry, Ron and Hermione. It was refreshing to see them joke around one minute, support each other the next, and fight tooth and claw a moment later, and although none of the three actors have impressed me, they've developed a winning chemistry. It appears that each of the Potter films has to have at least one feat of impeccable casting, and Miranda Richardson makes Rita Skeeter her own. Her scene in the broom closet with Harry was an excellent mix of the book's sensibility and the film's original tone (Rowling isn't the one who suggested a faint sexual undertone to Skeeter's attitude towards Harry, and although "My eyes are not 'glistening with the ghosts of my past'!" is not a line from the book, it sounds as if it ought to be). Despite a drastically reduced presence, Richardson dominates her scenes, one character at least who couldn't be undone by Kloves' slash-and-burn approach to the book.

I remain convinced that film is the wrong visual medium for the Harry Potter books, at least until a writer and a director come along who are genuinely interested in conveying not the letter but the spirit of Rowling's novels--that indescribable blend of irreverence and grandeur. There were glimpses of that adaptation in Newell's Goblet of Fire, when I honestly believed that Newell and Kloves got the books and loved them for themselves, not as a ticket to untold riches--I wanted to cheer at the opening of the Quidditch World Cup and clap at the introductory performance of the Durmstrang students. But taken as a whole, Goblet of Fire is only a tiny step in the right direction. Rowling's books only get longer and more complicated, their plots move away from simple mysteries and adventures, and Harry's world grows wider and less easily understood. I'm not at all convinced that the Potter films are capable of conveying this increasing complexity.

A few more thoughts:
  • How much do I hate the decision to make Beauxbatons an all-girls school? It's not quite fair to complain that Fleur is a ninny whose greatest asset seems to be her looks and whose performance in the Triwizard Tournament is dismal--at least, it's not fair to complain about these things to Newell and Kloves--but making Beauxbatons a girls' academy is one more nail in the gender-equality coffin. Beauxbatons has a female champion not because she's the best of the school but because all the applicants from the school are female.

  • Once again, the films short-change and soft-pedal Snape, which is clearly something that's going to come back and bite the writers on the ass. I think Alan Rickman was a bad choice for Snape, mostly because he's twice as old and four times as good looking as the character is supposed to be (the age thing isn't a minor objection either. In the books, Snape acts like a young man, or more accurately a man who never properly grew up. His anger is the kind you'd expect from a twisted, stunted teenager. Rickman's mature gravitas is completely wrong for the role), but the true fault is with the writers who give Rickman nothing to do. Even after the revelation that Snape was once a Death Eater, we don't get a sense of the caustic hatred that Harry feels for him, nor of the ways in which Snape justifies that hatred. Again, I suspect that what we have here is fear on Kloves' part--he's not willing to give us a character as nasty and unlikable as Snape truly is.

  • We all knew, when Emma Watson was cast as Hermione, that she was an unlikely ugly duckling. The fact that no attempt was made to hide Watson's natural beauty over the course of the four films means that the revelation that she cleans up well in the Yule Ball is not so much a revelation as a foregone conclusion. I understand that Hollywood has different notions of 'unattractive' than the rest of the world, but it is rather absurd that the film asks us to be shocked at Hermione's Cinderella performance.

  • One of the changes I whole-heartedly approved of was the absence of Dobby (Rowling's Dobby in general, but Columbus' Dobby from Chamber of Secrets in particular). I liked the fact that Neville finally got a bit more air time, that he was the one to help Harry with the second task, and that he made out better than Harry or Ron at the Yule Ball. That said, I could have lived a long time without 'Oh no! I've killed Harry Potter!'

  • I would have liked to complain about Dumbledore's non-explanation of Priori Incantatem, but since that plot twist (for 'plot twist', read 'deus ex machina') is one of the silliest and most annoying last-minute saves in the series, I can't really blame Kloves for trying to get past it as quickly as he could.


Anonymous said...

Hello there!:)

I saw "HPGF" at East-Hampton, I read the first Harry Potter book and enjoyed it. Just not enough to keep on reading them.

As a non-fan I found the movie quite enjoybale. Esp since the special effects were wisely used as an addition to acting and characters, not as the focus of the movie.

Always a pleasure reading your blog!:)



Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with everything you've said except for:

it is rather absurd that the film asks us to be shocked at Hermione's Cinderella performance.

I don't think the film does. We, the viewer, can readily perceive Watson's attractiveness, it is Harry and Ron who cannot. The ball is the first time they view Hermione as a sexual being and the shock is all theirs.

Anonymous said...

am curious about the "deus ex machina" you refer to... you mean voldemort's victims popping out of the wands to help harry was too far-fetched? or hadn't been introduced as a "rule" of how magic works in the potter-verse?

Abigail Nussbaum said...


We, the viewer, can readily perceive Watson's attractiveness, it is Harry and Ron who cannot. The ball is the first time they view Hermione as a sexual being and the shock is all theirs.

I'll grant you that Harry and Ron might genuinely not notice Hermione's beauty, but what's the rest of the school's excuse? However you slice it, the actress playing Hermione is ten times as appealing as the actress playing Fleur, which puts a strain on my suspension of disbelief.


am curious about the "deus ex machina" you refer to... you mean voldemort's victims popping out of the wands to help harry was too far-fetched? or hadn't been introduced as a "rule" of how magic works in the potter-verse?

More the latter. Rowling 'foreshadows' the Priori Incantatem effect by telling us, all the way back in book 1, that Harry and Voldemort's wands share a core, but she never lays down rules that explain why this should be important. As far as I'm concerned, the fact that two wands that share a core won't fight each other is about as organic to the text as Star Trek's technobabble solutions, in which a gobbledygook particle beam is used to save the day.

ca said...

Alan Rickman's portrayal of Snape never bothered me, even though he wasn't true to how I envisioned Snape's character in the book (I totally agree with you on how you perceived his book character).

Dumbledore, however, REALLY bothers me. "The only wizard Voldemort ever feared?" Please. I wouldn't fear him if I were a dark wizard.

I think it is because Alan Rickman gives Snape an inner dignity the immature Snape in the book does not possess in appearance (although he does exhibit a certain tortured dignity in certain actions), which I don't see as a bad thing-- I think it makes him more interesting, not less. Film-Dumbledore, on the other hand, is robbed of the dignity and wisdom and sheer I-know-it-all charisma of the book-Dumbledore, and his character is severely lessened thereby. In fact, does he even *have* a character in the movies, except for random-old-ineffectual-wizard? In the books he is unique and likeable. In the film, I don't care if he lives or dies.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

ca, I think I was so pleased by Richard Harris' departure (well, that's not fair. I wasn't pleased that he died, but I had been hoping for his replacement) from the role of Dumbledore that I'm giving Michael Gambon the benefit of the doubt. Harris played Dumbledore as if he were ready for the nursing home, and Gambon brings a great deal more energy to the role. I agree that neither one of them conveys a sense of power, but then I've never been terribly impressed with Rowling's achievments on that front. I think Dumbledore is one of the least successful characters in the series - we're told that he's remarkable, but what we see is a rather arrogant old man who consistently bites off more than he can chew.

ca said...

Okay, yeah, you're right about Dumbledore-- he came off much better in the earlier books, when you didn't see much of him and could believe that he really did know everything/was an immensely powerful/wise wizard, and I guess I still cling to that opinion of him. But yes, the later books paint a rather less flattering picture of him.

Helen Louise said...

I think you're right. The thing with Beauxbatons as a girls' school annoyed me too... And Alan Rickman is far too well groomed to play Snape (totally warps fanfiction too. I'm always shocked when I read new books because I've got so used to Snape as the dark yet ultimately sexy and heroic figure of fanfiction... in canon he's just a horrible prat :) )

I think what bothered me most is Kloves's inability to pick out the most important scenes of the book. The character development seemed severely lacking... I also didn't understand why Ron's criticisms supposedly ruined everything at the Yule Ball... I expected Hermione to march off and go dance with Viktor again, not burst into tears. Sigh.

So excellent post, you caught brilliantly why GoF just doesn't work to well in film form!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know, I don't think the problem of idealizing Snape is restricted to fanfic, Helen Louise. I think whenever you're a part of an obsessive HP fan community, you'll end up with a skewed perspective on him (and Draco, and sometimes negatively skewed perspectives on Sirius and Lupin) that only a trip back to the canon can correct.

also didn't understand why Ron's criticisms supposedly ruined everything at the Yule Ball... I expected Hermione to march off and go dance with Viktor again, not burst into tears.

I was also a bit confused by this scene, but now I think that Kloves was rather ham-fistedly trying to assure the audience that the person Hermione really wanted to go to the ball with was Ron. In the book, Rowling trusts us to get that on our own (or, more accurately, she trusts us to understand that at 14, Hermione's feelings for Ron are still underdeveloped), but Kloves is afraid to give us a Hermione who's truly interested in Krum. That's why he later has her tell Harry that Viktor is a 'physical person' (read: dumb, which is totally non-canonical), and that he annoys her. I think in the books it's pretty obvious that Krum likes Hermione a great deal more than she likes him, but in Kloves' version, Hermione is no better than the giggling schoolgirls who follow Krum around wherever he goes - she apparently goes out with him simply because she's flattered by his attention.

Sigh indeed.

John Leszczyński said...

I can't understand why so many people appear to have enjoyed the 4th Harry Potter film. As this seems to be an intelligent discussion, I would like someone to explain to me any good points in the film. Please do so on my short review... I certainly don't enjoy disliking films, but I have found no worthwhile aspects to this one.

Thanks for your time,

Anonymous said...

to john i cannot understand why don.t you like is interesting and quite faith on the book

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