ON HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE
It really does seem only yesterday that I remember hearing about a young wizard named Harry Potter. After the requisite I’m getting to old for this Geek lifestyle lag I finally got myself a copy and woke up this morning a few years later staring at a shelf full of books, and movies, some great collectables and a belly full of the mostly silly controversy surrounding the whole thing. What’s kept me interested enough to feel any real excitement about a new Potter flick hitting the screens? That very thing is what I think makes the newest Potter movie the best one of all.
I hesitate to call this a review because I wrote it to sort out some of my own thoughts and what I continue to find compelling about this extraordinary series.
You see I have a theory about story. It didn’t originate with me and I’m not saying it’s incredibly profound but I do think it’s useful to anybody trying to understand what makes the difference between a phenomena and bunch of merchandising. Any great story accomplishes three things. It may have more of one than the other but all must be present to cause people to care about it the way they do when we talk about that story becoming a true phenomena.
In no particular order they are a world for the reader/viewer to inhabit and characters that the reader/viewer can relate to. Some of you may be saying uh-duh. But it’s this third thing that the other two balances on. The medium or mediums that the story presents itself in must work together to support a unified experience for the fans.
Star Wars was a film, then everything else all at once. Not only was it overwhelming but ultimately it didn’t have much to do with the story. It was fun but distracting. By the time Lucas got around to completing his story arc we had all pretty much stopped caring about how it was all supposed to have started anyway. That feeling exploded after A New Hope when it became crystal clear was that Lucas’ fascination with Muppets and CGI picture painting far outstripped his interest in storytelling.
That was okay in some ways. No one disputes the power of the first two and half films. But all the spin-off narratives like the novel series, comics etc are the real reason people remained interested. For an entire generation Star Wars offered a vast multi-peopled universe along with the tools the fanbase needed to explore it. Star Wars offered the chance to alien watch, planet hop, and imagine yourself interacting in those world’s. The story? People cared by the end but not nearly as much as they did in the beginning.
LOTR started as a series of books. Jackson’s genius stroke was to make all three films at once and the film series very neatly balanced character and world building. But the public, most of them, knew how the story ended. There was no real anticipation from a narrative point of view. Watching the LOTR films one had the sense of Tolkien’s world being brought into full-fledged life, realized, celebrated. It was a magnificent achievement. But the books had been around a long time. Tolkien’s point of view was clearly established. For viewers the sense of danger was inevitably diminished not just by knowing the end to the story but because other than the Hobbit the whole story had basically been told and with Tolkien dead that was that.
Potter? It’s all about anticipation. Arguably the series has produced the single longest sustained pop culture narrative event of all time giving fans the chance to read the incredibly detailed books and get the visual emotional shot in the arm from the movies before going back to the books. And the movies God bless ‘em have, in the middle of the thankless job of satisfying purist fans and drawing in new ones, centered on Harry’s struggle of origins, his inevitable final confrontation with Voldemort and relating it all back to coming of age.
We are six books and four film adaptations into the series and it has more fans than ever. Of course Harry’s journey is the journey of all people who grow, finds themselves able to wield power and search for a way to achieve the greatest good. Whether you take Voldemort as a stand in for the world, the flesh or the Devil is really beside the point of Rowling’s narrative as writ large. Harry isn’t just every teen- he’s trying to do right, to be faithful to his friends and neighbors and find a place in the world.
And right now there is a good chance that despite all his best efforts he’s going to die.
Or at least he might need to die if he’s going to stay true to his ideals. Quite simply put this is one of the most powerful themes in all of storytelling. All three of the above mentioned genuine pop culture phenomena are driven in large part by it. My point isn’t that Potter tells a better story but I am convinced it tells it in a better way. We don’t know the end yet and this forces us to hope for the best even as we fear the worst.
Of course it’s the model of our own lives isn’t. If real life is the written story with all it’s details and ancillary characters then film is the memory of it. But through both is the desire (hopefully) to be a good person, to grow, to learn, to mature, to love better, hurt ourselves and others less. We are the ones who look back; we are the ones who walk forward.
Becoming an adult is part of being thrust into a world that you realize is much more dangerous than sprouting body hair, entering the mysterious unknown of teen love and countering the constant onslaught of the unholy high school clique/bully/insecurity triad.
In Goblet of Fire Ron Hermoine and Harry take that leap full force and that brave leap, not to mention some of the best special effects in the series, are liable to leave the average Potter fan pretty shell shocked.
Past Potter films have concentrated on events much more heavily. The setup for the Quidditch game here is better than all the other Quidditch games in the other films, but here, we skip past the actual match and barely even miss it. The underwater sequence is surprisingly chintzy compared to the truly breathtaking look of the rest of the film but the other moments, the dragon sequence, the hedge maze and the confrontation with V. are absolutely some of the best use of effects in a film I’ve seen in quite some time precisely because they are at the service of a story that any thoughtful person with an affinity for the world created can invest in: a story that allows our characters to run headfirst right where they belong at their age into the adult bugaboos of death and sex. They also experience first hand the idea of personal responsibility and the real power they wield when they submit to what is necessary to achieve the greatest good. It isn’t just the idea of self sacrifice but that we can trust the giving over of what we have because there will be a reward for it- a reward that we get. In short that if we bend our soul towards what is good then we will survive that self-sacrifice. Death is not the end.
Ralph Fiennes is the most inspired Voldemort by far. Some may find his performance a tad theatrical but his is the first incarnation that brings a sense of sincere menace to the character. Michael Gambon thunders a way too much in the part of Albus Dumbledore for me, almost completely losing the sense of control and concern that makes the character so reassuring. But Brendan Gleeson’s Mad Eye Moody is so picture perfect that he utterly owns the role.
Hopefully this film will send clear warning signals to parents. If you get your kids hooked on Potter too early they won’t be emotionally ready for the later books or films in the series. Don’t rob your kids of the experience of walking step by step with Harry. In our current media landscape of instant gratification try to dole out the books sparingly- make it an event. As your child enters a new year of school let them experience Harry’s next year at Hogwarts and beyond.
Which brings up an important point. The books are going to end, if Rowling stays on schedule, considerably sooner than the film series. Will people continue to care about the films afterwards? My guess is that like LOTR people will stay with this series far after it has ended it’s official run. Harry’s journey is too much like our own for us to abandon it.