Harry Potter and the Adaptation of a Lifetime

A few years ago now, as we were walking out of the Showcase Cinemas in Lowell after a screening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Stephanie and I (and maybe Anisa and Bill) got to talking about future Potter adaptations. It was obvious to us then, having just watched the second of a potential seven films, that they were at least going to have a go at the four books that were out at that time. But, all of us having read the fourth book, and having marveled at its expanse both in terms of number of pages and in terms of number of plots, had no idea how they would adapt that one. The rumor going round at that time was that they might split into two films. And while that sounded absurd, it was the only way we could figure that they’d actually get it done.

I’m happy to report that director Mike Newell proved us wrong by giving us the most ambitious and truly stunning film in the Potter series to date, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Anyone who watches this film having already read the book must truly appreciate what a difficult task Newell and screenwriter Steve Kloves had in front of them. And the result that they give us is really something to behold. Yes, purists will be exceedingly disappointed by some of the cuts. But people who understand that film is a very different medium should be pleased by how little of the story’s soul is missing. Scenes have been removed here and there, and one whole subplot is gone at the very least, but the soul of the story is still there. And that’s the thing we want the most out of a screen adaptation, I think.

Briefly, for those of you with no knowledge of the book, the story revolves around a tournament of school-age wizards into which our hero, Harry Potter, is thrust unwillingly. Harry is too young to be in the tournament, and he didn’t enter his own name for consideration, which would have taken a kind of magic he was as yet uncapable of, so everyone suspects something funny is going on. And the audience can see that to, in the lighting of the film, in the darkness and melancholy of the music, and in the pacing of the story. Anyone with a brain can see that Harry is barrelling towards some sticky end, and the only thing we’re not sure of is who’s responsible.

Where Newell’s film excels is in the quiet moments, and in those moments most tense. The bulk of the story already functioned just fine, but Newell (along with Kloves) manages to tweak certain especially quiet and especially loud moments to make them even more resonant. A favorite of mine was a scene in the hallway immediately following the film’s only classroom scene. Neville Longbottom, having just had the shit scared out of him by their new defense against the dark arts teacher, is walking silently alongside Harry and company. When we see his face as he is called back into the classroom by Professor Moody, there is a small bit of business going on in the stained glass window behind him. Potter fans are well aware that at Hogwarts the paintings move, but even I was surprised by the tear rolling down the cheek of a stained glass maiden. It was so subtle in comparison with all of the other moving portrait scenes we’d seen before, but so very poignant.

Newell and Kloves also display a sense of the greater story at work here in this series by inserting Ron Weasley’s younger sister Ginny into every scene they possibly can. She’s become good friends with Hermione, so it makes sense. But those of us who have read the fifth and sixth books, and know important Ginny will become later on, can truly appreciate the foreshadowing that’s going on here as, in several scenes, the familiar “trio” becomes a quartet.

And, as I said, it was not only in these quiet ways that Newell enhanced an already impressive bit of storytelling. In the larger, louder moments, the three Triwizard Tournament tasks, for instance, Newell also manages to make particularly good use of his medium to give us not just a filmed retelling of the original source material (which is what the first two films (which I still love, by the way) essentially were). The larger, louder moments, including the three tasks, really just pop on film. Adding a chase scene between Harry and his dragon in the first task was a stroke of genius. Newell’s horrifying vision of the second task, which takes place underwater amidst violent merpeople, truly rivaled the scene as I’d pictured it in my head. And streamlining the third task to remove the strange creatures and have Harry and the others simply confronting fear itself was brilliant.

Oh, and the scene where Moody turns Malfoy into a ferrett was pretty damn good as well. In fact, there’s a lot of humor in this film, which is good, because, in the end, it’s going to the darkest place of all.

The climax is terrifying. Set in a graveyard and featuring the series’ first on-screen death of a student, it gave me the chills just as the book had. But where it became truly scary was in the performance of Ralph Fiennes, who was cast as the series’ ultimate villain, Lord Voldemort. Fiennes inhabits this character in such a way that I was 100% invested in the story at that point. He was Voldemort for me, moving about like snake as he prepared to kill Harry, almost dancing (and I mean that in the sense that his movement felt very intrinsic to the character, not that he looked ridiculous in any way). And the fear he struck in Harry was palpable. When Harry was finally made his getaway and the reality of what had just happened set in on him, I was almost moved to tears. It was so perfectly executed that I really just shivered, feeling quite like a kid who’d been truly frightened for the first time in his life.

If you can’t tell, I was really impressed with this film. If you haven’t seen it, go out and get yourself a ticket. Even sitting where we were, in the front row, with our necks straining as we looked almost straight up to see, we had a hell of a time.