“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Dumbledore
So said most of the promotional material for Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. A grave warning from Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore to our young hero doesn’t exactly scream ‘family fun’, does it? Well, this was the first Harry Potter film to receive a 12A certificate from the BBFC in the UK, for “moderate fantasy violence, threat and horror”.
Relatively speaking, Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban was, and still remains, the lowest-grossing Potter film, despite being the most critically lauded, according to Rotten Tomatoes. So, the marketing push from Warner Bros went down the route of so many sequels, that intangible promise that the next film will be ‘darker’. But at least this one followed through.
Between the release of the first film, and The Goblet Of Fire‘s November 2005 release date, JK Rowling’s literary saga-in-progress had seen two more novels published, The Order Of The Phoenix in 2003, and The Half-Blood Prince in July 2005.
In the continuing second half of the saga, the effects of this fourth instalment were very much apparent, and must have informed the tone of this production, as opposed to earlier adventures. They were also much longer books, and as The Goblet Of Fire was the first Harry Potter book to exceed six hundred pages, there was talk of having to turn it into two separate films in order to adapt it faithfully.
First of all, Warner Bros was on the lookout for a new director. With Alfonso Cuarón still embroiled in post-production on the third film when the fourth film would need to be in pre-production, he was unable to return. Instead, the studio picked up Mike Newell, director of Four Weddings And A Funeral, who quickly addressed the idea of the split.
The unimaginative execs at Warner Bros had originally envisioned a three-hour version of Azkaban, and it was apparently also Cuarón who persuaded Newell that he could trim enough subplots to adapt the novel in one film. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s absolutely possible to do it in one. I think it would be slightly embarrassing to do it in two,” said Newell, in the March 2004 issue of Empire.
Well, that idea never came up again, did it?
Newell saw the book as “…a story at the beginning of which the powers of evil have a plan, which is absolutely not revealed to your hero. The kid just wanders into another year at school, then this huge notion of the competition surprises him.
“But there is, of course, a malign intelligence which is manipulating things. And so he gets more and more suspicious, until there is a shoot-out between him and the bad guy. That’s a really good, strong thriller shape.”
Harry is plagued by bad dreams about Wormtail returning to the enfeebled Lord Voldemort, and planning his return to power. But hey, the excitement of a Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts, uniting three of the world’s best wizarding schools in a test of mettle and skill, might just be enough to distract him from his nightmares.
But nope, because Harry’s name is drawn out of the hat, or rather the Goblet of Fire, and he’s illegally entered into the competition, despite being way under the minimum age to compete. Harry has three tasks to overcome, each more deadly than the last, while dark forces gather and bring his nightmares into reality.
To hear Newell speak of his approach to the material, there’s something of a discrepancy between his intent to make the story as a classic paranoid thriller, such as The Parallax View, and the film we actually got.
Certainly, it’s the most action-packed film of the series to date, although the final film looks set to knock it into a cocked hat with its Hogwarts battle royal. However, this film is more tonally rampant than you’d be led to expect from Newell’s attitude. It does, however, feel somehow more pedestrian than its immediate predecessor.
It’s easy to imagine director Chris Columbus acceding to the studio’s wishes, and so, if he’d stayed on this long, we’d probably have been looking at that three-hour Azkaban, as well as The Goblet Of Fire Parts 1 and 2. But on the pedestrian-o-meter, if we may call it that, Newell’s film is much closer to his reverent approach than to Cuarón’s more radical adaptations.
It definitely shows that this one was adapted from a much longer book than the previous stories. Newell was right to say that The Goblet Of Fire could be done in one film, but this version is more than a little clumsy and jumpy, the atmosphere seeming to stumble over the gaps where missing plots from the novel have been excised.
We begin at the Quidditch World Cup final, seeing all of the anticipation and build up for this huge wizarding event. But rather than actually show the match, we skip forward to the aftermath. No sooner are we informed that Ireland won when the masked Death Eaters, Voldemort’s followers, lay siege to the jubilant spectators and chaos reigns. The film is packed with these jumps.
To his credit, screenwriter Steve Kloves takes most of the extraneous subplots right out of the film. Gone are Hermione’s campaign for house-elf civil rights, the character of Ludo Bagman and his dealings with Fred and George Weasley, and Hagrid’s dalliance with Blast-Ended Skrewts.
But for those in the know, it actually makes it seem weirder that they didn’t excise more. On a repeat viewing, it’s unfortunate to note that the Yule Ball sequence should lift right out of the main plot. It also throws up one of the film’s loose ends, Ron and Hermione have a blazing row when he jealously offends her about her partner, and one of Harry’s rivals in the tournament, Viktor Krum.
Rupert Grint has a lot to soldier through in this one, being a git to his two best friends alternately throughout. The row with Harry reaches a resolution, but Hermione’s hurt feelings are forgotten. Like the Quidditch farrago that opens the film, it begs the question of why they would include that bit of conflict, only to avoid resolving it.
There’s some great costume design and art direction in those Yule Ball scenes, and a decent cameo by Jarvis Cocker, but it’s ultimately doing a job that would be done later on, and better, in following instalments, in introducing romance to the series. It also gives Emma Watson a John Hughes moment, whereby the magic of a pink outfit suddenly alerts everyone to Hermione’s beauty.
Then again, the Harry Potter films have never been relentlessly paced, so perhaps the consistently halting momentum towards the film’s startling conclusion isn’t anything too surprising. What Newell called “a malign intelligence” is most definitely at work, ensuring that all of Harry’s wrangling with dragons, tussling with mermaids and navigating a leafy labyrinth leads to one outcome.
The fulcrum upon which The Goblet Of Fire leans is Voldemort’s return to power. This time, Harry doesn’t defeat him through circumstance or his mother’s love. Harry’s only major victory at the conclusion of this film is to avoid being murdered by his newly resurrected foe, now played by Ralph Fiennes.
This climax is the series’ most honest-to-goodness terrifying sequence. After getting his scaly backside handed to him by a schoolboy on his last two appearances, Fiennes immediately establishes Voldemort as the terror that wizards always mumbled about. In hindsight, he’s even more repellent to some film fans for his callous murder of Robert Pattinson.
Pattinson would go on to become Edward Cullen in Twilight, but his likeable turn as Cedric Diggory is still probably the least wooden of his career to date. David Tennant is perhaps the film’s most valuable new player, as a psychotic convicted Death Eater called Barty Crouch Jr. However, Tennant has scant screen time, for reasons of his character looking like Brendan Gleeson.
The best twist of all of the books occurs around Mad-Eye Moody’s character, who’s revealed to have been captured by Death Eaters before he could begin teaching at Hogwarts. Crouch Jr. masquerades as Moody all year, courtesy of Polyjuice Potion. Gleeson is essentially playing someone else playing his character. He’s marvellously ambiguous, through a performance that is alternately comedic and sinister, depending on if you’ve seen the film before.
In amongst the surfeit of new characters and the densely plotted mystery elements, The Goblet Of Fire, sadly, finds little time for the established cast of regulars. The Dursleys are unfortunately but not unexpectedly absent, and Sirius Black, whose liberation was the crux of the previous instalment, only gets one scene, his face manifesting itself in a Hogwarts fireplace.
Even Ron and Hermione seem, for the first time, like supporting characters rather than leads. Michael Gambon shines through best, giving more definition to his performance. His bursts of intellectual frustration at events beyond his control stand him in good stead for Dumbledore’s later character development.
In comparison to the two films that preceded and succeeded it, Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire seems like a somewhat undisciplined adaptation, protesting at what has gone before at the same time as it wiles away screen time on diversions such as Moaning Myrtle’s attempted bath time seduction of Harry.
However, it preserves the book’s constant sense of intrigue and it boasts not only some of the best action sequences in all of the films, but also one of the best endings. As baggy as some earlier scenes may be, it’s a strong finish that announces the corporeal Voldemort as a great screen baddy.
After this watershed moment for the films, Dumbledore’s forecast of “dark and difficult times” would be borne out in the second half of the series, beginning in earnest with The Order Of The Phoenix.