Movies: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

On the presupposition that everyone who’s interested in seeing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire has already read the book, I’m a little more liberal with the spoilers in this review than I am in most.

First, a disclaimer: I am not now, nor ever have been, afflicted with Pottermania. I liked the first novel okay and thought the third was pretty good, but have been less than enamored with the more recent entries in the series. I am not one to reflexively dismiss something as “kid’s stuff” (one of my all time favorite movies is The Iron Giant, after all), but I haven’t found Harry Potter to be especially engaging, either.

So in evaluating Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I am only interested in how it works as a film, and not in how faithfully it follows the book. Indeed, given that I disliked the corresponding novel (it was my least favorite in the series), the more the movie deviated from the text the better, in my opinion.

The good news is that it is evident, right from the get-go, that the screenplay is a considerable abridgement of the source material. The first 100 pages of the novel — devoted to the Quidditch World Cup, including lengthy descriptions of how the children travel to the site and an entire chapter on play-by-play commentary of the event — is packed into the first 20 minutes of the film. Unlike Rowling, screenwriter Steven Kloves seems intent on shuffling the kids off to school as quickly as possible: the Dursley’s don’t even make an appearance, and Dobby (along with the entire Elf Liberation subplot) is given the axe. By the time we arrive at Hogwarts, it seems like the filmmakers, against all odds, have figured out how streamline the 650 page book into a 150 minute movie.

The bad news is that Goblet of Fire (the book) contains so much superfluous material that, even after losing a huge chunk of it, Goblet of Fire (the film) feels too crowded by half. At one point they introduce a major character (Barty Crouch Junior) only to interrupt themselves halfway through to introduce a second major character (Mad Eye Moody), and then return to the original introduction once that is complete. Much of the first half of the film feels this way, with new people, spells, and concepts being revealed at a dizzying pace. At times it reminded me of those disclaimers tacked on to the end of a radio ads for contests, where they have digitally edited out all the spaces and left a monolith of information. Some characters (notably Cho Chang and Rita Skeeter) are given such a small amount of screen time that they serve only as reminders about the substantially larger roles they played in the book.

Once the Triwizard Tournament gets underway, though, the film not only finds its focus, but also takes a turn for the grim. When Radiohead made a surprise appearance halfway through I thought it odd to see them in a “kids movie,” but that was before I realized that the final hour pretty much plays out like a typical radiohead song: dark, brooding, and at times downright ponderous. Indeed, between the horror elements and the introduction of sexuality to the franchise (we’re treated to French schoolgirls in short skirts and a shirtless Daniel Radcliffe cavorting in a sauna with a voyeuristic female ghost), Goblet of Fire isn’t really a kids movie at all. The age range for the audience seems to be shifting right along with the age range of the protagonists. The final film in the series may well be NC-17.

I was pretty ambivalent about Goblet of Fire. On the one hand, I like the darker elements (the introduction of Azkaban in the third book is why it was my favorite), but I came away from the film feeling much the same way as I did from the book, that Rowling is exceptionally skilled at coming up with clever ideas (or at least at lifting them from other works and reworking them until they seem passibly original), but isn’t so good at cobbling them together into a coherent storyline. So much of the Triwizard Tournament doesn’t makes sense (even in a world where magic is real and dragons are imported from Romania), and it makes even less so in a film where so much exposition had to be abbreviated to keep the running time under a fortnight. Still, Goblet of Fire is certainly the best of the Harry Potter movies, so if you’ve liked the series so far and you can suspend your disbelief a little more than I was able, you’ll probably find it to be right up your alley, Diagon or otherwise.

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18 comments.

  1. I LOVE the Iron Giant!
    So much that I want to buy the DVD for one of my kids for xmas, but none of them like it enough to warrant a purchase. They would so know I did it for ME.

    Sorry, totally skipping over the Harry Potter thing..:-)

  2. The Iron Giant is one of the most underrated, yet critically acclaimed movies ever. Not one month goes by where I don’t hear it mentioned in some context. The fact that it was not better received is proof that evil exists…and stuff.

    I love the Iron Giant.

    Superman!

  3. I don’t really understand what you mean by “have figured out how streamline the 650 page book into a 150 movies.” So…maybe you could fix that. Word.

  4. I didn’t even pretend, and bought the Iron Giant for the kids and watched it myself. Funny, it’s more of a kids film for adults than the other way round. Mine weren’t that impressed, but I loved it.

    And now my ex and I are fighting over who has to take the kids to see Harry Potter. We would both prefer to see the Narnia film. I think I’ve lost the arguement, and might cop out and take them to King Kong instead. I’m not a Potter fan.

  5. True, the movie was quite streamlined and very, very condensed. You made some excellent points.

    But I, as a Potterhead (or whatever we’re called) sat their with a huge grin on my face the whole time and left with one thought: THAT ROCKED, DUDE!!!!

  6. Azkaban was a better movie, I think.

    But given that abridging GOF is a fundamentally impossible task, I thought it was a pretty good job. You’re right about the Triwizard Tournament — it makes about as much sense, when you think about it, as that test the Watchers make Buffy go through where they take away her Slayer powers and set an insane, powerful vampire after her. On the other hand, it gives everybody something fun to do while waiting for Voldemort to return.

  7. Fun Trivia:

    The producers wanted to change the band’s name to the Wyrd Sisters for the movie. It turns out there is a Canadian band that has gone by that name for several years (before the movies came out), and there’s been much legal discussion. (The band wanted to protect their name, and didn’t want people to think they’d named themselves after the books/movie).

  8. Radiohead Geek Trivia: The Wyrd Sisters only contain Johnny Greenwood and Phil Selway from Radiohead. Jarvis Cocker (formerly of Pulp) is the lead singer.

  9. When I saw the movie, at least half the theatre must have been 5 or 6 years old. It was insane. They talked non-stop throughout the entire film, and I’m sure many will have nightmares for a week.

  10. The main problem with GOF is that pretty much the entire book is pointless: if all it takes is a portkey to get Harry to the graveyard, why go through all that bother. Talk about a McGuffin!

    (Also, don’t we learn later on that portkeys are triggered either when touched or at a specific time? So pretty fortunate that the touch-activated one get Harry to the graveyard at just the right time….)

    And WTF with the taking the kids to this one? Seriously, if you take your 5-year-old to the movies and one of the previews is Aeon Flux, leave. Way, way, way too scary for the tykes, and probably not so great for their tender little ears, too. (It’s kind of an interesting problem: you have this movie where there’s this huge marketing and merchandizing effort to make the series look all fun and playful, sort of like some kind of Chris Colombus-directed tripe, but now they’re actually making not-terrible, darker versions.)

    As for the movie, decent enough, I suppose. It felt edited, not flowing, and the blocking and framing felt cramped to me. I’d say not as good as number 3, but still miles beyond the Chris Colombus-directed tripe that was 1 and 2.

  11. Darren James Harkness: when you say “change the name to the Wyrd Sisters for the movie” you should think (a) you never hear their name in the moveie (b) the band’s name in the book is the “Weird Sisters” (c) Shakespeare came up with THAT one almost 500 years ago (d) Terry Pratchett came up with the other as the title of book 6 in the Discworld series, so I doubt whether the Canadian band ever had priority over the name. And why is it better for people to think they named themselves after a Terry Pratchett book (which they clearly did) than a band in a J K Rowling one?

    PS Thought the Jarvis Cocker songs were good.

  12. Darren James Harkness: when you say “change the name to the Wyrd Sisters for the movie” you should think (a) you never hear their name in the moveie (b) the band’s name in the book is the “Weird Sisters” (c) Shakespeare came up with THAT one almost 500 years ago (d) Terry Pratchett came up with the other as the title of book 6 in the Discworld series, so I doubt whether the Canadian band ever had priority over the name. And why is it better for people to think they named themselves after a Terry Pratchett book (which they clearly did) than a band in a J K Rowling one?

    PS Thought the Jarvis Cocker songs were good.

  13. Funny, GOF was the only movie so far that I’ve actually liked better than the book. But that’s probably in part because I agree with DY that the fourth book was my least favorite. I particularly loathed all the teen angst in that book — I was glad to see a lot of that cut or minimized in the movie. The shortened coverage of the quidditch world cup was no loss, either.

    I took an adult friend with me when the kids (14 and 11) and I went to see it Friday. He hasn’t read the book, but I’ve told him a fair amount about it on previous occasions, which was probably good, because I’m not sure he’d have been able to follow what passes for a plot in the movie otherwise. I had fun watching it, but I really had to wonder how much sense it would make if you weren’t pretty familiar with the whole series beforehand.

    My kids don’t watch as many violent or “scary” things as many other kids their age, so they found the second half pretty spooky, but they seemed to deal with it ok. (Each had one of my arms to cling to from the maze entry on. Good thing I don’t have 3 kids!) I can’t imagine taking a 5 or 6 year old to see this film. Rowling herself wouldn’t let her precocious 7 year old daughter read the graveyard chapter by herself, but read it to her. I suppose parents have to make their own decisions about what their kids can handle, but the marketing machine isn’t helping any in this case. (We didn’t get a preview of Aeon Flux in our theatre– just “Happy Feet”, the Superman remake, and some other assorted tripe I can’t recall right now. Oh, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which didn’t really seem to fit in with any of the rest of the previews or the feature.)

  14. GOF was the worst book but the best movie. my fiance who hasn’t read any of the books (nor will he ever) did fairly well understanding the plot. being a huge potter fan i have one complaint and that is the new dumbledore.

  15. The old Dumbledore was any better?

    Ian McKellan would have made a great Dumbledore. Or maybe Tom Baker. Neither Richard Harris nor Michael Gambon has come close.

  16. edalton- i agree but richard harris was WAY better than michael gambon.

  17. Having not been influenced by any previous Potter reading or viewing my opinion is the movie was a stinker. It was a collection of loosely coupled vignettes nearly impossible for the uninitiated to make sense of. (Don’t blame the abridgment! The Lord of the Rings proves it can be done.) The special effects were “WOW!” for about 30 minutes, then the thrill waned to “oh, that’s nice” and finally, “is it over yet?”

  18. In other news:

    Go, You Chickenfat, Go

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20051130/ap_on_sc/chicken_fat_fuel