Sunday, November 27, 2005

Goblet of Dying Embers

The Triwizard Tournament that takes up the hippogryph’s share of screen time in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is in conception and effect so perverse, so cruel, so absurd, and so obviously of no consequence in and of itself, either within the worlds of the movies and books or as an aesthetic creation, that I began to think that Harry’s creator J.K. Rowling had gone over to the dark side herself and joined he who must not be named.

No, not Voldemort.

George Lucas.

The three prequels of the Star Wars saga are seriously flawed in many ways, but probably their greatest weakness is that Lucas keeps stopping his story dead in its tracks to insert elaborate commercials for the video game spinoffs. For long periods of time he doesn’t have to waste Lucas fills the screen with chaotic, senseless, and sadistic violence that doesn’t even have any aesthetic virtue to partially redeem it. The attack on the Death Star in the original Star Wars was visually enchanting. When Lucas repeated it in Return of the Jedi he cluttered up the screen and made just blowing up things the only source of excitement. The video game anti-aesthetic reaches its pinnacle in the rescue of Palpatine at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith. The two heroes, Obi-wan and Anakin, are only puppets of themselves, stick figures maneuvered through a randomly generated violence field doing nothing but escaping one implausible attack after another simply by moving forward at top speed.

The three challenges the young heroes face in Goblet of Fire are just like that. We see Harry fight off and outfly a dragon, fight off and outswim some water demons, and run helter-skelter through a maze, and there’s no real objective in any of them. The point and the strategy is to keep moving.

In the book, the challenges are unimaginative and senseless, but they are surrounded by the usual Hogwarts subplots—the clash of eccentrics among the teaching staff and the bickering of Harry, Ron, and Hermione that leads to their pulling together to triumph over a new threat—in Goblet of Fire the threat is adolescence, which comes over them like a dark wizard’s spell and almost ends their friendship—that it’s almost possible to skip the chapters detailing Harry’s adventures in the tournament.

The movie pares away most of the eccentricity. We catch only glimpses of Hagrid’s courtship of the giantess who’s headmistress of the visiting French school for witches. (Hogwarts is apparently the only co-ed academy in the world of witchcraft.) The appalling Rita Skeeter is reduced to a one off that Miranda Richardson milks for all its worth, adding a touch that I don’t think is in the book—Rita as a near child molester. She pulls Harry into a closet to interview him in private and then purrs at him about how cozy it is in there, charging the one line with more sexuality than most movies for grown ups manage in a hundred lines of dialogue. It’s fairly creepy. As is the scene where the ghost of Moaning Myrtle spies upon Harry in the bathtub. That’s creepy enough in the book because it’s the first time Rowling suggests that her main characters have genetalia and she does it with a goofy lack of adult restraint, as if she’s very keen on all of us imagining Harry naked. In the movie, it’s even creepier because the actress who plays Myrtle is 40 years old and despite her squeeky little girl’s voice looks like a grown woman trying to sneak a peak at a 14 year old boy’s goods.

And then the Harry, Ron, and Hermione scenes are about everything in their lives but the Triwizard tournament. Even when they talk about the tournament they are really talking about other, more important (to them) issues. The result is that the three of them seem completely uninterested in what is finally the plot of the movie. In fact, they are so removed from it that their scenes together seem to be taking place in an entirely separate movie.

So the challenges are left to stand on their own, and on their own they come across as just Lucas-esque video games.

But, thinking this over after re-reading parts of the book, I decided that the flaw isn’t due to Rowling’s giving in to Lucas-think. Rowling has, in fact, written an incisive critique of Star Wars into the Potter series. Harry started the series as an obvious parallel to Luke Skywalker who meets his own Obi-wan in the form of Dumbledore. But over time the parallels between the two characters have deepened in interesting and subtle ways and it’s even begun to look to me as though Rowland is moving towards having Harry face the sort of temptations that Anakin faced and failed to resist but which Luke only glanced at and shrugged off in a couple of scenes.

I think Rowling both appreciates Lucas’s story and understands that Lucas never took the implications of his theme seriously. Which is to say that Rowling appreciates how attractive evil and power and fear are. To Lucas, not giving in to the Dark Side is a matter of just saying no. Rowling, I think, wants to show that it’s a matter of sorting out the Dark Side from the Light and finding a reason to resist. When Voldemort seemed on the point of complete victory and almost every witch and wizard had either joined him or gone into hiding, Peter Pettigrew’s decision to join up with him would have appeared more sensible than Lily and James Potter’s and Sirius Black’s decisions to resist and risk death.

In Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore tells Harry that the time is coming when everyone will have to choose between what is easy and what is right. Dumbledore and Rowling know, as Lucas doesn’t seem to, that most people choose easy without even knowing they’ve made a choice or had one.

But Rowling still seems reluctant to allow evil to make its own case.

The Triwizard Tournament is not a result of Rowling wanting to be like Lucas. It’s a result of her not finding a way to stop being Rowling.

Part of Rowling’s success is that she struck on a winning formula in her first book and stuck with it. Every Harry Potter book follows the same pattern set down in The Sorcerer’s Stone. And a chief feature of the pattern is that the stories are told exclusively from Harry’s point of view.

This limiting of the novels’ narrative possibilities worked fine for the first three books, which were essentially mystery novels. Harry is given a puzzle to solve at the beginning of each, he collects clues along the way, makes wrong guesses, and stumbles into the mystery’s dangerous conclusion still in the dark, then he solves the mystery in the nick of time, saving himself and his friends at the last minute by finally coming up with the right answer.

But Goblet of Fire is a transition in the saga. The subplot of the first three, Voldemort’s struggle to return to power, breaks through to become the what will be the main plot of the final three novels. This is as it has to be. But it’s no longer a mystery novel. It’s a revenge drama.

Voldemort’s revenge.

The problem is that Voldemort has been and continues to be working his magic off stage (and offscreen). Harry and he have up until Goblet never met face to face since their first and nearly fatal for Voldemort encounter when Harry was a baby. In the first two books and movies, Harry fights off avatars of Voldemort. In the third, Prisoner of Azkaban, he thinks he’s threatened by another representative of the dark wizard.

In Goblet of Fire Rowland has Voldemort’s proxy disguised so well that nobody even suspects foul deeds are afoot. Harry has no clue. And because we only know what Harry knows, we have no clue either. Harry, and his audience and readers, are blind to what is in fact the main plot of the story, Voldemort regaining his power and setting out to destroy Harry.

With the main plot taking place out of Harry’s sight (except for little bits he glimpses in dreams whose significance he doesn’t grasp), Rowling uses the Triwizard Tournament as a substitute. It’s meant to provide all the action and suspense and visual thrills.

It’s a giant red herring.

Rowling would have been better off breaking away from the limited first person point of view and following other characters on their adventures, one of those characters being Peter Pettigrew who takes part in two murders and a kidnapping offstage, and who spends a lot of time in the company of Voldemort.

Critics, but not young fans of the novels, complained that the first two movies hewed too closely to the books. They were faithful to the point of turning themselves into dynamic illustrations for the novels, like the moving paintings that line the hallways at Hogwarts. Prisoner of Azkaban broke free of the book only by adopting a brand new visual style, grittier, more gothic, and yet more realistic. Otherwise it stayed faithful to the novel.

Goblet of Fire is the first of the movies to make substantive changes to the storyline. But that’s a relative statement. Mostly it’s a matter of having one secondary character do in the movie what a different secondary character did in the book.

Director Mike Newell and screenwriter push at the narrative outline, stretching it where they can, rearranging some plot points, but they don’t break away from it significantly, except to leave out as much exposition as they feel they can afford to leave out, which turns out to be a bit too much, their judgment on how much the audience can pick up on the fly or fill in from their memories of the book being a little too optimistic.

If only they had thought to dramatize what gets explained hurriedly at the end and given us some scenes with the delightfully cringing and rattishly disgusting Timothy Spall as Pettigrew/Wormtail and Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, who I expect will be terrific in the next movie, Order of the Phoenix, but who in this one is given no chance to develop his character. He literally explodes onto the scene on the attack and his only dialogue is the usual talking villain stuff of too many action movies. He starts monologuing, as they say in The Incredibles, yakking about his motivations when he should just act on them and kill Harry straight off.

As it turns out, with the Triwizard Tournament being meaningless and the main plot happening out of sight and the adult eccentrics reduced to quick sketches of their formerly detailed Dickensian caricatures, the heart and soul of the movie is the relationship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

The three are as much in transition as the plot of their novel. Ron is struggling to break free from his role as Harry’s sidekick. Hermione is struggling to break free of her role as nerdy tom-boy chum. She wants to become a romantic heroine in her own right. And Harry, who previously has been incredibly generous in his regard for both of them and depended on their work as a team, is asserting his own hero’s ego.

In short, their story is all about hurt feelings and the sort of painful misunderstandings that occur when friends who used to take each other’s love and support for granted discover that they are isolated individuals, strangers to each other at the core. We can guess that this bodes well for Ron and Hermione who need to get to know each other all over again as a young man and a young woman.

What it means for Harry though is likely a future loneliness. Heroes do not make good friends. They can’t be there for you because they have to be there for everybody.

I don’t know if Rowling intends to take things that far, if by the end of the last book Harry will be estranged permanently from Ron and Hermione. But that possibility certainly seems to have meant more to Mike Newell than the magical side of the story.

Not surprisingly then, the most gut-wrenching scene in the movie isn’t the death of an important and likeable character. It’s a single scene at the Yule Ball. Harry and Ron are sitting sulkily in a corner away from the dance floor, taking out their own hurt feelings on their dates, hardly acknowledging either girl’s presence except to refuse to dance any more with them.

The scene ends with a shot of several girls, abandoned or insulted by their dates, crying and comforting each other, with our heroes walking off.

It’s a painful moment and Newell holds it, as if he wants his young audience to take notes. The lesson of the day is that even in a world full of dark wizards, fire-breathing dragons, Death Eaters, dementors, and water demons, sometimes the worst hurts are those we inflict on each other through small acts of selfishness, spite, and misplaced pride.


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