Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 20, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The way I figure it, if you are already following the Harry Potter movies, you
won't care what I say in this review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire --
you're going to see it.
Of course, like me you may have to see it from the second row, with your neck
craning upward and the faces so big you have to look back and forth like
watching a tennis match in order to tell who it is ... but that's what happens
when you arrive a mere half-hour early for a hit movie. The people in the good
seats had been there for a showing three hours before and bought their tickets
and waited around. I didn't have a chance.
And that was a late showing on the second day.
So this movie is already a hit. What can I say, except that it deserves to be?
I can at least say bad things about the first two Harry Potter movies.
When those movies came out, I gave them good reviews, because they deserved
them. The scripts were faithful to the books; they were enjoyable as top-of-the-line children's fantasies; and mostly we were just relieved that they didn't mess
However, the first two films were directed by Chris Columbus, which always
means that the film will look cheerily bright, the action will be clear, the actors'
performances will be obvious but adequate, and the story will be shallow.
What was missing was the darkness in the books. Admittedly, in the first
couple of books, that darkness could be missed. But as I think back over those
first two Harry Potter films, I can see that the script did not miss the darkness
and pain -- it was simply glossed over by Chris Columbus's perpetually inept
Steve Kloves, the writer, has never missed. The writer/director of The Fabulous
Baker Boys, Klove was a natural for developing strong characters and
relationships in the Harry Potter franchise, and his work in adapting these
books has been superb.
Especially with Goblet of Fire: When I read the book, I thought it was
unmanageably long, that it would take two movies to cover the storyline. I also
thought it wasn't author J.K. Rowling's best effort in the series; it made
emotional demands on the reader that the writing had not prepared us for.
But Kloves made short work of some of the framing incidents that take up so
much of the opening of the book. In fact, if there's any flaw in this movie, it's
that these opening bits are so brief that an audience member who is not
already following the series could get lost and confused: What's going on? Why
am I supposed to care about this?
Once we get to Hogwarts, though, and the beginning of the Tri-wizard contest,
the movie becomes clear and, eventually, even those initial incidents fall into
place, so that the movie is complete in itself. And there was no time wasted on
pandering to more-of-the-same fans: The Malfoys are nearly ignored here, with
Draco almost invisible; Hagrid is only present for comic relief; and some
subplots were completely erased.
Yet every choice of what to omit and what to emphasize was right on the
All of this is owed to one of the most superb adapters in the history of film.
Steve Kloves has been flat-out brilliant.
Which makes the relative emptiness of the first two films entirely the
responsibility of Chris Columbus.
Columbus has had a stellar career -- on paper, anyway. His films have made
billions of dollars. The trouble is, the vast majority of them sucked, and for
reasons that are consistent across his entire oeuvre.
As a writer, all he could ever create was icons and stereotypes -- if he ever
seemed to create a character, it was because an actor supplied the illusion of
one. His scripts for Gremlins, Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes epitomize
all-adventure, no-character writing. I still find elements of all three so
appallingly ignorant of how storytelling even works that Chris Columbus's
career is explicable only when you recognize that Hollywood, as a culture, has
no clue about story, either.
And when Columbus turned to directing, what did we get? Adventures in
Babysitting, Home Alone, the appalling Only the Lonely and Home Alone 2, Mrs.
Doubtfire (which I loathed but lots of other people apparently liked), the even-more-appalling Nine Months and Stepmom, the sadly missed opportunity of
Bicentennial Man, and then the Harry Potter movies. Oh, and he wrote the
awful Christmas with the Kranks, thereby proving that he hasn't lost his touch
as a writer.
What is the formula of a Chris Columbus movie? One gag after another -- in
both meanings of the word "gag." We get the illusion of action, as he spins out
elaborate stunts; we get attempts at humor that are usually somewhere
between sophomoric and cruel; and when he tries for sentiment it's usually
appallingly mawkish, sappy, and unearned.
I am convinced that the only reason the first two Harry Potter movies worked at
all was that he was compelled to adhere to the work of two far-better writers
than himself: Rowling herself, whose enormous success as a novelist gave her
complete veto power over everything in the movie; and Steve Kloves, who
somehow negotiated the shoals between the Scylla of Rowling and the
Charybdis of Columbus and came up with that most unheard-of of
achievements: The director-proof script.
It was only with the third movie, which was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, that
the pain and grit of Rowling's story, rather than just the "fun" of it, began to
become visible. The young actors, too, finally began to give better-than-adequate performances.
It is with Goblet of Fire, under the direction of Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile,
Pushing Tin, Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Enchanted April),
that we find out that the three leading kids, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson,
and Rupert Grint, can really act -- maybe they've only just matured enough to
do so, or maybe nobody who knew what acting is ever asked them to.
Now I wish they could go back and remake the first two movies with a real
director. But of course you can't make the lead actors young again. We'll
simply have to keep this film series in mind as one that got better with each
Of course, we have yet to see what David Yates will do with Order of the Phoenix
-- he is virtually untried as a director of features. And the director of Half-Blood Prince, as yet unnamed, will have his work cut out for him, for this is the
first of the books not to stand alone.
Kloves is writing Half-Blood Prince, and is working on it at the same time that
Michael Goldenberg is writing Order of the Phoenix. Since Kloves has been so
important to the success of these movies, it should be worrisome that he is not
writing every script. The consolation is that Goldenberg is the author of the
screenplay of the brilliant live-action Peter Pan (2003) -- I could not think of a
better replacement, if a replacement was needed.
And as the LA Times reported, Kloves himself thinks that one advantage to
having two writers is that they can film the next two films back-to-back. This
is important if they are to have the young actors still be credible in their roles.
To recast the leads in the later films, he says, would be fatal to the franchise --
and I agree.
Kloves and Goldenberg will solve, in the script, whatever problems the books
might pose. So if the later films don't measure up, we'll know who the problem
is -- the director.
If Goblet of Fire remains the best of the Harry Potter movies, it won't necessarily
mean that the later ones are bad. It will merely mean that Goblet of Fire
transcended the series; it is not merely the best of the Harry Potters, it is one of
the best movies of the year.
In fact, I'll go farther, at the risk of a lynching by diehard Pottermanes: Goblet
of Fire is better than the book. The emotional payoff at the end truly moved
me, far more than the book did. Characters that the book left as fairly empty
icons were made real here. Moral dilemmas that were spread out over many
pages and never quite clarified in the book are focused and piquant in this film.
And Goblet may deserve some weird kind of award for having created the
funniest and sexiest scene with a ghost in a bathtub ever made.