There are seasons of time in life that appear to fly by. We often look back on the last semester, or year, or even several years of our life and are surprised by how fast the time has gone. We spend so much effort doing things to capture particular moments in our minds, we take pictures and record family movies, forever pinning them to our digital refrigerator so we can revisit them and attempt to slow them down, relive them. We do certain things for entertainment with the particular purpose of stepping outside of the blazing speed of life to watch from the outside, to observe someone else's life in pseudo slow motion. Going to the theater, or to the movies is often one of the things that enable us to do that, but if you happened to find yourself at the movies this weekend you were in for a bit of a surprise.
I have enjoyed the Harry Potter movie franchise. Prior to this past summer I did not have the time or the interest in reading the books, and so was fully satisfied getting the abridged version of the story on screen. Something changed after the summer, perhaps it was the release of the trailer for Goblet of Fire, but a desire to read the books was firmly implanted in my mind. Though the interest was there, the time was not, so instead of reading the books I got my hands on the unabridged audio books, and utilized my commute to and from school, as well as my less frequent but longer commute to north Jersey where I fill the pulpit occasionally, to listen to all of the 6 current titles.
My very first impression as I listened to the first three books was how marvelous a job had been done by the film makers in staying with the story in the book and bringing it to life visually on the big screen. I was taken aback at how the characters were all so fully developed, and all the relationships firmly set, with little or nothing of importance cut away in the films. I intentionally went back and re-watched all three films to be sure I was remembering correctly, and I was.
With that backdrop you can imagine the expectation for Goblet of Fire. Even though it is longer by far than the previous 3 books, and preparing myself to be patient and understanding, knowing that they could not fit it all into one 2.5, even 4 hour film, I went excitedly to the movie theater with my wife with leveled expectation, but high hopes.
I'm not sure I have ever been so disappointed by a movie in my entire life, and I have seen a lot. This even trumped the huge let down of "The Matrix Reloaded" and its counterpart "Revolutions". Part of the problem is the fantastic job done by Peter Jackson with "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which will likely be the standard for the Book to Movie Genre for generations to come. But the makers of the Harry Potter films could learn quite a bit from both of those projects. But before I get into that, let me give my full review.
The bottom line with this film is, I just didn't care. With every film in this franchise so far, (as well as in the books) care is taken to reacquaint the audience with the characters. We have been enabled to engage and relate to Harry in every book and each of the first three films. However, this time around there is simply no time given to such apparent "trivialities". This is the major problem with the film.
Many of you are saying, "yeah, but you only feel that way because you read the books, and if you didn't have that background knowledge then you wouldn't be so critical." Well, while this is often the case in such situations, I assure you that it is not so in this one. I have spoken with others who do not have any "special revelation" pertaining to the Harry Potter Universe and have only seen the movies, with the specific purpose of guarding against such judgment, and across the board the criticisms are the same. They said that, like me, they felt completely disconnected from the action of the film, that things just went too fast and they were not able to engage at all.
What they do not know; what only those who have read the books will see, is that the character development that was left on the cutting floor will come back to bite the producers of all the remaining films. I don't want to be a spoiler for those who do not know what happens next, but there are certain relationships, particularly those between Harry and his god-father Sirius, and Harry and Dumbledore, which are highly important to the rest of the story which were simply put to the side in favor of dragon's breath and seaweed.
On a positive note, the "dragon breath" and the "seaweed" mentioned above were absolutely excellent scenes, and near perfectly adapted from the book, as was the wonderful scene in the tub between Harry and Moaning Myrtle, but apart from those three scenes, without exaggeration, they failed miserably at bringing in the "feel" of the fourth book in the series.
The feel that I am speaking of, is impatience, an almost unnatural one that pervades the entire book. All of the books and the films are supposed to take place over an entire school year at Hogwarts, and while no movie can really get you to this place, the first 3 did a dramatically better job than Goblet. There are supposed to be months between each task, with days of preparation by each student, and in the film, they are seemingly rushed from one task to the next with only perhaps a day between. Harry is supposed to begin his journey in earnest to become a great and powerful wizard, but we never see him learn any spells, especially those that would help him in these tasks (which in the book are practiced with Ron and Hermione daily, for months). There is supposed to be a sense of foreboding, and impending doom, but in this film you can barely breathe without fear of missing something - we are not afforded the opportunity to wait and worry with Harry, to be frightened with him, or to care about him at all. Dumbledore, the usually caring and thoughtfully pensive old wizard is made to seem like a frantic meth addict, running about barely breathing between, often silly, out of character reactions. There is no time given to the formulation of thoughts and reactions. They are simply rushing from one 'cool' thing to the next with no real attempt to tell the story or develop any relationships which are so integral to the larger narrative.
What I don't understand is why they didn't do something about this during production. They must have watched the final product. Did they just throw up their hands? Did the studio set certain limits that left large amounts of film on the cutting room floor? I know this is likely at least partially the case, but you can't "speed up" acting - the scenes were intentionally fast paced, the dialogue was reminiscent of a David Mamet play, constantly being tossed back a forth without ever really being caught by anyone. Why didn't they do something?
This is where the comparisons to the other trilogy projects come in. In case anyone was wondering, J.K. Rowling is a genius. She has produced an amazing world in her stories that will likely, in 25 years, be as much of a literary staple as "The Lord of the Rings" was 25 years after its completion, if it is not already. One of the things that the Harry Potter people must learn from the "LotR" folks is this: Take as long as you need, but you must get it right. It is not as though this movie needed to be 4 hours long, it easily could have been, but it did not need to be. Even an extra 30 minutes would have added sufficient time to just slow down the overall pace a little, even if they did not work on some of the relationships I mentioned above.
If they wanted to really do it right, they could have made a KILLING by splitting up the movie into two parts and releasing the films within a few months of each other. I think this is the real winner here. I know I would have paid to see a 2 or even 3 part film that does more justice to the story it is telling. "LotR" and "Matrix" opened up the possibility for this kind of thing, as the endings to some of those films are somewhat anti-climactic, and leave you waiting for the continuation. I believe that, had the studio made a longer film and broke it up, the fans would be exponentially happier, the studio would have made exponentially more money, and the "slumping box office" I keep hearing about would have been exponentially boosted. Imagine a two or three part Potter film being released every two or three months in the theaters, and then think about that over the course of the next 3 books, all of which are likely to have similar problems. We are talking about at least six films, all with the potential of world-wide billion dollar box office returns. Why wouldn't they do it that way? I'm sure there is a reason, but no one has explained it to me yet.
One other thing, which is somewhat minor, but addressable nonetheless; they must get rolling on these other films. Get them shot and done before Harry looks 40 in his seventh year at Hogwarts. All of the characters are aging rather badly, none worse than Harry himself, who could easily get served in a US bar as he is, and we are supposed to suspend disbelief and consider him 14 years old. To use the Brits' own term: Rubbish. Of course, we are, and will be waiting awhile for the seventh book to come, but in the meantime - stop being such bloody gits and get to it!
To close, I am a huge fan of bringing books to the big screen. In fact, I have a few favorites in my own mind that I would love to see brought to the movies. But I would not dare do to any of them what has been done to this film. But I am hopeful that in the future, the studios will correct the mistakes made here and follow in the footsteps of other successful projects in making the full story come alive. All the cool effects in the world cannot tell a story, without the story.