Retro Reviews are frequent looks back at films I've already seen to conclude whether or not they still hold up, taking into consideration both the time period and circumstances during which they were made and how they work in the modern day to offer a more in-depth exploration of the film itself than those found in my standard first-time reviews.
Let me just get it out of the way: When I first read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire back in 2000, it immediately became my favorite Potter book up to that point, and despite my love for the books that followed, it has remained so to this day. I think it's a fantastic piece of work from J. K. Rowling, not only for demonstrating how far her skills as both a wordsmith and a storyteller had come from the first book but for how effortlessly the book itself served to bridge the gap between the lighter tones of the earlier books with the much heavier tones of those that followed. It's a smooth transition from beginning to end between where the series started out and where it was headed, a necessary pivot point for the series' characters, stories, themes, and so on, and Rowling knocked it out of the park.
To say I had high expectations for the film adaptation is an understatement. Even as excited I was to see the books brought to the big screen back in 2001, my anticipation level wasn't ever as high as it was knowing that my favorite entry was about to be brought to life. By this point, I was a junior in high school, and I won't forget leaving school to stroll over to the movie theater nearby, my hopes having increased all throughout the day that it wouldn't disappoint.
Now, as I've covered more than enough in my reviews for the first three films, I can be content with changes inherent in the adaptation process so long as the essence of what's being adapted is captured. While Prisoner of Azkaban shed a lot of fat in said process, which bothered some fans as a result, the final product turned out to be an amazing one that was able to respect Rowling's work without overindulging itself in a need to adhere to it down to the letter like the first two films. But if what that film cut from the books disappointed fans, then it's no surprise that the adaptation of Goblet of Fire was an even bigger shocker.
Prisoner of Azkaban was just over 107,000 words, the longest of the first three novels. By comparison, Goblet was over 190,000, longer than the first two books combined with a lot of room to spare. The adaptations of those first two books were over two and a half hours long apiece, and with so much more content in Goblet, an argument was made that two films should've been produced instead of one to truly dive into everything the book has to offer. Instead, we got a single movie, one that chose to keep the series heading down the path started by Prisoner of Azkaban than return it to the world of excess the first two films thrived in.
If you're reading this, then I'm just going to assume, as I have with the first three films, that you've seen it and that you don't need any sort of recap of the plot. But if you somehow haven't read the books yet - also: how dare you! - just know that a staggering amount of content was lost in adaptation, from all kinds of subplots to complete characters and more. As those of you who have read the books know, Goblet dropped the axe in a way Prisoner hadn't. Familiar faces from the Dursleys to Dobby were dropped entirely. Characters introduced in the book were either cut, like Ludo Bagman and Winky, or had their roles drastically reduced, like Rita Skeeter. And, most unsurprisingly, a large handful of subplots were excised, from Fred and George's entrepreneurial endeavors to more abouht Hagrid's background to the beginning of Percy Weasley's estrangement from the rest of his family to the birth of S.P.E.W., Hermione's pet project the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare.
The sheer amount of things both small and large that didn't survive the jump from page to screen is too much to get into, and while those whose knowledge of the franchise as a whole stems from the movies will never truly understand just how heavily the book was trimmed down, for us book readers, it was a big deal. Rowling had pushed the world-building further than ever before, and any film tasked with paring it down into a digestible runtime had a lot of work ahead of it in tearing it all apart and reassembling it into something great, particularly following in the wake of how effortless director Alfonso Cuarón and writer Steve Kloves made it look with Prisoner.
With Cuarón leaving the series following his work on that film, Mike Newell stepped in to take the reigns for Goblet, with Kloves remaining to undertake the biggest effort he'd had yet for the series. Newell was the second and only one-off director in the series, with his successor, David Yates, sticking with the franchise from Order of the Phoenix all the way through this year's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and I would argue that he doesn't get enough credit for his work here. Chris Columbus is remembered for kicking things off with the first two films, Cuarón will always be credited with elevating the series to a new creative level, and Yates will forever be acknowledged for guiding the series through the second half of its run, but Newell's contribution often feels - in my eyes, at least - overlooked.
While Kloves had the daunting job of actually adapting the book, Newell had to wrangle it all together and prove that such a huge book could work as a single film. On a purely visual level, I don't find Goblet of Fire as stylistically appealing as Prisoner, but that's okay, because Newell really pushes for a grounded feeling. This was our fourth trip into the Wizarding World, and for all the magic and wonder Harry and the audience get to experience for the first time now and again, it no longer feels like he or us are, for lack of a better phrase, strangers in a strange land. Cuarón started it with Prisoner, but Newell solidifies the Wizarding World as one that we're accustomed to by now; seeing Hogwarts, for instance, no longer demands a sense of newfound awe, instead triggering a more appropriate sense of being home again. Like Harry, we're comfortable here in this world, no longer complete outsiders looking in, and I think that's important both as a demonstration of how much the series had grown up to this point and in how it dovetails perfectly with what Rowling accomplished with the book.
Again, I know quite a few people who - as with Prisoner - still can't stand this movie for what it doesn't do instead of appreciating it for what it does. That subplots and characters and entire sequences, like the Quidditch World Cup game itself, are cut out is a perpetual sticking point no matter how well the film works without all of it, and I feel safe in saying that Kloves and Newell definitely pulled it off. The pacing in particular is fantastic, striking a perfect balance between keeping the larger narrative elements (The Triwizard Tournament) moving forward and giving the characters we've come to know time to actually live and breathe. I once heard an argument that, because the film cut out the big Quidditch match, it should've just gone ahead and cut out the Yule Ball sequence, but the difference between them is that the latter offers so much more for our characters, from what it does for the ongoing arc between Ron and Hermione to highlighting Neville's subtle growth between films.
Like so many of the subplots that were cut from the book, the Yule Ball sequence could've been removed from the film without missing a step in the overall action, but its inclusion is incredibly important for the characters. It's the nexus around which much of the kids' continued maturity swirls, and whether it's through scenes like Ron and Harry wondering how to ask out girls, McGonagall teaching the students to dance, Harry fumbling his way through his encounter with Cho Chang, or Hermione's impressive arrival to the dance itself, it covers a lot of ground in pushing the idea that these characters themselves are actually growing up and not merely pawns existing only to move the plot from A to B. Yes, you could cut it all out for the sake of getting back to the action, but to do so would be to lose a great diversion that serves to give the film its beating heart, and that's the difference between why it's necessary and a spectacle-only sequence like the World Cup game isn't.
Going back to my point that the sense of comfort that Newell imbues the world of the film with and how it parallels what Rowling accomplished, the time spent with these characters throughout the majority of the film only pushes the idea that its dark ending - the return of Voldemort - means we're moving into new territory. Seeds had been sown throughout all four films that it was inevitable, and the fact that we, like Harry, had been lulled into a sense of security and contentment serves the shift into a world upended, one of danger, unease, and the unknown. Just like the book, we begin this narrative journey with Harry hoping to hold off the darkness as long as possible in an effort to keep embracing the early days of youth until the inevitability of it all comes crashing down around us, and for all that's cut from the book, the movie does a solid job of distilling exactly what Rowling did that deserves more credit than I feel a lot of naysayers are willing to give to it. Even with changes that I personally was disappointed with originally, like the absence of creatures in the maze during the tournament's final challenge, I can gladly overlook when the essence of the film itself falls so in line with the book I love.
As always, the production design remains stellar here, with Newell and his team picking up where Cuarón left off, like the redesign of the Hogwarts grounds, and while some of the CGI effects have undoubtedly begun to feel their age, like the merpeople or the Durmstrang ship, others hold up very well, like the Hungarian Horntail. For a film over a decade old now packed with so many visuals, that's a good thing, and even ten or twenty more years down the line the effects look truly and unavoidably dated, the practical effects, sets, costuming, and everything else the series as a whole have thrived in will hold it up pretty well.
The young cast is better than ever here, maturing just like the characters they're playing, and a few bizarre decisions regarding Dumbledore aside - including his losing his cool about Harry's name coming out of the Goblet of Fire, which is so out of line with how the character has always been portrayed in the books and even in the films up to this point - the returning adult cast remains as welcome as ever despite having smaller roles than ever before. And though the film introduces a bunch of new faces, it doesn't introduce many regular characters like the first three films did, the primary exceptions being Brendan Gleeson's Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody and, of course, Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort, who enters near the end of the film, steals what few minutes of screentime he has, and leaves us itching for more. His return, from the murder of Cedric Diggory to the grotesque ritual Wormtail performs to the way he taunts Harry like a predator plays with its prey, unfolds like a horror movie, fitting for the character and as an introduction to Fiennes' performance.
If there was one thing that could've been a real disappointment about the film for me, it would've been the fact that John Williams didn't return to provide the score. Starting with Goblet, the series went through three further composers, all of whom I have opinions I'll be sharing in future reviews for better or worse, but mercifully, Patrick Doyle's work here - being the first to follow Williams - won me over. Though pretty much all of Williams' work is ejected aside from the iconic "Hedwig's Theme," Doyle makes up for it with some great work of his own, with "Harry in Winter" being one of my favorite standalone pieces in the entire series, the "Potter Waltz" being incredible catchy, and music attributed to the death of Cedric or the enactment of Priori Incantatem during Harry's duel with Voldemort never failing to give me chills. Of the non-Williams scores in the series, I have to say that Doyle's is my favorite, with the composer offering a lot of fantastic material to replace what was jettisoned, and my only real complaint about his work is that he didn't get the chance to continue on with the series.
Goblet of Fire has drawn the ire of some diehards and didn't quite hit the critical sweetspot of Prisoner, but that hasn't stopped me from loving every second of it. Like the book itself, the film has remained my favorite of the series despite the fact it was followed up by four more films, only one of which is a true disappoint for me, but I'll get to that in time. Ultimately, it's a film about letting these characters breathe one last time before things get dark, and I think it captures that ideal in spades no matter what had to be lost from the book. In retrospect, splitting it up into two films would've been a mistake no matter how cool it would've been to see certain elements from the book make it to the screen, as nearly everything that was cut didn't matter to the rest of the films going forward, which is a fact that I think is lost on some people who can only demand all or nothing. It's also the last film in the series that I personally feel strikes the same middle ground as Prisoner did in being able to satisfy book readers without requiring non-book readers to go read the books to fill in blanks, and for what it is - a film that had to parse over 190,000 words into two and a half hours and still work without a hitch - it's a wonderful experience that I'm always happy to relive.
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