With millions of fans worldwide passionate in their devotion to the boy wizard, Harry Potter is practically in a publishing category by itself — J. K. Rowling can do no wrong. So when directors undertake to film a movie version of a Harry Potter book, the scrutiny is intense. Moviegoers demand a movie that is absolutely faithful to the book in plot, sequence, interpretation, and tone yet at the same time appears fresh and lively in its new medium. This raises a certain difficulty. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire runs 734 pages in print, ranging over a Quidditch World Cup match, a special Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts, the entire Hogwarts term (including hints of burgeoning adolescent attraction between Ron and Hermione and between Harry and Cho) — and oh yes, the return of the most evil wizard who ever lived, Lord Voldemort. How can director Mike Newell fit all that into a standard-length movie?
Not entirely successfully, as it turns out. In the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour run time, Newell walks a precarious tightrope, required to shoehorn the maximum amount of exposition into each scene just to get through the plot, but wanting to satisfy viewers’ expectations for a satisfying wallow in Harry’s world. Especially in the beginning, exposition wins out as Newell cuts scenes short in order to move on, introducing minor characters on the fly (Cornelius Fudge, Barty Crouch — and does everyone remember Ginny Weasley?) and hoping the audience has a good memory for faces. The movie ticks through critical plot points like it’s checking them off a list, but viewers unfamiliar with the book — or those whose recollection has faded — might have trouble grasping the storyline in such an abbreviated environment.
Part of Newell’s problem is that Rowling set up a very strong plot device — the Triwizard Tournament — and yet also had to undercut that enough to include the other work she needs to do, especially that of arranging Voldemort’s return. Likewise, Newell can’t cut Rowling’s initial chapter in which a desperately weak Voldemort hints at a trap for Harry, nor can he entirely cut the subsequent Quidditch World Cup match, even though it’s really outside the main plot. Viktor Krum, future Triwizard champion from Durmstrang, makes his first appearance at the match, as do Cedric Diggory and his father, and as does a port-key, a piece of transport magic that will later clinch the climax. At the match (after half-a-mo’ at the Weasleys’ house, which would be cool if we really got to see it), Newell gives the audience a mini-wallow, which is a great deal of fun — the witches and wizards camp out on the moor with a great festival air, the stadium is brightly lit and mind-bogglingly large, and the pre-game show dazzles — but then the movie (disappointingly) passes over the match itself and goes directly on to the first appearance of the Death Eaters and the Dark Mark.
That buildup to the match is probably the last sweetness-and-light moment in the movie. Book Four covers a pivot-point in the direction of the seven-book series: along with Voldemort’s return, Cedric Diggory’s death signals the end of innocence as the tone shifts from a lighthearted school-based comedy to an adventure hybrid that will become darker as the series continues. Newell’s movie, the first to get a PG-13 rating rather than PG, runs with that direction, opening with a shot of skulls to warn viewers, if they haven’t already figured it out, that this is not your little sister’s Harry Potter. Most of the scenes take place at night, in pouring rain or snow, or at best under cloudy skies, giving the movie a dark, brooding feel. The new professor of the Dark Arts, Mad-Eye Moody, his magical eye rolling in its socket in a faultless realization of the book’s description, holds class in a foreboding room lined with enormous lenses that distort light and imply surveillance and menace. Dumbledore, previously the genial, grandfatherly, twinkly-eyed headmaster, here experiences a distinct loss of twinkle, coming across as snappish, nervous, and at times fearsome.
When, halfway through the movie, Newell gets to the Triwizard Tournament, with its three challenges and built-in climax, he can finally relax and let the story unfold. Harry’s first trial in the tournament, in which he must fight a dragon to claim a golden egg, is the first time the movie really digs into a scene. Adept in the art of a gripping chase/combat scene, Newell gives the audience a fast-paced, carefully choreographed duel, featuring a lot of near-misses and clever physical action, including Harry retrieving his Quidditch broom with a handy Accio spell and a breathtaking flight over Hogwarts terrain with the dragon in hot pursuit — the scene takes the time needed to build expectations and establish danger. From that point on, the pace settles down from overheated to merely brisk, and the performances flower as the young actors are able to get traction on their characters.
Newell expertly exploits the Yule Ball and the opportunities it presents for adolescent angst — both Harry and Ron are in the awkward in-between stage, indicated by their both badly needing haircuts. The boys’ agonies over asking a girl to the dance and the contradictory feelings of initial attraction/antagonism between Ron and Hermione may seem slightly frivolous in a movie about the return of Voldemort, especially since the movie is so foreshortened (another subplot from the book, Hermione’s efforts to unionize the house elves, is cut entirely, and is unlikely to be missed). But vicarious involvement in the characters’ emotional lives is too juicy to pass up — the pay-off in audience engagement and pleasure more than justifies Newell’s inclination to dally. The second and third Triwizard challenges seem to flow naturally from the preceding action, and the graveyard scene that caps the climax, with Cedric blasted by the Avada Kedavra spell, Wormtail toppling a fetus-like Voldemort into the cauldron and then cutting off his own hand (a point mercifully not lingered on), and Harry battling a reconstituted Voldemort and carrying Cedric’s body back to the Triwizard game site, is swift but absolutely engrossing. The sight of Harry sobbing over Cedric’s body is deeply touching, although neither Rowling nor Newell allows the audience to linger, hustling on to the unmasking of the Mad-Eye Moody impostor.
Perhaps if Harry had been a book less beholden to its audience, Newell could have made a better movie. Without the pressure of those eagle-eye fans criticizing any deviation from the book, Newell and his screenwriters could have fiddled around with voiceover narration, video montage, flashbacks — whatever techniques they had available to dispatch the exposition faster. When Newell does take his time, he delivers on the visuals, wowing the audience with impressive, dramatic introductions for the competing schools Beauxbatons and Durmstrang; the dragons, sharklike mermaids, and ravenous maze in the three Triwizard challenges; repeated vertigo-inducing views of the Quidditch stadium and Hogwarts itself; and Harry in his dress robes. All that’s missing is reasonably paced and plotted moviemaking; one can only hope it makes a comeback in The Order of the Phoenix.