Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire opens with a vision of the notyet fully formed Lord Voldemort (later in the film played in “human” form by Ralph Fiennes) fomenting his dark designs. This opening, unlike the other Potter films, which dwelled at the start on Harry’s (Daniel Radcliffe) suburban misery with the Dursleys, signals a shift for the series. From this point on, Harry’s heroic trajectory begins in earnest, leading to his inevitable showdown with the Dark Lord.
Goblet is the most complicated of Rowling’s books insofar as the narrative directly confronts the notion of Evil and the perils of growing up, taking responsibility, and acting ethically. Previously, Lord Voldemort was a sort of shadow threatening from the background; in Goblet he is physically manifested as the Big Bad Other, hastening Harry’s maturation.
Also complicating Harry’s tidy universe is sexuality. The very possibility of heterosexual romance throws the boys and girls at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into a collective tizzy. This frisson is brought about by the introduction of competing schools arriving at Hogwarts to participate in the Triwizard Tournament. The schools — Beauxbatons, led by the imposing Madame Olympe Maxime (Frances de la Tour), and Durmstrang, led by the hawkish Igor Kararkoff (Pedja Bjelac) — are depicted in the most stereotypically gendered terms. The Beauxbaton students are all girls, sweeping into the Great Hall in identical, form-fitting pale blue silk dress-suits, sighing, and scattering magical butterflies among the students. The Durmstrang boys, athletic and manly in their army-like uniforms, wield phallic staves that shoot sparks when banged on the floor. The Howgarts students fall immediately in love with all of their “appropriate” (heterosexual) counterparts.
Goblet is my favorite of the Potter books for precisely these unsettling vectors, and fans will be pleased to know that the film maintains much of the complexity of Rowling’s text. Even so, director Mike Newell and screenwriter Steven Kloves wisely follow Alfonso Cuarón’s lead from The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and trim much of the fat from Rowling’s original. Large subplots that admittedly enrich the text are left out; the result is a film that ironically seems truer to the story for realizing less of it.
The film’s real pleasure is in the connections it makes (whether intentional or not) to current “real world” questions about the beneficence of institutional authority. What drew my own attention to how knowledge and its dissemination function within the Potterverse is the serendipitous (perhaps uncanny) physical similarity between Madame Maxime and New York Times turncoat and Bush administration conduit Judith Miller. The women are of a similar age, with similar vulpine features, and the same medium-brown bob-cut hair.
Rowling’s text offers a trenchant critique of the non-independent media via the character Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), a reporter for the Daily Prophet (the paper of record for the wizard world), who works in cahoots with the Minister of Magic (Robert Hardy) to discredit Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry’s assertions about the return of Voldemort. The Bush administration says “WMDs” and Miller repeats it ad nauseum. The Ministry of Magic says Voldemort is still dead and Rita Skeeter says Harry Potter is crazy and egomaniacal.
While Newell’s Goblet cuts most of the Rita Skeeter storyline, the political management of leaky information adheres elsewhere throughout the film. This is most direct in the Triwizard Tournament, an international competition in which “Eternal Glory” is to be claimed by the victor. Clearly there are political stakes here beyond any individual student winner. Various authority figures accordingly act to make sure their competitors have the best information about what tasks they will face far in advance. Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Professor of Care of Magical Creatures and Dumbledore’s right-hand man, tips Harry off that the first challenge will be dragons, allowing Harry ample time to devise a winning strategy. Professor “MadEye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson), a Ministry of Magic Auror (dark-wizard hunter), leads Harry to the solution to both this first and the second competition in the tourney. And Harry’s not the only contender who is given information that allows him to cheat; all are so supplied.
Harry’s very participation in the competition seems askew, as the cut-off age is supposed to be 17. After Harry’s name appears out of the Goblet of Fire as one of the contestants (the goblet being a magical object that makes these decisions), it is clear that someone has monkeyed with the “objective” process for unknown reasons. Despite the facts that Harry is much too inexperienced to compete, and that this puts Harry in possibly mortal peril, Dumbledore decides to stay the course, out of his own desires to find out more about the Big Bad’s plans.
It is sad, though perhaps “realistic,” that the lesson of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is not about fidelity, friendship, or Harry’s “great moral fiber,” as Dumbledore terms it, but that all institutions and authority, Good or Evil, are corrupt. The film further demonstrates the Hegelian principle that evil lies as much in the eye that perceives it as in the subject/object so determined: Dumbledore demands that Harry must act ethically in all matters, and then allows Harry the opportunity to cheat at every turn. Knowledge is power, Goblet asserts, and then goes on to show just how both sides, Good and Evil, use that power by leaking or withholding information in the service of specific political interests. So much for the possibility of ethical action and “great moral fiber.”