The Serpentine Perspective: A Tale of Two Dumbledores

I guess we haven’t been that faithful to the 1st Saturday of the month schedule, or the fact my Friday posts are meant to be faith-based, but do bear with us as we bring to you August’s installment of the Serpentine Perspective on a random date. In fact, it’s rather consistent with the last Friday of the month in July, which happened to be Harry Potter’s birthday. Last month, I have touched upon the idea that there is more to the Harry Potter world than J.K. Rowlings’s own words on paper. If you are waiting for my fanfiction to drop somewhere you can read it, I guess you’ll be disappointed: this month’s topic will be the film adaptations. And, you may have guessed from the title, the two Dumbledores. 

The late Sir Richard Harris (no relation), who sadly passed away after the first two films, will be the subject of Rory’s post. Read on for my musings on the legend that took over from him, Sir Michael Gambon. First of all, let me say that I don’t hate the films. I know it’s the done thing among book lovers to hate adaptations, but there are many great things about them (I’m listening to the soundtracks on Spotify as I write this). As a film lover, I tend to judge films on their own merits rather than how well they reflect the book. They’re different media and you need to make allowances. This long preamble to say, this is not a post hating on Gambon’s Dumbledore because he isn’t the Dumbledore I imagined or something like that. In fact, I’m not even going to pit the two of them against each other. I just liked the Dickensian reference for the title.There is a truism in the world of cinema that actors from this side of the world have something that Hollywood actors don’t and that’s a stage background. And by stage, I mean mostly Shakespeare. This is the case for Michael Gambon, who joined a stage company aged 19 and has had a role in nearly all plays that Shakespeare wrote.  In fact, his film d├ębut was also a production of Othello (like his big theatre debut), and if you like trivia it’s the Laurence Olivier one in which Maggie Smith played Desdemona, and Derek Jacobi also did his film debut in it.

Like all great stage actors, his performances are strong, even flamboyant. This is, to me, both a blessing and a curse when you are playing a character that is as constrained in personality as Dumbledore. Gambon is a really private person who rarely gives interviews (and they mostly give nothing away when he does), but for some reason, you can find a lot of words spent on talking about the role of Dumbledore. One such utterance has been his declaration, reported inHarry Potter Page to Screen: The Complete Filmmaking Journey that he is not a character actor and that he plays every character as a facet of his personality. Given his approach, it’s not a bad thing that he also never read the books before filming, because it’s not like he’d have gone for the toned-down approach that Harris had, which was more in line with the book.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually quite like the eccentric and open Dumbledore that he created on the screen, but it was poorly served by what was going on around him (including the sad circumstances of a change of cast a third into a saga). It would have been a waste to expect him to turn into Richard Harris and play his Dumbledore, but aside from the relatively similar looks, I don’t understand the thought-process of the casting director who thought he was a suitable option. The end result was a character that deviated a lot from what Dumbledore needed to be to fit within Harry’s own story and yet still managed to fail the actor playing it.

I think there was a deeper point to Dumbledor being the calm and collected figure that he was in the books, which was the basis for how Harris portrayed it, and that gets lost in the process of giving Michael Gambon creative control over his character. Now, I would never want to cut the wings of such a great actor, so my point is that you shouldn’t miscast characters by choosing people who are too good for the role. He needs characters that are larger than life, Dumbledore mostly serves as an example to quiet down the worst instincts of a highly emotional teenage orphan who could easily go down the same path as a previous highly emotional teenage orphan who ended up throwing the Wizarding World into a war.

This is not to say that Richard Harris was not an actor of the same caliber, because he was, but anyone who knew him would say that there is no way Dumbledore could have been played in any way, shape, or form as a fragment of his own personality. He played Dumbledore like a character actor would have played him, by forgetting himself and embracing the design for who he was meant to become. When Gambon took the opposite approach, the relationship between the two characters changed dynamics slightly, and there are a few more obvious changes like the looks that don’t sit well with a continuity aspect (although I don’t mind them too much). 

I do wonder if I would have cast a big name in that role at all, and the answer is probably not. I would have definitely not offered it to Ian McKellen (what were they thinking?). Maybe Sir Tom Courtenay, who is a known chameleon, even if he was just 65 at the time (but stage make-up is a thing so it’s not like he couldn’t have looked older). Whoever I’d have cast, I would have wanted a character actor willing to disappear behind the ethereal presence of Albus Dumbledore, a man whose name alone speaks volumes about who he is (and who, ironically, had his surname changed to imply a silent attitude in the Italian translation when his original surname had to do with him humming along). 

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