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Playing with ‘Fire’

Molly Griffin | Monday, November 21, 2005

Since its release, one question has surrounded the book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” – how is anyone going to adapt this 734-page behemoth of a children’s novel into a palatable film?

While the book is one of the most popular in the “Harry Potter” series and the pivotal fourth book in a seven book series, it is a web of complex subplots and character development. Thankfully, first time “Potter” director Mike Newell manages to par the book down to a film that is both well-plotted and faithful to the heart of the novel.

Fears surrounded Newell taking the helm of the “Harry Potter” series, as his directorial experience was limited to more adult films like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Donnie Brasco.” This was compounded by the fact that Alfonso Cuarón’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was regarded as the best of the series and an artistic achievement in its own right.

While not as artistically shot as “Azkaban,” Newell manages something that hasn’t yet been achieved in a “Harry Potter” film – economy. Chris Columbus, director of the first two films, was so faithful to the books as to make the movies dreadfully slow. Even Cuarón was guilty of dragging out scenes and including too much information from the books.

Newell cuts the film down to an exciting, less ponderous movie. While the first few scenes don’t gel perfectly and seem jerky, the film eventually coheres. The movie focuses almost exclusively on the magical Triwizard Tournament, eliminating the lengthy passages on the Quiddich World Cup, Harry’s time with the Dursleys and Mrs. Weasley and Hermione’s crusade for house elves. Without these distractions, the film’s action builds rapidly and without deviation, which makes for an ultimately more entertaining movie.

Newell is helped by the fact that the stars of the series have grown into much better actors, as well as the fact that “The Goblet of Fire” introduces an array of interesting new faces. The three actors at the heart of the series – Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) – do a fantastic job with the darker material and the added trials of adolescence in the story. Other characters like Neville Longbottom, Cedric Diggory, Fleur Delacour and Viktor Krum add dimension and humor to the film without requiring too many bulky subplots.

“The Goblet of Fire,” with its dependence on characters, truly requires some familiarity with the “Harry Potter” universe and the book itself. Characters aren’t always introduced, and viewers are expected to understand their back-stories in order for certain things to make sense. This allows the film to flow better, but it will also provide some confusion for those who are unfamiliar with the details of the novel.

The movie builds toward its terrifying climax, long-anticipated by “Potter” fans because it finally introduces Voldemort as a physical presence. The film doesn’t disappoint – the conclusion is terrifying and justifies the film’s PG-13 rating. Ralph Fiennes does a fantastic job in the part, and there is none of the let-down that usually follows the revelation of an unseen character, particularly villainous ones.

While not necessarily the artistic achievement of Cuarón’s “Azkaban,” “The Goblet of Fire” does what has so far proved elusive in the “Harry Potter” series – adapting the book instead of trying to create an exact replica of the novel on screen. While there is no doubt that some fans will be disappointed with just how much had to be removed from the film, the movie is truly better because of the risks the writer and director were willing to take.