Dumbledore in Film and Text: Gambon’s Faithful Portrayal

by Kim and Cindy

There seems to be a common misreading of Dumbledore’’s character that permeates GoF movie reviews as well as comments regarding Half-Blood Prince. We will confine our comments now to GoF specifically, in which a number of people are dismayed that Dumbledore is “too angry,” is “not nice” enough, and that Michael Gambon’’s Dumbledore is too different from the Dumbledore portrayed in the books.

In examining Dumbledore’’s character in the books, we find that Dumbledore’’s nature is good, kind, and loving. However, this does not prevent him from being necessarily manipulative, demanding, and seemingly cruel. Dumbledore obtains no joy from the latter, but he is quite prepared to do what must be done to rid the world of the evil of Voldemort. An understanding of the many facets of Dumbledore’’s mysterious and somewhat mercurial character may lead to an appreciation of what Michael Gambon has done with this role.

Although Dumbledore’’s character is inherently good, it is not necessarily always “nice.” We are told from the beginning of the series that he is the ONLY wizard that Voldemort ever feared. As stated by Professor McGonagall (SS, pg. 11): “”Everyone knows that you’’re the only one You-Know — oh all right, Voldemort, was frightened of.”” This fact is reiterated throughout the books, and, suffice it to say, that “nice” does not frighten Voldemort. Good is not the equivalent of nice. Dumbledore is no Teddy bear. He is good, and he has the power and will to do what must be done to fight evil. Therefore he is dangerous. And Voldemort is afraid.

Two essential points are particularly relevant to understanding the nature and purpose of Dumbledore’’s character as it appears in the text. First, Dumbledore is good and powerful beyond the understanding of other wizards. As JKR has pointed out numerous times, Dumbledore has no equals or peers. Second, he is capable of doing things which may not be considered very “nice” in order to do what is right or good.

These points are especially poignant in his relationship with Harry. There is an inherent tension between his love for Harry and the requirement that Harry must suffer in order for good ends to be accomplished. Dumbledore himself describes an incredibly painful internal tension in his discussion with Harry in OotP. Dumbledore details the considerations he must make in his decisions regarding Harry:

“What did I care if numbers of nameless and faceless people and creatures were slaughtered in the vague future, if in the here and now you were alive, and well, and happy?”
-OotP, pg. 839

This scene from OotP conveys the burden that Dumbledore must endure by condemning Harry to suffer. Yet, we have many examples that prove Dumbledore is willing to bear that burden, using Harry as he must, so that countless lives may be saved by defeating Voldemort. Indeed, Dumbledore is more aware of Harry’’s suffering than anyone else, not just because he has watched him so closely, but because he has made decisions that guarantee that suffering.

The list is long, beginning with Lily’’s sacrifice and the plan to place Harry with the Dursleys, condemning Harry to, in Dumbledore’s words (OotP, pg. 835), ““ten dark and difficult years.”” Yes, it was done to keep Harry safe, but was there no way of alleviating the suffering Harry was to endure and at least ensure decent meals? What about visitations? Love and care from another source? Then there is the scar itself. Dumbledore tells McGonagall that even if he could remove the scar, he would not do so. Given what the scar means for Harry, it would have been a kindness to him to try and remove it, yet the scar is part of what makes Harry the weapon which can bring down Voldemort. It dooms Harry to his fate while simultaneously giving him a weapon with which to fight back. There is a plan at work here, and as Dumbledore states to Harry in OotP, that plan is Dumbledore’’s own. Harry’’s survival, not his happiness, is paramount.

What Harry endures at the hands of Professor Umbridge as well as the Occlumency lessons with Snape are further indications of very egregious things that Dumbledore will allow Harry to endure. In the case of Snape, it was not only allowed by Dumbledore but orchestrated by Dumbledore. Dumbledore wants both Harry and Snape at Hogwarts, under his eye, in preparation for the return of Voldemort which he knows is surely to come. Dumbledore chooses Snape to give Harry lessons in Occlumency and the acts of forced Legilimency, which took place in both directions in those lessons, were nothing less than the ultimate violation of self. This is certainly not “nice,” though Dumbledore believed, perhaps inaccurately, that it was necessary. Dumbledore admits his mistake, but that does not diminish the fact of what Dumbledore was willing to do because he believed it necessary. Dumbledore has his own plan in mind, the one that would save countless numbers of people and creatures. He is not willing to reduce the suffering of Snape or Harry or himself at the expense of allowing so many to die.

These examples are few among many found in the text. Dumbledore is loving, forgiving, and extremely compassionate. But relying only on these aspects of Dumbledore is to misconstrue the full picture of his character and to underestimate what he is capable of doing. It brings to mind the description of Aslan given by C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia: “”He is not a tame lion.”” When Susan wonders if Aslan is safe, the answer is a resounding no. “”Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’’t safe. But he’’s good,”” (“The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” pg. 80). God is described in the Judeo Christian tradition as good, deeply, but can be harsh, angry, and vengeful to further his goals. In the classic tradition, good does not mean safe, tame or nice, and it certainly does not exclude rage or even violence.

In the books, Dumbledore clearly has the ability to become deeply angered. Though these times are not often, they are vividly present and as the story progresses we get a much more moody Dumbledore with far less “twinkle in the eye.” These are the times in which we faintly glimpse the power and iron will that Voldemort clearly fears. In Prisoner of Azkaban (pg. 181), Hermione describes Dumbledore’’s anger to Harry after Harry wakes up from his fall on the Quidditch field.

“Dumbledore was really angry,” Hermione said in a quaking voice. “I’’ve never seen him like that before. He ran onto the field as you fell–…He was furious they’’d come onto the grounds. We heard him–.”

JKR does not tell us how Hermione was going to finish this sentence but it is clear from the passage that even in the stands, they heard him, and felt his rage. At other times Hermione has commented on Dumbledore as “scary” in a rage and her voice is described as awestruck. For example:

“He was so angry,” said Hermione in an almost awestruck voice. “Dumbledore. We saw him. When he found out Mundungus had left before his shift ended. He was scary.”

–OotP, pg. 64

Hermione, who is never at a loss for words clearly, struggles to convey the essence of Dumbledore’’s rage.

Which brings us to Michael Gambon’’s portrayal of Dumbledore in Goblet of Fire. In the book, when Dumbledore seizes Harry’’s name from the goblet and eventually reads the name aloud, the writing is italicized “Harry Potter.” This is present in both the American and British versions and no other champion’’s name is italicized. Italicized writing is done for heavy emphasis on what is being read and Gambon’’s forceful stating of Harry’’s name once pulled from the goblet is in line with the spirit of the book.

Dumbledore is furious. He is also worried. The scene where Dumbledore asks Harry if he put his name in the cup is also interestingly done in the movie. Although in the book, Dumbledore appears calmer than in the movie. But it is still clearly an intense scene in which Dumbledore is trying to detect if Harry is lying to him. This is a Legilimency scene in the book and appears to be portrayed as a very intense Legilimency scene in the movie where actors are not conveying what is going on to the audience through written words as authors do in books. The scene, while intense, stays with the spirit of the book. Dumbledore is angry and worried and needs answers from Harry because at this point Dumbledore does not know what is happening.

Toward the end of GoF, the scene in Moody’’s office after Cedric’’s death and the fake Moody’’s trapping of Harry is quite telling. Whereas in the previously discussed scene, there is some discrepancy in level of outward “calmness” between book and movie, here we have a written Dumbledore who is enraged. After blasting the door, Dumbledore comes in and:

At that moment, Harry fully understood for the first time why people said Dumbledore was the only wizard Voldemort had ever feared. The look upon Dumbledore’’s face as he stared down at the unconscious form of Mad-Eye Moody was more terrible than Harry could ever have imagined. There was no benign smile upon Dumbledore’s face, no twinkle in the eyes behind the spectacles. There was a cold fury in every line of the ancient face; a sense of power radiated from Dumbledore as if he were giving off burning heat.
-pg. 679

Dumbledore continues to show anger and a very tough edge throughout this scene. This does not make him “bad.” He is still good. But he is not “nice and gentle.” It is quite clear that he is dangerous and willing to do what must be done. This all plays into the theme of choosing between what is “right” and what is “easy.” From viewing all the movie clips, there is no doubt that this is a dark film with a far moodier Dumbledore. So too with the book.

We believe that the textual record is clear that Dumbledore is very capable of becoming furious, expressing that rage in fact, and has a willingness to act upon it in ways that though “good” are not “kind and gentle.” He is aware that a great deal is at stake in the war against Voldemort, and he appears to exist for the purpose of fighting evil, whatever the personal cost. He has immense power with which to pursue his goals, and a demonstrated willingness to use it. He is also very much afraid and concerned for Harry, and despite his power there are things that he is not aware of, as witnessed in GoF. It would appear that this is the complex and mysterious Dumbledore we are given in the new GoF movie based on the clips and reviews we have seen to date. We look forward to finding out for sure, as well as seeing what Gambon does with this role in the final movies.