‘Harry Potter Retrospective’: A Breakdown of the All-Star Cast

As the ‘Harry Potter‘ series will be closing permanently in July, looking back and examining the massive ensemble is truly mind-blowing, as it seems each of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished thespians were willing to play a role in the films. I assigned the actors letter grades – but the grading is not based solely on their performances; I have also taken into account the character’s general screen treatment, which is mainly a product of the writer and director. Since there are so many to examine and critique, this is the 1st of 3 postings on the ‘British Acting Elite.’ — W.B.

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

Played by: Richard Harris (Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets) and Michael Gambon
Performance:
B + (Harris); B (Gambon)

Screen Treatment: D-

Dumbledore is undoubtedly one of my absolute favorite characters. He is the supreme paragon of wisdom, goodness and a brilliant mentor to Harry. Despite his benign, gentle and always calm nature, he is also one bad-ass wizard. I mean, come on, he’s the only wizard that Voldemort is deathly afraid of.

Harris’s performance as Dumbledore was adequate, I suppose, but I also think his old age and his suffering from Hodgkin’s disease at the time may have prevented him from delivering the best performance he could have.

Michael Gambon was cast for Prisoner of Azkaban and the rest of the films after Harris’s passing. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from fans is that they find his performances unbearable. But I believe it is Dumbledore’s screen treatment that is to blame. The Dumbledore in the movies is a short-tempered, angry and vulnerable man, essentially the antithesis of Rowling’s beloved headmaster. To those who complain, I say: don’t blame the actor, blame the filmmakers.

Lord Voldemort

Played by: Ralph Fiennes
Performance: B+
Screen Treatment: C

Just as Dumbledore is the epitome of goodness, Lord Voldemort is the champion of all things horrid and evil. He is a raging psychopath, devoid of compassion and mercy, and I believe he is undoubtedly the most horrifying literary villain ever created. Genocidal, deformed and terribly prejudiced, Lord Voldemort has unsurprisingly been the product of many of my nightmares, and I am certain I’m not the only one.

Though Ralph Fiennes is a brilliant actor (one of my personal favorites, actually), I find myself constantly underwhelmed by his performance as Voldemort. Fiennes does seem to have a reasonable comprehension of the Dark Lord – describing him as “…absolute evil. He’s very much the Devil.” I believe Fiennes was most likely offered the role more for his past portrayals of despicable characters (such as Amon Goeth, the appalling Nazi pig from Schindler’s List), and a knack for embracing unadulterated evil, than for a potential aptitude to embody He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Lord Voldemort’s screen treatment, to me, is also sadly inaccurate. For example, in the Goblet of Fire film, during the Little Hangleton graveyard scene (directly after the Dark Lord’s rebirth), Fiennes runs amongst the headstones like a madman, darting furiously about, barking at Harry and the Death Eaters like an ill-tempered drill sergeant. This is not the behavior of the terrifying Dark wizard that so aptly gave me chills on the page, but a substantially less frightening character, which is arguably only parallel to the novel’s description of Voldemort by simply being hairless, pale, and famously sporting those snake-like slits for nostrils. The Dark Lord who so effectively frightened me was subtly terrifying – very sparingly raising his voice, and keeping his servants terrified with softly-spoken statements that very subtly expressed his malice:

He put back his terrible face and sniffed, his slit-like nostrils widening.
“I smell guilt,” he whispered. “There is a stench of guilt upon the air.”
A shiver ran through the circle, as though each member of it desperately longed, but did not dare, to step away from him.

This Rowling passage I find to be one of the hundreds of examples throughout the series of Voldemort inspiring fear and apprehension – and not just among his enemies, but also his servants. Sadly, the Dark Lord was translated to the screen unsatisfactorily, despite being portrayed by a fantastic actor.

Professor Severus Snape

Played by: Alan Rickman
Performance: A+
Screen Treatment: B-

”Well, Mr. Potter…our…new…celebrity…”

Severus Snape is undoubtedly my favorite character in the series – and despite the fact that Alan Rickman is about twenty-five years older than Snape is supposed to be, I wouldn’t dream of ever complaining about something as trivial as an age difference, for Rickman’s performance is, to put it mildly, golden. The audience hangs onto his every very drawn-out syllable, and even though viewers are very familiar with Rickman’s portrayal of the bitter, miserable Potions Master after having seen it multiple times (as he appears in every single movie) he still manages to surprise us, impress us and do a marvelous job of entertaining us.

Severus Snape is by far the most complex, fascinating and multi-layered character Jo Rowling created – and during the years prior to the release of the final two books, whilst discussing Snape she would constantly advise her readers to “keep an eye on him,” which, as those of us who have read and finished the series know, was a very significant statement. Snape ignited ferocious debates amongst ‘Potter’ fans and was certainly the most closely-speculated, baffling and enigmatic of all the characters in the ‘Potter’ universe.

What I also find very interesting is that Alan Rickman was the only person equipped with the knowledge (besides, of course, Queen Rowling) of the crucial answers exposed in one of the very last chapters in the series, “The Prince’s Tale” (My favorite chapter in the entire saga). Rickman would utilize this knowledge and apply it (very successfully) to his performances in each movie – knowledge that would ultimately assist him in understanding where Snape’s ferocious animosity towards Harry came from, and also why Snape constantly risks his life in order to protect the Boy Who Lived.

I have yet to meet a fan who has been disappointed, under-whelmed or dissatisfied with Rickman’s ingenious portrayal of Professor Snape. Of course, his screen treatment is naturally disappointing – which is not any fault of Rickman’s. The filmmakers barely laid any groundwork for the enormous revelation that is to take place in Deathly Hallows: Part II regarding Snape, but we can only hope that somehow they’ve realized this, and that they find a method of closing the brilliant tale of Severus Snape, my absolute favorite character, in a way that honors his story.

Rubeus Hagrid

Played by:  Robbie Coltrane
Performance: A
Screen Treatment: B-

It’s impossible to bring up Rubeus Hagrid, Keeper of Keys and Ground at Hogwarts, without fondly exclaiming and elaborating on just how lovable the half-giant is. Robbie Coltrane was another brilliant casting decision, and Hagrid is one of the very few characters brought to the screen that I have never complained about.

As predicted, Hagrid’s backstory regarding Rita Skeeter’s exposure of his giant ancestry and the hatred and bigotry he faced afterwards was deleted. Although predictable, it was still an unfortunate loss of a fantastic storyline regarding the beloved, magical beast-loving half-giant.

Coltrane always seems to be reading lines taken directly out of the book, as Hagrid’s very distinct style of speaking that Rowling created was projected with a fine accuracy by the actor. Subtle details that collectively contribute to Hagrid’s character are often on display throughout the films much to my delight, such as the birthday cake spelled: “Happee Birthdae Harry,” his horrible brown suit and orange polka-dotted tie saved for formal occasions and constant signs of his reckless affection for dangerous magical creatures.

Hagrid’s presence in the films gradually dwindles in the latter installments of the series (as they did in the books), but the audience remains just as fond of him as ever, and devout fans of the books (including myself) were beside themselves with relief as we watched Hagrid survive the final battle; a survival, that I must admit, I feared unlikely. Ultimately, Hagrid’s cinematic treatment was one of the most satisfying and accurate, and could not have been played by a more appropriate (or large enough) actor.

NEXT!!! Featured in Part 2 of Our Cast Breakdown Feature:

The Oscar-winning Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall)
Imelda Staunton
(Dolores Umbridge)

Gary Oldman (Sirius Black) and
Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy)

Links to The Lantern’s “Harry Potter Retrospective” by Rowling Geek William Buhagiar:

Click Here to see Part I (an introduction to the film series)
Click Here to see Part II (a look at the first two films)
Click Here to see Part III (a look at films 3 and 4)
Click Here to see Part IV (a look at films 5 & 6)
Click Here to see Part V (a look at Deathly Hallows I)

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