We’re about to get the second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series, and with it, we’re getting Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore, and frankly, he looks amazing. There is a chance he could be the best Dumbledore, but for the time being, let’s discuss the two Dumbledores that we’ve had real experience with; the old Dumbledores.
First there was Richard Harris, who started off the Harry Potter films as Dumbledore in the first two installments. At the time, Richard Harris was seen as perfect. Then, he passed away, and they cast Michael Gambon who played the character until the final film in that series. Since the final film, I hear people often refer to him as the superior Dumbledore, in fact Paul and I had a discussion about this a few months ago when the first trailers came out for FB2, and we both landed on opposite sides of the Harris/Gambon coin, so my hope is that Paul will write an argument defending his side, and you can decide for yourselves (although I’m right).
Richard Harris is the better Dumbledore. The complaints that I hear most often about Harris’ Dumbledore is that he’s too stuffy, and too serious. I disagree.
You see, Albus Dumbledore, is supposed to be the wisest, most proficient wizard the world has ever seen. He’s the Stephen Hawking of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When you reach that level, there are responsibilities that come with the job, and part of those responsibilities, is playing the part in order to be taken seriously. Dumbledore has a public face, and a private face. We get the Dumbledore who sounds like a drone addressing the entirety of Hogwarts, and we get the private moments, with someone like Harry, someone who also is thrust into the ‘fame’ of the wizarding world, in which he’s playful.
People think of Richard Harris’ Dumbledore as the guy who woodenly says “well done Slytherin, well done Slytherin” in the great hall when announcing the final house points at the end of the first film, but another moment just before that is the reality of Richard Harris’ Dumbledore. When he’s addressing Harry alone, in the medical ward, and he has the conversation about “it’s a complete secret, so naturally the entire school knows,” and picks a ‘toffee’ Bernie Botts Every Flavor Bean, only to discover “alas earwax” with a playful sigh.
He has the twinkle in his eye, of a man who understands this is all a bit goofy, but I have to keep up appearances in order to accomplish my goals, but with someone like Harry, I get to let that guard down, because he too is going to be a pivotal piece in the oncoming war.
The reason I don’t think Gambon is as good, is because Gambon’s Dumbledore is always what the ‘private’ version of Dumbledore should be. He doesn’t have a wise public face. Is that something I admire in a person in real life? Yes. Is it Dumbledore? I don’t think so. Gambon’s obviously not a bad Dumbledore, in fact, if he were the only Dumbledore, he’d probably score higher with me personally, but to me, Harris is the Dumbledore of the books manifested into reality, and Gambon is a ‘take’ on Dumbledore.
Now, in the trailers for FB2, we’ve yet to see Dumbledore interacting with anyone but Newt (that I can think of) and so it’s unclear to me if he’ll be what I want, or slightly different, but I’m very enthusiastic to find out.
Which do you think is the better Dumbledore, tell me in the comments below!
Paul’s Response: WHY MICHAEL GAMBON IS THE BETTER DUMBLEDORE…
I was very excited when Mike suggested that I propose a counter argument to his conclusion about which actor is the best on screen Dumbledore: Harris or Gambon? (We’re leaving Jude Law out for the time being). To be clear, I’m going to be talking about both the novels and the films in this article. So let’s get to it!
Well, Mike is correct, I do think that Gambon is the superior Dumbledore. However, before I make my case for why I think Gambon is the better Dumbledore, I think it’s important to express how I view Dumbledore as a character. After all, I think we need to define who Dumbledore is before we can decide who better played the character.
If there’s one thing we know about the magical community depicted in Harry Potter, it’s that they LOVE their heroes and villains. Whether it’s Dumbledore, Harry, Snape, Voldemort, Grindelwald, Sirius Black, or countless others, people in this world love to cast individuals as the champion of all that’s good or the ultimate evil. Yet in all the examples, I’ve listed above, it’s never been that simple. Dumbledore embodies the idea that people we love, respect, and look up to, people who we think have all the answers, are all too human. Understanding that our mentor figures aren’t perfect is part of growing up.
Mike argues that we get a stiff and wooden Dumbledore from Richard Harris because the character is playing the part of the stoic, responsible, all knowing leader of the wizarding community. But that’s just not who Dumbledore is, I think that’s just Harris’ performance. In the novels, from the start, in public and in private he was a playful character. He was always way more Gandalf The Grey than Gandalf The White. It’s ironic that I think my perfect casting for the Dumbledore of the books would be Ian McKellan. Because Gandalf really is the archetypal wizard. However, I do agree that Dumbledore the character uses his persona and reputation, but not out of a sense of responsibility. He uses that persona to get what he wants and manipulate people.
Mike makes the point that Dumbledore is supposed to be “the wisest and most proficient wizard the world has ever seen”. Well, is Dumbledore one of, if not, THE greatest wizard of all time? Probably. But, wisest? I’m not so sure… and I don’t think Dumbledore is either. Mike’s right, there’s definitely a duality to Dumbledore, but I don’t see it the same way he does.
Another beloved pop culture character that’s a great parallel to Dumbledore is Charles Xavier, founder of the X-Men. On the surface, they both appear to be saintly, wise, saviors, father figures who always know what to do. However, for both men, the truth is much darker. They’re manipulative, they have dark secrets, and most importantly they exploit their reputation to get people to follow and trust them even when they have no fucking idea what they’re doing. They’re even willing to sacrifice the lives of people who put their faith in them in the name of a greater good. In Dumbledore’s case, you could argue that his entire relationship with Harry is about fattening a pig for slaughter. I’ll admit, I was playing a little bit of devil’s advocate there, but I do think there’s some truth to the idea that Harry was a pawn in Dumbledore’s war with Voldemort.
Both in the films and the books, Dumbledore isn’t afraid to be playful and mischievous even under serious circumstances. Like his many confrontations wth The Ministry of Magic, for example. He often feels like a comedian playing to an audience of one (himself). Like his iconic escape from being arrested by The Ministry, vanishing in a burst of flame with Fawkes, his Phoenix,. in Order of The Phoenix. It’s spoken by Kingsley Shaklebolt in the film, but in the book, one of the portraits in Dumbledore’s office delivers the immortal line to The Minister of Magic: “You know, Minister, I disagree with Dumbledore on many counts… but you cannot deny he’s got style…”.
Richard Harris was 72 when he passed away, but as Dumbledore he looked, sounded, and moved like he was 100. There are a lot of older actors who can pull off action, but I just don’t see Richard Harris’ Dumbledore pulling off that insane duel with Voldemort in The Ministry of Magic.
Dumbledore should never feel feeble, despite his age and I think with Gambon he never did. Dumbledore needed to be a somewhat physical character. Harris looks like he’s in a wheel chair. A lot of this is moot because Harris only had 2 movies to develop this character and the vast majority of important Dumbledore moments are later in the series, when Gambon has taken the reins.
We see very little of the nuances I’ve described here from Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore. To be fair, I think that had the full series been published, when the cast started crafting these characters on screen, they may have made different performance choices. For example, though I love Snape and the late great Alan Rickman, perhaps he would have chewed a little bit less scenery had he known where the character’s story was going. Maybe Richard Harris would have put some more nuance into his performance as Dumbledore. Gambon got the juiciest Dumbledore material. The series doesn’t really hit it’s stride and become the classic that it is until the 3rd book. Unfortunately, because of his death we never got to see how he would have handled some of the biggest Dumbledore moments in the series. With all due respect to Mike, Harris is probably the most miscast character in the series. One of the reasons I’m so excited for “Fantastic Beasts Have You Seen Them, Oh Johnny Depp’s Committing Some Crimes Now, He’s In The Case Too, They’re All In There 2” (Thank you, Mr. Sunday Movies) is because we may finally get a Dumbledore as rich and interesting as he is in the novels. Because let’s be honest in the context of all 7 book, Richard Harris simply does not work as the legendary Albus Dumbledore.
Anyway, thanks for reading! We hope you enjoyed the debate!
-Paul & Mike