Last week, the news emerged that the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, scheduled to start filming this summer, would feature a young Albus Dumbledore, and that he would be portrayed by Jude Law. As with any casting decision these days, there has been controversy (honestly, uproar from readers prompted the Hunger Games movie people to re-cast a cat), but Law is actually a good choice for a couple of reasons, including his impressive resume of bringing to life on the screen characters we have already met on the page.
One of the most obvious reasons Law is a good choice is his physical resemblance both to Dumbledore on the page and Dumbledore on the screen. Since the Fantastic Beasts films are not based directly on novels, both of those elements are important for continuity. In the Harry Potter novels, we do meet a young Dumbledore in the Pensieve in Half Blood Prince, but in the film, actor Michael Gambon was simply made to look slightly younger. For the new Beasts film, Law will need to look enough like both Gambon and the earlier Dumbledore, Richard Harris, to make the transition believable. Movie people have often done this sort of thing with great success. Ewan McGregor is completely believable as a young Alec Guinness in the Star Wars movies; Bilbo Baggins moves smoothly from an older Ian Holm to a younger Martin Freeman in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films. Law’s physical similarity both to a young Gambon and a young Harris will make this transition a smooth one, too, and his slender build, twinkling eye, and air of knowing more than he is letting on, all make him a suitable Dumbledore.
Perhaps the best reason Law is a good choice for this role is how effectively he has brought to life other literary characters, even in unconventional casting.
Though he has a long and distinguished acting career spanning numerous highly successful and critically acclaimed films, some of his most notable roles have been those based on books.
Some of the literary characters Law has brought to life are roles that may have prepared him for the darker and more complex shades of Dumbledore’s personality. From the tumultuous (and murdered) lover of Jim Williams in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil to the surprisingly complex husband of Anna Karenina, his range has prepared him for the Dumbledore that we now know is a man of contradictions and complexities. I am particularly fond of his work as Inman in Cold Mountain. Though author Charles Frazier took some wild liberties with history (conflating the fate of a real Inman with that of another person) and borrowed liberally from non-fiction texts whose authors did not receive much in the way of compensation or recognition, the novel is important. Law’s portrayal of a man struggling through the Civil War to return to the woman he loves is riveting (and only matched by the work of Rene Zellweger as Ruby, the rough but skilled survivor). As Inman must make choices that are challenges both to his sanity and morality, Law’s work on the film bodes well for his turn as Dumbledore, a man who both tells Harry that our choices show who we really are, and who has his own past littered with difficult, morally messy choices.
Of course, Dumbledore isn’t just a somewhat Machiavellian figure who struggles to maintain his humanity while playing the long game to bring down evil. He is also a brilliant, whimsical, funny fellow of infinite wit. In that aspect, Law’s work as the voice (because no one ever sees him full on) of Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events is a great precedent. Snicket’s funny turns of phrase and puns, delivered with deadpan seriousness, bode well for Dumbledore’s often dry humor.
Dumbledore’s gregariousness and intellect might be well precedented by Law’s work as Dr. Watson to Robert Downey, Jr.’s unconventional but delightful Sherlock Holmes in two films (with a third rumored). Though some readers didn’t warm to the sassy steampunk flavor of the films and the action-hero depiction of Watson and Holmes, both the comedic elements and the depiction of Watson may wend their way into Law’s Dumbledore.
Of course, one of Dumbledore’s most endearing characteristics is his compassion for Harry, and for others, tinted by his own grief and guilt. One of Law’s often over-looked literary roles also brings in this combination nicely, as he played Hugo’s father in the film Hugo. A clockmaker, he takes on the challenges of re-animating a long- frozen automaton, but he dies in a fire, and Hugo, his son, attempts to continue his legacy of caring for clocks and discovering the secret of the enigmatic automaton. This intelligent, focused character, whose death at first cripples and later inspires, his child, may have the elements of Dumbledore so many of us already love, the Dumbledore who caused the death of a child and then spends years protecting a child whom he knows must die to save the world.
Certainly, we won’t know just what sort of Dumbledore Jude Law will make, or even what sort the filmmakers will have him be. Will he be the thoughtful Divination Professor who, in a few years, would suspect Tom Riddle, without realizing what degree of evil would develop in the orphan he recruited for Hogwarts? Will he be the deeply damaged brother, resigned to stay away from political power after deciding how dangerously it attracts him? What will his reaction be to Grindelwald, whose influence directly led to the death of Ariana and the Dumbledore family dissolution? We won’t know those answers until we see the film, but we do know that the actor in this role is one who has already taken on other literary characters with some of Dumbledore’s brilliance, complexity, and compassion, and that is a promising thought.