Michael Gambon: The Perfect Dumbledore?

Wonderful conversation going on over at Sword of Gryffindor about the latest revelations about the actor who plays Albus Dumbledore in the movies and the actor who turned down the part.

I haven’t read any of the combox comments except those at the linked articles and they are what you’d expect, namely, fans wanting to see Dumbledore blasted from the Astronomy Tower by Severus Snape in the Half-Blood Prince film (a sentiment I first read on the blog of an Orthodox priest and friend back in 2005). Folks really don’t like Michael Gambon.

Which is too bad. Post Deathly Hallows, I’m thinking he was a brilliant choice for the part. In the first six books, Dumby is everyone’s father and hero; we see him largely as Harry and Hagrid see him (“great man, Dumbledore…”). We learn Severus’ experience of him in the finale, as well as Aberforth’s bitter tale, and come to a fuller appreciation of the man as still heroic but with the proverbial clay feet and failings of all fallen men.

Richard Harris or Ian McKellen would have been able to give us the Divine Dumby narrative misdirection part much better than Gambon certainly. I don’t know how convincingly they could have done the turn around in the last movie, though, so we could see and believe the Machiavellian side to Dumbledore. I think that will be easy to see in Gambon’s portrayal. It’s already evident!

Frankly, I see the change in actors who play Dumbledore as a happy providence. Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore should be changing as the stories move along and he matures; he should be able to see that Albus lied to him when he promised to tell him everything. It’s a whole lot easier for us movie-goers than it was for Harry because the Harris-Gambon switch was a reptilian metamorphosis in the Headmaster it was hard to overlook. Fandom disgust for the “new” Dumbledore parallels Harry’s resistance to thinking of Dumbledore as a man with faults as well as a great wizard. Our shock, whether we thought it a good, bad, or consequential thing, on learning that Ms. Rowling “always thought of him as gay” is a “real world” equivalent of Harry’s disappointment and Bitterness on finally being compelled to the realization he never knew Dumbledore as anything more than an idea or ideal.

Fortunately, with Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, it is hard to put this character on a pedestal. I beg your comments and corrections to the proposed possibility that he may even be the perfect Dumbledore actor for just this reason.


  1. I think you might have a very good idea going here, with perhaps a few corrections. Prior to reading the books (I watched movies 1-3 before reading any of the books), I always thought, from a purely cinematic point of view, that Michael Gambon was a better Dumbledore than Richard Harris, simply because Richard Harris always was so fatherly. We are told very early in the movies that Dumbledore is the greatest wizard of the age and perhaps one of the greatest wizards of all time, and my view of Richard Harris’ portrayal has always been that of, at best, a grandfather watching his grandchildren grow up at Hogwarts, and not really so much as a leader of the school.

    I think that Michael Gambon, cinematically, is a much better Dumbledore because Gambon plays him much more proactively. He yells, he shows real emotion; even when he is walking, Gambon has a certain saunter that indicates a “man on a mission.”

    I realize there are problems with Gambon as Dumbledore. He doesn’t wear the glasses, doesn’t wear the hat, etc etc. The thing is, as John said, his portrayal of Dumbledore is just more real. I think there are two pivotal scenes that really exemplify the kind of Dumbledore Gambon would be, and how that differed from Harris’ Dumbledore. I am thinking of one scene where, right after Harry’s name is pulled from the Triwizard Cup, Dumbledore comes storming in the Champions’ meeting room and grabs hold of Harry, almost frantically asking Harry for an explanation. Later, Dumbledore, McGonagall and Snape are talking, and the shot has Dumbledore in the foreground and McGonagall and Snape in the background. The look on Gambon’s face is one of exhaustion mixed with uncertainty, like he’s literally looking into the fire for an answer. When McGonagall questions him about what they are going to do to stop the threat to Harry’s life, Gambon’s Dumbledore asks breathlessly, “What would you have me do, Minerva?”

    I think this is in contrast to Harris’ Dumbledore, who really did seem above it all, in the sense that he was never surprised or even seemingly worried by anything that happened. Even when people started turning up petrified i Chamber of Secrets, he showed little outward emotion at what was going on.

    Ultimately, I think this makes Gambon a better Dumbledore, especially with what is to come, than Harris’, despite factual errors and what some would perceive as an “untrue” portrayal of Dumbledore. As the next two movies come out, the character is going to undergo some major changes, and will be shown to still be a great wizard, but with the pitfalls and flaws that are inevitable in the human condition. For this reason, I think it is good that Gambon has played Dumbledore thus far as incredibly powerful, but still at times vulnerable and human.

  2. JohnABaptist says

    I have never been comfortable with Michael Gambon as Dumbledore.

    Which I count as a good thing, since from the total canon, I suspect we were never supposed to be fully comfortable with Dumbledore.

    I mourned the loss of Richard Harris, whom I found to be especially brilliant in the second movie–yet he didn’t totally match my vision of Dumbledore across all the books. I think, in retrospect, that his performance was a case of Red-Henitis, a beautiful portrayal of a fascinating character that Rowling never intended to create.

    I must confess that I came backwards into the Potterverse, having seen the first movie before reading any of the books. When my Granddaughter (somewhere around 12 years of age at the time) brought me a copy of the newly released “Sorcerer’s Stone” and another book (whose name or author I no longer remember) to get my opinion on which she should buy, I asked her what this “Sorcerer’s Stone” thing was and she said that the reviews she had read said it was a stone that changed lead to gold and promised eternal life.

    I asked if that was the same as a “Philosopher’s Stone”? She looked confused for a moment and then said “Yes, I guess it would be.”

    I said (presuming J. K. to be male just like I was supposed to), “…and if the author does not know the difference between Philosophy and Sorcery do we really want to read his work?” She laughed and said “I guess not.” Put the book back and we didn’t meet Harry for several more years, when we finally saw the movie (having discovered that they Author called it a Philosopher’s Stone.)

    So when I first read the books, my ideas of the appearance, mannerisms and attitudes of the characters were already pre-formed around the actors and actresses present in the first movie. So far as I was concerned, everyone fit very nicely.

    Prior to reading the books, I had thought Richard Harris gave a magnificent performance as Dumbledore. After reading them, I was of mixed emotions. Much was brilliant in his performance, yet somehow, subtly, certain elements were also off-key.

    Music students will perhaps appreciate what I mean when I say it seemed that he was playing music written for the even-tempered (tuned) clavichord on a just-tempered clavichord. Non-music students will have to trust me that when a musical piece is played in its original key, on either instrument, it sounds essentially the same but with a “purer” sound on the just-tempered instrument; however when the key shifts, the same sequence of notes will sound identical on a even tempered instrument, and will be radically different, even dissonant on a just tempered instrument. (Persons wishing to discover how badly I have botched this explanation may go here.)

    In a similar light, I found Harris’ performance to be wonderful for the two movies that he appeared in which were essentially in the same “key”–but I don’t feel that his performance could have “shifted key” to keep up with the evolution of Albus Dumbledore through all the stages of his transformation in Harry’s (and our) eyes.

    Gambon, on the other hand, began by disappointing me in that his performance in “Prisoner of Azkaban” did not seem to continue the purity which his predecessor had brought to the role. However over time and several more movies, I have begun to appreciate that Gambon can “shift keys” within his portrayal in a way that I don’t believe Harris could have done.

    For that reason, I must say that in my estimation, Harris, especially in the “Chamber of Secrets”, was absolutely ideal for the particular key that Dumbledore was written in at that moment. Gambon, however, is far better “tuned” to portray the total role than Harris would have been. And perhaps, all told, we are the richer that the role assignments worked out as they did.

  3. Travis Prinzi says

    How will the movie Harry struggle with the real Dumbledore revealed in Book 7 if he’s already been exposed to him for several movies in a row?

    Harris and McKellen are both exceedingly capable actors who would have pulled off the DH Dumbledore change with brilliance and necessary subtlety. Gambon is bombastic, unpredictable, and cranky, and he’s already too much, even for Book 7 Dumbledore.

    Not that I have any strong opinions on the matter… 😉

  4. JohnABaptist says

    But Travis, we also know that Harris is currently otherwise engaged, and McKellen having created one signature Wizard does not want to weaken the mix by going for another, significantly different one.

    So of those current actors remaining, who would you suggest as a Gambon replacement?

  5. Rahner13, I think the first two HPmovies were more pleasant to watch due, in great part, to how they were filmed. I think audiences, especially book fans, were in a state of *introduction*…matching faces, voices, and settings to what had previously been personal interactions via the printed page and imagination. The overall tone of PS and CoS was *easy on the eye* whereas PoA and GoF began to reflect the darker, deeper storylines and maturation of the characters.

    In all fairness to the present, past, and possible Dumbledores-in-film, I cannot help but turn to the directors of each HP movie and lay some of our analytic concerns at their feet. No matter how talented the actor, is the director’s vision not the foundation for how each role is played out as the screenwriters pull together scripts that many times stray from the original books themselves?

    I offer HPfilm 5 as an example of how far the movie can detour from the book: 1) opening playground scene in Little Whinging with Harry brandishing his wand in front of Dudley’s mates (Not so in the book; Harry and Dudley were in the alley alone when Harry has to use his wand for the Patronum charm). 2) The movie doesn’t show us that Mundungus Fletcher deserts his post, thus allowing the Dementors easy access to Harry. 3) OotP-the-film shows Cho Chang as the DA traitor…we never learn of Hermione’s “snitch” hex or that Cho’s Ravenclaw classmate was the real tell-all. 4) The dementors in OotP do not have the same appearance as in PoA. I can understand differences in apparel and hairstyles, height and weight, and facial features for the *human* actors. Why change the dementors from one film to the next?

    Getting back to the subject of Gambon as Dumbledore…he is not my favorite to play the headmaster, but he does manage to cover a fair amount of emotional range in OotP. Travis, you have a point about Gambon’s portrayal. Now the question is in the actor’s interpretation: Is he playing out his own understanding of AD, is he following explicit direction, or do we have a combination at play? How much audience knowledge is Gambon relying upon? Has he watched the Harris performances and is striving to bring something different to the screen?

    JohnA, I wonder if Patrick Stewart could pull off a convincing Dumbledore?

  6. FWIW, I never, ever cared for the casting of Richard Harris as Dumbledore. He seemed too frail, too mortal, even too serious.

    Gambon takes care of the first two problems (yes, of course, Gambon will die in the next movie, but could Harris have handled the battle of the wands in the last one!?), but neither actor seems to me like the kind of person who would talk about having a scar shaped like a map of the London Underground above his left knee, or the kind of person who would begin his address to the students with “a few words” (“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”), etc.

    (Oddly enough, while watching Dustin Hoffman play the title role in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, I had the odd feeling that he was able to capture some of the wise absurdity and eccentricity that the Dumbledore of the films has been missing. I’m not saying I’d give him the part, though; he’s not British, for one thing!)

    BTW, John, has it been mentioned here yet that you are one of the primary interviewees in one of the bonus features on the new Order of the Phoenix DVD? If so, sorry I missed the note; but either way, congratulations!

  7. I agree with thinking Gambon is brilliant for the part.

    Initially I was disappointed with the change from Harris – his calm, controlled way of playing Dumbledore was just what I wanted to see in a screen Dumbledore and Gambon seemed a little too animated and excitable. At that time I was able to read each book just before seeing each movie.

    But having read the whole series, and seeing the next couple of movies, a less-controlled, flawed Dumbledore is beautifully brought to life by Gambon.

  8. To me, Gambon plays an impatient, hot-tempered, borderline physically violent, and foolish Dumbledore. Even considering everything we learn about Dumbledore’s Machiavellian tendencies in Deathly Hallows, are any of these traits consistent with Dumbledore’s character at this late stage in his life? I agree that Dumbledore is manipulative, but he manipulates on an intellectual plane, as opposed to aggressively shaking his pawns.

    Also, part of the wonderfulness of Deathly Hallows lies in the shock and surprise of the revelations about Dumbledore’s past and of Dumbledore’s current true colors. With Gambon’s portrayal, we might not be shocked to find out Dumbledore was really a Death Eater. We really missed out when there was no transformation of bushy-haired, bucktoothed Hermione at the Yule Ball, and we will also be missing the magic when there is no great transformation of Dumbledore.

    I don’t know which actor could do a better job of portraying the canon Dumbledore, but there is no doubt that such a person exists. Gambon himself could do a much better job of portraying Dumbledore if only he tried to take on the character described in the series rather than making his mark on the movies by creating his own Dumbledore and severely contrasting his Dumbledore with Harris’s. I was also not a huge fan of Harris’s Dumbledore, though I would certainly take him now.

  9. When Richard Harris was about to die, he requested that his friend, Peter O’Toole, take over the role. Subsequently, O’Toole refused it.

    I think that would have been excellent casting. He would have gotten the gravitas as well as the twinkle in the eye, and would have easily made the transition to the self-pitying old man at King’s Cross.

    BTW, we were just watching the first half of OotP on DVD. If you look at it with no preconceptions (becoming easier and easier because Gambon isn’t even remotely close to my idea of Dumbledore) what you see is a man who is always in a hurry, always preoccupied, irritable, angry and impatient.

    If he’s acting, I think he’s completely misread the part. If he’s brining out a part of himself, I think that he’s temperamentally unsuited to play the role.

  10. Patrick Stewart has always had my vote as the perfect actor to play Dumbledore. He is able to communicate humor, strength, intelligence, compassion and humility in a flexible but commanding character. Sounds like Dumbledor to me.

  11. Patrick Stewart as Dumbledore is an entertaining thought! “Engage!”

  12. I always think back to Gambon’s portrayal of the scene in which Harry’s name comes out of the Goblet of Fire. Dumbledore appears to be furious at Harry – though there’s no indication of such an attitude in the text. I’ve been disturbed about Gambon ever since.

    Then again, this is just as much a director’s decision as an actor’s, so . . . . .

  13. Arabella Figg says

    Well now, don’t you think the benign, twinkly-eyed, kind Richard Harris DD was the perfect setup for narrative misdirection, a crucial key to HP?

    Having seen Harris ham it up in the film Camelot (painfully so to me and I was a teen!), I think he would have been perfectly capable of of shading his character throughout the films.

    I don’t favor Gambon as DD. He’s cranky and much more physically impressive and agressive than the Dumbledore we read about. DD’s power was more subtle than a swagger. We just finished watching the film series prior to OotP, which we watched last night (not gotten to your special yet, John). I must confess I don’t even care for Gambon’s voice and the way he delivers lines.

    So, count me a Harris fan.

    Here’s something fun for the good professor and my fellow All-Pros. Among the celebrities I served while working at Disneyland, I waited on Richard Harris (who had an almost impossible mumble). Since you “know” me, you’re all three degrees of separation from “Dumbledore.”

    Rumbleroar is purring, but he’s got claws…

  14. In my opinion, Gambon captures Dumbledore perfectly. He was absolutely spectacular in the new OOTP movie. He, along with Alan Rickman, will be the highlight of the next movie. Richard Harris seemed too fatherly, almost unbelieveble. Even though Dubledore had a more fatherly role in the first two books, I believe Gambon could have perfected the role that Harris played.

    Gambon, to me, wasn’t as strong in GOF, but none of the actors were. I think the director, Mike Newell, was weak in that movie, nowhere near the brilliance of Alfonso Cuaron or David Yates. On the other hand, Gambon was at his best in OOTP, especially at the beginning of the movie when Harry is on trial… what a wonderful scene.

  15. Oh and if I had been the casting director, I would have cast Nicol Williamson for the part.

    I loved his portrayal of Merlin in John Boorman’s “Excalibur.”

    He has this wry wit about him that enlivens every scene. The movie dragged without him.

    BTW, Gambon played a wonderful curmudgeon in “Charlotte Gray.” Some of his subtleties were brilliant in the part of an old man who has an estranged relationship with his adult son.

    I like Gambon’s portrayal better than the late Richard Harris, if for no other reason than I do not detect Gambon reading from a teleprompter. The hospital scene in PS/SS where Harris’s eyes to read his lines is one of the things that bugs me the most in the entire adapted series.

  16. If Gambon could’ve kept to the tone of his portrayal of Dumbledore in POA, I could live with it. But GOF totally turned me off on his characterization. I also think jaminers was right in saying that Newell was less firm in his directing. I remember reading interviews with the trio about how Newell essentially let them do their own thing. Now, while Radcliffe & Grint are good enough to get away with that, I think Watson needed a little more direction in GOF. I think she does a much better job in OOTP, but then Yates is more hands on it seems.

  17. I really liked Harris in the first two films, though I think his ill health and age prohibited him from bringing his full acting power to the part, bless him. If the timing had worked and we could have seen a healthier, robust Harris take the role for all seven films, that would have been ideal.

    I’m sorry O’Toole wasn’t given the part, as I would have liked to see him try it.

    Frankly I’ve always thought Christopher Plummer would be excellent in the role.

    Gambon’s just totally missed the mark, in my opinion. He was better in OotP primarily because the role called for him to be emotionally distant and far more cryptic than is usual even for Dumbledore. I cringed through most of his scenes in Goblet.

    I’m a bit surprised actually that so many thought that the Dumbledore of DH was such a mighty departure from the other six books. Yes, we learn lots of things about him I had never guessed, and those things do show his full humanity, failures and frailties in a deeper way, all of which made me love him more in the end. I am not yet convinced that he was nearly as Machiavellian as everyone, include JKR, keeps insisting he was. But I think that’s probably a post (and a much longer one) for another time and place!

  18. Michael Gambon did nothing for me in the movie version of POA.

    And then I read an interview with him that really savaged any chance he had to redeem himself (wish I could find it and link it): He admitted that he had read none of the books. “Why bother?” was the tone.

    Patrick Stewart? Yes. Peter O’Toole? Yes. Christopher Plummer? Yes.

    …Michael Gambon? Can’t wait for him to die.

  19. Christopher Plummer! Oh my yes, what a good idea. And while he’s not British, he is Canadian, so he’s at least from the Commonwealth. 🙂

  20. I don’t know about Plummer for Dumbledore. Already I tend to always picture him as a cross between Captain Von Trapp in Sound of Music & General Chang in Star Trek VI. I don’t know if I can stand Dumbledore thrown into the mix.

  21. We’ve been watching OotP. Just past the part where Umbridge crashes the Room of Requirement with resulting mass detentions with the Pens of Torment.

    Have to say, Imelda Staunton owns Umbridge. The little shiver of delight she gives as the kids are sufferring is inspired. Oscar worthy.

    But looking at Gambon, with no expectations whatsoever, two observations. First, he doesn’t know how to wear the clothes. They hang off of him, and when he sits he makes no accomodation to the fact that he’s wearing robes. He acts like he’s wearing jeans. Second, he never seems to be acting towards or with anyone. His lines are thrown somewhere in mid-air. The only exception is the scene in the Headmaster’s study, after Harry’s dream about Nagini attacking Arthur Weasley. Dumbledore is avoiding looking at Harry until Harry/Voldemort yells: “Look at me!” And then there is a moment of connection.

    Now I know that the book – and presumably the script – says Dumbledore is avoiding Harry, but this goes beyond that. Gambon’s Dumbledore literally seems to be acting alone in his own world. Do you suppose it would help if he read the entire script, even if he can’t be bothered to read the books?

    I was struck again by how well the scenes between Radcliffe and Oldman work. Same flavour as the scenes between Radcliffe and Thewlis in PoA.

    And of all the names suggested, my vote would be for Christopher Plummer. Along with all the others, he can act, and in addition, can bring out the darker side of Dumbledore with no effort.

  22. He played a mean Sherlock to James Mason’s Dr. Watson, and also did Van Helsing, to add two more cultural icons to the mix.

    Plummer is basically a very competent journey-man actor. He has an inside edge on powerful, patrician roles, as well as a sardonic streak which allows him to hint at the dark side.

  23. richardtenor says

    Patrick McGoohan has always been who I’ve seen and heard in my mind’s eye/ear reading the books. I thought I read somewhere he was offered both Dumbledore and Gandalf, and turned them down for health reasons. A pity, really. I wouldn’t trade McKellan’s Gandalf for anything, but I would have loved McGoohan as Dumbledore.


  24. for me the question is: who is in charge?

    I think the measure of a good director is whether we see his vision up there on the screen.

    So either Sir Michael is being directed intentionally in a way that upsets a lot of people or the director is not really in charge.

    Either way the director(s) have something to answer for!

  25. Interesting conversation…

    Recently, I heard part of an interview with Ian McKellen in which, oddly enough, the part of Dumbledore came up. His response was that he was never interested in the role in part because he was already playing Gandalf who was the original leader-figure on which Dumbledore and many other characters are based. But even more so, he didn’t think it would be right for him to take over for Richard Harris because not long before Harris died, he’d described they ways in which he thought McKellen was a bad actor. I must say, I see the point.

    Patrick McGoohan? Hmmm … that might have had potential (clearly it’s too late now) He can do the conceal/reveal stuff wonderfully. But as for Patrick Stewart … love his voice, but sorry, his baldness is so well known that Dumbledore’s long hair would be distracting, possibly to t he point of being comedic.

    I’ve said in other places that I found Harris’ performances in the first two films to be more wheezy than whimsical. Gambon’s Dumbledore, as can now be seen, hits closer to the truth. Like I’ve also said elsewhere, the moment when he shakes Harry in the trophy room in GoF reminded me of the scene between Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey and Donna Reed’s Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life …when he’s denying so angrily that he wants anything she might offer him, trying to avoid his feelings for her, and ends up kissing her. In GoF, there was that same mix of fear, anxiety and deep (albeit non-romantic) love on Dumbledore’s part. (But it wasn’t until the second viewing that I realized what that moment reminded me of.)

    In any case, Gambon’s performance in OotP was bang-on in my book — his best one yet.

  26. And now we know Mrs. Weasley doesn’t read the books either (beyond discovering if she’s been killed off by the author). At least Harry/Radcliffe reads the stories…

  27. Hmmm

    We’ve universally condemned Gambon for not bothering to read the books, believing that his interpretation of the character would be more accurate if he had made the effort. And now here comes Walters, saying all she looks for is to see if she’s been killed off.

    I’m beginning to ask myself whether the practice is more common than we believe. Perhaps actors are not readers, or at least, no more so than the general population. Perhaps reading the source material is considered a technique, part of researching a character, which not all actors use or subscribe to. Perhaps the alternative technique of reading only the script is as common – or even more common – than reading the source material.

    I have no way of knowing. But I do think that the assumption that reseearching the character makes for better depiction of a character may be flawed.

    You (you the nameless Potter-addicted blog follower or contributor out there) may argue that had Gambon read the books he would have given us a more accurate Dumbledore. But we are not agreed upon our view of Dumbledor amongst ourselves, are we? Some of us see him as the benevolent and wise teacher and general. Others see him as the deceitful and manipulative master schemer. Some of us see him as loving and compassionate. Others see him as a cold-hearted user. Granted, none of us see him as capable of grabbing and manhandling the kids Gambon is regretfully all-to-prone to do. But maybe that is an expression of love, under deep layers of fear and anxiety, as TrudyK (above) suggests.

    My point is, although we all seem to think we have a very good handle on DUmbledore, we don’t necessarily agree with each other. There is no “correct” handle on the man, so contradictory is he. So who’s to say that if Gambon had read the books his handle on Dumbledore would have been the correct one?

    And my final point: perhaps researching a character is not related to acting ability. So even the deepest insight into a character will not help someone with a limited range convey that insight across the camera lens. Which brings up this wonderful quote from Radcliffe:

    “That time (between when Harry realizes he has to die and is zapped by Lord V) wasn’t short enough to be painless. But it wasn’t long enough for him to find complete acceptance within it either. He struggles to find acceptance. Ultimately, he finds a sort of acceptance. But he’s not necessarily reconciled with the idea of it. He knows he has to do it, but he’s still scared. I just can’t wait to be able to film it. I think Jo has given me, once again, an amazing opportunity to step up. So hopefully I’ll be able to.”

    Amen to that, Danny boy.

  28. Well, I do see your point about how differently we all now see Dumbledore. But the problem that I think most people had, or at least that I had, was the the timing was just off for the reactions Gambon was portraying in Goblet of Fire. By the end of that book, we still had a benevolent old Head Master, with a quirky sense of humor. The stronger and sometimes “I’m at a loss” Dumbledore didn’t come till the end of Order of the Phoenix when he told Harry of his mistakes. It was just the wrong timing. Now, a lot of that probably had to do with script and direction, but had Gambon read any of it, he might have been able to say (as Moody did) that those shoving scenes were, at that point at least, out of character for Dumbledore.

    As far as Julie Walters goes, who is one of my favorites, maybe she “gets it right” because she is playing a more familiar character–a mother. That is territory that doesn’t take reading the source material really. A mother who loves and protects her family is one that isn’t specific to the Harry Potter books.


  29. Actually Pat, it was even earlier than GoF that Gambon started confounding expectations: remember the infamous scene in PoA when he hits Ron’s injured leg?

    Part of the mystery to me is the fact that Gambon doesn’t act in isolation. There is a screenwriter who, one assumes, is available to interpret the character (“See here, Sir Michael, Dumbledore loves the kids, and he’s not really what you would call a ‘flippy’ character. A bit more laid-back, like.”) There is also, as someone mentioned above, a director, who one assumes has a certain understanding of the character. And of course there’s also JKR who, I understand, visits the set and every so often talks to the cast about aspect of the interpretation.

    Are we then to assume that scripwriter, director and JKR herself were stricken dumb in the face of Gambon’s determination to play Dumbledore as devoid of personal power, wisdom or charisma? Sort of like a middle-aged minor bureaucrat with dyspepsia and an odd taste in clothes?

    I can understand that Gambon – whose own understanding may not be acute – might have been puzzled by the character, and opted to play him like that. But why didn’t someone take him aside and explain things to him?

  30. revgeorge says


    I’m going to have to agree with you in your one post on Gambon as Dumbledore above, in which you state that the character is so complex that he can be seen any number of ways. Except I’ll disagree in one point: I don’t think anybody, from reading the books, sees Dumbledore as a physically violent child abuser, like when he hits Ron’s injured leg or goes all freaky on Harry in GOF. Or when he yells at the students in OOTP to get back to work. Dumbledore may be many things, but he’s not a physical abuser nor callous in that way.

    I’ll have to agree in full with your second post. Sorry.

  31. I took a while to read all the posts about the contrasting portrayals of Dumbledore. There have been mentions of the Gambon Dumbledore’s volume and physicality with students, etc. I found the biggest unreality to be the unsurety of the character in some situations. Even the few times when something happens that the Dumbledore of the books does not expect or can’t control, he is never flabbergasted or intimidated by it. One scene that struck me and completely off-key in OotP was the sacking of Trelawney. In the movie, Gambon’s character is actually cowed by Umbridge. To me, that was a HUGE departure from the scene in the book. Gambon’s Dumledore too often seems buffeted by the currents of the plot or other characters, where the Dumbledore of the books knows how to ride them, if not direct them.

  32. revgeorge says


    Good comments. I’d forgotten about the out of controlness factor. You’re right, Dumbledore in the books is almost always in exact control of himself. He loses his temper with Umbridge in OOTP when she starts choking Marietta. He’s a bit broken down at the end of OOTP, although that doesn’t keep him from saying he’s going to tell Harry the full truth & then not doing it! And he is out of control at the end of HBP because of the effects of the potion.

    None of that cooled, calm, manipulativeness comes across in Gambon’s portrayal. Whether that’s his own take or how he is being directed, I don’t know. And some people may like his take on it. But for me it’s just a distraction in the movies I could do without.

  33. Red Rocker says

    Good comments, above. Gambon looks nervous, uncertain, and definitely not in control of himself, let alone the situation or others. Hardly like the most powerful wizard in the world who out thinks all of his opponents and guides the war against the ultimate Dark Wizard to a successful conclusion even from beyond the Veil.

  34. Fascinating discussion, and one worth resuming now that ‘Half Blood Prince’ is out.

    I think multiple interpretations of a character is a valid point, but it does not excuse Gambon in this case. Take Sir Ian Mckellan’s Gandalf for example- although he may have departed from some people’s preconceived notions of the character, he was able to capture the essence of what made people love him.
    I do not discredit Gambon as an actor, on the contrary I think he is excellent, I just don’t think he is playing Dumbledore.
    I think there is certainly a shift that occurs in Dumbledore as the books progress; Harry grows up and enters the adult world where Dumbledore is able to confide in him as a friend.
    The mask of security slips and gone is the omnipotent father figure.
    This is where I disagree most with Gambon’s portrayal.
    Dumbledore is a man wracked with guilt. He feels responsible for much of the evil in the world and the innocent people killed because of it.
    He’s like the fireman who goes back into the burning building 20 times to take people out, but still feels guilty because of the 15 people he did not save.
    He is also very clever and, for better or for worse, trusts his own judgement- yet still has the wisdom to question his own actions.
    He has an excellent sense of humour and, perhaps most importantly, grand wizard or not, he is utterly self deprecating to the end. He values the lives of each and every one of his students more than his own.

    These are aspects of the personality that is Dumbledore. What they do is combine to create a character that you love.
    Is Gambon’s Dumbledore flawed then? Definately. Human? Of course Manipulative? Without a doubt. But is he likable? I say no.

  35. maggiemay says

    has anyone mentioned the ponytail beard? That’s the first thing that really made me miss the Richard Harris Dumbledore. I’m sorry, thought I, Dumbledore would not put his tail in a ponytail. However, during our family’s annual summer Lord of the Rings marathon, we discovered that Galdalf first appears in the Shire with, believe it or not, a ponytail beard! A few moments later, in the same cart ride, it is gone. Perhaps it was Gambon’s nod to McKellan?

  36. ThatDavidGuy says

    I was 13 when the first book was published and have grown up with Harry Potter in many ways.

    I really adored Harris’s Dumbledore in the first two films. He was all-knowing, grandfatherly, always looking out for little Harry. At the time, a real shoo-in for what was on the page.

    When Gambon came to the franchise, I was skeptical, but I decided to go along for the ride.

    Now, having gone from young teenager to young man over the many years the franchise has grown, I often catch the first two films on TV or throw them in to relive the experience, and what I find surprises me. Richard Harris’s Dumbledore is just as sugar-sweet and paternal as he always was, but seems more like a idealized all-knowing God-like figure than a living, breathing, conflicted person. Gambon on the other hand is driven by action, not “characterization.” As an actor myself, it is a delight to watch Gambon.

    Now when I get a hankering to watch a Potter film, I automatically go to Prisoner of Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, or Half Blood Prince. (It seems we all agree that Goblet of Fire was misdirected and weak in comparison), and I watch specifically for Gambon. The final half hour of Half Blood Prince, as far as I’m concerned, belongs to Michael Gambon as Dumbledore- he doesn’t mug, he doesn’t proclaim, he lives it, takes action, and listens.

    We all feel some sort of ownership towards the first incarnation of a beloved character (be it in our minds, on the screen, etc.), so I understand why people have such strong (sometimes vicious) opinions. I think Richard Harris would have been wonderful in the series, and I’m sure his Dumbledore would have grown to be conflicted and complex. However, his untimely demise (R.I.P.) doesn’t give us license to be Gambon haters simply because he is different. Gambon is a fully-capable actor, and to some of us, he is and always has been OUR Dumbledore.

  37. revgeorge says

    ThatDavidGuy, first off, I don’t think any of us are Gambon haters in the sense that we hate Michael Gambon as a person.

    Second, I don’t dislike Gambon’s performance & characterization as Dumbledore simply because it’s different than Harris’. I fully realize that Harris probably couldn’t have played the part going forward. So, no, my problem is completely with Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledore, his violent, antagonistic tendencies, his total confusion as opposed to the calmness we see from DD until near the end.

    Much of the impact of the scenes in HBP & DH were the total twisting of our understanding of Dumbledore as the wise, cool, collected, always in control Professor to the conflicted, manipulative, troubled DD. Don’t really get that from Gambon’s performance. Which is why his scenes in HBP fell flat for me.

    If someone has only seen the movies & not read the books, then I could imagine that Gambon’s DD could be considered acceptable. But for those who know the books, I can’t imagine Gambon’s performance truly enhances the character.

    So, if you want Gambon to be YOUR Dumbledore, good for you. But for me, Gambon is the despolier of Dumbledore. Oh, and I blame the writers & director too.

  38. Henry Moss says

    Did any of you people ever read the books?? Gambon is terrible as Dumbledore!! Perhaps it is less Gambon’s fault than the scriptwriting, but the lines assigned to Dumbledore are absolutely ridiculous. Gambon’s Dumbledore is constantly angry, emotional and yelling, a practically heretical portrayal of Dumbledore that is never granted in the novels in the slightest. The REAL Albus Dumbledore, the Dumbledore of the books is beloved for his enigmatic yet gentle demeanor, his unflinching stoicism and ability to remain utterly calm even in the most terrifying situations. Gambon plays a brutish screaming Dumbledore with no mystery about him. The most notable failings of the film portrayals are in the Goblet of Fire when Dumbledore apoplectic with anger grabs and violently shakes Harry and nothing short of screams at him ‘DID YOU PUT YOUR NAME IN THAT GOBLET??” Complete garbage. The real account? Dumbledore calmly asks Harry in a completely level tone if he entered the tournament, performing legilimency on Harry (without Harry knowing) and determining the truth that Harry had done no such thing, without laying a finger on him (Dumbledore never at any point in the series assaults Harry or any other student). The next ridiculous occurrence comes in the 5th film adaptation when Dumbledore screams at the assembled student body “Don’t you all have studying to do?!?!” before storming off in a completely contrived rage that was never present in the book at all. Oh yeah and did I mention that Dumbledore is always being described as very tall and extremely thin, but Gambon is a tub of lard? They should have got Ian Mckellen. would have been a million times better. But then again I don’t think he’d want to play another Merlin-esque character, still that would have been much better.

  39. revgeorge says

    Dear Henry, your comment “Did any of you ever read the books” is rude, for one, & inaccurate for another. People around here have read the books numerous times. And I think you’ll find if you read any of the comments that came before you, that most people are either totally against Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledore or at least recognize some of the problems with it. The few who do love Gambon’s portrayal, while I disagree with them quite strenuously, still have their reasons and usually articulate them well.

  40. Anyone who can actually read, knows that Rowling clearly sees and describes Dumbledore as a very old, unimaginably wise man, that always chooses his words carefully and often with a hint of humor. His hair and waist-long beard white as snow, his clothing colorful and slightly eccentric.
    He is the epitome of politeness and diplomacy, and absolutely no one in the entire series would even think about addressing him without proper respect. His mere calm presence is enough to capture the attention of an entire crowd.

    The ONLY thing that betrays his being the greatest wizard of all times is his eyes, very bright sparkling blue eyes. And it is in his eyes that the fire of power burns, when he blasts open the door in the fourth book after Moody kidnaps harry, making me shiver in awe of Rowling’s genius ability to create such a untouchable and complete character.
    If he wanted to get the truth out of someone, he would simply sit behind his desk, gingerly fold his hands and look over the tip of his glasses straight into their eyes, with his own magnificent, all-knowing, piercing blue eyes.

    I am not going to comment on Harris’ performance and I understand that movies are movies and a lot needs to change. But Gambon makes me actually angry when I see him screaming for the attention of children, making a spectacle of extinguishing candles, being physically violent with people, students! Pondering and wondering what to say next in public. He is snarky, bitchy and borderline offensive. Dumbledore knows great or not he is and is certainly not seeking for other people’s opinions on himself. Gambon’s eyes don’t mirror power and wisdom, if anything they show blatant insecurity and a need to prove himself worthy of his decorations.

    Everyone has their own opinion, and maybe Gambon is an extraordinary actor and artist. His portrayal of Dumbledore might even be magnificent artistically and emotionally. It is however incomparable and spot on insulting to the Dumbledore that is described in the books, and that is indisputable.

  41. Arabella Figg says

    Max>/b>, yes. Gambon’s portrayal up yhrough DH2 was “a severe disappointment.”

  42. Dumbledore should have been played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart comes across as thoughtful, intelligent and humorous. He could effectively communicate that combination of commanding leadership and compassionate humanity that one sees in Dumbledore in the books. .

  43. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    Ooooo…. I like your suggestion, tweak. Stewart’s rendering of Captain Picard in Star Trek does indicate his ability to command in just the right way.

  44. I liked Michael Gambon more than Richard Harris because the latter always seemed so stiff and without emotion, and frankly, old. Gambon captured what I imagined Dumbledore to be – an old man, but with youthful energy and bounce.

  45. I think the perfect dumbledore would be in between gambon and harris. Gambon gets it perfectly in half blood prince where he was less angry than previous films.

  46. Robert Moyer says

    I must comment on this article and the responses. I thank you all for encouraging me to see the differences and help me feel less uncomfortable about the change. I was always very critical of Harris. Though I enjoyed his rendition of Arthur in Camelot I did not like his stage performance of the same role… mainly because he was drunk… and it was obvious. His portrayal of Dumbledore was impressive.
    Thank you for pointing out some very valid story lines… the change in Snape and the counter changes in Dumbledore. The growth of Harry and his perception of both men. These points are what made the story so magical, human and real. Thanks again.

  47. Chris_2_4 says

    Personally I did not RH when I saw the first film, but then again I was sickened by the casting for Daniel too – they really should have got an child actor as good as Rupert for the role.
    However, as I progressed to CoS I really liked RH’s gentle portrayal of Dumbly. Whem Gambon took over I felt heartily sickened. As Travis said above, he is bombastic, his accent drifts all over the shop and he has no charisma. When I read that Peter O’Toole was considered for the role I immediately felt “YES! He would have been Dumbly to a tee!” Now, when i reread the books, I put Peter’s voice on Dumbly and it just fits impeccably. From his twinkling blue eyes to his range of acting, he would have personified Albus’ down to his woolly socks!
    Every other piece of adult casting (Bar Prof Flitwick)I cannot fault. As for the kids, Rupert and the lad who played Wood we the only ones who really did good jobs. Most of the others were “acceptable”. Radcliffe and Malfoy were just totally untalented.
    My main reason for swinging this abandoned troll’s club is the screenwriters though; If I could get them in a room, the walls would be crimson. How dare they change the perfect stories? What makes them think they have better ideas than the original writer? Frog choruses? Scenes with sweets making them make elephant sounds? The ghosts coming in laughing and swooping through the tables? (the Bloody Baron laughing, I ask you!)
    I really wish JKR had not sold her soul to WB and allowed them to have total control over the characters and Potter’s universe: she should produce her own film – or a TV series, with each chapter an episode.
    JKR is the greatest writer in 300 years

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