Artistic Precedent: Terry Gilliam and Harry Potter

Terry Gilliam was J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct the movies based on her books. How would he have handled the material?

Near the beginning of Chris Columbus’ film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, hulking cockney giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) takes Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) into Gringott’s, the wizarding world’s most secure bank, where Harry’s vast inheritance is kept. Deep inside the dungeon-like caverns of the bank, Hagrid unlocks Harry’s vault, and the camera jumps inside the vault’s door to show us the sole flash of creativity in Columbus’ lackluster movie.

When Hagrid turns the key, an elaborate, arachnid mechanism springs to life behind the door – hundreds of spindly tumblers and latches slither, creep and crawl away and apart from each other until the door swings open to reveal the horde of booty that Harry’s parents left him. I mention this image because it was the one moment in both of Columbus’ first two entries in the Potter franchise that not only gave me the heebie-jeebies, but it also made me think of Rowling’s first choice to direct the movies based on her books: Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam.

As most geeks know, Gilliam is something of a demigod. He’s not only the only American-born member of the classic comedy team Monty Python, but he also engineered the brilliant animated interstitials that punctuated the troupe’s nutty TV shows and movies. And after a career that would proudly make the inscription of any comedian’s headstone – “Member of Monty Python” – Gilliam moved on to an illustrious directing career that combined all the best and worst parts of David Lynch’s and Stanley Kubrick’s tenures.

And even though it’s a fucking shame that he hasn’t been able to direct any of the Harry Potter movies, there’s still hope. According to the latest gossip on the web, Order of the Phoenix director David Yates will probably direct the sixth movie, Half-Blood Prince, and he’s hinted that he might just stay on and finish out the series.

But there have also been wonderful stirrings that another geek demigod, Joss Whedon, may direct the final Potter installment. This essay isn’t about Whedon, but the point is that mathematically, Gilliam still has a chance to direct the last movie, and that would marry one of the great English fantasy epics with, of all things, an American director whose lush, fantastic visions primed him to guide us through Rowling’s kooky, mystical anti-Britain.

In lieu of a Gilliam-directed Potter, I will guide us through an array of scenes, moments and even casting choices that I think Gilliam would have handled differently – and better – throughout all the movies, which range in quality from the remarkably shitty work of Columbus in Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets to Alfonso Cuaron’s sublime Prisoner of Azkaban and David Yates’ wonderfully dreary and paranoid Order of the Phoenix. In the middle of the spectrum we have Mike Newell’s sturdy Goblet of Fire, a work of Jonathan Mostow-like caliber.

First, let’s consider how Gilliam would have handled the casting of the series. Across the board, Warner Brothers has spared no expense in securing the services of most of the past and present members of the Royal Shakespeare Company for the Potter movies. I’ll only quibble with three of their casting choices, and I’ll also speculate on how Gilliam would have directed certain performances differently.

But let’s talk casting mistakes. First on the chopping block is …

Richard Harris. Listen, I’m not disrespecting Harris. The man is a legend, and he captured two of Dumbledore’s most important qualities: his grandfatherly wisdom and his love for Harry.

But that’s the problem. Like any memorable characters from literature, Dumbledore has a host of important qualities, including:

• Mischievousness
• Humor
• Decisive anger
• Confidence in public

Sad circumstances brought old pro Michael Gambon into the role, but Gambon captures most all of Dumbledore’s qualities – something I argue Gilliam would have insisted upon, and even if he hadn’t cast Gambon in the role, I submit he would have considered someone from the ranks of his previous projects to gamely play the part, including:

Sean Connery. Connery, who was Gilliam’s sturdy Agamemnon in Time Bandits, is still kicking himself in the ass for passing on both The Lord of the Rings (presumably Gandalf) and The Matrix (presumably Morpheus). Unfortunately, this drove him to the madness that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (excuse me, LXG), but I submit that Gilliam would have found the same laid-back kindness that marked his performance as the legendary Greek king and channeled it into a fantastic Dumbledore. And just imagine how fucking badass Connery would look facing off against Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort in Order of the Phoenix!

John Neville. X-Files fans may remember Neville as the Well-Manicured Man from the series’ alien-invasion mythology, but Giliam geeks should remember Neville as Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen – or just Baron Munchausen for short. Neville got to explore a relationship with a young charge (Sarah Polley) in Gilliam’s underrated epic, but he also got to show his range as an actor of the imagination by holding down the center of Gilliam’s mercurial movie. Between his work with Gilliam and his work on The X-Files, Neville stands as one of the stupendous badasses of geekdom, and he would have brought a barge-load of sorely needed energy to the franchise’s opening.

Next, I think Gilliam would have dumped:

Kenneth Branagh. Don’t get me wrong — Branagh delivered his no-bullshit best performance since Much Ado About Nothing in Chamber of Secrets as the sinister narcissistic pansy Gilderoy Lockhart, but naturally, Branagh wasn’t nearly as unsettling as Lockhart should have been. I think Gilliam might have looked to the ranks of his former co-Pythonites for his Lockhart and cast either John Cleese (criminally wasted as Nearly Headless Nick) or Eric Idle, who perfectly captured the smarmy, smiling, molester-y menace needed for Lockhart in Brazil. (Kevin Kline would have made a great Lockhart, too, and it’s a shame he hasn’t found a home in these movies.)

Lastly, I think Gilliam would have jettisoned:

Most of the computer-generated special effects. If Brazil is any indication, Gilliam is a master of building spectacular visuals from practical and optical effects. I’m specifically thinking of the dementors here, which have appeared as wonderful CG ghouls-of-Christmas-Future, but do you remember the lumbering, skull-headed, scythe-handed guards from Evil’s palace in Time Bandits? I’m not saying the dementors should have looked like that, but I do think that Gilliam would have found a practical, optical solution for them that would have retained their terror — and kept them on the ground, too.

That said, let’s talk tone. Like I said, only the first two Potter movies need real help. Cuaron raised the bar so high in part three that the succeeding movies have been struggling to match the twisted tone poem that Cuaron synthesized from Rowling’s first fully successful entry in the series. Newell navigated the conflicting tones of the fourth book, which combined elements of action, horror and John Hughes; while David Yates’ captured the dank skullduggery of Order of the Phoenix with — of all things — Paul Greengrass-style handheld realism.

But given the reigns to the first two movies, Gilliam would have brought the one thing missing from Columbus’ flavorless, balls-less entries: danger.

Rowling’s world is dangerous, and much of the zany humor in her books springs from the tension between the ordered world of muggles and the batshit-insane world of magic. To be sure, she explores this conflict mostly through how the Dursleys react to the incursion of the magical world — remember how they retreated to a remote island cabin in book one? — but she also has fun showing us how nonchalant the longtime inhabitants of the magical world are in face of their own surroundings. One image from Cuaron’s movie springs to mind: Near the beginning, Harry crashes at a wizarding lodge before meeting Ron and Hermione. Cuaron shows us the hallway outside, where a housekeeper knocks on a door, only to be answered by a blinding light and a roar that blows her hair horizontal … and she just goes on about her business.

Rowling taps into a distinctly British flavor of madness here, and it’s the same off-kilter sense of humor seen in the Monty Python sketch about the architect who designs a skyscraper with Super-Mario-Bros-style death traps (I’m paraphrasing the dialogue here):

ARCHITECT: And after the entranceway come the spinning knives.
STUFFY BUREAUCRAT (polite as hell): Excuse me, did you say “knives”?

Remember the end of Time Bandits? The way Kevin’s parents cluelessly touch the remaining scrap of Evil’s body and get obliterated? That’s the kind of danger Gilliam would have brought to bear on Rowling’s books.

In fact, it’s worth mentioning Gilliam’s approach to Kevin’s parents in Time Bandits. Following in the footsteps of great children’s lit authors before her, Rowling saddles Harry with lousy pseudo-parents that he must escape to find the magical world — the evil aunts from James and Giant Peach are good examples of this tradition — and while Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw are wonderfully cast, their performances have ranged from standard-issue archness in Columbus’ movies to the grotesque Lynchian tableaus seen in Yates’.

But I like to think that Gilliam would have instead opted to dump much of Rowling’s text and instructed the actors playing the Dursleys (who needn’t have been name actors in his version) to be merely cold and distant toward Harry instead of openly hostile. As they say: the opposite of love isn’t hate but indifference.

OK: Hagrid. Rowling describes Hagrid as “too large to be allowed,” but Columbus hardly ever shows his largeness wreaking havoc. Like he did with Vulcan in Baron Munchausen or the lovestruck giant in Time Bandits, Gilliam would have surrounded Hagrid with a rolling wave of mayhem.

Alfonso Cuaron’s masterful Prisoner of Azkaban will probably go down as the best top-to-bottom film in the series, and in a way, it’s fitting that a hack director handled Rowling’s lackluster first two novels. Don’t get me wrong — Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are charming, but Rowling was just spinning her wheels. Clearing her throat. Fucking around. No, the series truly got underway with book three, which is when she started writing with her finish line in sight. The Harry Potter story unfolds over a five-book cycle that starts with Prisoner of Azkaban — when the giant gears and wheels of Rowling’s epic storyline start creaking to life.

To this end, Cuaron dumped much of the design of the first two movies, including the general layout of the Hogwarts campus and the complexion of the magical world. Another article on this site discusses this in greater detail, but suffice it to say that Cuaron’s sound artistic impulses have dictated the tone for the rest of the movies in the series.

To wit, Cuaron rearranged Hogwarts and made it feel like a prep school, and the two succeeding movies have retained his layout. Gilliam’s Hogwarts would have combined the twisty, earth-toned madness of the nightmarish future seen in Twelve Monkeys with the bottomless, labyrinthine scope of Evil’s fortress in Time Bandits — but to this Gilliam would naturally have added the warmth of Baron Munchausen‘s fantastical worlds. Rowling’s books are largely about how Harry escapes his awful muggle life for the sanctuary of Hogwarts, only to find his magical sanctum sanctorum under constant siege from the forces of darkness. In Baron Munchausen, Gilliam makes the Baron’s theater one of these sanctuaries within the jagged chaos of the war-torn “real” world, and I hazard to guess that Gilliam would have made Hogwarts just such a warm place.

Cuaron ignored the weirdly Anglo magical world in Rowling’s books and showed us glimpses of wizards and witches from around the globe — and I doubt David Yates would have presented wizard Kingsley Shacklebolt as a native African spell-caster without Cuaron’s trend-setting choices.

Given the chance, though, Gilliam would have established a similarly formidable artistic precedent in Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets or any movie he directed. Cuaron brought a lilting, elegiac tone to Prisoner of Azkaban — the one book where Harry never encounters Voldemort head-on. Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Baron Munchausen give us our clearest clues as to what kind of world Gilliam would have instructed his designers to build for Harry Potter, but I think Gilliam’s artistic precedent would have influenced the tone of the movies more than their look.

Had Gilliam directed Sorcerer’s Stone, we wouldn’t have had to deal with the imagination-free opening image of the Privet Drive roadsign. No, instead I submit that Gilliam would have noticed the name of the opening chapter to the Harry Potter series: “The Boy Who Lived,” and instead of cutting immediately to Dumbledore or the Dursleys, Gilliam would have escorted us muggles through the normal England we know, showing us glimpses of the insanity that lay just beyond our vision. Perhaps Gilliam would have followed Mr. Dursley on commute back home on the day Voldemort tried and failed to kill Harry. Gilliam would then have treated us to the quiet, triumphant chant of “Harry Potter, the boy who lived!”

After that, I think we would have seen harrowing images of child neglect and sterile lovelessness with the Dursleys. Gilliam would then have terrorized the Dursleys with a Hitchcockian onslaught of angry owls bearing letters. That’s right: I’m saying the Dursleys would have gotten bloodied up more in a Gilliam movie.

Gilliam also wouldn’t have been afraid to shout. In book one, when Mr. Dursley bad-mouths Dumbledore, Rowling has Hagrid bellow his rebuke. Robbie Coltrane is a great actor, and although I trust his impulse to underplay that line in the original movie, I bet Gilliam might have asked Coltrane to make Hagrid’s mayhem verbal as well as physical.

In Chamber of Secrets, wizardly Hitler Youth Draco Malfoy calls Hermione a “mudblood,” an insult that Rowling equates to all the big-league racial and ethnic slurs we know, and everyone shouts out in outrage, anger and insult. In Columbus’ movie, Draco delivers this blow with barely a reaction. Gilliam would have nailed that moment with the necessary volume and honesty.

Let’s consider the later movies, too. As much as I like the third, fourth and fifth Potter movies, an all-Gilliam series might have yielded a more unified vision of creeping fascism and police-state dread, and even though I was hoping to get through this essay without using the word “Kafkaesque,” Gilliam’s expansive Kafkaesque imagery from Brazil would have served him well while crafting the bustling bureaucracy of Rowling’s magical world.

Or to put it another way: Gilliam’s Ministry of Magic might not have been quite as happy as the one seen in Yates’ Order of the Phoenix. I imagine Gilliam would have shown us slouching, joyless drones in wizard’s robes trudging through their days as enchanted inter-office letters zipped over their heads like bytes of information instead of happy hummingbirds.

But despite my confidence in Gilliam, I’ve never forgiven him for the ending to Time Bandits — and no, I’m not mad because Gilliam killed Kevin’s dunderheaded parents. They had it coming.

No, the ending to Time Bandits always upset me because Gilliam left Kevin alone, even though Sean Connery reappeared as a fireman, and by extension, presumably a descendant of Agamemnon, who was so kind to Kevin. And yes, Baron Munchausen‘s upbeat finale mitigates this crime somewhat, but I still wonder what prompted Gilliam to indulge in such a mean-spirited ending.

To be sure, Rowling’s books are dark, but she fills her stories with knife-to-the-heart moments of love — and not just any kind of love, but the pure, altruistic love that arises when the fractured families in her books make much-needed connections.

For example: When Harry and the gang meet the spacy Luna Lovegood, she’s missing her shoes. She explains away this oddity by saying that “nargles stole them,” and our hearts fucking break as we figure out that this is Luna’s stout-hearted way to deal with getting picked on by mean kids. Yates treats this moment with true-blue reverence.

Given Gilliam’s nasty sensibilities, I wonder if he would know how to handle a moment like that?