The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Artistic Precedent: Terry Gilliam and Harry Potter

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

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

ImageNear 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.