As with most of my generation, I am a massive Harry Potter fan. I struggle to think of another work of fiction that has had quite such a large impact on my life and I’m sure many people my age feel the same. The themes were great, the world was interesting and the characters were likable. However, there has always been something of a rift in the fanbase over one key character and two legendary actors. Richard Harris played Dumbledore until his death in 2002, meaning the role needed to be recast and the actor chosen was Michael Gambon, and while both men are excellent actors, there is some debate over which was the better portrayal. I’m going to weigh in on the argument and provide, what I believe, is the true answer of which actor gave us the best Dumbledore.
Firstly, let’s talk about the Dumbledore we see in the books. Albus Dumbledore is widely believed to be one of the greatest wizards who ever lived, second perhaps only to Merlin. As a character Dumbledore is outwardly a very passive, gentle, kind man, and while this is largely true of the character overall there are some additional nuances. As a young man, Dumbledore was in favour of wizard superiority, and while it is debatable how much stock he really put in these views, I think it is undeniable that his belief in ‘The Greater Good’ –
-Remained with him his entire life. After all, Dumbledore is willing to sacrifice Harry to defeat Voldemort for the greater good, he hires Gilderoy Lockhart and Severus Snape, men whose teaching abilities are highly subject, to teach his students important life lessons for the greater good, and even his decision to leave Harry with the Dursleys can potentially be attributed to his desire to shape his character and control his ego for the greater good. My point is that Dumbledore is more complex than many in his world believe. Yes, he is the greatest wizard of modern times but he is a deeply flawed, grey character who continues to believe in making difficult and often immoral sacrifices for the Greater good. So which Dumbledore fits this profile best?
The answer is simple; its Richard Harris. Harris’s Dumbledore is a kind and gentle old man who is perhaps the farthest thing from a powerful wizard you could imagine. He doesn’t exude strength but he certainly exemplifies the kind of wisdom JK Rowling’s Dumbledore had. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is still a wise man but his power is far more obvious. He’s grumpy at times, he snaps at his students in Order of the Phoenix, and he infamously pushes Harry against a wall and practically yells “Did yah put yah name in the Goblet of Fire!” This is not who Dumbledore is, all that raw power and strength is certainly there, but it is so far beneath the surface that many question whether its there at all. There are a substantial number of witches and wizards who question Dumbledore’s abilities to teach, and the Malfoy’s write him off as nothing more than a crackpot old fool. This is a massive point which Gambon’s Dumbledore misses entirely.
Dumbledore is so obviously an accomplished wizard, he defeated one of the most infamous dark wizards of all time in a duel witnesses considered to be the greatest wizarding duel in history, he’s the Chief Warlock of the Wizengamot, the Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, he holds the Order of Merlin First Class, he speaks numerous magical languages, he’s discovered numerous uses of dragons blood as well as inventing new spells and the deluminator, he is so obviously a masterful wizard and yet so many dispute it. Why? Because look at him.
It is not at all difficult to see why people have a difficult time reconciling Dumbledore’s abilities with his appearance, JK Rowling came up with the name Dumbledore because she envisioned him walking around Hogwarts humming to himself, this is not something usually associated with powerful people. Perhaps the best example of this contrast between Dumbledore’s outward appearance and his magical powers comes at the end of Goblet of Fire where he blows off the door to Mad Eye Moody/Barty Crouch Jr’s office. In that moment Harry glimpses something in Dumbledore’s eyes and for the first time realises why he’s the only one Dumbledore ever feared. For four books we are presented with an affable and eccentric man and now we see the true power of Albus Dumbledore. Richard Harris’s Dumbledore encompasses that brilliantly and Michael Gambon fails utterly. The best Dumbledore is one whose power we can’t quite believe, to see Harris duelling Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic would’ve been shocking, with Gambon we expect it. It’s one of the many tragedies of Harris’s death, that we will never get to see him fully tackle this fascinating and complex character.
So there you have it, Richard Harris is the best Dumbledore simply because he doesn’t play the part as a great wizard, he plays him as a kindly mentor. Gambon’s portrayal, while still technically good, fails to grasp the fact that Dumbledore is not outwardly powerful, that this is something many doubt about him despite his many accomplishments. Every Harry Potter fan should weep for the performance we never got. I find it impossible to believe that Harris’s performance would ever have been anything like that of Gambon’s. Richard Harris is the better Dumbledore.