Who was the better Dumbledore? Richard Harris or Michael Gambon? Obviously I'm rolling with Gambon here, but you're welcome to your opinion.
Careful how you answer that question, though, because it's sneaky. Your preferred House? Your opinion on the Harry/Ron/Hermione love triangle? Your read on Snape? None of those opinions speak more to your larger view of the Potter saga than what you think of Albus Dumbledore. And that's why a fan's opinion on who played Dumbledore best, by extension, is a quick way to determine what kind of fan they really are.
It's important here that Dumbledore isn't always around. He's working largely behind the scenes, popping up in key moments to either reveal some new information or to act as a walking, wand-wielding deus ex machina. So what's he up to in all those absences? And why were those absences so necessary? (You know, apart from being a story-telling device.)
I don't know about you, but I think Dumbledore was keeping himself busy in those absences. I think he was neck-deep in some life-or-death wizard junk, and that's why Michael Gambon, without a doubt, was the better Dumbledore. Let's dig in.
Richard Harris as Dumbledore
Casting Harris was a bold move that Sorcerer's Stone director Chris Columbus had to have known would get a lot of attention in the press. While today's moviegoers might not be familiar with him, Harris was, once upon a time, known for being a British bad boy who would get into all kinds of mischief with buddies Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, and Oliver Reed. Columbus likely felt that background would help bring some texture to the onscreen Dumbledore.
It's important here to note that Harris didn't think much of anything about the Harry Potter books. I've seen other fans cast aspersions on Michael Gambon for not reading the books, but it's not like Harris had done the homework either. He says he accepted the role because his granddaughter was a fan and begged him to do it.
"I haven't, even today I haven't read them," he told the BBC in 2001. "Not because they're not grand, I know they're great. I love the script, but I don't read fiction, it's as simple as that. There's more fiction in my life than in books, so I don't bother with them."
Harris played Dumbledore very straight. In the same interview quoted above, Harris said he "avoided the temptation" of embellishing the role with his own spin. What this means on a practical level is we're not really getting a sense of Dumbledore's inner life. Which is actually fine for the first two movies. It's not until the third book that Rowling started to pull back the curtain on Albus. But Harris' portrayal of Dumbledore still feels restricted.
The Harris version of Dumbledore speaks with a raspy voice, moves kind of slowly, and comes off as a wise old grandfather who occasionally cracks a few jokes. At no point do we get a sense that he's a guy who could be hiding some seriously dark stuff behind those half-moon glasses of his.
By the way, yes, screenwriter Steve Kloves, who wrote all eight movies, had a "dark" read on Dumbledore from the beginning. It's not something he decided on later. Here's what he had to say about Dumbledore in a 2003 interview on the DVD for Chamber of Secrets:
Wow. That is a very nuanced read of the character. If only Harris had been able to project that level of nuance, maybe the switch from Harris to Gambon wouldn't have seemed so dramatic.
Did Harris' health affect his work as Dumbledore? I don't think so. He wasn't hospitalized until well after Chamber of Secrets had wrapped, and his cancer didn't seem to even be affecting him. When he was originally hospitalized Harris told Chris Columbus, who directed the first two films and produced the third, that he'd kill him if he recast the role. "I cannot even repeat what he said. He still has got that fight inside of him," Columbus said at the time.
My final verdict is that Harris simply read Dumbledore a certain way, and it wasn't actually consistent with how many readers (e.g. me) think of him. I don't think it was ultimately consistent with Kloves' vision of Dumbledore, either. Dumbledore simply wasn't the kindly grandfather type. He was busy dealing with some next-level dark magic behind the scenes, and Harris' version of the character didn't seem like he could handle that kind of thing.
Michael Gambon as Dumbledore
Casting Gambon was every bit as bold as casting Harris, but not as flashy. He didn't have the old school bad boy reputation or the aggressive wit that made Harris a great interview. Gambon was mostly known as a hard-working British character actor, but he had an edge that made him seem dangerous. Anyone who ever saw him in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover knows this is an actor who can emotionally turn on a dime. He's explosive and kind of scary.
"He’s got to be a bit scary," Gambon told the LA Times in 2009. "All headmasters should be a bit scary, shouldn’t they? A top wizard like him would be intimidating. And ultimately, he’s protecting Harry. Essentially, I play myself. A little Irish, a little scary. That’s what I’m like in real life."
Dumbledore wasn't the only thing that changed when Gambon came onboard. The third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, marks a shift in tone, taking the series from Children's Literature to Young Adult. With its Dementors and ever-present threat of a madman on the loose, it's darker, and the movie is darker, too. As Chris Columbus vacated the director's chair, he stayed on to produce, helping to choose up-and-coming director (and future Oscar winner) Alfonso Cuarón to helm the picture. Cuarón had a specific look in mind for the third film, changing the entire world's aesthetic to suit his vision. In the process, Dumbledore's costume was changed to match that aesthetic. The heavy, stiff robes were gone and in their place were a layered silk get-up that allowed Gambon to be faster, more engaged, and more physical than his predecessor.
All this is to say that the change in Dumbledore isn't something you can chalk up just to Gambon. It was intentional. It was methodical. It was a team effort, and remember that J.K. Rowling remained an integral part of that team as she worked with Kloves on the scripts. So whatever you think of Gambon as Dumbledore, don't try to act like he was going rogue when he shook Harry and demanded to know, "Did you put your name in that Goblet of Fire?!"
Oh yeah, about that scene...
Let's revisit the part where Dumbledore loses it on Harry in The Goblet of Fire. Harris fans point to this as proof that Gambon didn't get the character. They cry, "It was so much different than what was in the book!" Okay, yes, Dumbledore stayed calm in the book, but this was the moment when Gambon claimed the character for his own. Let's watch again.
Okay so yes this moment has been picked apart and memed to death, and maybe it would have been smoothed out a little if everyone involved knew we would spend too much time focusing on it, but it's useful. This scene very quickly communicates to us that Dumbledore is more than the kindly Hogwarts headmaster. THIS is the wizard who Voldemort rightfully fears. This is a dude who can handle that next-level dark magic business we've been talking about.
Gambon takes us deeper. His facial expressions belie doubt, suspicion, concern, and maybe even damage. This is the Dumbledore who kept secrets. This is the Dumbledore capable of wielding the Elder Wand with ease. This is the Dumbledore who made a fatal mistake in a moment of weakness by slipping Tom Riddle's cursed ring onto his finger, thus sealing his fate. By the end of Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore is a fully fleshed out character. If Harris had kept playing Dumbledore all the way through the end, I suspect he would have robbed us of Dumbledore's complicated emotional side.
Putting It to Bed
With all that in mind, it's hard for me to imagine why some fans still insist Harris was the better Dumbledore. Perhaps it's because we have fundamentally conflicting views of the character. I like the flawed Dumbledore, doing his best, but still not totally sure he's doing the right thing. I like Dumbledore having an angry side, a passionate side. That feels more true to life, and that's how Gambon played him.
So let's put this thing to bed. I've made my argument, but who do you think was the better Dumbledore?