The Remorse of Gellert Grindelwald

The 3-Way Duel between Albus Dumbledore, Aberforth Dumbledore, and Gellert Grindelwald that left Ariana dead
Credit: the fatal duel by *LoonyL

Well, I didn’t have nearly as dramatic a DH1 experience as Last Muggle did. No exploding cameras, no evacuated theaters, nothing! Actually, it was pretty uneventful.

We got into the theater with plenty of time to spare. We found great seats. And we saw pretty much the entire movie. Okay, I missed a couple of minutes during the camping sequence, right after the splinching scene, but thanks to the complete and utter normalcy of my viewing experience, I’ve had a couple of days to contemplate the film at my leisure.

I’ve been planning to look at several scenes in some detail, but I decided to devote this particular post to the one that really really bothered me in this otherwise EPIC WIN film… the scene in which Voldemort seeks information about the Elder Wand from Gellert Grindelwald.

As anybody who has read the series knows (and if you haven’t read the series, be warned that there are spoilers ahead): Gellert Grindelwald is the former “Most Dangerous Dark Wizard of All Time.” He was defeated by Albus Dumbledore in 1945 (as Harry learns from a Chocolate Frog card on his first trip on the Hogwarts Express).

Of course, the Dumbledore-Grindelwald story becomes much more complex when we reach DH. These two great Wizards were not merely adversaries. In youth, they were close friends (for a couple of months) before a three-way duel with Aberforth killed Dumbledore’s sister.

Dumbledore, we learn extra-canonically from JKR, was actually infatuated with Grindelwald during that time and was briefly seduced toward Dark Magic through that infatuation. The two young men sought the Deathly Hallows (the subject of The Tale of the Three Brothers), with Gellert having a particular fascination for the Elder Wand… which he stole from the wand maker Gregorovitch and which Dumbledore won from him in the legendary duel of 1945.

Because of the Grindelwald revelations in DH, Harry is put in the position of having to come to terms with Dumbledore’s past. He must recognize, as Sirius told him 3 years earlier, that the world is not divided up into “good people and Death Eaters.” Good people can have dark pasts. And apparently, even people who have committed dark horrors can find even a moment of light.

In the book, Voldemort visits Gellert Grindelwald (now an old, skeletal man) at Nurmengard prison:

Grindelwald: So you have come. I thought you would… one day. But your journey was pointless. I never had it.

Voldemort: You lie.


“Kill me, then!” demanded the old man. “You will not win, you cannot win! That wand will never, ever be yours – ”

And Voldemort’s fury broke: A burst of green light filled the prison room and the frail old body was lifted from its hard bed and then fell back lifeless, and Voldemort returned to the window, his wrath barely controllable.

So Book!Grindelwald taunts Voldemort, rather than betray Dumbledore and the Wand. Or as Harry tells his deceased former mentor:

“Grindelwald tried to stop Voldemort going after the wand. He lied, you know, pretended he had never had it.”

Dumbledore nodded, looking down at his lap, tears still glittering on the crooked nose.

“They say he showed remorse in later years, alone in his cell at Nurmengard. I hope that it is true. I would like to think he did feel the horror and shame of what he had done. Perhaps that lie to Voldemort was his attempt to make amends… to prevent Voldemort from taking the Hallow…”

“… or maybe from breaking into your tomb?” suggested Harry, and Dumbledore dabbed at his eyes.

You know, I was looking forward to watching the one decent, courageous moment in Grindelwald’s life be realized on the screen.

So what did the filmmakers do? They had Grindelwald give up Dumbledore as owner of the Elder Wand, and even reveal the Wand’s location in Dumbledore’s tomb. And then they had Psycho Killer Voldemort leave him in peace!

Logistically, yes, we do need to know why Voldemort goes to Dumbledore’s tomb. We do need to know why he finds the Wand there. But having Grindelwald reveal Dumbledore’s ownership of the Wand is not the only way to accomplish that. In fact, here’s a scenario that would accomplish the same thing without violating Grindelwald’s character arc:

Grindelwald: Kill me, then! You will not win, you cannot win! That wand will never, ever be yours.

Voldemort: Dumbledore! He took the Wand, didn’t he, when he locked you up in here! You’re protecting him!… Avada Kedavra!

Why is this so important when the Dumbledore backstory is largely missing from the movie? Well, for starters, Dumbledore’s backstory probably won’t be missing from DH2, where we can learn more from his brother Aberforth and the King’s Cross sequence.

But even more significantly, Grindelwald’s refusal to help Voldemort plays into the entire redemption theme of the series… and into the whole question of remorse.

The “R” word is huge in DH. Dumbledore experienced remorse after the death of his sister. Snape experienced remorse after the death of Lily. And seemingly, even Grindelwald – a man who went much further down the dark path than either of these two men – was sufficiently remorseful to protect Dumbledore and the Wand.

Obviously, what Harry learns about Dumbledore and Snape is most significant to his understanding of the transformative power of remorse. Yet he also learns along the way that even Grindelwald – the former “Most Dangerous Dark Wizard of All Time” – was able to turn back at least just a little… and in the face of death. Gellert Grindelwald, in his last moments, performed one small act that showed his remorse.

I personally would not underestimate the significance of Grindelwald’s act for the DH plot. Given that Harry had discussed it with Dumbledore only an hour or so earlier, it is highly likely that the remorse Harry saw in the old man served as one inspiration for the moment of mercy he offered to Voldemort – giving the Dark Lord himself one last chance at remorse.

By having Grindelwald show the opposite of remorse, though, the filmmakers violate the character’s story arc in a rather profound way and undermine a key theme of the series.

So tell me… if it was so easy for me to figure out how to get Voldemort to Dumbledore’s tomb without violating Grindelwald’s character, why was it seemingly so hard for David Yates and Steve Kloves?

12 responses to “The Remorse of Gellert Grindelwald

  1. Exactly!
    When I first read DH, that scene with Grindelwald really stood out to me. Here was the man who was basically Voldemort’s predecessor, taunting the Dark Lord and proclaiming that he welcomes death. Pretty big deal, right?
    In a way, the tweaking of what seems to be a very short scene actually changes one of the characters drastically. >:(

    • That scene in the book stood out to me as well. I found it very powerful, particularly after the cumulative power of everything we’ve learned up to that point… about Grindelwald, Dumbledore, the Deathly Hallows. Having Grindelwald be the one who laughs in Voldemort’s face and does NOT give him the information he desires is a really profound moment in the book. And I wanted to see it in the movie. Or at least I did not want to see it trashed in the movie.

      When I mentioned that I was upset about this scene on the Open Discussion thread on CoS, someone said Grindelwald was too minor to care about anyway.

      What he meant was that he was too minor in the film (not the book) because the Dumbledore backstory is glossed over in the film.

      But I think it’s still a pretty big deal. This is the Grindelwald that casual viewers are going to take home with them.

  2. Agreed, especially with the scene coming so soon after the Tale of the Three Brothers — I was waiting to hear Grindelwald’s defiant “I welcome death!” and its echoes of the third brother.

    Why did they do this?

    • Oh, excellent point about the echoes of the third brother.

      I wish I knew why they did this. Someone suggested that screenwriter Steve Kloves likes to shove characters into simple categories of good and evil. If Grindelwald is evil, then he needs to be thoroughly evil. But I’m not sure of that. Kloves has said recently that he was always certain from the start that Snape would turn out to be an essentially heroic character. That doesn’t sound like someone who tends to oversimplify good and evil.

      Personally, I think it’s possible that the filmmakers probably did it to explain why Voldemort sought the Wand in Dumbledore’s tomb. But as I pointed out, it’s easy to find another way to do that… and I’m sure Kloves could write it a whole lot better than I can.

  3. I don’t have an answer for you, but I did notice that, in general, redemption doesn’t seem particularly important to the film makers. Dudley, Kreacher, and Peter Pettigrew all saw their redeeming scenes cut or altered.

  4. As a young Gellert Grindelwald cosplayer (costume play) and as someone who wrote a 10 page paper on Grindelwald for my term thesis, that change upset me amazingly. Grindelwald, to me at least, wasn’t evil, but a self-misguided brilliant man who found redemption in the last. And the film makers stole that from him.

  5. I have been searching the net as to find the reason why the directors decided to change the scene. I found this article, and I really liked it, I agree with you.
    That was very big for me, because the scene in the book showed that Grindelwald cared for Dumbledore. With Harry suggesting that he didnt give the information because he didnt want him breaking Dumbledore’s tomb.

    I just want an explanation. I am really curios as to what they are going to do in part 2. Coming out July 15, 2011 – approx 3 more months! cant wait! =)

    • Hi Phoenix! I’m glad you found the blog and liked the article. I’ll start posting again in a couple of weeks, once the semester is over.

      I really don’t know why the director (or Warner Brothers) made the decision to change the scene between Gellert Grindelwald and Voldemort. I think it’s an important scene. It shows that Grindelwald has some loyalty to Dumbledore and also that remorse is a possibility, even for a former Dark Lord.

      I’m excited about DH2 as well. Aside from the Grindelwald scene, I loved DH1. I just hope that DH2 does the ending of the series justice. :)

  6. WOW! all I can say is WOW! I just watched Harry potter part 2 and THEY SKIPPED IT! They skipped the part when Dumbledore told Harry his secrets and such! SUCH A BIG disappointment!

    I guess since they didnt show Gellert’s remorse in the first part, they couldnt really tie everything together. So they went with a shorter approach!

    I saw the movie in 3D and I loved the 3D part! But they skipped so many things in the book that I found the movie to be just average!

    Anyway, I immediately thought of this blog when I realized that they skipped Dumbledore’s story!

    • Hi! I was disappointed, too, that they skipped Dumbledore’s secrets in Deathly Hallows 2, but I think they made a lot of cuts so that the movie-only fans could follow the plot. I was really so happy with the movie at that point that I didn’t mind too much. I was just blow away with how they handled The Prince’s Tale.

      I haven’t had time to do a full review and write-up of the film. I’m taking two summer classes right now, and I’m pretty worn out. :( But I’m glad you thought of this blog because of the bits they skipped about Dumbledore. I love the Albus Dumbledore backplot. And it draws such a nice parallel with the stories of Severus Snape and Regulus Black.

  7. Remember, JK was included in the film making process – though she likely did not have final say on anything. I would imagine that she believes Grindelwald’s final character can be left for interpretation. Im sure Yates and Kloves were smart enough to figure out another way for Voldemort to find where the wand was, but it is their interpretation of the characters that matter (as far as the movies are concerned).

    By the the seventh movie, if you take Grindelwald’s past into account …than their portrayal makes sense really. It is even more realistic for such a man compared to what JK wrote and what we’d like to believe.

    Grindelwald was an ideologist in the extreme… A man that believed in the greater good (utilitarian at heart) even if it meant murder or slavery. However, he also seemed reasonable and smart enough to influence Dumbledore (lets throw romance out the window for a second, you are not suddenly seduced by the idea of slavery because you are in love). He was not a mad man like Voldemort and seemed to have firm convictions based on “logical” observations of the world. People like this are not merely changed by spending decades alone in a prison cell, even if we’d like to believe otherwise.

  8. in the book, the “protection” of Grindelwald demonstrates to respect the sorcerer that was dumbledore although he manipulated (for after JKR) before …
    remorse can be felt by all human beings. Grindelwald can to do, not Voldemort because he has no soul.
    I love Grindelbore, I also see an act of a desperate man who wants join his alter ego in death. he asked Voldemort to kill him. he loved Dumbledore in his way. shipper’s hope.
    Grindelwald showed that Voldemort is the worst of all.

    I was disappointed that the story of dumbledore was removed in the film. The scene between Voldemort and Grindelwald has can be modified to explain that Grindelwald felt nothing for Dumbledore, he has always manipulated. message sent to book’s fan. whereas in the book can be understood differently because their history is implied. It depends on the understanding of each.

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