Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A look back at Harry Potter part VI: The Half-Blood Prince delivers the worst adaptation from one of the best books.

This will be a six-part retrospective on the Harry Potter film series, covering films 1-6 (I think most Potter fans can remember the one that came out eight months ago...).  This essay will be covering Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

When I first saw the film two years ago, I concluded that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was my least favorite of the series (original theatrical review).  Looking back at the films, I've amended that somewhat.  The Chamber of Secrets is arguably the worst film in the franchise (keeping in mind that I like them all), and The Half-Blood Prince is what it always was: a good entry in the franchise that suffers from (in my opinion) the choice to edit out much of what made the original book worthwhile.  At the time, I gave the film much grief for how it handled the climactic plot twist, rendering what I remember being shocking and unexpected in the book something that was all-but preordained.  But the movie is not the book.  Whatever issues I have with the film as an adaptation of a novel that I was quite fond of, the film itself remains a solid piece of character-driven fantasy.  Like The Goblet of Fire, The Half-Blood Prince arguably was judged harsher than it should have been because it was among my favorite of the books.  I still have problems with the film, but that should be kept separate from my problems regarding its worth as an adaptation.

This sixth Harry Potter adventure spends more time than any other since the Columbus pictures with our core trio of heroes.  Hermione and Ron, pushed aside in the later films for the sake of Harry-centric narratives, are again given copious screen time and the film benefits from it.  Alas, the major story arc for Hermione Granger involves her crying over a boy, which is frankly kind of lame for the famously 'finest wizard of her age'.  Yes, Harry Potter pines for Ginny Weasley as well, but it doesn't distract him from his studies or from the extracurricular assignments that Dumbledore gives him this year.  To be fair, Hermione has often been quick to emotional breakdown (running to the bathroom after Ron mocks her in Sorcerer's Stone, crying in front of Hagrid after Malfoy calls her a 'mudblood' in Chamber of Secrets, etc), but there is something oh-so... disappointing about Hermione weeping in the hallway because a boy doesn't like her.  Anyway, much of the story does involve various attempts at snogging.  Harry wants Ginny, who is with Dean Thomas (Alfie Enoch) for much of the picture.  Hermione wants Ron, but Ron is seduced by Lavender Brown (Jessica Cave).  In the unintentional comedy category, I am always amused at how the film goes out of its way to explain how awesome Dean is, arguably to make sure that the film isn't suggesting that Dean, who is black, is not 'good enough' for Ginny.  Anyway, Dean and Ginny break up offscreen and Harry ends up chastly kissing Ginny in the second act climax.

If I may say so, Harry Potter is one of the worst kissers in cinema history.  Both of his major onscreen smooches basically involve him standing completely upright, hands at his sides, while his mouth barely touches his would-be romantic interest.  Anyway, Ginnie has marginally more personality than Cho Chung from the last picture, but she is still woefully underwritten compared to her literary counterpart and mainly exists as 'the love interest'.  Once again, why Harry doesn't date Luna Lovegood, I'll never know.  At least he has the good sense to invite her to a formal dinner early in the film, but then the dunderhead ignores her for most of the evening.  By the end of the film, Ginny and Harry are a couple, while Hermione and Ron are on the verge of 'going steady'.  If this all sounds kind of boring to you, that's because it is.  By cutting most of the Voldemort backstory that is at the heart of the book, and not upping the focus on the B plot (see - Felton, Tom), the film is stuck with 2.5 hours to tell a pretty thin story about Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbant) and the one time he gave an honest answer to a student's hypothetical question, plus a whole bunch of C-level teenage romance melodrama.

The saving grace of the film remains the 'B' plot, as Tom Felton nearly steals the picture.  Tasked by Voldemort himself with murdering Voldemort, Draco is both wracked with guilt and terrified by the prospect of failing his father's boss.  It's a stunning turnaround, as Draco finally realizes that there is a big difference between merely being evil and actually doing evil.  It is Draco Malfoy who is 'the Chosen One' this time around, and it is his anguish that highlights the film.  If I may, I would personally love to see a cut of the last three films (6, 7, and 8) and/or read the last two books from the point of view of Draco.  Felton gives a mostly silent performance, but he has aged well into adulthood (he looks dapper in that pure black suit) and it is his struggle with his would-be destiny that makes the film pop.  Also helping matters is the fact that this subplot finally gives Snape (Alan Rickman) some genuine dramatic scenes, as he is unwillingly entrusted with making sure Draco carries out his assignment.  His brief argument with Dumbledore before the climax is all-the-more potent if you know what's coming.

Maybe because I was an idiot at the time, but reading the book on an airplane trip back home to Ohio, I had no idea how the climax was going to go down.  Yes, we all pretty much knew that Dumbledore was going to die, but I was shocked, jaw on the floor with impish glee at the rightness of it all, when Snape arrived at the top of the tower and shot Dumbledore out the window to his death.  I held a grudge of sorts against the film because of how Yates and Kloves telegraphed the would-be twist in the film version.  But, in retrospect, it's just a different way to play it.  Knowing that Snape is indeed on the side of angels and knowing that Dumbledore has asked him to commit an unforgivable act makes his brief scene in The Deathly Hallows part I all the more powerful.  David Yates traded shock and surprise for tragic pathos and creeping inevitability.  In hindsight, it was a fair trade.

Still, the film falters by emphasizing teen romance over the genuinely intriguing flashbacks to Voldemort's childhood.  Yes, Dumbledore covered some of this ground in Chamber of Secrets and Order of the Phoenix, but I genuinely enjoyed the flashbacks in the novel and missed them in the film.  Also missing is the additional backstory for Snape.  Granted, I'm hoping that Snape's big scene in Deathly Hallows part II will make up some of the lost ground, but again you're basically taking away what made the book interesting (and taking away the whole reason for the film's title) and leaving little in its place.  Save for Snape's climactic actions, there is really no reason to even watch this film since the background and context that made it vital has been omitted.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a good and entertaining entry in the series, but one that seriously falters due to sins of omission and errors of emphasis.  They find time to have a funeral for a spider, but not for Dumbledore.  And how I hate that Ginny is the one who comforts Harry, as it would have been far more powerful if Ron and Hermione had helped their friend mourn.  But, as a standalone film, it is superbly acted and Alan Rickman finally gets a chance to do pathos.  Tom Felton is so damn good in his few big moments that I wish the entire film had focused on him (his bathroom duel with Harry Potter is thrilling and shockingly violent).  There is plenty of good stuff in this sixth film, as the first act is pretty splendid.  I love the bridge attack that opens the film, plus the hilarious early moment where Dumbledore acts as a world-class cock blocker.  Still, this film, above the others, suffers by making the wrong choices about what to cut and what to keep.  So, as a result, one of the best Harry Potter books becomes one of the worst Harry Potter movies.  It's still pretty darn good, all things considered.

Scott Mendelson


CSL said...

Which is disappointing because it had probably one of the best trailers I've seen in a long time.

Scott Mendelson said...

I still love that initial 'Omen-esque' teaser.

Ankitashashidhar said...

Half-Blood Prince is one of my favourite books as well and I didn't feel the movie adapted it well at all. I agree that they paid the romance part too much attention and still the Harry/Ginny relationship felt completely superficial. I love Ginny as a character and none of the movies do her justice at all!

What annoyed me the most was one of the main plots - the mystery of the 'half-blood' prince wasn't tackled at all! Where are the scenes of the trio researching who it could be? so, when we do find out that its Snape, it doesn't feel monumental!


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