Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (review)

Dark Magic

So, is this the fourth Harry Potter movie, or the fifth? It’s the sixth? Really, already? Ah, that’s the one where Harry goes to the magic school, which has yet another new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, right? And Harry fights the evil wizard?

But I kid the biggest moneymaking movie franchise of the 21st century. Though I have pretty much forgotten what happens in each individual book, because now that the grand story is finished, it’s all just one giant jumble of Harry Potter-ness in my head. Maybe that’s why, with this first movie since the book series wrapped up exactly two years ago, The Half-Blood Prince feels episodic in a way that the previous movies did not: I almost expected to hear Michael Gambon’s (Brideshead Revisited, Cranford) deep Dumbledore voice intoning, “Previously, on Harry Potter…” as HBP opened.
It’s probably best that one approaches this latest film, with its surprisingly complementary chirpy sense of humor and bleak sense of horror, with more a general Harry Potter-ness filling one’s brain than with the expectation that all your favorite bits from J.K. Rowling’s novel of the same name [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] will be cinemized for your fannish enjoyment. Because with the sheer amount of content from the novel that’s been excised, the chances are excellent that your favorite bit is not here. And that’s fine, as moviemaking goes. Someday, decades from now, someone will produce the epic 185-part definitive Harry Potter filmed adaptation that omits not one single scene and not one single motif from the books, but this movie series was never intended to be that. And someday, someone will teach a class in Adapting Novels for Film that dedicates an entire section to Rowling’s books and the Warner Bros. movies.

David Yates’ Half-Blood Prince will, for some future student in that class, be the subject of a thesis called “How to Do It Absolutely Right (While Also Pissing Off Your Fan Base).” I can hear the howls already from devotees of Rowling complaining that yes, yes, they understand perfectly well that some stuff certainly had to be cut, that of course not everything could make it into the movie, but goddammit, that one scene was absolutely essential and it’s sheer blasphemy that it was left out, and now the film is ruined. (I heard some of this from my guest at my press screening of the film, who shall remain anonymous unless he wants to out himself in comments here.) And I’m not even saying that those fans are necessarily wrong: there are probably fifty different movie versions of HPB that could work very well, depending upon which 25 percent of the book you shuffled around to put up on the screen.

But the version that Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Young Visiters, or, Mr. Salteena’s Plan) and screenwriter Steve Kloves (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Wonder Boys) have given us works very well, too, by narrowing down the hugeness of the novel into a diptych depicting the choices of adolescence. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe: December Boys) and his friends and rivals are, for the most part, sixth-year students at Hogwarts now, and though it’s not explicitly mentioned in the film, this means that many of their former classmates will not have returned to school: they’ll have finished their O.W.L.s (Ordinary Wizarding Levels, comprehensive exams) the year before and decided that higher education wasn’t for them. Those who have returned to Hogwarts have made a more mature commitment to the school and to their education than they could have possibly done when they entered at age 11, and because those who are left are fewer in number, they’re closer to one another as well.

And they’re all also 16 years old, and bursting with hormones.

A surprising bulk of HBP is given over to teenage romance: there’s flirting and heartbreak and moon eyes and sighing and snogging and love potions and more heartbreak as everyone tries to figure out the relationship thing. The tender sweetness and frequent outright goofiness of it all — particularly surrounding Harry’s friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), who can neither cope with his little sister Ginny’s (Bonnie Wright) burgeoning womanhood nor his own attractiveness to certain female students — is lovely and funny and beautifully done. The wonderful maturity of the young cast as performers, and presumably as youngsters who’ve grown up around one another over the course of making these films, is clearly a factor in making it all work: it’s not just how Yates sensitively frames this most awkward aspect of adolescence but how the actors depict it, with a wisdom seemingly beyond their years, that makes it all so very touching. (If I had to predict the one cast member who will go on to even bigger things, it’d be Emma Watson [The Tale of Despereaux, Ballet Shoes], who plays Harry’s best friend Hermione: she may have to endure a few years of roles as Disney princesses, but beyond that she could have a career as a charming comedic leading lady.)

On the flip side of all that adolescent angst is Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton: The Borrowers) who, while his peers are agonizing over getting a date or not getting kissed, is struggling with a truly momentous choice: Will he go to the dark side and embrace Voldemort? That’s no spoiler, even if you haven’t read the book and have no idea who Voldemort is (think: Darth Vader and Osama Bin Laden rolled together), because as the movie opens, we — and Harry — see that all the no-good Draco has ever been up to before is nothing compared to what he’s up to now, but he’s obviously having doubts about it. I don’t remember feeling sorry for Draco, ever, while reading the novels, but Yates and Felton make Draco tormented in a way that Rowling didn’t… and it gives the shuffling around of some of the stuff at the very end of the film version of the story an even greater impact, in some ways, than it did in the book.

Or perhaps it’s just that with so much of the other material pared away, the fundamental theme of Rowling’s novel gets more of a highlight here: Some of the choices you make even at the tender age of 16 will impact the rest of your life.

And to think I was worried that the PG rating of the film meant that some of Rowling’s darkness would be toned down. If that thought doesn’t scare the pants off kids, I don’t know what will.

The Harry Potter saga reviewed:
‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’
‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’
‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’
‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’
‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix’

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