Posted on Friday, July 17th, 2009 by David Chen
[This is part four of a four-part series. You can also read part one, part two, and part three. This article contains SPOILERS for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but NOT for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows]
Over the past seven days, I have plowed through 15 hours of Harry Potter movies in an attempt at exploring the cultural phenomenon of this series. Crucial to this adventure has been my complete unfamiliarity with the Harry Potter books. Unencumbered by the expectations and anticipations that accompany Potter-fandom, I tried to evaluate how well these films work as films in their own right.
The process of adapting thousands of pages of novels into a series of movies is undoubtedly daunting. The closest analogue in recent memory is The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Taken as films alone, that series had flaws that are occasionally inherent to the adaptation process, especially for books set in a fantasy universe (as opposed to, say, a procedural crime drama by Grisham). For example, characters, whose rich back stories fill the books, were sometimes introduced with very little context, and story elements were occasionally confusing, since they could not be explained at length.
The Rings trilogy, however, had a lot of other things going for them to distract from their flaws as films: Stunning direction and a unifying vision by director Peter Jackson to guide every movie; epic and crowd-pleasing battle scenes that used state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects technology; the simple, underlying story of the bonds of friendship between Frodo and Sam; and the back-to-back-to-back event-style theatrical releases that took place during the holidays three years in a row. The Potter series has to deal with different challenges and after watching all six films in one week, culminating with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I am unfortunately more aware of its flaws than ever.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
The latest film in the series sees Hogwarts amping up their security, as Voldemort’s Death Eaters increase the frequency of their attacks. A shield of some sort (never explained in the movie) is established around the school to protect the students and staff from the Death Eaters, but the devious Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) may have devised a workaround. Moreover, a series of assassination attempts on Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) bring urgency to his attempt to destroy Voldemort once and for all. In doing so, he enlists the help of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) to cozy up to one of Voldemort’s old instructors, Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Meanwhile, Hermione (Emma Watson) is directly confronted with her feelings for Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint).
After hearing the buzz and knowing about the more mature nature of this book, I had high hopes going in. Director David Yates not only had the ability to see where his predecessors had failed and succeeded as directors, but he himself had turned in an entry to the series already (Order of the Phoenix). The big question on my mind was: With the benefit of hindsight and with his considerable talents behind him, could Yates create a film that worked not only as a Harry Potter movie, but as an adventure movie on its own?
My answer: Not really.
There is a lot to like about Half-Blood Prince if you’ve seen the previous films. As the latest entry in a series of very similar films, it completely works. It is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful movies of the year, with excellent cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (The IMAX trailer for this film, which is embedded above, is my favorite trailer of 2009 thus far). There is a lot of humor in the interactions between the students, and when Ron implicitly rejects Hermione, you feel just as angry and frustrated as she must. Our reaction to these scenes is only possible after having spent time with these characters for nearly a decade.
There are also plenty of moments of pure cinema in this movie, scenes that made my geek heart swell with pride. I am absolutely in love with the liquid motif that Yates employs for the flashback memory sequences, which feel simple, yet breathtaking. The scene when Harry and Dumbledore travel into a cave to retrieve a Horcrux contains one of the best jump scares I’ve seen in my life, but also features a spectacular fire sequence that’s a wonder to behold.
But even as I was enjoying these elements, the films problems kept lingering in the back of my mind. It should be noted that the movie doesn’t really stand up on its own as well as the other films, since it ends with a very clear cliffhanger. I’m not going to dock points for that, since it’s inherent to the storyline, but what I’m justifiably unhappy about is that the fim squanders some of the little dramatic potential it has. As with some of the less enjoyable Potter films, Half-Blood Prince takes an excessive amount of time in setting up the main conflict of the story. By the time you understand what all the pieces of the puzzle are, the film is almost over.
Arguably one of the most significant twists of the series is the fact that Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) has been working for the dark lord this entire time. In this film, he is introduced, matter-of-factly, as being on Voldemort’s side right from his very first scene. You could argue that his allegiances are actually ambiguous throughout the film, but I would argue that every single scene Snape is in during this film cements his status as a bad guy (not to mention the fact that halfway through the film, we learn about the true nature of the Unbreakable Vow). Also, the final reveal that Snape is indeed the Half-Blood Prince carries no weight with it; what feels like it was supposed to be one of the film’s big moments falls completely flat.
There’s also the matter of Draco Malfoy, who I think is completely wasted in this movie. The idea that Malfoy is chosen to assassinate Dumbledore is incredibly interesting, but he is given almost nothing to do in this film other than stalk around the school’s hallways a lot, get hurt by Potter in the bathroom, then scream a lot towards the end of the film. Why was Malfoy chosen for this task? Why does Malfoy feel this is a task he has to complete? What is the nature of Malfoy’s internal conflict? None of these questions are answered in a satisfying way. I am not exaggerating when I say I literally learned more about Malfoy’s motivations in the first few films, when Malfoy is still a kid and opining about how dirty mudbloods are.
If there’s one thing in the movie that really worked for me, it was Dumbledore and his relationship with Harry. We learn some of Dumbledore’s history with Voldemort, and Harry’s loyalty to Dumbledore is tested throughout the movie (The famous line, “Once again, Harry, I must ask too much of you,” is great not only for Gambon’s delivery but for the pathos it carries). When Dumbledore’s assassination finally comes at the end, it is a death exactly as tragic as it should be, a momentary triumph of evil over good and a signifier that from this point on, Potter and his friends are on their own.
I wanted and expected Half-Blood Prince to transcend the constraints of its pedigree, but I found that overall, Half-Blood Prince exemplifies everything that is right and wrong, cinematically, with the Harry Potter series. It suffers from languid and uneven pacing and manages to contain too much exposition and not enough exposition, all at once. It successfully creates its own universe and lets us inhabit it for a short period of time, yet often struggles with how to make that universe’s events suspenseful or purposeful. The greatest joy in this film, as with the entire series, is getting to spend more time with the characters we know and love. But if I had to guess (since I haven’t read the books), I would say that like the rest of the series, this movie relies way too much on one’s knowledge of the book’s characters to make it thoroughly enjoyable on its own.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
Discuss: What did you think of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince?
*As a closing note, I just wanted to give a big thanks to everyone for joining me for this series. It’s been quite an adventure this week and whether you’ve commented constructively, or if you’ve just read my ramblings, I’ve been grateful to learn more about the Harry Potter series with you guys.