It is difficult for a fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books to assess the films on their own merits. When the novels have been read so many times that the hardcover bindings are broken and pages fall from the spine like turning leaves, plot discrepancies leap to the fore immediately. But books and movies are as different animals as, well, acromantulae and hippogriffs. A 153-minute movie cannot exactly replicate a 652-page book. Nor should it. Even the most die-hard fan would take his popcorn elsewhere.
The sixth installment of the Warner Brothers monolith, Harry Potter and the Half- Blood Prince picks up where Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix left off. Almost exactly where it left off. After an ominous representation of the WB logo—iron grey and shrouded in rumbling clouds—and an eerily muted version of the now-ubiquitous theme which fades to screams, we see Harry, numb with pain, bleeding from the nose, wooden in the popping glare of flashbulbs in the Ministry of Magic. Voldemort has returned, and has escaped. As Dumbledore reaches an arm around Harry’s shoulders and turns him from the cameras, we remember that Harry has just lost another father figure; Sirius Black has fallen beneath the wand of one of Voldemort’s Death Eaters.
While Rowling never fossilized her literary creations in perpetual pre-pubescence, the films have been as much a coming-of-age story as a saga of good vs. evil. With a cast of young actors whom the public has watched age on screen, and who have become synonymous with their fictional counterparts, this emphasis on the process of adolescence was inevitable, and may even add a layer of credibility to the fantastic world of wizardry. In an early scene not found in the book, we see Harry—played with increasing maturity and a beautifully restrained intensity by Daniel Radcliffe—flirting with a Muggle waitress in a dingy subway diner. In defiance of the rules of the wizarding world, Harry is reading a copy of the Daily Prophet, a newspaper in which the subjects of photographs move about as if in life. Harry has progressed from the confused anger of The Order of the Phoenix into outright rebellion.
“You’ve been reckless this summer, Harry.” Dumbledore’s opening line is uttered with one of the few flashes of what I would term real Dumbledore-ness. Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore, while elegantly and powerfully portrayed, tends to demonstrate more of the smugness and less of the humility of Rowling’s venerable headmaster. This deviation from the books is, to me, a serious flaw. Much of the beauty of the novel Half-Blood Prince lies in Dumbledore’s admission of his own failures and in the increasing awareness of his precious and fragile role in Harry’s life. The movie Dumbledore is remote and superior, detracting from the poignancy of the ending.
Most of us can recall the unformed and uneasy feeling that there was something not quite right about an adult in our lives. The sense that adults were as flawed as children intensified as we passed through adolescence. Through the critical lens of puberty, we saw the venalities, cowardices, and dishonesties in the adults that controlled our world. Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) is coerced from retirement by Dumbledore to return to his position as Potions Master. Severus Snape (a deliciously menacing Alan Rickman) has finally attained his goal of teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts – a point that the movie skims over. Slughorn is a collector. He gathers the powerful, the witty, and the wealthy around him like an elderly widow collecting figurines. This addiction to celebrity has netted a host of perks for Slughorn over the years, but has also placed him in jeopardy. Among the students and former students to whom he has pandered is one Tom Marvolo Riddle (aka Lord Voldemort.) Indeed, Slughorn holds the memory which may prove the key to Voldemort’s downfall. However, Slughorn is reluctant to divulge the truth of this memory. We begin to suspect that his reluctance stems not so much from fear for his own safety as it does fear of loss of face. The memory shows Slughorn in all of his uxorious toadying
Harry’s bemusement as he navigates this paradoxical relationship with an adult who is neither supportive nor evil, a Potions teacher who likes him, a Slytherin with deep affection for Harry’s mother, shows Radcliffe’s emotional range. Warning: parents of middle grade and teen-age children are likely to feel their teeth grind at Harry’s occasional displays of pseudo-respectful contempt. Just remember, insolence is true to adolescence.
Disconcertingly, but perhaps in keeping with the coming-of-age theme, many of the positive adult models in Harry’s life play diminished roles in this film. Hagrid’s larger than life presence fills very few scenes. In the book, Harry is rescued from a painful and embarrassing situation on the Hogwarts Express by Tonks, the auror. However, in the movie, his eccentric friend Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is the rescuer.
The peer relationships of the film series, however, have deepened considerably in the sixth movie. The triumvirate of Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) remains steadfast despite—or perhaps because of—the trials of teen love. Radcliffe and Watson add layers of depth and empathy to the close friendship between their characters. As each watches the other navigate the unstable paths of unrealized love, their characters bond with a maturity that is possibly unrealistic to expect of sixteen year olds, but is lovely to watch. Ginny Weasley, played with luminous wit and sensitivity by Bonnie Wright, comes into her own in this movie. As Harry watches her relationship with Dean Thomas (Alfred Enoch) with increasing frustration, he seems unaware that she is managing him all along. Ginny is quietly present whenever Harry needs a compass.
Ginny’s brother Ron does not seem to have it quite as together as his little sister or as his joke shop mogul twin brothers (played by Oliver and James Phelps). Ron reminds one of an adolescent mastiff, slightly bumbling, wanting badly to play, and ultimately endearing in his clueless clumsiness. But he too begins to come into his own; hero of a pivotal Quidditch match, he gets the girl. Lavender Brown is played with cotton candy ditziness by Jessie Cave. Lavender is excruciatingly irritating with her blonde fluffiness and baby talk. The focus on romance in this movie induced cringes of "eew" in my children. Adults will find Lavender simply cringeworthy. As she should be. Lavender’s role exists as a foil for Hermione’s intelligence and self-reliance.
Speaking of children, while the Harry Potter books are sold as children’s books and the movies are heavily marketed toward the younger set, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is not ideal for young children. Darker in visual and emotional tone and darker in ending than its predecessors, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has more complicated plot details, less overt action, and a great deal more emotional conflict. Elements which tend to appeal to young children: Quidditch, fantastic magical creatures, Hagrid, and spells that involve flying objects are significantly minimized. In their place, we have complicated romances; a general diminution of supportive adult roles such as Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), Lupin (David Thewlis), and Tonks (Natalia Tena); the presence of a teacher who is neither heroic nor evil, but disastrously venal; terrifying threats by Death Eaters; and a climactic scene that will both frighten and confuse young children.
Condensed by necessity from the book, the movie staggers occasionally under the burden of a complex and not always well-executed plot. In the book, Dumbledore guides Harry through multiple memories of the background of Tom Riddle; the movie has cut these chapters to a couple of scenes which fail to completely cohere. A complaint in our household about the film treatments of the previous Harry Potter books has been the tendency to insert action sequences purely for blockbuster effect. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the action is less overt; however, the action sequences are inexplicably rearranged. A confrontation with Death Eaters that takes place at the Weasley home did not occur in the book and, as far as I could tell, did nothing to advance the plot of the movie. Yet, the movie eliminates a climactic battle scene between students and Death Eaters in the Hogwarts castle.
Ultimately, I was able to move beyond any irritation with the reorganization of the storyline from book to film and enjoy the fine acting and deeper emotional themes. From an adult perspective, the darkness and emotional complexities of this film felt right. There is no easy triumph here, no pat "well, we finished that one, now off to the next adventure." The next adventure clearly awaits, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione walk toward it now with the sober awareness that real evil exists and that this adventure could destroy all that they hold dear.