Thu
Jun 30 2011 3:17pm

Rewatching the Potter Films: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This rewatch has yielded a number of surprises, reversals of initial impressions, and a reaffirmation of the awesomeness of Alan Rickman (which is kind of like renewing marriage vows: not necessary but it always feels good to remind oneself). By far the biggest surprise is, pending the release of Deathly Hallows, Part 2? That the best movie in the series is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Yes, that’s right. Flying in the face of the orthodoxy — frequently stated by just about everyone to whom I mention I’ve been doing this rewatch — that Prisoner of Azkaban is the only movie in the series worth a second thought, I salute Half-Blood Prince for finally hitting the right balance between rigorous fidelity to the books and making sense as a piece of cinema independent of them. It’s got some truly wonderful visual touches, in particular a gray-green color scheme employed whenever we’re in the presence of sinister forces, which evokes both the emotional coldness of Voldemort’s soul as well as the color of his house (and that of all his allies save Wormtail), Slytherin. Half-Blood Prince sees director David Yates, who joined the series in its last installment, Order of the Phoenix, hit his stride. Where Order of the Phoenix cut material from the book to the point of excess, the cuts and alterations made in Half-Blood Prince are all in the service of making a coherent movie, in which it succeeds shockingly well.

Daniel Radcliffe delivers his finest work yet as Harry. His performances in each movie have been consistently better than I remember them the first time; my initial memory was that he spent entirely too much of the movie awkwardly reacting to computer-generated effects that were added later or shouting exposition. The way a lot of the movies ended up meant that he spends a lot of time doing those things, but he has a number of beautifully natural moments in Half-Blood Prince, coming closer to candor than anything yet afforded Harry. One scene in particular, when Hermione warns Harry that some girl wants to slip him a love potion, and Harry checks her out, only to have Hermione admonish him, “She only likes you because she thinks you’re the Chosen One,” the way Harry smiles and puffs up his chest slightly and goes, “But I am the Chosen One,” earning him a swat from Hermione, I don’t care, I love that scene. It’s a sign that, sure he’s Harry Potter and he’s The Boy Who Lived and a paragon of moral rectitude and all that, but he’s still a 16 year old boy.

A number of subplots are lost in the adaptation (between Order of the Phoenix and this, the character of Tonks barely exists anymore, and all the political stuff is gone), and yet Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves (returning to the series after a one-movie hiatus) make it feel as though it’s all there, even if in reality it isn’t. Aiding tremendously to this feel is the much-appreciated exile of Shouty Dumbledore. Michael Gambon’s take on the role still differs greatly from the way it was written by J.K. Rowling, but as long as he’s not shouting at students or throwing Harry up against walls it’s fine by me.

The acting is universally quite good, with Tom Felton in particular stepping it up as Draco Malfoy. He has more to do this time around than he sometimes has, and he’s grown into the part sufficiently that he’s up to the challenge. Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange is as charismatically loathsome as Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood is enchantingly spacy (Luna Lovegood is the greatest). And boy are the kids they got to play Young Voldemort spooky. Especially the 15-16 year old one, Frank Dillane. Chills up the spine, that one.

Perhaps due to a reported $250 million budget, one of the oddest recurring themes in the Harry Potter movies, the underwhelming special effects, is absent in Half-Blood Prince. All the inky black Death Eater chemtrails almost look cool. No one has yet been able to figure out how to make Hagrid consistently proportionate to the non-half-giants in the cast, but Yates and the quarter-billion-dollar FX team come closest, and compensate for the weird forced perspectives and all with the scene when Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and new Potions master Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent, about whose performance in this I could write a book; excellent work, packed with detail) are drunkenly eulogizing the late Aragog. You can tell Coltrane and Broadbent were filmed separately and joined in afterward, but their performances and the seamless effects make it very, very hard to spot.

But enough micro-analysis of the special effects. What makes Half-Blood Prince such a surprising good time is that it sweeps the audience along in the cinematic equivalent of the book’s narrative drive, something none of the movies have yet been able to accomplish. The funny parts are really funny, the scary parts are really scary and when Snape kills Dumbledore it’s every bit as shocking, weird, and abrupt as it is in the book, which is shocking, weird, and abrupt indeed. The movie omits Dumbledore’s funeral, which is a shame, because seeing literally everybody who isn’t a Death Eater who’s still alive show up to pay tribute was immensely powerful. On the other hand, it might not have worked on screen; it’d have been about twenty minutes long, for one, and would dissipate the impact of Dumbledore’s actual death for another. The movie ends, with the image of Harry, Hermione, and Ron together, the way it has to: with our hero and his two faithful companions alone, facing what lies ahead.

Again, I’m still surprised at how good Half-Blood Prince was on second viewing. I’m not going to go completely crazy and say it’s better than the book, but it’s good enough I had to ask the question. That’s impressive, considering the quality of its screen predecessors, most of which feel like cash-ins rather than movies. Half-Blood Prince is an actual movie, and a fine one at that.


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
10 comments
Ashe Armstrong
1. AsheSaoirse
The only thing that bugged me (and I haven't read the books yet, shut up, my list of to-read is mighty) was the final reveal. It just seemed tacked on, which was a shame since the rest is so fun. And Luna is the greatest.
Joel Cunningham
2. jec81
my only real problem with this installment is how the half-blood prince of the title is even less integrated into the plot than it was in the book. the "yes, it was i" speech from snape at the end is totally lame.

otherwise, not bad.
AgingComputer
3. AgingComputer
Totally agree... this is the best film in the series. PoA has some nice moments but doesn't flow as coherently as this one does.

We'll see if Yates can top it with DH part 2.
Melissa Shumake
4. cherie_2137
i was pretty disappointed that they didn't include the funeral. for me, when i read the book the first time, that was when it really sunk it that dumbledore was dead. i kept expecting somesort of magical regeneration/re-emergence of the time-turner/SOMETHING to bring him back, and the funeral was what clinched the deal that he was really dead. (that's when i finally cried over him.) i was sitting in the theater preparing myself to be a giant waterworks, and left the theater dry-eyed. and disappointed. not because i didn't cry, but because it's one of the most poignant scenes in the series.
Danny Bowes
5. DannyBowes
Oh, the funeral in the book is tremendous. I love it. But as a movie scene....I don't know. I can't help but think it'd have been way overblown, just by the nature of what movies (and specifically studio movies) are.
Noneo Yourbusiness
6. Longtimefan
The acting is fantastic in this movie and the moments are very good but something is lost in translation about finding out who the half blood prince may be.

As it is the title of the movie and is a mystery that Harry immerses himself into in the book. It causes some self reflection and blah blah blah about how he respects the student who wrote it but fears it may be Voldemort and wonders how that sits with his need to be good and his worry about being influenced by evil : see the aftermath of the attack on Draco which is conveyed very well by the acting)

All of this identifing and distancing and dancing around the becoming of oneself under the mystery of who the half blood prince may be is what builds up to the dramatic reveal at the end of the book which does have an impact even after the truly dramatic scene at the top of the astronomy tower (yes we may all know what it is but I will still try to avoid a spoiler, for practice. ) :)

In the movie the reveal falls a little flat not because of the actor but because the movie choses to focus on a different story.

This is what happens with adaptations. It can be awkward. After reading the books and then watching the movies I can say that I understand some of why things are streamlined and such but the last part of the movie where Draco's work finally comes to fruition is so poorly played out. There is no battle, there is no real danger, there are some broken dishes and smashed windows and then everyone runs away. A whole year of Draco feverishly working on a project for team evil and they do a little property damage and then scamper off. It was a bit of a dissapointment in the world of adapting from a book to a movie.

Many of the moments are very good and that makes for good moments. As a sum of it's parts it is still not an exceptional movie. It is a watchable movie. If for James Broadbent and Alan Rickman alone it is an amazing example of perfection in acting. The other actors do a very good job so one is never thrown out of the suspension of disbelief but Mr. Broadbent and Mr. Rickman are just superb in this film. Like a dream. The little fish story makes me cry every time. Even though I know it and I have heard it before it is just so brilliant.
Zayne Forehand
7. ShiningArmor
Ha, you were right Danny we're going to differ greatly on this one. While I honestly can't disagree with anything you said in your review, especially with regards to the acting and overall maturity of the film, it's things outside of your review that bother me to the point of knocking this movie into 4th best for me. (1. OotP 2. PoA 3. DH Part 1, if you were curious).

I'll start by saying that I loved this book. I fell off reading the series after OotP. I just burnt out on books and HBP sat on my shelf for a couple years. Finally I decided to sit down and finish the last two books and I absolutely flew through them. They made me regret waiting for so long.

Now I'll get to the specific translations that bothered me. The main thing is the treatment of Harry during the death of Dumbledore. I realize they had the scene of Harry promising to follow Dumbledore's instructions but to me, having it be a voluntary sitting back, compared to being magically immobilized by Dumbledore and forced to watch the horror unfold is a MAJOR character difference. For me, I found it hard to really respect Harry for just sitting back and doing nothing, hopeless as it may have been. It really bugged me and even after re-watching the movie a couple times and trying to move past it, I can't. It's not the Harry I know.

The other problem is more superficial. I'll concede that the Battle of the Astronomy Tower is not critical but I'll be dipped if it wasn't really freaking cool regardless. I wish they would have kept it in and the argument that it was too much like the Battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows smells of copout to me. But, I really like the visual styles of wizards battles in these movies and I know I'm more alone on that than I thought I'd be.

My next quibble is relatively minor as well but I really enjoyed the way Harry and Ginny's relationship unfolded in the book and I didn't get that same level of joy out of the movie. In the movie, his love of Ginny comes on super fast and you don't see enough of them together to make their seperation in Deathly Hallows mean nearly as much in movie form. My heart broke a little for both of them when he seperated from her in Deathly Hallows because you got to see how happy they made each other. In the movie, I felt nothing.

To end on a positive note, I thought the fight between him and Draco in the bathroom was excellently done and everything I envisioned in my head come to life on screen.
AgingComputer
8. Daniel P.
ShiningArmor, you stole my thunder! It is absolutely not in Harry's character to just sit back, and say, "Sure Snape, I'll trust that you'll get Dumbledore out of this. I'll be down here...Call if you need back-up!" Harry would have been all over them Deatheaters. We all know he doesn't think/care about the risks before he takes them.

And yes, I would much rather have seen the mini-Battle of Hogwarts than that little squabble at the Burrow. Where's Dumbledore's Army protecting Hogwarts? How do we not meet Bill until DH p.1? Maybe we could have made the connection with the Hand of Glory (I can't remember if they showed Draco looking at it in Borgin and Burkes earlier in the movie) or a Weasley product being used against Dumbledore's Army (Peruvian Instant Darkness Powder)? Just sayin'.

Still, this is probably my favorite movie (though I probably re-watch Sorceror's Stone more often).
AgingComputer
9. mdauben
Having just rewatched HBP myself, I find overall I liked the movie. Sure, there were some scenes I wish they could have included but I recognize they needed to trim the book down somewhere.

One of my few complaints echoes ShiningArmor's about the development of the relationship between Harry and Ginny. If one had not read the book first, it's really hard to puzzle out what is going on between the two. For example the announcement in the discussion between Harry & Hermione that he likes Ginny seems to come out of nowhere in the film, as there is nothing shown before that which really indicates his feelings for her. Likewise the big "kiss" scene between Harry and Ginny is somewhat tainted by the fact that as far as the film going audience can tell, Ginny is cheating on her alleged boyfriend with Harry at that point, as there was no indication that she has broken up with him.

A small nit to pick, perhaps, but it was just a flaw in a generally good movie that stood out to me.
AgingComputer
10. JLHanke
It's sort of odd, but even though I agree that this may have been the best movie so far (though I think it's pretty close between this, PoA, and DH1), I also may have more problems with the changes to the story in this movie than almost any other. Most of these have been mentioned above, so I'll try to be brief (which, for me, is not very brief. Wall of Text approaching!).

Burning of the Burrows - I recognize that this scene was added for some action in the middle of what could have otherwise been fairly slow-paced, and I'm OK with the principle. However, the exact scene could easily have taken place elsewhere OR they could have just not burned the Burrows. Especially since we see the Burrows with absolutely no damage in DH1, which makes this whole sequence seem like it had no consequences.

Ginny - Probably my single biggest complaint in the entire movie series is the character of Ginny. In general, though there are lots of issues with the movies, the main thing that they almost always got right was that they were true to the characters (Shouty Dumbledore aside). This is the one major character I feel they did not. Whether it's writer, actress, or director related, Ginny Weasley as presented in HBP is just not Ginny Weasley from the books. There, she was fiery, spunky, and generally just a great character (probably my favorite in this book) - on screen, she's awkward, the performance is flat, and she basically just seems bland. Changing the big Kiss scene (which I felt was one of the 3-4 book scenes that were MUST HAVEs for the movie) completely wrecks the significance of that in the greater story.

The rest of the DA - Which leads me into another complaint - where are the rest of the kids? I know that the story had to focus on Harry, Ron, Hermoine, and Dumbledore, but it's especially jarring in this movie that the rest of the kids are pushed to the background. The choice to have Luna find Harry on the train instead of Tonks was a good one, because we frankly care more about her (movie-wise) at this point. Poor Neville, however, is relegated to butler duties. See my above complaints regarding Ginny. The rest of the secondary children characters are pretty much in the same boat, but I can live with that. However, the big missed opportunity here was...

Astronomy Tower Battle - Not including the background battle going on as Harry pursues Snape and Draco at the end. I actually have less of a problem with the change in Harry's predicament IN the tower (not being immobilized) than with what happens after. There are many reasons: 1) it would have been visually much more interesting to see Harry chasing the Death Eaters through a crazy battle. You wouldn't even have to take any more time on-screen than was shown - the battle itself wasn't the focus. The focus was 2) payoff of the Draco storyline. The movie spends SOO much time focusing on Draco's efforts. Well, he fixes the Vanishing Cabinet, allowing Death Eaters to enter Hogwart's, and what are the consequences? Bellatrix breaks some windows. Huh? Getting the Death Eaters in really didn't do anything - Snape was already in Hogwarts. If the battle was included, at least there would have been some payoff, and 3) the audience would see the DA fighting back. Not having the DA fighting for their lives really cheapens their storylines and will make it much harder to care about them in DH2 for the movie-only continuity folks. I really felt that one of the books main themes was always that Harry could succeed because he had friends helping him - in this movie, that gets lost a bit. Finally, the final reason 4) why this battle would have helped was how they chose to portray the flight of the Death Eaters. The soundtrack is almost silent through the whole thing. I'm sure that the intent was to make an impression, but for me, it just makes the end of the movie very awkward (especially the Half-Blood Prince reveal). Had they changed the story to something that worked thematically and stylistically better, I may not have had such an issue.

Overall, though, HBP is a great movie with some of the best acting performances in the series thus far. Had the above concerns been handled differently, however, it would have been a truly awesome movie.

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