Note: This review contains spoilers, but only if you haven’t read the book.
When I saw the first trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I was struck by how creepy and dark it was. It reminded me more of a horror trailer than one for a kids movie. But then, Harry Potter hasn’t been for kids for a while now, and the movies have tried to grow with the books and the audience. In some ways they’ve succeeded—Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix didn’t shy away or sugar-coat the death and darkness of the books. Thus, I was tentatively excited for Half-Blood Prince and would have been pleased with a movie that was more horror than fantasy.
The movie does deliver the creepy and nicely balances the lighter scenes with the dark. Unfortunately, Half-Blood Prince falls down where it matters most: the moments of intense emotional impact. This is nothing new—since The Prisoner of Azkaban the Harry Potter movies have struggled to capture the intensity of Rowling’s crunchier scenes (the fault may lie in the amount of exposition crammed in there—it doesn’t work all that well in book form and it takes a Kevin Smith for such things to even approach working well on film). The climaxes in particular tend to fall flat, and this was also true for Half-Blood Prince.
Many scenes felt just on the cusp of working and delivering the emotional punch they should have—Harry’s first meeting with Slughorn; Snape and Narcissa Malfoy making the unbreakable vow; Ron’s accidental poisoning; the retrieval of the locket from the cave; Dumbledore’s death; Harry and Snape’s final confrontation. These scenes usually began with promise but fell flat in the end. Whether this was the fault of the director, the actors, or the script it was hard to tell. Missed or misplaced beats, poor delivery, wrong tone—there were a host of problems.
As with all of the longer Harry Potter books, many, many elements of the story had to be dropped or cut back to keep the movie at a reasonable length. It takes a masterful screenwriter and director to balance necessary cuts and inclusions to make a movie true to the book that makes sense on its own. Writer Steve Kloves and director David Yates fall short of being “masters,” though I acknowledge that the task is pretty hard given the source material.
Some of the best scenes in the Half-Blood Prince were the Voldemort backstory memories. The one utilized in the first trailer—wherein Dumbledore first meets young Tom Riddle in the orphanage—was just as creepy and effective as I hoped it would be. Unfortunately, someone made a seriously bad decision to only include two of these memories (the other one being Slughorn’s about the Horcruxes). This element was, I feel, crucial to the book and should have been crucial to the movie as well. Half-Blood Prince is about Voldemort just as much as it’s about Harry, and the movie should have built the story more around this element.
I also felt that the potions textbook (that plays such a central role that the original owner of it is in the title) doesn’t get enough play in the film. The book is there, of course, and we’re shown and told how much it helps Harry in potions class. Beyond that, though, the book doesn’t make as much impact as it could have within the story. When Snape stands over a defeated Harry and says: “I am the Half-Blood Prince,” I just rolled my eyes and wondered why I or anyone else should care. There wasn’t enough There there, as the saying goes.
But there were a few elements that worked really well. Almost well enough to save the movie (but not quite). The trips Harry takes into memories through the pensieve are jerky and disconnected in a dream-like way that makes sense for memories. In the book memories are often unrealistically smooth and complete. The film’s approach added to the creepy horror movie tone of the memories and made them very effective—another reason I was disappointed so few of them were included.
Draco Malfoy’s continuing efforts to kill Dumbledore and fix the vanishing cabinet are shown from his perspective. In this Half-Blood Prince sets exactly the right tone—Malfoy isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, but he can be a compelling one. Tom Felton delivered a performance that showed him to be a mean little man in his father’s image and also a scared teenager in far over his head. I’ve never been a huge fan of Malfoy (and an un-fan of fanfiction Malfoy), but Felton impressed me with the range he gave Draco that was only hinted at in the book.
Alan Rickman has always turned in a fantastic performance as Severus Snape, this movie not being the exception. Given how important Snape’s role is in the book, I was glad to see that it wasn’t much diminished in the rush to cut this story down to under 3 hours. Though the scene where he kills Dumbledore didn’t deliver the oomph that it needed to, Rickman wasn’t the culprit. For that I blame the director, because the whole thing was blocked, filmed, and edited in a way almost designed to take all the dramatic and emotional tension away.
Though Jim Broadbent’s turn as Horace Slughorn isn’t anything to get excited about, there was one scene that was written and played so perfectly I was shocked at how much it affected me (I cried, yes). It occurs when Harry finally succeeds in convincing Slughorn to give him the true memory of Tom Riddle. The monologue Broadbent gives was not in the book (that I remember) so I won’t spoil it here. It was a rare example of an emotional moment well-played in Half-Blood Prince and served to make all the other not-on-target moments look even worse in comparison.
Overall, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is worth seeing, but perhaps not paying full-price for. Now that we’re into the 6th movie the main thing keeping me interested is momentum (and an appreciation for CGI). Hitting that sweet spot where a movie based on a book transcends the source material and utilizes the best of the visual medium is certainly a hard task, but I would hope that the franchise had figured out how to do it by now.
Still, Harry Potter fans are going to see it eventually no matter what. Fans who’ve only seen the films and never read the books may find themselves confused—but this won’t be new for them since almost every movie since the second has been a confusing mess plot-wise.
I suspect this won’t be a problem for many because, for all its story faults, Half-Blood Prince is beautifully filmed and doesn’t skimp on the special effects. The balance of light and dark, both visually and tonally, is one of its best features. Too bad the cinematographer can’t carry a whole film.