Anyone who talks to me about the Harry Potter movies or read my rant in the comments section for Magus’ grumplet about Order of the Phoenix knows that I had a venomous dislike for David Yates, the man who had been handed the keys to the Harry Potter kingdom. Here was a man with absolutely no experience directing a theatrical feature film, let alone a huge, effects-laden installment of one of the most lucrative franchises in the world. While that alone was not enough to damn him in my eyes, the dull, lifeless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was. Not only had it left out certain crucial details that would become important in future installments, but it also seemed to have no regard for the heart of the book, Harry’s inner turmoil, and instead focused on soapbox political allegories and rah-rah student rebellion. While all of this was present and indeed a necessary part of the original work, it seemed like David Yates missed the point. It’s true that the absence of the screenwriter of the previous four films, Steve Clowes, couldn’t have helped things, but the amateurish direction by Yates missed the mark. And with the usual 150-minute runtime cut down to a brisk, 120 minutes, it seemed like Warner Bros. had found its perfect stooge for cranking out another Harry Potter installment on time and on budget under the studio’s thumb.
Inbetween the release of Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, a couple things happened. Steve Clowes returned from his sabbatical to adapt the sixth installment, Yates was tapped by Warner Bros. to direct all following Harry Potter installments, beating out other hopefuls like Alfonso Cuarón, and the decision was made to cleave Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in two so that proper respect could be paid to sending the series off (and, of course, to allow WB to milk their cash cow to the bitter end). My heart understandably sank. Not only was Cuarón, the director of my favorite installment of Harry Potter, not returning, but that Yates hack was getting the glory of finishing up the whole thing. C’est la vie, eh? It was with a heavy heart and extremely low expectations that I entered Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, almost daring Yates to do his worst.
We enter to find Harry Potter spending his summer vacation soberly reflecting on the death of his godfather, Sirius Black, and the subsequent hullabaloo surrounding Voldemort’s public return. Death Eaters are flitting about the country, wreaking havoc on muggles and wizarding folks alike. And Harry Potter has a sex drive in desperate need of attention. Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore pays no heed to this, however, as he calls upon Harry to help him recruit back Horace Slughorn, a harmless old windbag that used to teach Potions at Hogwarts. Slughorn is attracted to prestige and can’t resist the opportunity of collecting Harry Potter as one of his proteges. Dumbledore hopes to use Harry to exploit this weakness to uncover an important memory that may help destroy Voldemort.
At the same time, Harry’s boner still hasn’t gone down, which isn’t helped when he sees Ginny Weasley, the girl he not-so-secretly has a crush on, date another boy. Hermione is having similar problems seeing Ron cozy up to an all-too-willing classmate who wants nothing more than to snog him day and night. (It’s not as hot as it sounds.) There’s no shortage of attempted love potions or people dating people to make OTHER people jealous before everyone’s romantic ducks are in a row.
Concurrently, Draco Malfoy has been disgraced once his father was publicly exposed as a Death Eater and sentenced to prison. In order to restore their (bad) name, Voldemort orders Draco to carry out a secret mission from inside of Hogwarts that Harry can’t prove to the authorities. And on top of all this, Harry comes into possession of an old Potions textbook whose handwritten notes turn him into the teacher’s pet. The inside cover says the book was the property of the Half-Blood Prince, but no records of anyone with that title exist…
I’m going to start off by saying the most difficult thing: I liked it. Let this be irrefutable proof that I can go into a movie with the expectation that it will suck and end up actually enjoying myself. And that’s what happened in Half-Blood Prince. I enjoyed myself! Some of this has to be linked to the fact that inbetween Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, David Yates seems to have grown in technical proficiency. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous. The crew found ways of lighting and framing the decade-old sets of Harry Potter that made me reconsider them anew. There’s an atmosphere and occasional warmth that’s lacking from most of the Harry Potters, save for Prisoner of Azkaban. And the effects bring back the wonder that the series was originally met with. There were a few decent pieces in Order of the Phoenix to catch the attention, but the technical wizardry on display in Half-Blood Prince is of a higher caliber, indeed. Even the simple housecleaning spell that Dumbledore casts early on in the movie made me crack a grin in the character it seemed to display.
At the same time as Yates seems to be growing in competency as his own filmmaker, he frustrates me in other ways. You see, even though my first reaction toward this film is positive, I’m torn. In many ways, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a terrible adaptation. Compared to the novel, the movie goes too heavy on the romantic side of things and ignores several key points from the book. The movie discards almost all of the memories of Voldemort’s past, keeping only the ones that have the most crucial information in order to help the plot along. To me, this is a grave mistake because I felt that a lot of the unique flavor of the book was actually building sympathy and pity for such a despicable character by seeing the conditions he came from. A meeting between an adult Voldemort and Dumbledore, which made my eyes tear up in the novel, is completely gone from the movie.
But it isn’t just sentimental edits at play. There are several key plot points that were offhandedly mentioned in the novel that become absolutely crucial for the conclusion to the story. Between this movie and Order of the Phoenix, there are so many missing bits of the story that I have no idea how they’re planning on resolving the plot and having it resemble the book at all. Either there’s going to be a massive info dump that’s gonna bog down the final movies or they’re going to gloss over plot devices and merely pay them lip service without imbuing them with the weight of set-up they deserve. Part of the beauty of the final book is in the plot itself, yes. But there’s a whole other aspect to what makes the whole Harry Potter story so special. There’s the meticulous planning, things that were off-handedly mentioned or introduced several novels back that have their full significance revealed only at the end. It’s a shame that it won’t translate onto the screen.
Another mis-step by this movie is the complete neutering of the villains. The worst thing we see the Death Eaters do, outside of one climactic struggle, is blow up some empty buildings. Yawwwwwwn. There’s all this talk about how dangerous they are, but during the third act climax, they stage what is almost a bloodless coup. The movie is rated PG, and it shows. The bad guys just storm in, break a few windows and leave. Why are we supposed to take these jokers seriously?! There’s also the severe underplaying of the character Fenrir Greyback. In the book, he’s this sick, depraved werewolf who’s given in to his bloodthirsty urges, particularly where little children are involved. In the movie he’s just some dude that hangs around and looks like he could use some electrolysis. If the stories are getting darker, why is Warner Bros. pulling punches when it comes to the violence? If the final movies are PG, I swear to god, I’ll scream.
As for the acting side of things… surprisingly good! It’s an abomination against nature that the kids that made these movies are not only rich and attractive… they’ve also turned out to be good at their jobs. These are probably their best performances yet in the series, and the adults don’t slouch either, with Michael Gambon as Dumbledore and Alan Rickman as Snape shining the brightest. But maaaan, Maggie Smith looks like she drank from a false grail lately.
So at the end of the day, I’m really of two minds about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. As a stand alone movie, it’s a pretty solid job. It might go on too long about snogging and romantic permutations and leave the audience with a finale that rings a little hollow, but all in all it seems to have its own identity. As an installment in a franchise, it’s pretty terrible at its job. It’ll depend on how you personally value one perspective or the other that determines how much you’ll like this flick. Now I just gotta keep my fingers crossed that David Yates has enough Felix Felicis left to make sure the final two movies don’t disappoint.