I confess, I never read the HP books until after I'd seen the movie for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I dislike being part of a fad, as if I haven't enough oomph to like something on its own merits or my own desires rather than because the rest of the world is keen for it. I did see each of the films as they released, however, and when Ralph Fiennes' incarnation of the terrifying personage of Voldemort in GOF set all my epic story nerves atingle, I just had to find out what happened next. Commence the reading.
I consumed the books madly, plunging through one after the other while on vacation in Phoenix that same summer, plumbing my sister's personal library and local library for each text. I devoured all the intricate details jettisoned by the films and adored especially the tale of HBP, all that lovely back story unveiling itself, fleshing out the rotting frame that made up Voldemort. This, of course, became my great mistake as ever since then, the cinematic doppelgangers of these novels have failed to live up to hype.
Now of course, I've read the story to its end and know the stunning denouement that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (SPOILER ALERT: I've maintained from the start that Snape wasn't a full on big bad and crowed mightily to be proved right.) HBP is very much a placeholder in many ways, a bridge between the painful ending of Order of the Phoenix and the final chapter of DH. The recently released movie version of HBP follows this plan tonally even if the point-by-point doesn't line up exact.
The beginning of HBP echoes with the tragic pangs of OOP as Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) numbly stands for rabid photographers in the combat ruins of the Ministry of Magic. Voldemort's return has been broadcast to the world and where once he was mocked and reviled, now Harry has returned to the relative good graces of the populace. And he could care less. Of greater importance to Harry are the tasks that Dumbledore has set for him, even taking Harry along as his companion on a pre-term recruitment of potions master Horace Slughorn, deliciously enriched by the brilliant Jim Broadbent.
Let me say here that I really enjoyed Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Already, plans are in the work for a second viewing. (Yes, I plan these things. Have you met me?) The show is steady and solid for the most part and a fitting bridge between what's past and what's to come. Its overhanging themes of doom and depression seep through the entire 2+ hours and it's never for a moment staid, dull, or boring. I will admit that the cinematography across the board is riveting, a work of genius, the special effects and technique, the fascinating play of light and shadow belying the disappointments of plot and structure. The terrifying, fascinating cave of zombies even offered a quick hearken back to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, an image of Harry being pulled under by the zombie forming a nightmare echo to his descent into the Black Lake for the second Triwizard task. It's brilliant work.
That said, I'm picky and a little pretentious and my expectations - well, to say they're high would be limiting them. Ergo, I do have quite a few - hmm - vexing points to raise.
For book and film, there's no overreaching Big Bad in this installment; of greatest threat is the increasing menace of Harry's nemesis, Draco Malfoy, as he sets about some as yet unknown task ordered (so Harry rightly believes) by Voldemort himself. Tom Felton plays Draco with great promise and skill, finally moving Malfoy beyond the cardboard shape of his bully role to showcase a fully-rounded character, unable to be easily pinned as good or bad, much like Alan Rickman's staggering portrayal of Snape. But what fills most of the minutes of the HBP movie are hormones. Raging teenage hormones.
As if making up for the lack in OOP, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) is featured more prominently here as his rising success on the Quidditch field gains him the clinging and public attentions of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave), much to Hermione Granger's (Emma Watson) chagrin. And slowly, ever so slowly, Harry and Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) are taking those first romantic steps towards each other that we readers of the source material already know will climax with their marriage.
At the core of the HBP plot is a potions textbook previously owned by the unknown Half-Blood Prince that has now randomly come into Harry's possession. Within the margins and lines of this book are hand-written notes from this mysterious prince that alter and improve the book's spells. With the help of the prince's notes, Harry becomes a star in potions class, a skill that leads Professor Slughorn, self-confessed collector of students bound for glory, to allow Harry into his inner circle. This position is key for Harry as it's only through this increased intimacy with Slughorn that Harry has any chance of recovering a key memory from the potions master, a memory Dumbledore is convinced holds the key to defeating Voldemort once and for all.
The bones of all this are included in the movie, but what's lacking is a sense of Harry's increasing obsession with the Half-Blood Prince - who he is, where he went, who he may have become - and the sometimes cruel and cheating spells carefully encoded in the textbook. Hermione (in the novel) repeatedly expresses concern regarding the book, a concern rooted as much in the irritation that Harry is beating her in class for the first time as it is in a genuine care for Harry's well being. In the movie, only her irritation at being surpassed is given voice (and only once as I recall). When Harry uses a mysterious and dangerous spell from the book in a duel with Malfoy and is convicted by its disastrous results, only then is he ready to admit to the book's inherent dangers and the probable dark intentions of its true owner. But as the movie does not give the book and this conflict its proper weight, its revelation more as a "oh yeah, that" moment then the "finally he sees reason" moment it's meant to be.
And where is Snape? This, more than any of the prior installments, is where Snape begins to comes into play, foreshadowing his crucial role in the final chapter. Yet Snape merely flits in and out at key moments and when every moment with Rickman is a treat (see Matt Zoller Seitz's review here where he states the lack of Rickman thusly: "I would have liked to have seen more from Alan Rickman's Snape, who's as cranky and droll as he is malignant and tortured. (Savor how this great actor delivers the simple line, "You just....know." You could bake a pie in that ellipsis!)") his absence is a particular loss.
Despite its name, HBP pays the least amount of attention to the Half-Blood Prince, shirking this plot point to focus on 1. Slughorn's recalcitrant memory, 2. Draco Malfoy's spiraling and conflicted descent into murder, 3. Harry and Dumbledore's trips down memory lane and other dangerous ports of call, and 4. the teenage antics of romance and Quiddich. It's fun and delightful and entertaining to be sure and the cave of zombies is a wonder to behold, a fierce and faithful imagining of the source material that will scare the beejezus out of you. But - eh.
All of this leaves out key minor roles that don't get enough of a moment to shine. Tonks and Lupin barely make an appearance, merely shoehorned into the pointless attack on the Weasley homefront simply because they're necessary to the next two films. McGonagle is hardly featured, likewise Neville and Luna Lovegood (Neville doesn't even get lines!) their presence only a sop to those who know how crucial they are to the final installments. Even the evil Fenrir Greyback, the werewolf that deliberately converted Lupin to were status, is a mere enforcer, the Weasley attack no doubt drummed up simply to put a evil cookie-cutter impression to this heretofore unnamed component. Please. Do it right the first time why don't you? (I will say that the one good thing about the Weasley homefront feature was seeing Mr. Weasley in his shed, surrounded by the deritus of Muggle junk - old vacuums, bicycles and such - that he no doubt treasures.)
I've never like David Yates' direction of these movies overall. I've said from the beginning that he wasn't the right director for the movies, and I've yet to see anything brilliant enough to change my mind. I didn't like the abbreviated version of OOP and felt that there was a huge missed opportunity there where brevity cancelled out depth. That said, I was blown away by the end battle to that film (brief though it was; Sirius arrived and moments later was dead - poof. Jeez, give the man a proper death scene already) and thought the clash between Dumbledore, Voldemort, and Harry was an excellent piece of work on every level.
If only the whole movie had carried that zest.
I wasn't happy to learn that Yates' had been signed to direct all the Harry Potter movies through to the finale. I had been holding out hope for the return of Alfonso Cuaron, the genius behind Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, still the best movie of them all. Cuaron upped the stakes for the entire series, taking it from Chris Columbus' limited hands and bringing it into the fullness of its adult themes, morals, and conflicts. He added an art-house patina to its summer/holiday movie structure and it still tops the list as my favorite.
Still, I was encouraged by the lengthier time frame for HBP and allowed myself to hope. Nevertheless, I again felt an empty hole at its conclusion where usually anticipation and wonder reside. It was just...nice.
Daniel Radcliffe has become a remarkable actor and the years stretching before him promise to show that developing skill and talent bursting forth into brilliance. Harry's seething anger in OOP has evolved into a reckless disinvolvement and precious little gets under his skin. Even his surveillance of Malfoy is low key and while culminating in a great confrontation between the two of them, the passion he displayed in OOP (when trying to convince people of Voldemort's return or even when he believed Sirius was in danger) is long gone. Which is why the obsession with the Half-Blood Prince's textbook is so important and why its lack was so noticeable.
And then there's the end battle. Here too, though, Yates stumbles. While the climatic confrontation in the observation tower fulfills most of its promise, Harry is a sidelined observer to these final moments as he was in the novel, if not in the same way. Cursed into immobility by Dumbledore and hidden beneath the invisibility cloak, he could not interfere with the terrible tableau unfolding before him. In the film, however, he is not so encumbered or protected, and his lack of action is thus harder to justify. The futile battle that follows (SPOILER ALERT) Dumbledore's death (surely the worst kept secret by now) never fully manifests. Sure Harry pursues the culprits to the castle's borders, but there is none of the intricacies of the battle detailed in the novel, the plunge down the observatory's staircase, the fierce, rabid pursuit across the grounds. Rather a simple chase sequence with a limp conclusion. What should have rivaled the foundation rattling confrontation of OOP instead simply, merely, ends with a brief coda between the three leads to add the final set up moment for the next film.
Overall, I give Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince a solid B on the scale, a B+ when held up against the other films in this series with Azkaban an A+, Goblet of Fire a strong A, Order of the Phoenix a B+, Sorcerer's Stone a solid B for simple whimsey and the joy of the Potter world unfolding before us, and Chamber of Secrets a sorry D. New York magazine featured a fairly accurate ranking of the Potter movies so far (though I hold GOF over OOP simply because there's just more meat to it - and that dragon! - plus, most importantly, Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort is a master class unfolding on the screen before you.)
If you haven't read the novels, stick to your guns and don't start now. You'll be much more fulfilled by it all in the end. I for one, despite my critics, am eager for the conclusion to this riveting saga. I may already know the conclusion, but I still can't wait to see how it ends.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is rated PG for scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality.