Vulcan’s Peak

Movie review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

August 2, 2009 1:42 am

hp6-posterBy the time I saw the latest Harry Potter flick last weekend, I had already heard mutters of disappointment from various friends and other reviewers, so I went in forewarned and had a good time. But the mutters were right: Like the previous Potter movies, this one moved retained the least possible amount of detail in order to tell the story. Not only were some favorite scenes cut, but it was only several days later before I remembered that yes, some of those moments were from this book.

What I’m really referring to is Harry’s chat with new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, in which he calmly gets to the heart of what Scrimgeour is slyly asking for, responding that he is “Dumbledore’s man, through and through.” (It’s a very adult moment, especially compared to the throes of teenage angst we see in the previous book.)

The gradual development of wizard politics throughout the book is a strength of Rowling’s storytelling. The reader’s understanding of what’s going on outside Hogwarts follows that of Harry and his friends as they begin to pay closer attention to politics — which I think is an honest depiction of being a teenager. But like many subplots, wizard politics don’t show up on the big screen.

Half-Blood Prince sticks to the bare bones of the Dumbledore plot, the Draco acting suspiciously plot, and the romance plot; one we see pretty much in full, one is severely cut, and one is actually expanded past what we get in the book.

Not surprisingly (since it involves a great deal of exposition), Harry and Dumbledore’s exploration of Voldemort’s past gets chopped down to two memories: the one at the orphanage that was in all the previews, and the vital but edited memory of Slughorn’s. I also say “not surprisingly” because many of their other excursions down memory lane serve not to further the plot of this book so much as to set up the next one: what sort of objects would Voldemort turn into Horcruxes? Presumably this knowledge will be hand-wavingly imparted to our protagonists in the next movie.

Occasionally, though, the lack of all that exposition gets the movie into trouble. This is a small example, but there’s a weird bit of business at the point where Harry brings Dumbledore Slughorn’s true memory. After they see it, Dumbledore says, “Horcruxes!” as though it’s a new idea to him rather than a confirmation of his suspicions. Um, what? Gaunt’s ring is sitting there on his desk, and a moment later Dumbledore announces that he knows where to find another Horcrux, so this clearly can’t be news to Dumbledore, not really. I don’t know whether to call it a script problem or to blame Michael Gambon for continuing to futz up one of my favorite characters, but it’s an awkward moment.

In contrast, a favorite who makes the page-to-screen transition with wonderful authenticity is Evanna Lynch’s Luna Lovegood. She’s beautifully batty and I love her to bits. Another of my favorite parts of this book is Harry asking Luna to the Christmas party — which doesn’t quite appear, though there are a couple of moments between them that approximate it, and I appreciate that.

I was also impressed by Tom Felton this time. He’s always been around, but they gave Draco considerably more to do this time than he usually gets — and scenes with things like nuance and ambiguity, to boot. More than just another round of “You think you’re so great, do you, Potter? Well, my father…” and so on. Nice.

…Which is more than I can say for the obligatory romance scenes. Lavender Brown was amusingly over the top, though I could have done without her hysterics in the hospital wing. Vast preference for the book’s way of handling it, in which Harry tells Ron to stop pretending to be asleep when Lavender comes to visit. It’s not as cinematic, I suppose, but that was a laugh and this was a cringe. In the end, I was glad that Ron and Hermione didn’t quite get together, given the awkwardness that was Harry and Ginny. Stilted dialogue and no chemistry whatsoever. Ick.

Worse yet was the burning of the Burrow scene in which everybody runs through the fields. I started to wonder if the movie was so tired of being Half-Blood Prince that it decided to be Signs for a while. It’s not that I mind putting in a scene that isn’t in the book; I mind that there was no set-up and no follow-up for it. One shot of distressed Weasleys watching the fire, then no mention of it ever again. No sign that Ron or Ginny were worried about their family or wondering where they would live, nothing. If taking the scene out of the movie impacts nothing, it doesn’t belong there in the first place.

Draco’s plot had a little problem along those lines, too. He spends the whole year working on that cabinet so that he can bring Death Eaters into the castle… for them to do nothing. He had an entourage. Spiffy. Steve Kloves, there is a little problem with your story logic being missing.

The end of the movie didn’t have the benefit of an epic battle or a grand funeral for Dumbledore — we had to make do with a crowd of grieving students and professors raising their lit wands in tribute. A reasonable move, I thought, given constraints of time and budget. Return of the King earned its half-dozen endings; this one, not so much.

I did appreciate, though, that this movie was allowed to end on a less than cheerful note. I think every one of its predecessors has closed with happy, uplifting music and (often) a cheesy generalization about We’ve always got each other, or Everything’s going to change now. I can’t quote the last line, but in context, I’m going to rule that as a good thing.

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