So after some delays, the 6th installment of Harry Potter finally hits the silver screen. And if you haven’t read the books or seen any of the previous films, this latest offering will probably be utterly impenetrable. By this stage of the game, either you are onboard the Knight Bus or not with this series.
For myself, I’m very much along for the ride. I came to the books late, and was in the cynical “oh c’mon they are just kids books, big deal" camp. But a little after the release of the fourth book (Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire) I decided to put aside my preconceptions and see what the fuss was all about… and ended up hooked myself.
I will spare you a lengthy discussion of why I fell in love with the books, as I doubt I’ll persuade any non Potterholics out there. But I must briefly note a few key points for the purposes of this review. The first point is a structural one - it’s very clear that JK Rowling did work out the over arching plot for the series very early on – a refreshing change for anyone who has let down by innumerable lousy last installments of trilogies and needless sequelitius. Or both in the case of George Lucas.
The second point is a tonal one – I suspect a large element in the Harry Potter books becoming such a success is due to the way Rowling tells her stories. On one hand, the world she creates has all the depth and detail that appeals to genre fans that delight in such exercises in universe building. But on the other the stories are told with enough humour to win over non-fantasy fans. The comedic elements never cheapen the fantasy, and nor does she try to evoke ponderous and solemn reverence for her fantastical world.
The books balance their comedy and magic by aiming to tell a tale with real warmth and heart. Which brings me to my final point. - although the plot of the series is of an epic scale, the focus always remains firmly on the characters. Harry and his friends may be able to wield magical powers, encounter fantastic beasts and inhabit a mythical world but they always presented as real, relateable people.
And the books never loose their grip on this sense of humanity. Indeed later books in the series have been criticized as being over long, with some readers feeling that all that ‘boring’ character stuff should have been cut. But this is missing the point of the saga – the Potter series is not just another titanic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, it is also a coming of age story. And this emotional growth of the characters is an important dimension of the books’ success.
So then, onto the film. In many ways, any Harry Potter film is tough to review, as basically they all succeed and fail in exactly the same ways. The series has been remarkable consistent in upholding the same levels of quality in terms of pace, performances and visuals. But equally they are all hobbled with the same flaw.
As noted above, part of the magic of Harry Potter is the characters – the little details of their lives rather than the broad sweep of the plot. And needless to say it’s these parts of the novels that are generally cut first from the screenplays. Each book chronicles a year in the life of our hero. But in the films, despite the seasonal changes to the sets, the action always feels as though it is unfolding over a much small period of time. Even Alfonso Cuarón, with his inspired use of the Whomping Willow in Prisoner of Azkaban, couldn’t evoke the sense of a three terms within the constraints of the running time.
And in fairness, no director could be expected to. With each book taking place over the course of a year, and having their plots so closely woven into this passage of time, cinema just isn’t a natural fit for a screen adaption; only a television series adaption could really capture the scope of the originals.
So it somewhat inevitable that every Potter film ends up being a collage of scenes and set pieces from the books being brought to the screen. As the series has progressed, with subsequent books becoming more complex, the screen writers’ job has become harder and harder. While readers of the books may fill in the gaps, increasing you have to wonder how much makes sense to the viewer who hasn’t read them. And additionally everyone and their owl have their own ideas of what should be cut or included.
Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince is unsurprisingly no exception to these rules. On the plus side, we have some of the best yet performances from the young cast, Michael Gambon finally stepping out of the shadow of Richard Harris, a wonderful turn from Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn and perhaps the most visually accomplished trip to Hogwarts since the third film. But the movie is still bedeviled by what was left out. Many reviewers have remarked that the plot dwells too heavily on the various romantic hijinks at the expense of detailing the growing mayhem in the wizarding world; a view with which I generally concur. And it is true the question of who was the titular Half Blood Prince is not dealt with as effectively as it could have been.
But at the same time, I did enjoy seeing some of this sort of character interaction finally making it onto the screen. And in generally the day to day stuff was handled with enough humour and threaded well into the main plot of the film. And the inclusion of these subplots did actually help create perhaps the best impression of the events occurring over a school year yet. Admittedly it felt more like two terms than three but it was closer to the spirit of the books.
It’s worth noting that the final three books are being helmed by the same director David Yates. The first quartet detail different attempts by Lord Voldemort to rise again, with him finally achieving a return to flesh and power at the end of The Goblet of Fire. The last novels however are a lot more closely linked and it is fitting that Warners have elected to keep the same pair of hands on the reins.
And it’s also worth remembering that the final book is set to be released in two parts – effectively as two films. Now firstly this decision for the final adaption gives Yates considerably more room to maneuver. But also this change in format will no doubt involve changes in both structure and pace to the final part of the saga.
With The Order of The Phoenix, Rowling herself gave Yates and co carte blanch to change the book as they saw fit in order to make the story work as a cinema experience. So perhaps we should be viewing these final four films more as a story in four parts rather than stand alone installments. And if you consider The Half Blood Prince as the middle section in a complete narrative, a lot of the editorial decisions make a lot more sense. For example, the first chapter of the Yates quartet, The Order of the Phoenix completely sets up Voldemort’s reign of terror and hence there is no need to reiterate it in The Half Blood Prince any more than it does.
And Yates certainly has his eye on the bigger picture. One set piece that was cut from The Half Blood Prince was the battle with the Death Eaters after the death of Dumbledore, partly due to concerns over lessening the emotional climax of the film but also to avoid overlap with similar scenes in The Deathly Hallows. Also Yates has said that some things cut from Half Blood Prince and Order of the Phoenix will be reworked into The Deathly Hallows.
A major change in Half Blood Prince that has caused a good deal of consternation is the destructions of the Weasley's home the Burrow. On one hand this scene has attracted the fans ire as a good chink of the final book is set there, and on the other critics have questioned why this important event for the characters isn't subsequently referenced in the film. Now I suspect that the Burrows scenes in The Deathly Hallows will be relocated to Sirius Black's house at Grimauld Place and incorporate the crucial scenes from The Order of the Phoenix involving Kreacher and the mysterious RAB whihc were omitted from the movie version. I'm guess the thinking is that these scenes would be better placed in the last two films for the general cinema goers grasp of the series' plot.
Of course this all could be just a load of flapping bat bogeys and we won’t know either way until the final films appear. But certainly it will be interesting to watch this first brace of Yates Potters back to back with this angle in mind when The Half Blood Prince appears on disc later in the year. As a single film, The Half Blood Prince is a little off kilter in its pacing, but I think it will work better when viewed as a middle section of the final quartet.
However until the release of The Deathly Hallows, what we have here is essentially more of the same. If you like the franchise you’ll find plenty to like, and if you don’t you’ll still be mystified by what all the fuss is about. As will its fellow films, the main problems are what isn’t on screen rather than what is. But as this is true of all the films, and I gerenally still feel that the cinema versions omit far too many of the book's important details. But in the end you just have to accept it as a given. In the words of Harry himself – “well after all these years I just kind of go with it”.
Despite the humour and romance that fills a good portion of the running time, the film does turn impressively dark and moody. Towards the end, when the macabre Inferi suddenly rose from the lake, the two rows of school kids in front of me all jumped a foot in the air simultaneously.
Some reviewers have questioned how well all the character stuff will play to younger audiences. Well I can report that at my showing, the children were amazingly well behaved throughout the film and didn’t seem to get bored or fidgety through the romance subplots at all. They even ate their popcorn quietly! The film nicely balances the emotions and teenage hormones with humour, which the kids really seemed to enjoy. And the lighter first half set-ups pay off in the moodier and more menacing last act rather well.
Personally, I enjoyed it a good deal more than its predecessor, though bearing the above in mind I will be reassessing The Order of the Phoenix soon. Missing material concerns aside, I think it is one of the better entries in the series and I’m now certainly a whole lot more excited about the next two films. Quite possibly Yates is gearing up to deliver two final adaptations which will be the crown jewels of the film series.
One final question though, considering the constraints of acceptable cinema running times and the popularity of extended cuts on disc, why hasn’t Warners considered the option of longer versions for the home market?
JIM MOON, 16th July 2009