A Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Yeah, I know, a movie review is a bit of a departure for me, but my family is filled with Potterologists and I can’t help it.  If I’ve read a book and then see a movie adaptation of it, I can’t help but be a critic, I suppose in part because I hold aspirations to be a writer myself–novels, screenplays, whatever.  So it was with great anticipation that I took the family to see Half-Blood Prince this past weekend, particularly given the great rating it had on the tomatometer on www.rottentomatoes.com (90%+ at the time).

When I’m watching a movie adapted from a novel I’m familiar with (and in this case very familiar with), three things tend to stick out to me: omissions of important details from the book, diddling with details in the book, and superfluous additions of details that weren’t in the book.  The movie is rife with all three and will likely be frustrating to fellow Potterologists.

The first scene of the movie sets the stage for these annoying cinematic tweaks.  At the beginning of the book is an endearing sequence showing the interaction between the fictional British Minister of Magic with the real world British Prime Minister (the best opening sequence of all the books, if you ask me).  After the movie release of Order of the Phoenix I started wondering if Half-Blood Prince would kick off with a look-alike of former PM Tony Blair or current PM Gordon Brown.  The answer is neither; instead we’re given a bizarre scene of Harry sitting in a diner asking the waitress out on a whim.  What?  If the scene had contributed to Harry’s character development I wouldn’t have taken issue with it, but he winds up abandoning her in favor of apparating off into the real story with Dumbledore, leaving the waitress standing on the curb and never to be seen again.  If you’re going to change the story, at least make the change useful to the movie’s rendition.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that the change in medium from book to movie often dictates some changes to the story.  But many of the changes made in this instance seem to be damaging to the story and its characters and seem to have established some insurmountable challenges to the proper telling of the rest of the story in The Deathly Hallows.  For example, in the book Dumbledore makes clear to Harry the headmaster’s suspicions that Voldemort has ensured his immortality through the creation of horcruxes (items in which Voldemort has hidden pieces of his soul), and through several memory sequences with Harry explores the possibilities of what those hidden items might be.  These memory sequences were omitted from the movie, leaving us Potterologists to wonder how Harry will discover these on his own in the final movie installments.

It’s some of the seemingly small omissions and tweaks that seemed to get under my skin the most.  After Draco Malfoy discovers the furtive Harry eavesdropping on the Hogwarts Express, it’s Luna who discovers his hidden body, not Tonks as is the case in the book; is screenplay writer Steve Kloves trying to downgrade one character in favor of the other, and why?  Dumbledore tells Harry at the beginning of the book to keep his invisibility cloak with him at all times; in the movie not only is this suggestion omitted, practically all use of the cloak (which has noteworthy relevance in The Deathly Hallows) is removed.  Dumbledore also tells Harry that he can–and should–confide totally in his best friends, Hermione and Ron, but this also is omitted from the movie; this is a hugely important detail that I simply can’t believe the movie makers would leave out.  After all, it would have only taken a couple of seconds for Dumbledore to utter these words, which are so important to the character of both of the final installments in the series.  And then there’s the whole Christmas sequence in the movie–the deatheater’s attack on the Weasley home–none of which is in the book; why add this sequence? 

But the most radical (and disappointing) changes were made to the climactic scene of Half-Blood Prince, once Dumbledore and Harry return from their mission to retrieve a locket that is a horcrux.  In the book, Dumbledore is crippled and weakened, Harry is frozen and hidden by a spell from Dumbledore, and the headmaster is disabled and at the mercy of Draco Malfoy; Snape bursts onto the scene, quickly surveys it, Dumbledore reaches feebly out to Snape and mutters “please”, and, well, I won’t ruin it for the half-dozen people on the planet who don’t know what happens next.  This sequence is fascinating and some of the greatest story telling in English literature, a deep and significant view into the characters of Dumbledore, Malfoy, and Snape.  But in the movie Dumbledore is standing strong, calmly directs Harry to wait out of sight, and while Harry secretly watches Dumbledore assure Malfoy that he’s not a killer, Snape sneaks up behind Harry, shushes him with a finger to his lips, and continues up the stairs to Dumbledore and Malfoy.  The moviemakers have provided a hint that there’s more to Snape than meets the eye, but this is something that the book so rightly reveals to us at the very end of the last book in the series in a seemingly infinitely more effective way.  I think this sequence alone is evidence that all of the moviemakers collectively have about a millionth of the story telling capability as J.K. Rowling.

If you’ve never read the book, then you’re likely to enjoy the film; it’s entertaining and will fly by in a hurry, though it may leave you a bit confused over some issues that will hopefully be resolved in the 2-movie edition of the 7th book.  If you’ve read the book, prepare to be frustrated while you are entertained, and prepare to debate the moviemaker’s liberty-taking with your fellow Potterologists for the next year and a half while we wait for Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part I to hit the theatres holiday season 2010.

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