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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Reviewed by Eliza DoLots

When Warner Brothers first began making movies of the very popular Harry Potter book series, staying faithful to the stories was not a problem. Things changed with the publication of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Weighing in at a hefty 734 pages, there was simply too much for a movie lasting less than three hours. I suppose I should have realized that as I read the book, but it didn't hit me until five years later. As I watched the movie my jaw dropped. The sheer enormity of what had been cut was staggering. I had to go back a second time to see if it was any good, because the first time through I was simply in shock.

A favored scene in all of the books is "getting Harry away from the Dursleys." Whether it is being taken away by the half giant Hagrid or spirited away in a flying car by the Weasleys, Harry's escape from the Dursleys is always a comedic highlight of the books and the movies. No previous "escape" rivaled the Weasley clan removing Harry from his aunt and uncle in Goblet of Fire. It is a beautiful, hysterical scene featuring an exploding fireplace, a tongue the size of a python, and Arthur Wesley, muggle fan supreme, politely acting as if nothing was amiss.

It isn't in the movie. No Dursleys in the movie at all. No house elves, no quidditch...the mind boggled.

However, the movie is, in fact, very good. The scene with the Dursley's - though a delight to read - does very little to drive the plot. Plot elements assigned the elves in the book are re-assigned to the secondary schoolmates in the movie. This minimizes the need for computer generated characters and leaves the young actor's more to do.

With the movie Goblet of Fire, Potter fans were put on notice: very little is sacred when it comes to condensing J. K. Rowling's massive tomes into watchable movies. In what will be remembered as some of the most extreme editing ever done, the longest of the books - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - was turned into the shortest of the movies. And it works. A leaner, more focused Order of the Phoenix movie is, in fact, a far more enjoyable experience than 800+ pages largely devoted to teenage angst.

Half-Blood Prince is the first book to have been released after the Goblet of Fire movie. So, it is the first book I read with part of my brain wondering "will this make it into the movie?"

Right off the bat, I knew the opening sequence was doomed. The book opens with a very funny chapter in which we meen Britain's Prime Minister. In flashback, we see him take office only to learn that wizards and witches are real and have their own system of government headed by the Minister of Magic. The chapter traces the history of the books as the increasingly frazzled Minister of Magic gives the Prime Minister updates on important information that might effect his world. My favorite exchange:

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"The Minister of Magic only reveals him(or her)self to the Muggle Prime Minister of the day," said Fudge, poking his wand back inside his jacket. "We find it the best way to maintain secrecy."

"But then," bleated the Prime Minister, "why hasn't a former Prime Minister warned me...?"

At this, Fudge actually laughed. "My dear Prime Minister, are you ever going to tell anybody?"

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Of course, this eleven page chapter only serves one purpose: to inform us that Voldemort and his death eaters are now having an impact on the muggle world. The movie conveys this in a short (maybe 15 second) scene in which death eaters destroy what seems to be a new bridge in London.

Likewise, the third chapter, the "leaving the Dursleys" scene seemed destined to be cut. Though far and away the most enjoyable of the escape scenes and chock full of visually interesting ideas (The Dursleys sullenly listening to Dumbledore waxing philosophical while glasses bang their heads offering wine) the scene doesn't do a lot to advance the plot. We learn that Harry is the official owner of his deceased godfather's house and he goes off with Dumbledore. That's it. The movie just has Dumbledore pick Harry up while he's apparently roaming around various train stations. No more than 30 or 40 seconds of film compared to 10 pages in the book.

Similar brutal cuts are made throughout. Gone is Luna Lovegood's wonderful commentary on the final quidditch match. At least we do get some time with the luminouse and lovely Luna as she is given the job of finding Harry after he is waylaid on the train. I have to give huge kudos to the movie makers for letting us see that Wrackspurts are, in fact, visible - at least to Luna.

On a positive note, just as gone is the dreary "Will he let her love him?" sobfest that is the Tonks/Lupin relationship in the book. In the movie, it's a done deal, and no one is the least bit angsty about it.

Knowing what wonders had been worked with Order of the Phoenix, I came into the movie of Half-Blood Prince with very high hopes. Order of the Phoenix was, at the time, my least favorite book and director David Yates made it into one of my favorite movies. Half-Blood Prince is still my favorite book and I had confidence that Yates would not let me down. He does not.

The story is told well and cleanly. No time wasted explaining things 99.9% of the audience is going to know already, but there are no logical gaps requiring knowledge of the book.

It is an advantage having actors who have played the same characters for many years. They slide into their roles as though they are second skins.

The kids have, for the most part, improved with age. Daniel Radcliffe has settled into a comfortable, if a bit resigned, Harry. Emma Watson embraces her role's history, allowing herself to become - for a moment at least - the frizzy-haired grouch Hermione Granger we first knew. Tom Felton - having the most to do to date - makes dramatic gains as Draco Malfoy. His perpetual smirk has been replaced with an appropriately condescending sneer. His physical presence is elegant and every bit the aristocrat Lucius Malfoy was before him. His lines are delivered with a wide variety of emotion, instead of the huffy, breathy arrogance that seems to be the hallmark of the earlier movies. Felton is at his best when displaying uncertainty and fear, something this movie gives him an opportunity to do. His final scene with Dumbledore may well be the best piece of acting by the younger contingent so far. Rupert Grint still struggles to convey emotion without twisting his face into a gargoyle-ish mask. Fortunately for us, Ron Weasley spends most of the movie feeling queasy so the facial tics are not as bothersome as they might be.

Ron's biggest scene is also one I found very surprising: playing Keeper in the big Griffindor/Slytherin quidditch match. The wizarding game of quidditch has always been problematic for the movies. Initially, the action sequences relied heavily on inadequate CGI that pulled the audience out of the movie. Perhaps because of this, the fourth movie has no quidditch action scenes at all, sticking to the dramatic (and slow moving) pre-game festivities. Finally, for the very last game of quidditch that will be put to film, they get it right. I suspect there is little or no CGI work. This looks like stunt work in front of a blue screen (I'd say green, but the Slytherin team is wearing green). Unlike the earlier movies, all the action is on the field, not in the stands. With all the players adult in size, quidditch is finally the fast-paced, exciting, physically difficult game described in the books.

While the adults in the cast are given very short shrift in Order of the Phoenix, here they are given ample time to play with their characters and chew on the scenery. Maggie Smith is a particularly fun surprise. Minerva McGonagall is largely absent from the book, but has been vaulted to prominence in the movie. Likewise, Alan Rickman, whose Professor Snape is limited to one short scene in OotP is delightfully sinister and ever-present in HBP. Michael Gambon finally feels like Dumbledore to me. Reading the book I was sure that I would be missing the first Dumbledore, Richard Harris, who died just as filming began on the third movie. I did not. Gambon hits the right tone of mirth, anger and fear.

This movie marks the emergence of Harry and his friends as young adults with a calling beyond the confines of school. Visually, the director conveys this by making Hogwarts seem smaller. Where the Great Hall has always seemed, well...great...in this movie it is revealed as little more than a school cafeteria. The podium on which the teachers sit is shown to be just a raised step; enough to elevate them in the eyes of 11 and 12 year olds, but barely enough to raise them over the eye level of 16 and 17 year olds. With a subtle shift in camera angle, Yates gives us a Hogwarts that is vulnerable and teachers who are, it turns out, just people. It's a very nice touch and should serve well in the final movies (the seventh book is being made into two movies; as Deathly Hallows is my least favorite Potter book, I'm not sure how I feel about this).

The lone returning Death Eater is Bella LeStrange, wonderfully played by the somewhat typecast Helena Bonham Carter. (She's playing a crazy, witchy looking woman? Who would have thought?) She brings a touch of dark insanity to the movie that is very welcome. New to the cast is Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, coming out of retirement to retake the job of Potions Professor. Broadbent does not in any way match the physical description of the character in the book.

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The wandlight sparkled on his shiny pate, his prominent eyes, his enormous, silver, walruslike mustache, and the highly polished buttons on the maroon velvet jacket he was wearing over a pair of lilac silk pajamas. The top of his head barely reached Dumbledore's chin.

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Full head of hair, normal eyes, no mustache and just as tall as Gambon, Broadbent nevertheless captures Slughorn's somewhat insipid, needy character very convincingly. Our first sight of him - after Dumbledore discovers he's hiding as a comfy chair - is nicely done. Where the book just has the chair replaced with the man, the movie gives us a more gradual transformation with quite a few lines being delivered while Slughorn sports "chair" arms and legs.

Also new is David Legene as Fenrir Greyback. Most of Greyback's better scenes did not make the movie and, frankly, the costume/body makeup looks a bit too much like Hellboy for my taste, but Greyback should have a more substantial role in the upcoming movies. This is one instance where I thought the movie could have done a better job. We learn who Greyback is (a deadly combination of Death Eater and Werewolf) from a "Wanted Poster" that is poorly lit and could easily be missed by someone not familiar with the character name. We are expected to recognize him from the poster. Given how little he is used, I conclude Greyback is only here now because he will get extensive screen time in one or both of the follow-up movies.

For this movie, the screenwriter and director have the distinct advantage of knowing how it ends. Unlike previous movies where the scripts were submitted to Rowling to make sure they weren't cutting anything critical, this time they were able to act freely. This includes presaging one of the central ideas of the final book: the significance of Harry's scar. Much discussed in the books, the scar has been unimportant other than identifying Harry in the movies. It will be very important in the final movies and it was nice of Dumbledore to remind us that it is there and that it is important.

Anytime I'm both excited and confident about a movie before I see it, it's hard to convey a lot of joy because, frankly, there's no surprise. That's the case here. I expected a very good movie and I got a very good movie.

Now, we just have to hope that they can make something worth watching out of that last book...

 

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Director
David Yates

Screenplay
Steve Kloves

Released
July 15, 2009 (US)

Cast
Daniel Radcliffe
Emma Watson
Rupert Grint
Michael Gambon
Maggie Smith
Alan Rickman
Helena Bonham Carter
Tom Felton
Jim Broadbent

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray