While watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in a packed theater, I was repeatedly reminded of a line from Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap: “This script is so good, not even a gifted director can ruin it!” Only in this case, replace the word “script” with “J.K. Rowling’s novel.”
That’s not to say Half-Blood Prince is a bad movie — far from it. This is a very watchable, cleverly made picture, second only to Prisoner of Azkaban among the films to date. Two and a half hours never passed so quickly in a theater.
But unlike the blowsy, overwritten Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which cried out for filmic streamlining, the Half-Blood Prince novel earned its page count with storytelling muscle. Of the four behemoths looming at the end of the Potter series, Half-Blood Prince was the most tightly written and carefully plotted. It was also the book in which the mountain of seemingly random details Rowling scattered through the first five novels started to snap into place to reveal a coherent design. Any cuts were bound to do serious damage. The interesting thing is that while director Daniel Yates and Steve Kloves so often chose the wrong things to cut, the strength of Rowling’s conception — and the quality of what remained after the cutting — still puts the film over the top.
I come to praise Half-Blood Prince, not to bury it, so let me say that the film showcases some excellent choices along with the mistakes. The masterstroke was casting Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the errant magician who may have unintentionally given nasty young Tom Riddle the means to become monstrous Lord Voldemort. Broadbent doesn’t match Rowling’s description, but he perfectly captures the character’s blend of appealing and exasperating qualities: the heedless snobbery that underlies the outward cheer, the generosity that redeems the instinct for social climbing, the guilt that spurs the evasiveness. Slughorn is the emotional center of Half-Blood Prince, just as Severus Snape is the tragic hero of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and Broadbent — who has contributed expert supporting work in everything from Time Bandits to The Crying Game — brings him off superbly.
Yates also gives the film an artful, highly distinctive look, full of desaturated colors and unexpected camera angles that had me wishing, not for the first time, that the first two movies had been directed by an artist instead of a hack. Instead of making every scene groan under the weight of special effects, Yates has an instinct for backing off and giving us palette-cleansing moments, such as a seemingly blank screen that turns out to be an immense snow-covered field with Harry and his friends reduced to black specks. Yates is currently filming the two-part adaptation of Deathly Hallows, and I’m eager to see what he does with a story that spends long stretches outside the visual confines of Hogwarts.
So what are the mistakes? Chiefly the decision to cut back the long investigation into Voldemort’s background, conducted by Harry and Albus Dumbledore with the aid of captured memories, and amp up the various teen romances, which provide some good laughs but also distract from the whole point of the series: how a troubled young man turned himself into the embodiment of evil, and how his actions in turn shaped another troubled young man into his own nemesis. The few flashbacks remaining are handled with enough creepy flair to make us wish there had been more, a lot more.
Watching Half-Blood Prince, not only did I miss the climactic battle when the death-eaters invade Hogwarts, I really missed Rowling’s grace notes and character detailing: the satiric wit of the opening chapter and Rufus Scrimgeour’s hilarious exit line; Fleur Delacor and the wonderful moment when the woman everyone has dismissed as a beautiful twit reveals her inner steel; the disturbing secrets hinted at in the cavern scene, while Dumbledore is under the influence of Voldemort’s potion. I would have gladly traded any one of them for the long, pointless action sequence in which a band of Voldemort’s Death-Eaters attack the Weasley family abode.
But the two biggest mistakes, aside from the shift of emphasis to young love instead of old evil, are the fumbled climax between Dumbledore and Snape, and the disastrous ending, which is so disorganized and scattershot that I hesitate to say the film even has a proper conclusion. Rowling’s book shows Harry coming to grips with the utter grimness of his situation and, while not completely shaking it off, at least finding the determination to go on. Yates and Kloves give us some decorative images, an appallingly out-of-place joke from Hermione, and a sense that filmmakers who can march so confidently through passages of humor and action are unqualified to handle the deeper emotional currents Rowling created for her maturing characters.
What Half-Blood Prince needs is a Sam Gamgee moment, the equivalent of the moving speech Peter Jackson and his collaborators used to knit together the plot strands of The Two Towers and point the way to the conclusion in The Return of the King. That Yates and his collaborators felt no such need goes to the heart of why the Potter movies, for all their charm and imagination, are works of high-level craftsmanship instead of genuine artistry, like The Lord of the Rings.
There’s plenty of wizardry shown on the screen in Half-Blood Prince, but the real magic of Harry Potter remains on the printed page.