Posted by: Ken Brown | August 6, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceImages copyright Warner Brothers.

For my money, the Half-Blood Prince is the most consistently well-written book in the whole Harry Potter series. Like all the rest, it skillfully intertwines several engaging mysteries–involving Malfoy’s plan, Snape’s role, Slughorn’s memory, Dumbledore’s hand, Voldemort’s past, and of course, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince–and as always, it is filled with memorable characters and surprising twists, culminating in the one of the most unsettlingly brilliant cliffhangers ever penned. It is also the funniest book in the series, and both builds on and upends much of what has gone before, while offering major revelations that pave the way for the Deathly Hallows, which apart from some slow bits in the middle, is just as well-written as the Half-Blood Prince.

All of which is to say that I was bound to be disappointed by the movie, which could hardly help but leave out a great deal of the subtlety and depth of its source material. I purposely waited to reread the book until after watching it, but while that allowed me to enjoy the film more than I probably would have, it wasn’t enough to prevent disappointment, made all the worse now that I have reread it (warning: major spoilers and some fan-boy ranting ahead).

To be fair, there was a lot to like about the film, much of which is discussed in Carmen’s excellent review here, and the others to which she links. It was touching and funny, and the cinematography was outstanding. I thought the scene in Voldemort’s cave was especially well done–even knowing what was coming, I seriously jumped when the Inferius grabbed Harry–and Alan Rickman and Jim Broadbent stole every scene they were in.

Draco and the AppleI even appreciated a few of the changes made to the plot, especially the added scenes of Draco Malfoy in the Room of Requirement, which gave Tom Felton the opportunity to show us a much more human side of Malfoy than we have seen previously (nice symbolism with the bitten apple, as well). Though the book also points to this more troubled and outcast Malfoy, I was glad to see it given greater prominence here, even if it did cut some of the mystery from the story. I also appreciated the way Ginny helps Harry permanently get rid of the Half-Blood Prince’s Advanced Potions book after his fight in the bathroom, which was a great improvement over Harry’s guilty attempt to hide the book in the original. On the other hand, this comes at the cost of eliminating a seemingly minor detail involving a Horcrux that will become rather essential in the Deathly Hallows (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the books).

Unfortunately, this was just one of several places where the film eliminated essential information, particuarly regarding Voldemort’s Horcruxes, in favor of an overdrawn romantic drama. As far as I’m concerned, the various love triangles involving Harry Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Lavender Brown and Ramilda Vane were the least interesting aspect of the book, and their prominence here forced the film to severely diminish the far more important plotlines involving Snape’s and Voldemort’s back-stories, and produced a rather choppy film.

Particularly inexcusable was decision to show only two of the memories Dumbldore collected, the lack of any discussion between Harry and Dumbledore about the nature of the remaining Horcruxes or Harry’s role once they are destroyed (unless I missed it), and the omission of Harry’s conversation with Sybil Trelawny regarding Snape and the prophecy (the latter of which is not even mentioned in the film, as far as I recall). Especially important, and hard to understand given the film’s emphasis on love, was the omission of several comments about love itself being the deepest and most powerful form of magic, and Harry’s only ultimate hope against Voldemort’s power. As Dumbledore puts it in the book:

You are protected, in short, by your ability to love… the only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s!… You have flitted into Lord Voldemort’s mind without damage to yourself, but he cannot possess you without enduring mortal agony, as he discovered in the Ministry [in Order of the Phoenix]. I do not think he understands why, Harry, but then, he was in such a hurry to mutilate his own soul, he never paused to understand the incomparable power of a soul that is untarnished and whole. (pg. 511)

This theme was also gets less attention than it should in the film version of the Order of the Phoenix, yet it is absolutely essential to what is coming in the finale. How they are going to explain Harry’s actions in the Deathly Hallows without such information is beyond me, but then again, I can’t imagine that even this film would be comprehensible to those who have not read the books–and there were certainly enough easter eggs hidden for those who have, like the unexplained presence of Remus and Tonks at the Weasley’s–so maybe they have given up trying to do more than hint at what is only fully explained in the novels.

Granted, some omissions were inevitable, and I don’t begrudge them leaving out the second and third Quiddich matches, the apparition lessons, the subplots involving the Minister of Magic, Madam Rosemerta, Percy and Bill Weasley, etc., but other omissions made little sense, particularly the final battle with the Death Eaters. The notion that it was too similar to the finale in the Deathly Hallows, which I have heard in a few reviews, is silly–we are comparing a small skirmish in the Astronomy Tower to an all-out war for the school as a whole. If anything, the battle here should have whet our appetites for what is to come–unless they plan to drastically cut down the finale, there is no way this could have stolen its thunder, and by cutting it out, they left the film with a seriously anticlimactic ending.

That said, though I think the final act fell short of the emotional weight of the book, I have to admit that one major change made sense. At first I hated the way they did not have Dumbledore freeze Harry under the invisibility cloak when Malfoy surprised them on the roof, as it eliminates the reason Dumbledore failed to defend himself and requires us to believe that Harry could watch the whole scene without doing or saying anything. But on second thought it was pretty much necessary as, without being able to hear Harry’s thoughts as in the book, it would have been impossible to witness his reactions if he were frozen and invisible. On a thematic level, it doesn’t change things as much as it might first seem. It always was a bit unbelievable that a wizard as powerful as Dumbledore could not have both frozen Harry and blocked Malfoy’s spell, had he wanted to. If that is even clearer in the film, it doesn’t really change the nature of Dumbledore’s action (such as it is), it just hints a bit more strongly at its true nature, as will only be made explicit in the Deathly Hallows.

SlughornBeyond plot, I thought the film was well-staged and edited, though I was much less impressed by the soundtrack than I have been with previous installments. The acting, however, was probably the best of the series, especially Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn and (as always) Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape. Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, as Ron and Hermione respectively, have both grown into their roles well–especially Watson–though I must admit I still picture their characters quite differently when I read the books.

On the other hand, I continue to be disappointed by Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore–Rowling’s character was somehow both more imposing and playful, his eyes always either sparkling with glee or glinting with rage, as the situation warrented. Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry also still feels flat and uninteresting compared to his literary counterpart, though that may simply reflect the fact the films cannot reproduce his interior monologue, which is especially entertaining in The Half-Blood Prince. For example, I think “After the Burial,” when Harry uses the Felix Felicis to get the memory from Slughorn, is among the most entertaining chapters in the whole series, but Radcliffe does not come close to doing justice to Harry’s lighthearted confidence  and joy in this scene, and the script doesn’t help him. I also thought his budding relationship with Ginny, while suitably sweet, missed Ginny’s tough and independent streak as seen in the book, though their scenes together at the Burrow nearly made up for it.

All in all I enjoyed the film, but I found its omissions very frustrating and sometimes incomprehensible. I dearly hope that the decision to split the Deathly Hallows into two films will allow a much fuller and more satisfying treatment of the finale than we got here. For if the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite of the series, there is no denying that the Deathly Hallows is the most important.

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Responses

  1. I think there’s more to be said for the film than you do. One quibble in particular – there’s very little of Snape’s backstory in the book. Most comes in the final one. The one bit there was: Snape hearing the prophecy was already effectively ruled out by the way the prophecy was dealt with in the previous film.

    • Certainly there is a great deal more to be said on the film’s behalf (which is part of why I linked Carmen’s much more positive review as well), but the bit about the prophecy, and the several conversations it spawns in the books, is probably the second most important aspect of Snape’s backstory, so leaving it out is no small matter. I agree, though, that the previous film had already set the precedent here, which was one of the things that bothered me about that film as well.

      There was also a fair bit about Snape’s background to be gleaned from the Half-Blood Prince’s potions book, once you realize whose it is, and the film cut down the focus on that as well.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you say here. I truly missed the importance of the “memories” and the very deep connection that grows between Dumbledore and Harry. Most of all, I was truly disappointed about the tower scene. I thought it vital that it was like in the book, the exact same language was used to describe how much Harry hated to make Dumbledore drink the poison as the pre-Avada conversation between Snape and Dumbledore. The very very very fast, “Please Severus,” in the movie shows NOTHING of Snape’s anguish and does not prepare anyone for Harry’s guilt later when he finds out about the way Dumbledore literally forces Snape to agree to kill him as well as the terrible mistake about Malfoy being the new master of the wand and not Snape at all, which is why Voldemort kills Snape later. Arrgh, that omission almost ruined the movie for me. I applaud the better use of Draco, do not care about the romances at all, but felt the “STRONG GLOWING” Ginny scene should have been left in. And, in closing, I also agree that Harry on the HAPPY drug should have been happier and more mischievous.

    • Yes! That is the other major piece of Snape’s backstory that got left out, though even in the book, Severus doesn’t say anything to Dumbledore on the tower itself, and Dumbledore only says “Severus… Severus… please….” The key scene, omitted by the movie, was the earlier conversation between them (Harry hears about it from Hagrid) where Snape tells Dumbledore that he doesn’t want to do “it” anymore and Dumbledore insists that he promised (as you said, the conversation is almost an exact parallel to Harry’s own regarding the potion). Of course, Harry thinks they are talking about spying on Voldemort, and concludes that Snape is revealing his lack of loyalty to Dumbledore; he doesn’t learn until the next book that they are actually talking Snape’s being the one to kill Dumbledore on his orders.

  3. Actually I think there was a line in the movie where Snape says maybe he doesn’t want to do it. But what I remember from the book, which is at camp with one of my kids, is the “revulsion, disgust and pity” part of how Harry sees Snape on the tower. Which was exactly like he felt in the cave.

    If that whole scene is my imagination, forgive me because I do not have the book at hand, but I really remember that as being very well done on JKR’s part, ie… to reuse the language and exact sentiments of these two distinct individuals who always distrust the other’s motives and hearts.

    I also have to admit that I did not like Snape’s lifetime love for Lily being the reason for his sacrifices during his life from 21 on. I suppose LOVE FOR LILY and FROM LILY is the basis of everything and a message I, as a reader, should just accept.

    One more itsy bitsy comment, in the book Harry is petrified, yet he does see and hear the whole tower scene and Malfoy lowering his wand. I guess when Dumbledore freezes him, he had a caveat about the ears and eyes. (pppffft)

    • I don’t recall if there was a line in the movie where Snape says he doesn’t want to do it, but it is definitely in the book (but not in the tower scene, it comes earlier). As for Snape’s love for Lily, I also found it a bit odd that it would still be strong enough after all those years to motivate him (yet without making him the least bit kinder to her son?), but I find it entirely plausible that he would never again be tempted to follow Voldemort after the latter needlessly murdered the woman he loved. After all, Snape had specifically begged him to spare her and yet Voldemort could not even be bothered to stun her to get to Harry; he killed her without compunction, like a thousand others.

      After that, Snape knew better than anyone just how recklessly evil Voldemort was, and had every reason to fight him to his dying breath. Especially with how proud Snape has been since the beginning of the series, I don’t have any trouble imagining him considering his duty (if not his desire for revenge) to be absolute, even if his love for Lily did fade in time.

      As for Harry being able to witness the tower scene, it had already been established when Malfoy stunned Harry on the train that Petrificus Totalus does not prevent one from seeing and hearing (nor, presumably, from any other internal movement, like heartbeat and breathing), and Rowling makes clear that he fell against the castle wall facing the scene.

  4. I agree with what your reply; Snape and Dumbledore have the discussion earlier in the book than the tower scene and that Snape had every reason to revile Voldemort and fight to the death to defeat him, even if the Lily Love had faded. Although, I do have a faint memory of Dumbledore saying that and Snape replying “never ended or always” to the Lily Love in the book.

    His meanness and cruelty as a teacher and protector (unwillingly) of Harry can certainly be seen as unforgiving towards James Potter, because he really hated him and he was simply a mean teacher to almost everyone. He was a bitter man.

    The Petrification is clearer to me from the movie in which Hermione Petrifies Neville and he was rendered into a complete stone-like figure that could not move his eyes, the ones petrified by the Big Snake in Chamber of Secrets also could not see or hear, but they probably changed that from the book, which I do not remember.

    But yes, in the 6th book, Harry does see and hear what happens in the tower scene. Since I am unclear of the books vs. movie petrified issues, I am sure you are entirely correct.

    But enough nitpicking by me, I enjoyed much of the movie, disliked much of the movie and loved or hated a few things on either side.

    I live in hope for a whole lot of Snape in the last movies, or until he dies, at any rate and more bits of Draco Malfoy, which are important moments.

    They could leave out the epilogue, which I hated, but they are going to make a big ending with it, from all I hear.

  5. ken, great and thoughtful review! heh, i’ve always admitted that i am FAR too generous when it comes to films.

    your point about the dialogue about love being absent from the film is spot on. interestingly, it reminded me of the quote at the end of the film version of “Order of the Phoenix,” where Harry tells Voldemort: “You’re the weak one. And you’ll never know love, or friendship. And I feel sorry for you.” i remember scouring the book for that quote afterwards and not being able to find it (tho it’s quite possible i missed it). but i also remember being pleased that an otherwise very disappointing movie picked up on (if ever so briefly) that theme, because it runs so thick and foundationally through the series.

  6. I agree with most of your criticisms, but I think they pale in comparison with the last few films, which were increasingly getting worse and worse in terms of the same kinds of problems. They left more and more out each time, and it wasn’t just unimportant things but increasingly-important elements that will make it harder and harder to get the last two films for Deathly Hallows right, since all that stuff is crucial. This one had some of that, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad because of the much shorter book being adapted, which meant not leaving as much out.

    • I’ve felt the same way. Besides the prophecy, I think the biggest omissions are the lack of information about the horcruxes and the reduced emphasis on House Elves. In the books, Harry has already seen each of the horcruxes before (though he didn’t recognize them all as such), whereas in the films they haven’t seen any of them–I don’t even think they’ve been told to look for one from each House except Griffendore. We’ve also hardly seen anything of Dobby and Kreacher (we don’t even know that Harry owns 12 Grimauld Place–omitted from Half-Blood Prince–or that the two elves are at Hogwarts), which means either the filmakers will have to cram all this back in after the fact, or completely rewrite several major plot points to leave them out. I don’t recall if they included Sirius’ mirror in the film version of the Order of the Phoenix. If not, that will be another problem.

      I think they can probably work their way around most of the rest of the omissions, though. Bill and Fleur’s wedding might seem abrupt, but that’s no big deal. Grawp could show up in the final battle (so long as he is unidentified) without a problem. We’ve seen Rita Skeeter (even if not as much of her), so her book could still be included. The plotline with the Ministry of Magic has not been set up very well, but they could cram it in as well with a bit of exposition. Having just reread the Deathly Hallows, I don’t recall anything else major that they could not do now, though a lot of it will only be as meaningful to those of us who have read the books.

      • Grawp was in the Order of the Phoenix movie, so he’s ok.

  7. Oh, right–I’d forgotten. OftP is the only one I haven’t watched recently.

  8. […] a good critical review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from Ken Brown, I tend to disagree: I think too many […]

  9. […] world who haven’t read the book, the film admirably emphasizes the power of self-sacrificial love. This is seen not only in the resolution of various love-interests (and I’m convinced that […]


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