Images 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.
I 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.
Beyond 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.