Tuesday night at midnight I found myself shuffling along in a gigantic line of over 2,000 theater goers to watch the sixth and latest Harry Potter film. I was chaperoning two of my kids, a nephew and a few friends… none of which were decked out in cloaks, hats and spectacles waving about wands with a red lightning bolt drawn onto their foreheads, but they were none the less excited to see the movie.
I was as well, to tell you the truth.
The Richmond family have been Harry Potter fans since the first J.K. Rowling book became all the rage back in 1997. The Lovely Anna and I used to read it to our kids before bedtime, and then sneak it downstairs and continue the story after the kids had nodded off. There was something refreshing and… well… magical about the imaginative world Rowling had created. We remained fans as the kids grew older and the books became more involved, darker (and LOOOOONGER). Naturally once the movie adaptations started coming out we saw and enjoyed them as well, some more than others.
The latest movie “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” may be my favorite of the lot. It’s not the most action packed (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” get’s that title) nor perhaps the most faithful to the books, but I enjoyed the film from beginning to end more than any of the previous movies.
In the film, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends begin their sixth year of schooling at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry amid great fear of the return of evil wizard Lord Voldemort, who was revealed to the magical world at the end of the last movie. Voldemort’s supporters, the Death eaters, are running amock in the wizarding world creating havoc with kidnappings, mass destruction and killings. The school is under heavy guard. Hogwart’s headmaster and the most powerful wizard on the good guy’s side, Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), recruits Harry to help him explore Voldemort’s past through the stored memories of others to try and figure out some way to combat him. To this end, Dumbledore convinces an old Hogwarts professor named Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), who has a memory from when he taught the young Voldemort at school that he is keeping from Dumbledore to return to teaching and further assigns Harry the task of convincing Slughorn to give it up. In the meantime teen hormones rage and mysterious actions by Harry’s arch rival Draco Malfoy add to the drama.
This film is unique from the others in several ways. First, it is the first that really relies on the viewer having seen the previous movies in order to follow the plot and action. Director David Yates takes it for granted that the audience knows who people are, what objects and places are and the significance of many of these things to the story. That is not to say you must have read the BOOK to understand all that is going on (although it certainly helps, and subtle references and characters would mean more to those familiar with the novel than to others)… that would indeed be poor film making. At film number 6 I think it is permissible to require your audience to have those familiarities with the earlier movies. It would be asking much (and certainly dragging down the latter films) to have to start from scratch with tedious rehashing of back story. One must have seen the earlier movies to understand everything but need not have read the book.
Second, this is by far the most a Harry Potter film has departed from the source material. Potter fans are notoriously famous for expecting faithful film adaptations of the Rowling original books (come to think of it, what fans of an adapted work are NOT demanding of faithful film adaptations of their beloved books), but starting with book number four the length of the novels become prodigious and squeezing them into a reasonable length film requires sacrifice. I was impressed with many of the decisions Yates and company made to pare down the story and rid it of needless subplots while still retaining the heart and focus of the story. Some of the decisions are bond to create some controversy, particularly the one near the end that seems to suggest a change the very makeup of what Harry fans might believe of their hero. However even that one, after some thought, maybe makes better sense than the book’s version of the scene. Yates smartly adds a scene not in the book that features an attack on a familiar homestead and an attempt on Harry’s life that stands in for pages and pages of different plotlines meant to make the reader understand the magnitude of the threat and fear the Death Eaters wield now that their master is back in full. There are other scenes from the books that are combined or shortened to more efficiently tell the story. It is not easy to compress so long a story into a little of two hours of film, but I think Yates has done justice to the original and still made a good film.
Finally, this film more than all the others really humanizes the characters and makes the viewer identify and care about them. The earlier films suffered from stiff character dialog and development, mainly due to the slavishness of the adaptation of the book to movie. Some of the acting, especially of the kids, were also awkward in the first several movies. Radcliffe, Emma Watsonas Hermione and especially Rupert Grint as Ron have really grown into their roles and you can tell they are comfortable becoming their characters in front of the camera. Gambon, who took over the Dumbledore role after Richard Harris passed away, finally dropped the hippy dippy goofiness of his take on the character and played it with more authority. Even though they had little screentime, the supporting characters played by Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane and Helena Bonham Carter made the most of their parts. Best of the lot might have been Broadbent as Slughorn, though. He played the character with plenty of playfulness and wit, but there was an underlying shame and guilt over whatever his secret related to Voldemort must have been. Great casting.
More than anything though the humor really shown through in this film, and not the usual calculated comedic relief. There was real dialog going on here, such as you would naturally expect between teenagers dealing not just with good versus evil issues, but with the regular teenage stuff like who likes who and who doesn’t. The romance in this film was much more believable than earlier attempts to capture teen angst and loves. This film really made the viewer feel they were watching what was going on at a school, and not a movie set.
If the movie has faults, most lie in what needed to be cut from the story in order to keep down the time and not bog down the plot. Plenty was left out of the story that was not just unneeded subplots, but I have a theory that as the last book will be filmed as two movies much of the book six plot points that will be required to advance the story to its inevitable conclusion will be left for the 7th and 8th movies. We shall see.
In the meantime, a hearty recommendation for “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” with the caveat that you might want to revisit at least movies 4 and 5 on DVD first.
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