Given the almost incalculable success of the Harry Potter books and the guaranteed gravy train of subsequent movies, you could easily forgive Warner Brothers for slacking off a bit on the later entries in the film series. You could. But thankfully, you don’t have to.
Early on, it may have been something of a gamble to attempt a multimillion-dollar film adaptation of such an au courant literary sensation. To ease the concerns of loyal fans, Warner Brothers pulled out its big guns, recruiting some major-name directors (Chris Columbus from Home Alone, Alfonso Cuarón from Y Tu Mamá También, Mike Newell from Four Weddings and a Funeral). By the time they got to the fifth film, however, producers figured they were safe hiring a no-name director. The actors, sets and screenplays were established enough by the time Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix rolled around that British television director David Yates couldn’t do much to screw things up. As it turned out, Yates did a more than workmanlike job, turning the film into one of the most exciting entries in the series. (Of course, it didn’t hurt that he came aboard with one of the more action-packed books.) Happily, Yates is back for the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and is already hard at work on the climactic seventh outing, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which will be split into two films).
It’s a good thing, too, because Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a difficult assignment. Much of J.K. Rowling’s original novel is given over to long, expository flashbacks covering the life story of evil wizard Tom Riddle / Lord Voldemort. Screenwriter Steve Kloves hasn’t been stumped yet, though, and he trims away just enough to keep things moving. Of course, rabid Rowling readers will view this as little more than the “Cliff Notes” version, but Kloves has done a judicious job of picking and choosing his scenes. Most of the novel’s political content about mystical terrorist attacks and government cover-ups on the part of the Ministry of Magic gets shoved to the background. It would have been nice to feel a bit more of this growing menace in anticipation of the climactic film(s). Nonetheless, it’s increasingly clear that Rowling’s novels were a product of their time. The world (or America, anyway) seems to have turned a corner on oppressive, ultra-secretive governments and their terrorist-inspired crackdowns, so it’s not all that unusual to see Rowling’s political storylines take a backseat to always timely teen angst and burgeoning hormones.
Yes, there is a lot of kissing going on in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but at this point in the narrative it feels well-earned. One of the strengths of Rowling’s books is that they matured along with their readers. As the target audience aged into puberty, so too did the characters. (I actually feel sorry for kids who get to read them all in one fell swoop now. It just wouldn’t have the same impact.) Of course, even if you don’t match that age demographic, odds are you’ve spent plenty of time with Harry, Hermione, Ron and the gang. It’s actually nice to ease off the narrative a bit and just spend time with these kids. Watching these familiar characters fumble their way through first kisses, first loves and first breakups is a cute treat after all the wizard-dueling and dragon-fighting.
Of course, it’s not all teen romance. There’s still plenty of danger to be had here: Harry experimenting with a mysterious, previously owned potion book; Dumbledore battling the forces of darkness; new Professor Horace Slughorn providing some valuable background on Lord Voldemort; the continuing machinations of Severus Snape; Draco Malfoy plotting his own evil scheme inside the walls of Hogwarts.
Since the film concentrates mostly on the horrors and joys of puberty (as seen through the eyes of the wizarding world), it would have been nice if Kloves’ script had found a way to tie Draco’s angsty little subplot more tightly in with Harry/Ron/Hermione’s coming-of-age tale. Draco’s growing daddy issues, self-esteem problems and jealousy over Harry’s increasing fame could easily have been highlighted. Instead, we get shots of Draco looking constipated and sneaking off to look at a cabinet. Given the amount of truncation it took to cram Rowling’s 672-page book into 153 minutes, such sacrifices aren’t all that surprising. There are a few inelegant transitions in the film as well, where one scene seems to smack abruptly into the next. Here’s hoping the extended director’s cut DVD alleviates some of this.
“I’m just beginning to realize how beautiful this place is,” says our boy Harry late in the film. It’s hard to argue with him. Over the course of six films, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and its environs have been luminously, lushly realized. With the final chapter looming, Harry’s words take on a darker level as well. This will all go away soon. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince straddles a delicate line, making us feel the beauty and joy of being a boy wizard one last time while imparting an uncomfortable feeling about those dark storm clouds gathering on the horizon.