Written by Eydie
What’s a director to do when the big, shocking climax of the movie is already known by everyone who’d want to see it?
That must have been a tough one for David Yates, who directed this summer’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The answer may have been controversial, but it’s one with which I wholeheartedly agree: Make the film as different as possible from the original novel. A month after the movie’s release, it’s time to analyze why.
Movie adaptations are a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. The first Potter film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, drew fire because it was too much like the book. Critics complained there was nothing to be surprised about, no ingenuity shown by the filmmakers, nothing compelling beyond the special effects. Meanwhile the decision to veer away from J.K. Rowling’s sacred text hasn’t always played well–witness the last movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I myself, perhaps because it’s my favorite of the books, was horrified at the steamroller approach and the cheap play for laughs (having the cool black wizard compliment Professor Dumbledore’s “style” was a little too cliche). That film, also directed by Yates, changed the wrong details, which in turn changed the characters’ relationships as well as their personalities–for example, in the tome Harry didn’t dump Cho Chang because she was a traitor, he dumped her because she was a nutcase.
But with Half-Blood Prince, the filmmakers and cast preserve the essence of the book, even while changing some things completely.
For one thing, certain characters are a lot more likeable in the movie. Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) isn’t an insufferable name dropper; he’s an old man bearing a terrible burden, keeping secret something he did to help Lord Voldemort become immortal. The look of shock and guilt when Ronald Weasley (the always excellent Rupert Grint) drinks poison mead meant for the professor conveys more about the character than Rowling’s purple prose did. Ginny Weasley, Harry’s love interest, is no longer the crazed harpy who screams at her brother at the drop of a hat, the “Mary Sue” that fans disliked because she always came up roses despite her flaws. I credit actress Bonnie Wright, who throughout the Potter films has portrayed Ginny’s longing with subtle facial expressions and body gestures, as well as scriptwriters who have made Ginny’s importance to Harry grow more organically. Conversely, Harry himself is less angelic, more like an actual teenage boy, who hits on a very pretty girl in a Muggle (i.e. real-world) diner near the start of the film. Maybe his nude stint in the play Equus caused this more authentic look at Harry’s romantic urges? He’s no less a Christ allegory for it, anyway.
What really makes Half-Blood prince work for me is that it’s got a style unique to all the other Potter movies. The metaphor of elite Death Eaters as a demonic Blue Angels squadron is genius! So are the “steampunk” outfits worn by many of the characters, mostly the antagonistic ones. Steampunk, which strives for a post-modern, post-apocalyptic effect, is roughly a mix of Victorian and goth fashions. To me, these costumes symbolized the struggle between old values–long ago, wizards used to be open and proud of their superior status in the world–and those who want to preserve peace with Muggles. Besides, I have a mini top hat just like Narcissa Malfoy’s.
Not everything works, of course. I’m not sure why the attack on the Weasley family home was necessary, except maybe to showcase the Death Eater Blue Angels some more. But the biggest change is one I applaud: Out of necessity, Dumbledore’s death–the plot point everyone knows is coming–is not the ultimate destination of the film. It’s not even exactly the same as it happened in the novel, though actor Alan Rickman (who portrays Professor Snape at his tortured best) makes the look on Snape’s face one of horror, not hatred as the book wanted us to believe. I loved how the actual climax was the heartbreaking, yet hopeful, show of solidarity that the Hogwart’s School students and teachers display upon viewing Dumbledore’s body: Love can eradicate the Dark Mark, and maybe Voldemort too.