So the cinematic adventures of the world’s most popular boy wizard come one film closer to the end. Harry Potter and his favorite classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry continue their academic pursuits while remaining vigilant against the encroaching evil manipulations of He-Who’s-Starting-To-Get-Named-With-Increasing-Frequency. The new film is, in many respects, the usual tumult and camaraderie. Spells are cast, schemes are set into motion, friendships are tested, Quidditch is played.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate novel in J.K. Rowling’s colossally successful book series. The film that shares its name and its story is less like an adaptation and more like a tribute. By now it’s no surprise that the filmmakers’ approach is one of extreme caution. Their aspiration seems to be fidelity to the source material rather than interpretation. There’s a sound enough argument for that, of course, beginning with a recitation of Rowling’s sales figures, but also including citation of the generally admiring reviews she received from critics who certainly haven’t let the similar fervor of Twilight fans sway their scathing assessments of Stephanie Meyer’s prose. There’s a problem with not fixing what ain’t broke in this instance. It may be unbroken, but that doesn’t mean its uniformly suited for whatever format it gets crammed into. Telling a story in a book is different than telling a story in a movie, but the team behind the Harry Potter films don’t seem to spend a lot of time considering just how.
David Yates, in his second assignment as a Harry helmer, is undoubtedly capable. The plot points are laid out clearly and cleanly. Despite all the Horcruxes and Felix Felicis potions, ominous backstory and teen romance, the film never threatens to become an indecipherable muddle. That steadiness works against it, though, as the scenes that should carry the most emotional weight come across as bland. They have no gravity, no resonance. No matter how important the scene, it winds up no more memorable than a cursory character introduction or any fluffy bit of comic relief falderal. When the identity of the half-blood prince of the title is revealed, it is practically done with a shrug. Similarly, the death of a major character that undoubtedly pained readers’ hearts just flatly happens here. Another plot point checked off. Now on to the next bit.
And yet the movie sort of works. It’s not stirring, but it’s a reasonable diversion, busy enough with interesting, established characters that its not some sort of boring slog. It doesn’t so much as stand on its own than serve as a live-action testimonial to Rowling’s writing. It’s like a portfolio of Mary GrandPre’s drawings or a collection of trading cards embossed with favorite quotes. It’s not necessarily successful as its own entity. It’s a memento, a souvenir, a way for fans to rekindle their memories of happy reading without recreasing the spines of any of their beloved tomes. Having never read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I found that watching the film gave me a strange echoey sense of the strengths of Rowling’s novel and an accompanying admiration for the durability of her efforts. Maybe these films could do more, but, then again, maybe that’s all they have to do. No matter how lackluster they may be, they haven’t changed those tomes with honored places on many, many bookshelves.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)