Struggling to Care: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

August 13, 2009

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I had rushed to the cinema on opening day to see the latest installment in the ever-so-popular Harry Potter series in the hopes of writing something for the blog and having it posted by the evening.  Ever the punctual sort, here I am sitting down to start it several weeks later.  The problem I ran into, in addition to my poor attention span and generally lazy attitude towards life, was that I really didn’t have anything to say about it at all.  Yes, it’s well made.  It’s perfectly diverting, it delivers the action and fantasy that Potter fans have come to expect. It is in no way a bad film.  I just didn’t care.

It might be worth briefly describing my own history, since at this point these films are as much about what the audience brings into it than what is actually on screen.  First of all, the issue of whether I read the books:  I haven’t.  I tried the first one after I saw the film, rolled with it for about 100 pages, and decided I had better things to do.  As far as recent kids-based fantasy, I’ll stick with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which are so good I almost want to have kids just to read it to them.  That isn’t a slight to the Potter fanatics out there, as I’m sure the books are decent enough, and I understand the feeling you get when you’re really into something.  I should add that it was the hundred pages or so I read were fairly well written, which already puts it a leg up over some other mega-popular novels of the last decade like The Da Vinci Code and Twilight.  So all due respect to the fans.

Now, I really enjoyed the first film when it came out.  Looking back now it’s flat, rather awkwardly acted by the kids, and basically as Mark Kermode put it, directed by an accountant.  But having no knowledge of the universe, I was immediately taken in.  Quidditch was exciting and interesting, the characters were colourful, and the Voldemort mythology seemed promising.  The second film was the exact opposite.  The awful directing was too distracting to let go, I didn’t really care about the world that much anymore, and the story was dull and unengaging.  The latter point I have found to be repeated in Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, as well as to some extent The Half-Blood Prince.  I’m going to go ahead and assume that in the novels these plots pan out in a rich and interesting manner, but as films they were a bit dull and predictable.  I can recognize that every entry from the third forward has been well made.  Very pretty or very moody, whatever the story called for was delivered in a professional and, at times, artistic manner.  But it is the fourth entry, Goblet of Fire, that really stands out for me, and I am aware that I’m alone amongst the critical and fan consensus for having that opinion.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Just to get it out of the way, my thoughts on The Half-Blood Prince are thus:  Very well directed, gorgeous cinematography, acted with surprising charisma from the young leads as well as the new additions.  Gambon is excellent as Dumbledore, and Alan Rickman continues to stand out as Snape, whose arc has been the most mysterious element of a franchise dependent on mystery.  There were moments where I actually laughed out loud, making this the funniest of the series despite it’s increasingly dark mood.  The effects are top notch and the look of the film is splendid, and I don’t mean just because it had a huge budget.  There’s real artistry going on here.  It also starts with the most visually interesting sequence of any of the films, with the slow-motion prologue of a beaten and bruised Potter being photographed (complete with Raging Bull photography sounds and flashes) by the press.  The set design and art direction are spectacular as well, as Hogwarts becomes a forbidding, sad, empty shell of it’s formerly vibrant self.  Gone are the sequences of kids on moving staircases being hounded by goofy, living paintings.  The childish accoutrements vanish as the characters move beyond their magical whimsy.  Things are getting dead serious.

Yet, with all that, I was unmoved.  I didn’t know about the death of the major character that occurs, having somehow avoided that spoiler for some years, and yet I wasn’t really affected by it.  I had affection for the character to an extent, and I recognize that it could have been done in a much cheesier, schmaltzy way.  I also think the action sequences, specifically the scene in the cave, was stunning to behold.  I suppose I’m just not invested in the characters like I should be at this point, and it’s become clear to me that I just won’t be, even for the final two films.  That lack of investment was probably one of the reasons I enjoyed Goblet of Fire as much as I did.  It was loud and brash and chugged along nicely despite the running time.  I enjoyed the hokey kids-discovering-love aspects as well as the action.  I hate to admit it, but without caring about much else, a big part is probably the goal-oriented nature of the plot.  There were several trials to get through as part of a larger competition, making for some thrilling set-pieces and giving an enjoyable edge to a series that tends to meander around until the ‘mystery’ is solved or twisted and turned around.  I never cared much whether Sirius Black was good or bad, but dammit if I didn’t want to see how Hogwarts and Harry fared against the visiting schools.  It also provided the best twist ending, where Voldemort hijacks the final task and reveals himself.  Cedric’s death meant more than the one in Prince, probably because the film was building to that crescendo in a straight forward, action spectacle blockbuster kind of way.

So now for the part where I make the mistake of wishing a film/franchise was something it isn’t.  One should judge the film and the series on what is there and leave it at that, because you shouldn’t criticize a film or a book because you want it to be something different.  But I’m doing it anyway.  I’m a big fan of television that understands the power of its long-form narrative.  The key element that television shows need to understand is time.  They have many, many hours to develop characters and their arcs, a season or series long story that is layered and interesting, and of course a rich and fascinating world within which everything takes place.  Films, even at the length of some of the Potter series, can’t compete.  However, since Potter films have more or less abandoned their early, Bond-esque formula (start with the muggles, new character at Hogwarts, Quidditch match, final confrontation, etc…), and now thrust us into the world assuming knowledge of the previous films and not taking the time to recap, we can view the whole series as one, long text.  Given that the time invested so far is roughly equivalent to one season of television, I don’t think it’s unfair to judge it in that framework.  So what I do want this series to be instead of what it has been so far?  I would say something akin to Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who reboot for the BBC.

Since Prince is the penultimate book, and even though the finale has been split across two films (so what, five hours to go?), this should have been one that launched us into last chapter of the story. vlcsnap-402838 I’m not saying I expected a massive cliffhanger like in Who, but at least a better sense of building dread and excitement.  I suppose the film puts all the pieces in place for the final act, but I didn’t feel the dizzying joy I get at the end of the corresponding episode in a season of Doctor Who.  Think of the reveal of the Master, or the unveiling of the Dalek fleet, or even the Daleks floating out of the void ship whilst the Cybermen take control of the world.  The sheer over-the-top audacity of these moments can bring a tear to my eye.  They’re just so damn epic.  I feel I should have been given that kind of experience in Prince, but now I’m happy to wait another couple of years to finish the story because I’m just not that interested.  Davies’ Who does have a tendency to fizzle out in the finales, because he’s clearly much better at the build than the follow-through.  But that build is so important to the enjoyment of the whole.  That’s how I want my kid-friendly fantasy series done, and what Potter just doesn’t deliver.  If it can’t deliver the character or thematic goods to those who haven’t read the books, it should try to go for large, sweeping, operatic bombast.  That’s clearly not what they’re going for, and it’s a shame.  Still, I recommend the Half-Blood Prince, even if I’m only continuing on because I’ve persevered with it for so long.

-M

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2 Responses to “Struggling to Care: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Nice comparison at the end. I’ve only watched a couple of the films and never read the books, but your assessment seems to match what I’ve found – that they can have excellent set-pieces when they’re going for unashamed *fun*, but when they get into the arc stuff, it seems dry and overly serious.


  2. I don’t really care for “THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE”. But I didn’t care for “GOBLET OF FIRE” either. I wasn’t impressed by either movie. And the latter film had too much hokey acting for my tastes.


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