When the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince first came out, I loved it so much that I saw it twice in the cinema, something I rarely do. I have long considered it my second favourite Harry Potter film. So imagine my consternation when I re-watched it with a more analytical eye, the book still fresh in my mind following my re-read, and found myself noticing a great many problems that I had previously overlooked.
As usual, there are quite a few omissions of non-crucial material: these include Rufus Scrimgeour, Bill and Fleur, Dobby and Kreacher, all the Quidditch besides the opening match against Slytherin, Tonks’ unrequited love for Lupin, and most of the memories that Dumbledore shows Harry. But most of the central plot remains intact; and if the film goes a bit slowly at times, the same can be said for the book. Some of the creative choices used for abridging are actually very good: for example, an issue of the Daily Prophet tells the viewer that there is a new Minister and Lucius Malfoy has been imprisoned; and a picture of the Horcrux cave is seen in Tom Riddle’s room at the orphanage. The film also adds some extra cohesiveness and intrigue by having Harry try to get closer to Slughorn on Dumbledore’s instructions from the beginning of the year, rather than initially evading Slughorn’s attempts to “collect” him. Some parts, on the other hand, feel rushed: the trio are simply allowed to wander around war-torn Diagon Alley on their own without the Invisibility Cloak; little time is given to speculate about the Horcruxes; and Hagrid just suddenly happens to be holding a funeral for Aragog when Harry and Slughorn go to see him, without any previous mention of Aragog even being unwell.
There’s a lot of funny moments: Harry telling Hermione he’ll take “someone cool” to Slughorn’s party, before the film immediately cuts to Luna waiting for him; Hermione calling Lavender a “daft dimbo”; and Rupert Grint’s happily intoxicated performance when under the influence of Romilda Vane’s Love Potion. The film also displays some self-awareness that wasn’t in the book: on Dumbledore taking him somewhere mysterious without explanation, Harry comments, “After all these years, I just sort of go with it”; and when questioning the trio about Katie Bell’s accident, McGonagall asks, “Why is it, whenever something happens, it’s always you three?”
As with the book, there’s a low-key feel to most of the film, and much of the conflict we get is character-driven. There is a lot of original material which is used to explore character, and makes the film a bit more interesting even for a fan of the books. This includes a Harry-Ron-Hermione bonding session at the Burrow; Draco’s experiments with the Vanishing Cabinet actually happening on-screen; and some additional conversations with Slughorn (his story about the fish that Lily gave him is particularly good). Most of these original scenes work, but one in particular definitely doesn’t. The Death Eaters’ attack on the Burrow during the Christmas holidays – which does not appear in the book in any way, shape or form – was jarring the first time I watched the film, but now feels even worse. If the Death Eaters can penetrate the Burrow’s defences so easily, then why doesn’t Voldemort go there himself and kill Harry? Also, there are no consequences: nobody really gets hurt, and while I haven’t re-watched Deathly Hallows Part 1 yet, I don’t recall the Burrow showing any signs of lasting damage in that film. (Please feel free to tell me if I’m wrong.) It really feels like an excuse for a bit of action, in case anybody in the audience was fidgeting.
Definitely a big disappointment is the mishandling of the Harry-Ginny romance. With Ginny practically being a non-entity in the five previous films, this one now plays catch-up and tries to emphasise her wherever it can. Ginny probably has more lines in the one scene where Harry arrives at the Burrow than in all the previous films combined. She stands next to Harry at the Quidditch tryouts, takes the Half-Blood Prince’s book off him when he starts talking about it, and has a couple of random bonding moments with him at the Burrow. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late: for all the effort it makes keeping Ginny in focus, the film still doesn’t bother to display her actual character traits and explain why Harry is now attracted to her. It’s very much a case of telling, not showing. Harry and Ginny’s first kiss – a private moment in the Room of Requirement, instead of in the Gryffindor common room in front of a stunned crowd – would be quite romantic if the development of their romance had felt at all natural, or if Daniel Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright had any chemistry.
The progress of Ron and Hermione’s relationship also feels underdeveloped. Hermione telling Ron that she was going to take him as her plus-one to Slughorn’s party is moved to just before the Quidditch match, with no chance for them to linger on the implications. There is no scene where Ginny venomously points out that Ron’s never had a girlfriend and Hermione has previously kissed Viktor Krum, which in the book leads to Ron becoming resentful and choosing a “mostly snogging” relationship with Lavender. In fact, because we never see Ron going through this moody phase, there’s not so much motivation for Harry to pretend to slip him the Felix Felicis either.
Another thing I didn’t like was how Harry sometimes doesn’t act like the character we know; after being too polite under Chris Columbus, he now goes too far in the other direction. We see him wanting to go out with a Muggle waitress, and expressing pleasure at Romilda Vane’s attraction to him; that’s definitely not the Harry from the books, who responded to being an object of female desire with either awkwardness or annoyance. And then there’s the final scene, where Ron inexplicably sits apart from Harry and Hermione as they talk – he’s back to being treated like the annoying sidekick of Harry and Hermione, the Dynamic Duo.
Once again, the film tones down its colours to match the tone of its story, looking rather grim and gloomy throughout. The visual effects are generally very good: I liked the inky, smoky effects used when entering the Pensieve memories; and what little we see of the Gryffindor-Slytherin Quidditch match looks very dynamic, and much better than previous Quidditch matches in the films. The adaptation of the cave scene is excellent: when silence falls after Dumbledore finishes the potion, I remember watching in the cinema, trying desperately to brace myself for the jump scare I knew was coming. It comes in the form of the Inferi, which look like a swarm of ants as they crawl onto the rock in pursuit of Harry. When it comes to Dumbledore’s death soon after, I would have preferred to see the funeral, but I do really like the music in the farewell scene.
In terms of the old crowd, it’s Tom Felton who stands out in this film: given everything that Draco Malfoy goes through, this is the story that really puts Felton to the test, and he conveys the character’s progressive contempt, stress and torment very well. Michael Gambon as Dumbledore is reasonably endearing this time round, but still a little too serious. Jim Broadbent was my personal first choice to play Horace Slughorn even before casting was announced, partly because of how he appeared in Moulin Rouge. Even though Broadbent isn’t actually made to physically resemble Book-Slughorn very closely (e.g. no moustache), he still captures the character’s charisma, vanity and truth-dodging. Jessie Cave is very funny in her gushing, over-the-top portrayal of Lavender Brown; and I also liked Frank Dillane’s performance as Tom Riddle in the Pensieve flashback with Slughorn – he has a perfect hungry look in his eyes, and you can really see the older Voldemort in him.
I think when I first watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I was focussed on the big picture, which is generally good – it’s definitely not a bad film, and it makes some positive choices in how it adapts the material. But this time I was looking closely at the details, and finding so many issues that the whole thing fell short of how I remembered it. This should be an interesting one to discuss on the group podcast next month.
Rating as a film: 4/5.
Rating as an adaptation: 3.5/5.