Charles Dickens’s books have been made into movies, but the most successful adaptations, I think, are miniseries. The intricate stories and enormous casts need time to flower into the lavish gardens they are on the page. One can compress the novels, of course, but in doing so, one loses a great deal of what makes Dickens Dickens.
I think of the Harry Potter books in much the same way. Author J. K. Rowling owes much to Dickens, from her unapologetically sprawling plotlines to her numerous tellingly named characters. As with her predecessor, the charm of her writing is in the imaginative little details, the emotional beats, the vivid sketches of minor players, the immersive world she creates—exactly the sort of elements that tend to be squeezed out in film adaptations. And frankly, that’s why I’ve never had much interest in the Harry Potter movies. I’ve seen the first (I’ll never forgive director Chris Columbus for the flat, inert portrayal of the death of the unicorn, a scene that resonates with loss and foreboding in the novel) and the third (I’ll happily watch virtually any film directed by Alfonso Cuarón), but only once each. Even Cuarón’s effort disappoints me as much as it delights.
So I didn’t have any plans to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but then Sean wanted to go and I wanted to go with Sean, and here I am writing about it. I have to admit it was better than I expected—quite good in some spots—but still, ultimately, not good enough. Movies simply aren’t the best medium in this case.
At the outset of Half-Blood Prince, Harry has just lost his beloved godfather, Sirius Black, and the wizarding world has had to face the reality that Voldemort has returned. Dumbledore is working to make the apparently invincible Dark Lord vulnerable to defeat, and for the first time, he’s directly involving Harry in his efforts. Meanwhile, adolescent hormones are straining the bonds of friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione; Harry unexpectedly becomes the darling of the new Potions professor, Horace Slughorn, thanks in part to mysterious, ingenious notes in an old textbook; and an increasingly strained-looking Draco Malfoy is lurking about the Room of Requirement—and rebuffing Professor Snape’s offers of assistance for his shadowy mission.
From this point on, I’m going to stop being coy about the plot, for I can’t imagine that anyone interested in this movie is ignorant of its climax: the death of Dumbledore, whom Draco has been charged with killing but who instead is cursed into oblivion by Snape before Harry’s horrified (but hidden) eyes. It’s the most important scene in the movie—everything is leading up to it—and though the staging is a bit awkward, the actors still give it considerable emotional heft. Perhaps not so much Daniel Radcliffe, who overplays Harry’s confusion, and Michael Gambon, whose Dumbledore is too muted for my tastes, but Tom Felton persuasively portrays fearful, conflicted Draco, and the always amazing Alan Rickman invests Snape with almost unbearable pathos in a few brief but pivotal seconds.
If only the movie didn’t rush the following confrontation between Harry and Snape! The scene is electric with Harry’s grief and rage and Snape’s own agony, but director David Yates hurries them along too quickly, practically glossing over the reveal that Snape himself is the “Half-Blood Prince,” the original owner of Harry’s Potions book. And that sort of thing—a brief resonant moment that ends far too abruptly or on the wrong note—is all too characteristic of the movie. The scene in which Draco discovers and Stupefies a spying Harry is nightmarish in the book, but we barely have a chance to register the violence of Draco’s retaliation in the movie. The movie’s portrayals of Slughorn’s Tom Riddle memories, both false and true, have their moments. How could they not with Jim Broadbent playing the professor? But Frank Dillane has been directed to be much too overtly sinister as the teenage Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin is more effective as the child Riddle, creating a paradoxically innocent portrait of evil), and Steve Kloves’s screenplay muddles the narrative significance of the scene. In the movie, it seems that Riddle already knows what he needs to know about Horcruxes—and Dumbledore already knows that Voldemort used them—so why should this conversation matter?
Worst, though, is the clunking denouement, a conversation between Harry and Hermoine reflecting on the death of Dumbledore, Harry’s desire to complete his mentor’s quest of destroying Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and then—with a screeching lack of transition—Harry’s budding relationship with Ginny Weasley and Ron’s acceptance of it. Kloves is better than that—no doubt he is doing what he has to, frantically tying up as many loose threads as he can in the final minutes—but that just goes to my initial point: these books aren’t well-suited for the movies in the first place.
Yes, a few moments give me pause in my assessment. Yates has a much better eye that I knew (he’s no Cuarón, but he’s not bad at all), and he and his team create a few indelible images. They make great use of desaturation, filming in moody dark blues and grays with only spots of color. Thus, when Harry attacks Draco with the Sectumsempra spell, the pools of bright red blood are appropriately shocking. The Pensieve flashbacks have a wonderfully eerie, foggy quality, and though I found the attack on the Weasleys’ home (invented by Kloves) to be unnecessary at best, I must admit that the filming of it was strikingly good, frantic and fervid, like a well-crafted horror flick. Despite myself, I’m glad to have seen those scenes on the big screen.
Maybe it’s encouraging that the next and final book has been split into two movies. I’d hate to see the significance of Harry’s choice to pursue Horcruxes rather than the Deathly Hallows being lost. I’d hate to lose the cameo appearances of Dolores Umbridge or Luna Lovegood or Mr. Ollivander. I’d hate to rush through the visit to the Lovegood home (surely it will be a idiosyncratic visual feast) or the luminous discovery of the Sword of Gryffindor or Neville’s heroic slaying of Nagini. I’d hate to see Rickman’s inimitable Snape not given an appropriately weighty death scene. The “Nineteen Years Later” epilogue, on the other hand—that I happily offer up to the editing room floor. Cut that and then, maybe, I’ll get off my Dickensian hobbyhorse and give the Harry Potter film adaptations another shot.