My goodness, I seem to be doing a lot of complaining this week, even by my standards.
I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on opening night, and since then I’ve had one particular conversation with various friends again and again. This latest movie is very, very bad, but not in the way movies are usually bad. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the series.
Don’t get me wrong, the movie is certainly entertaining, in that it moves the story arc that much closer to the climax, and does so in stylish fashion. But the film utterly fails to capture the real point of the sixth book, the core message that lies beneath the glittery battles and heavy snogging episodes.
Consider the titles of the other books: the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone, the Chamber of Secrets, the Prisoner of Azkaban, the Goblet of Fire, the Order of the Phoenix, and the Deathly Hallows. All of these nouns are central to their respective novels. The odd one out is the Half-Blood Prince, a mysterious figure who seems tertiary to the story at hand, at best. True, the Half-Blood Prince turns out to be Snape, who kills Dumbledore in what is unquestionably climactic Rowling fashion, but if we’re going to apply that standard then Book Four should be retitled Harry Potter and the Graveyard Cauldron, and Book Five should be Harry Potter and the Prophecy Ball.
Half-Blood Prince is primarily concerned with the nature of Voldemort, as well as a regrettably large volume of teen hormones. The Half-Blood Prince is a background concern. That he appears in the book’s title is perplexing, until you consider that the Harry Potter series, in addition to being a great bit of modern fantasy, is also a bildungsroman (thank you to the New York Times for teaching me this word, Google for spell-checking me, and for Germans, who do not tremble in the face of an army of syllables). The Potter series is as much about Harry’s epic, fated destiny as it is his personal, uncertain one. Goblet of Fire has all the thrilling magical adventure of its predecessors, and then unexpectedly culminates in tragedy. Little Harry is growing up. Order of the Phoenix is about Harry’s inability to accept his and his father’s flaws, and more tragedy ensues because of the boy wizard’s foolish mistakes. Half-Blood Prince revisits an earlier theme in the series: that Harry and Voldemort are not so unalike.
We’ve seen hints of this before. Even in the first book, the Sorting Hat tells Harry that he’d make just as good a Slytherin as a Gryfindor. In Chamber of Secrets, we learn that both Harry and Voldemort possess the rare (and thoroughly disturbing) ability to communicate with serpents. In Order of the Phoenix, the charm that Harry uses to organize Dumbledore’s Army is unsettlingly similar to the Dark Mark, a detail which does not go unnoticed among our heroes.
Which brings us to Half-Blood Prince. Consider the scene in which Harry uses a dose of Felix Felicitas, the luck potion, to extract a memory from Professor Slughorn. In the back of his mind, Harry knows that he’s essentially playing a faculty member who he’s supposed to respect and one of his truest, most loyal friends against each other, all for his personal gain, exactly the way Voldemort would. Daniel Radcliffe does a nice job playing the scene for laughs, but the darker theme is lost entirely.
Which brings us (finally) to the titular Half-Blood Prince. The point is not Snape’s big reveal at the end of the story, which in both the movie and book comes off as trite. Early on, Harry stumbles onto an old Potions book owned by “the Half-Blood Prince,” presumably a former Hogwarts student. The book’s margins are filled with tips and tricks on how to prepare potions, and with this as his guide Harry finally excels at a subject that’s usually over his head. So, here’s our hero using someone else’s notes to pass a class. Harry has always been prone to mischief and anti-authoritarian deceit, and has never been shy about accepting help here and there, but we’ve never seen him outright cheat through a class. It’s fairly evil. Then there’s the nagging question of the Prince’s identity. A former half-human Hogwarts student who seems to have an intense talent for magic? Could this have been the textbook of Tom Riddle, He Who Became He Who Must Not Be Named? Is Harry succeeding because he’s using the Dark Lord’s cookbook? He doesn’t seem to care. There’s a decent chance that these tips are coming from the man who killed Harry’s parents, and he doesn’t care, embracing power and advantage over icky moral conundrums.
This ties in nicely with what we learn about Voldemort’s childhood. Like Harry, his parents were absent from his life. Like Harry, he spent years in an abusive foster care environment. Like Harry, he had a prodigious natural talent for magic. Like Harry, he came to love everything about Hogwarts. Unlike Harry, he never learned how to make a friend, how to accept help, and how to trust in others. The point is that Harry Potter and Tom Riddle are really, truly not so unalike, and were it not for a few key friendships here and there, Harry might have become the next Dark Lord. Book Six is about Harry confronting the darkness in himself. By and large he fails to understand these things until it’s too late, and once again a beloved father figure is the price he pays for his arrogance and ignorance.
The movie does not address this major thematic element in the slightest. In the book, Harry begins and ends the school year in an almost identical way: something horrible happens to him while he lies helplessly paralyzed under his invisibility cloak. It’s a nice metaphor that visualizes his failure to grow, which we see in many places throughout the book. He can’t Apparate on his own, he never figures out how to cast wordless spells, and he’s only good at Potions because he’s cheating. He’s in way over his head, to the extent that Dumbledore would rather paralyze and hide him than let him fight. But in the movie, Harry does not remain paralyzed; he is simply told to stay hidden.
I do enjoy the Potter movies. They’re certainly fun. But they produce fun at the expense of the book’s larger themes. These are the elements that make the books palatable to such a wide audience. As the books have matured, the movies have failed to keep up, and I worry about how they’ll look ten years from now.