The magic of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series isn’t so much the actual use of magic—wizards and witches, spells and potions. Instead, what sets her series apart from other, lesser works of fantasy are the deeply progressive, even subversive, messages implicit in the nearly 3,800 pages that comprise the complete series. And, aside from this, the novels constitute perhaps the best coming-of-age story, replete with themes of love and friendship, as well as the darker, more tragic parts of growing up, all experienced by characters with whom any reader can instinctively connect, in generations. The experiences of Harry, Ron Weasly and Hermione Grainger (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, respectively), our protagonists, speak to the growing-up experiences of most, albeit with magical overtones.
For all these reasons the banal Hollywood adaptation, released today, of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, the sixth book, is that much more disappointing.
To be fair, the film isn’t terrible, and certainly isn’t the worst of the series: that dubious honor is reserved for the wretched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As Hollywood blockbusters go, Prince is likely to be the best of the 2009 season. Director David Yates, who also helmed the far-superior Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and is lined up to direct the final two installments of the saga, is a highly capable director who ably brings the dark atmosphere of the book to the big screen. The film’s color scheme paints a much darker world than in the previous installments, and Yates pulls no punches on the evil of Voldemort and his Death Eaters. Whereas the first film was a cheerful children’s story, Prince opens with dozens of Londoners falling to their deaths as the Death Eaters, who serve main villain Voldemort, knock down London’s Millennium Bridge.
The friendships between the three main characters, as well as the loving relationship between Harry, Hermione and the entire Weasly family, just as in the novel, keep an emotional connection between the characters and the viewer. None of this is portrayed in any over-sentimental way, either. Indeed, most viewers will be reminded of their own formative years, with all of the joys and accidental cruelties, the first loves and bumbling attempts to act on them, that everyone experiences. One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is the healthy portrayal of the teens’ romances and budding sexuality. While there are some surprisingly explicit references (a well-place broomstick, for example), the bulk of it is expressed through some kissing (or, to use the dreadful British term, “snogging”), and, most impressively, through some particularly well-acted glances and awkward expressions.
Unlike the abominable, misogynistic “Twilight” series that is currently poisoning the minds of tweens (the message of which is, apparently, that the basis for love is physical attraction and that, further, a woman should stand by her man if he loves her, even when he’s emotionally and physically abusing her), ideas of love and dating are displayed in encouraging ways. Harry, for example, is drawn to the not-conventionally-pretty Ginny Weasly (Bonnie Wright) by her caring, by their shared interests (killing evil wizards, for example), and, above all, by her intelligence. One can’t imagine that Hermione would be in any sort of abusive Twilight-style relationship: she falls for the fairly unintelligent Ron, while at the same time constantly scolding him for his bad manners. Ron, for his part, doesn’t seem to worry that his obviously soon-to-be-girlfriend is much smarter than him.
While it is generally unfair to criticize a movie by comparing it to the book on which it was based, it seems that more could have been to make the movie at least somewhat comprehensible to those who’ve done themselves the disservice of seeing it without having read Rowling’s work. A central plot element in the literary version is the half blood prince himself—who is he? We find out in the film, but there is absolutely no explanation whatsoever as to what that means. Essentially, the character simply says, “Oh yeah, I’m the half blood prince.”
All of this aside, though, most discouraging is that the most important thematic elements or the novels, all that was subversive, were stripped from the film. In the big-screen Prince, Voldemort’s a bad guy who wants to take over the world for some reason or another—it’s not explained. In the book, though, there is much more discussion of Voldemort, and he and his Death Eaters clearly reflect seriously bad trends in the modern world, most notably Hitlerite fascism as well as the George W. Bush “war on terror” worldview.
A particularly interesting element of the book, which was stripped entirely from the film version, was the role of the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding world’s government. Think: There’s a malevolent organization that despises the free, democratic, secular way of life, headed by an extremely dangerous person. This organization will do anything, up to and including mass terrorist attacks, to gain power. In turn, the free and secular government begins to resemble in many ways the dark forces it is purporting to fight; it begins to clamp down on the freedom that it purports to defend.
Sounds way too familiar, as it should. The book was released in 2005, at the height of Bush’s terror war, and, at the time, a number of critics commented on the similarities between Azkaban, the prison, and Guantanamo.
Racism was a strong thematic element of the book. Draco Malfoy, one of Potter’s numerous enemies, despises Hermione for being a “mudblood,” i.e. someone who is not descended from wizarding parents, and therefore “not pure.” The Death Eaters, who dress in robes and other KKK-style garb, are fanatical in their hatred of mudbloods; in fact, part of Voldemort’s grand plan is to purify the wizarding world. It goes without saying that our heroes were fighters against anti-mudblood sentiment.
As if to prove the point of the film’s watering down the book, the Vatican (not entirely known for its film critiques or, indeed its assessments of what’s best for children) released its own appraisal of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. They were pleased with the films Manichean good-versus-evil worldview of the film, a change in their position on previous Harry Potter films and all the books.
Certainly this is the opposite of what Rowling wanted. The books were much more sophisticated than this film and, to be certain, than the Vatican’s black-and-white view of the world. A central point of the Harry Potter series is this: Very bad people also have understandable motivations, and heroes are often deeply flawed. Voldemort is hated, but understood, by Rowling; Dumbledore is loved, but tends to use people and has some skeletons in his closet regarding his own role in bringing evil forces into the world. This fact, that the world is not black and white, but shades of gray, is a fact that Potter and friends come to realize throughout the series, as they grow up.
It seems that there was some conscious decision to “sanitize” the film, and that someone—probably the director himself, whose Order of the Phoenix was overtly political—was opposed to it. Throughout the film, there are little details that represent struggles for justice in the real world. A vial that contains a memory is dated to 1938, and the store that sells dark arts-related items was established in 1863. We can only hope that Yates will have more power over the final two works.
The movie’s worth seeing, of course. It was well-crafted and well-acted, for the most part, with an especially fine performance, as usual, by Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Some Hollywood formulas, specifically the particular sequence of action scenes, and how the blockbuster is supposed to end, were turned on their heads. It certainly didn’t commit the cardinal sin of film (“Don’t be boring!”). Essentially, Prince’s main flaw is that it could have been so much better.