My enjoyment of the Harry Potter franchise, both literary and cinematic, has always been about communal experience, both the fictional community of Hogwarts and the real one of Harry Potter fans. So it’s a bittersweet realization that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the last film in which we’ll see the good old School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (until the very end of film 7½, presumably). At one point in the film, Harry says, “I never realized how beautiful this place was.” In many ways, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince allows us to say goodbye to what we love best about Hogwarts: Quidditch, common room antics, owls and puffskeins, Professor McGonagall’s raised eyebrow. However, the film is so determined to fit in little bits of charm that it doesn’t really hold together as a unified piece.
Half-Blood Prince, like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is directed by David Yates (who will also return for the two-film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Unlike Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince is screenwritten by Steve Kloves, the Rowling-approved scribe for every installment except the fifth film—which is why, I’m guessing, Order of the Phoenix is the only film that’s had a unifying theme. After Phoenix writer Michael Goldenberg’s tight, focused approach—he managed to bring the adaptation of the series’ fattest book in at 138 minutes, as opposed to Half-Blood Prince’s 153 minutes—Kloves’ work feels like a meander through the magical countryside. As a result, some of the film’s most dramatic moments seem to strike without much built-up tension.
To be fair, part of the script-sprawl is due to the source material, in which, well, not much happens until the end. I still believe that the film could have been structured in such a way as to connect all the seemingly disparate scenes of the book. Kloves does make use of one important theme—trusting in Dumbledore—to give a slim thread of unity to the plot. I’ll be particularly interested to see how this theme is further developed in the next two films, where even Harry’s faith in Dumbledore begins to waver as he discovers some unsavory aspects of the Headmaster’s past. For me, the most unsavory aspect of Dumbledore’s character has always been his tendency to exposit and to utter shallow truisms. Thankfully, that tendency seems to be somewhat stifled in all the films, including this one.
Another theme making occasional appearances in Half-Blood Prince is Harry’s faith in himself as someone on the side of Good. One of the most chilling scenes in the movie is one in which Harry intentionally repeats Voldemort’s words of years before, in order to obtain a crucial memory from Voldemort’s former Potions professor, Horace Slughorn. Although we know there’s no danger that Harry will go down the same path, the film highlights Harry’s potential for lesser evil by developing his internal conflict over using the spells in the Potions book formerly owned by the “Half-Blood Prince.” When Harry uses one of the mysterious Half-Blood Prince’s spells (Sectumsempra, denoted as being “for enemies”) against Draco Malfoy, who then begins bleeding copiously, Harry is so horrified that he determines to hide the book where he will never find it again.
This is, in my opinion, a vast improvement over Harry’s character in Rowling’s novel, in which he hides the Half-Blood Prince’s book because he fears that Snape will catch him with it. If we, as an audience, are to feel any sort of faith in Harry’s goodness, it’s helpful to see him feeling remorse over a truly horrible curse. However, the dramatic effect of this remorse is lessened when Harry tries to use Sectumsempra twice more within the course of the film—the final occurrence, uttered when Harry is furious and desperate, is necessary for the plot, but it would be much more striking were it only the second, rather than the third, time he had tried to use it.
Speaking of the Half-Blood Prince, since the movie is named after him, it would be nice to see more of him, to see his motivations fleshed out throughout the film (although keeping his identity secret for the approximately two people who have yet to read the book). We need to be able to look back and see the irony of Harry’s initial, misplaced trust in the Half-Blood Prince’s book, over Hermione’s and Ginny’s remonstrances. We also need to see hints that trust in the Half-Blood Prince himself (the person, as opposed to the Potions book) may not be entirely misplaced.
What Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince does particularly well is humor. A sequence involving Hermione’s frustration over Harry’s sudden brilliance at Potions is hilarious, as is every single appearance put in by Luna Lovegood. The developing romance between Harry and Ginny Weasley plays quite believably, and while Ron and Hermione still have the chemistry of two blank pieces of paper, Emma Watson’s acting makes you believe that Hermione genuinely is suffering the throes of young love. While allowing endearing cameos from the Hogwarts cast of characters, Half-Blood Prince never allows us to forget that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are the triumvirate that should rule our affections—which is good, since we’ll presumably be with them and them alone throughout a good portion of the next two movies.
In the end, I’d place Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as third-best among the Harry Potter movies, after Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix, slightly ahead of Goblet of Fire, and light-years better than the first two films. While it never quite becomes a coherent whole, the individual pieces remind us how much we’ll miss Hogwarts.