Harry Potter and the Lack of a Better Title

Posted: 15 July 2009 in geekery

So, I’ve had raging debates about the way that novels are portrayed in film, and what constitutes a good adaptation, a bad adaptation, and a new concept altogether.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a good adaptation.  Starship Troopers is a bad adaptation.  2001 is a new concept altogether.  For the purposes of this discussion, however, we’re only going to deal with the good and the bad, because at no point was a Harry Potter film going to attempt to be something other than an adaptation of the novel for which it is named.

So, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  Here there be spoilers!

To accurately dissect the movie that I watched shortly after midnight with 400 squealing fangirls, I feel a dissection of the book itself is in order, and heck, while we’re at it, let’s go after the whole book v. movie discussion for this particular series.

So, there are good adaptations.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a good adaptation of the book.  With the exception of a few small scenes near the end, I felt that the book basically served as the screenplay.  From look and feel to dialog, it was nearly perfect.  Having had the hindsight of reading the first book after seeing the movie, I could actually hear the actors’ voices reading the lines in my head as I read them from the page.

After that, it started a downhill slide that bottomed out in book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Michael Bay would have been proud of this piece of shit had he been the director.  Not only were there egregious plot-changing rewrites, most of the SFX budget was blown on a 15-minute scene that, in the book, comprised all of one and one-half pages.  You know what scene I’m talking about, the one with the dinosaurs and explosions dragon.  In the book, the magnificent part is that Harry steps onto the field, summons his broom, grabs the egg, and is done quicker than anyone else.  In the movie, he manages to get tied up for 15 minutes and wreck many a rooftop.  I realize some of you may now accuse me of nit-picking a single scene, but this illustrates a larger problem in this particular film:  of the first four books, it is far and away the longest.  Of the first four movies, it is far and away the shortest.  Add to that 15 blown minutes on a plot rewrite that takes our main character from “just starting to become competent” to “continuingly inept and now blowing up the castle,” and suddenly this one scene becomes incredibly detrimental to the entire film.  And it’s not the only bad scene in the movie (Dumbledore attacking Harry, for instance).  In fact, there are very few good scenes in what should have been a pivotal point in the franchise.

Luckily, the franchise redeems itself in the fifth film.  I was pleasantly impressed with Order of the Phoenix.  Granted, there were the obvious omissions and re-writes that I agonized over, but again, this movie turns on a single scene.  The Battle of the Ministry of Magic, as written in book five, is confusing at best.  In fact, as I was reading it, I came to a point where I was wondering why everyone was suddenly sad about Sirius.  Apparently, three pages back in a strange paragraph, he’d died, and I’d missed it. Not so in the film!  The battle was ridiculously well scripted and easy to follow, to the point that everything I’d read suddenly made sense.  Leaving the theater, I considered it a net win in a way that I hadn’t since the second movie.

Now, as for the sixth book, an examination of the title:  The Half-Blood Prince.

Book 1: The Sorcerer’s Stone.  Introductions and a plot that hinges on finding out what the Sorcerer’s stone is, where it’s at, why it’s here and who has it.

Book 2: The Chamber of Secrets.  A plot that hinges on finding out what the Chamber of Secrets is, who opened it, what came out of it, and how to stop it.

Book 3: The Prisoner of Azkaban: A plot that hinges on an escapee from Azkaban, who he is, why he was there, and why he’s after Harry.

Book 4: The Goblet of Fire: A plot that hinges on the Triwizard Tournament, contestants in which are drawn from the Goblet of Fire, and how exactly Harry’s name got in it when it shouldn’t have.

Book 5: The Order of the Phoenix: A plot that hinges on the newly reformed Order of the Phoenix and their underground conflict against the Death Eaters.

Book 6: The Half-Blood Prince:  A plot that hinges on Harry learning about Horcruxes, how to kill Voldemort, and Draco’s plot to assasinate Dumbledore.  Oh, and apparently something about Snape’s old Potions book.

Wait, what?

The book had almost nothing to do with “The Half-Blood Prince.”  That entire subplot could have been removed and the book would have been fine, as opposed to the five previous books, where removing the title plot would have resulted in… well, no major plot.  And whoa, the movie was even worse.  “The Half-Blood Prince” appears exactly three times in the movie.  Once when Harry reads it from the potions book, once when Hermione’s research at the library turns up nothing about a half-blood prince, and once at the end when Alan Rickman growls the most throw-away-able line in the entire series, “I am the Half-Blood Prince!”

Two changes from the book completely contradict each other.  In a new scene, Belatrix and Fenrir attack The Burrow, and Harry charges out into the field to battle them, heedless of the danger.  At the end, the scene where SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE (sorry), Harry watches passively because Snape tells him to.  In the book, he’d been paralyzed and hidden under his cloak.  These two scenes run completely contrary to each other.  Harry has proven himself to be a guy who will willingly throw himself into combat with Bellatrix and some Death Eaters, but when Snape (of all people) says “no, chill,”  he just sits there?  Not buying it.  Completely incompatible behavior with what has already been established!  Even watching this movie in a void, having seen none of the other films and knowing nothing of the books, I would find this behavior incongruent.  It’s bad writing.  And that’s my biggest and most confusing complaint about the movie:   the writing is bad where it deals with the plot and excellent where it doesn’t.

For instance, the high-school romance sections are great.  Rupert Grint has a lot to work with, and wow does he ever.  Harry and Ginny lusting after each other is brilliant.  Hermione’s anguish over her feelings for Ron and Ron’s seeming obliviousness to it are perfectly written and acted.  The actors themselves excel in the roles they have literally grown in to.  But even better are the other actors.  Jim Broadbent (who played Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!) was magnificent as the grasping Horace Slughorn.  In fact, I would say he was the most faithful adaptation in the entire film.  Alan Rickman is simmering as always, waiting, just waiting for that seventh film(s) where he (hopefully) will get to explode.  Michael Gambon is perfectly the strange and distant Dumbledore, and Helena Bonham Carter is delightlfully creepy as Bellatrix LeStrange.

However, even with the actors delivering knockout performances, I’m still left with the bitter taste of bad writing and seemingly meaningless changes.  Heck, they left out Dumbledore’s funeral!

Rankings of the movies so far: 1 2 5 3 6 4.

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