Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
(Okay, wow. This got long fast, and I’m not done yet. Many more comments to make, but I think this is long enough to be going on with right now. I’m going to break this up into two posts, otherwise for sure no one will read it. This post contains most of my major criticisms of the movie, and the second will include more of the positives/squee-worthy stuff, though they do cross over a bit. I had no idea I had this much to say.)
Okay. I’ll admit Half Blood Prince is by no means the easiest of the books to turn into a movie. The book was low action with no clear villain to pit the trio against (at least OotP had Umbridge), and its fundamental purpose was always to deliver us important back story, exposition, and character information on Snape, Malfoy, Voldemort, and Dumbledore that was vital for Deathly Hallows. Yes, there’s a Mystery To Solve™ but let’s face it: mostly HBP is a book where nothing really happens.
I knew this would be problematic to turn into a movie: at least in OotP when nothing was happening, Harry was really angry about it and capslocking all over the place. Harry’s journey in OotP was much simpler to portray visually and follow than his journey in HBP, which is more about finally getting his gimmie hands on the information he’s been denied and preparing to take an active role in the fight against Voldemort. Where it worked — I think quite well — in the book, I can see how translating that content from narrative to dialogue/action must have been difficult.
Yates and Kloves responded to the challenges of HBP by providing the bare minimum of exposition about Voldemort they thought they could get away with (and I’m holding off criticising that choice too much until I see the DH movies through to the end, but my gut reaction is they sacrificed too much there), instead shifting focus to Those Wacky Kids In Love and Draco’s journey.
Because of this, the movie is missing a central supporting core theme or thread that would string the scenes together and make them feel less like a series of skip-to plot-points, which is the same thing I feel the GoF and PS movies suffered from. They were so concerned about fitting as much as possible in that they didn’t spend the time adapting and sculpting the story of the movie the way I think they did much better in PoA and OotP, even though more liberties were taken translating those stories. HBP feels a little like a connect-the-dots picture. You can tell what the drawing is, but it’s just a series of unnatural straight lines with no curves and no style.
Some of the changes/additions they made did work for me, though. Seeing Ollivander abducted, the destruction of the walking bridge, and the destruction of the Burrow were all good choices, I think. They added some action breaks that were comparatively shorter than the gratuitous spider-chases/Quidditch scenes/car-flights we’ve seen in past movies, and much more on-point. We get told in the book via conversations about the sacrifices Molly and Arthur are making and the trouble they invite by supporting Harry; the attack on the Burrow in the movie is a way of showing that instead of telling it, and I think it worked. Certainly the look on Molly’s face as the Burrow burns made that point, and bonus points for breaking my heart. Hogwarts as a safe place makes the war as reported by The Daily Prophet a distant someone-else’s problem, and in a conversation-heavy movie I welcomed those show-not-tell departures. I expect that will be a somewhat unpopular fandom opinion, though. As canon-focused as I am, I always prefer a good movie adaptation to canon-loyalty when it comes to film.
I’m on the fence about starting off the movie with Harry and random!girl flirting. It seems pretty outlandish to say Harry’s got a huge target on his head and then have him hanging out at the corner cafe, picking up chicks, without incident or rebuke. I do understand the need to cut the Privet Drive stuff, and while I adore the scene where Dumbledore annoys the Dursleys in the book, I don’t think it would have fit Gambon’s Dumbledore at all. It was lazy, but I guess it got the job done, and I can’t convince myself to get too worked up about it.
I assumed they were going to cut the Tonks/Remus angst side-plot, but I am glad they nodded to it and allowed me my moment of Tonks/Remus fandom squee. It also gives me hope that we’ll see more of them in DH, and that Teddy Lupin won’t be one of the things that falls by the wayside. I love Remus and I’ve grown to adore David’ Thewlis’ version of him just as much as book-Remus, so I’ll take what I can get. As far as I’m concerned, everything can be made better by the addition of more Remus.
I went in optimistic about the addition of the Weasley-is-our-King section to this movie, but was actually disappointed. Ron’s journey in OotP was about gaining self-esteem, which is what made that plot worthwhile and what I assumed would be transferred along with it to HBP. Instead, it seems to be meant to justify having girls moon over him, but since Lavendar started that up in Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes (AND OMG SIDENOTE — THE STORE WAS AWESOME) I’m not sure what the point of the Quidditch stuff was, especially since Ron’s problems were reduced to the level of a little bit of stage-fright. It was short, at least, so I guess that’s something, but I would have cut it in favour of another (maybe two) Voldemort memories.
The Half Blood Prince story was horribly side-lined in my opinion, and I say this not just as a Snape-lover from way back. The movie is CALLED HALF BLOOD PRINCE FOR FUCK’S SAKE, and it’s basically a footnote. Some of the time spent talking about boys/girls/love angst could have easily been devoted to some conversation about the Prince or suspicious!Snape scenes or even that humourous moment in the book where Harry tries out the Levicorpus spell and hoists Ron up by his ankle. In a book generally agreed to be Snape’s Book, we instead get…
… the Draco Angst Show! Which, to be fair, didn’t entirely suck. And WHOA has Tom Felton A) growed up and, B) learned to act a little. I actually gave a tiny little shit about Draco, which everyone knows is basically impossible for me, the girl who rolls her eyes every time his name is mentioned. This is another place where the book and the movie diverged: in the book the focus is on Harry’s obsession with catching Draco up to no good and the reader not sure whether to believe Harry or side with the Doubty-McDoubters brigade. I think the choice to follow Draco’s journey was generally a good one, though it did dissipate most of the mystery and contributed to the Plot-Point feel of the whole thing. It’s hard to create any kind of tension when we know for sure who the perp is and what he’s up to. The Where’s-Waldo approach was a bit heavy-handed and got pretty old after the upteenth time of panning to brooding-Malfoy at the end of random unrelated scene #49.
The biggest general weakness was length and pacing, which was due in large part to the following three major chronic problems:
- Dialogue pauses. I haven’t had time to re-watch OotP since watching HBP, but there’s no way there were this many awkward pauses between lines in the last one, right? At times it was paaaaainful to watch and if this had been a live theatre show I’d've assumed it was because the actors didn’t know their cues very well. The most curious thing? It wasn’t just the young, less experienced actors here; Gambon, Broadbent and Coltrane were all equally as guilty, forcing me to wonder if they were performing as directed. Whether the WTF goes to the actors or to Yates, it still stands as a giant WTF.
- Non-reaction reaction shots. The number of times the camera hung on a blank face just about killed me in this movie. Grint, who’s biggest issue is usually overreacting to everything, was one of the biggest offenders, but all the kids — Radcliffe, Watson, Wright, etc. — were guilty of this on multiple occasions. I think it may have been a case of attempted subtlety, but give me something to look at. It’s like they all went to Kristen Stewart’s school of Lock-Jaw acting or something. It all translated to a “their hearts just weren’t in it” feel.
- Lack of underscore. I cannot be the only one that noticed this, I just can’t. The first half hour was almost entirely devoid of musical underscore, and when combined with the previous two points the whole thing just dragged and felt unfinished and unpolished. Underscore is pivotal in movies, people. It helps tell you how you’re supposed to be feeling about something, helps augment the character’s emotional headspace at any given time, and plants subliminal street signs for the audience that differentiates the funny from the drama and the scales of both therein. Just because things are light and comedic or dialogue-heavy doesn’t mean you can walk away from orchestral direction. Just go back and watch the last movies and note how often there’s quiet music underneath dialogue to tie the scene together, and then go back and watch HBP and tell me you can’t feel the void. For me it was a gaping black hole.
Part two that-a-way.