12 January 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

A pet cause I often rant about is the frustrating misperception of a writer's responsibility when adapting a work to another format -- particularly, of course, to the big screen. It isn't exactly a new thought to suggest that what works as a comic book or a novel doesn't always work as a TV show or a film. That an adaptation must stay true to its source makes inherent sense, to an extent, but to most people that seems to mean that the adaptation must be a verbatim translation across mediums, and that even the slightest beat lost or altered is a savage crime against the text. The more religious your fanboys and fangirls get about a thing, the more demanding of exactitude for the sake of exactitude the audience tends to be. But adaptation should be about finding the spirit of a thing, the thing that makes this story great, and keeping that alive at all costs -- literally, at the expense of the details. Sometimes when you are too careful to preserve every bone and sinew when creating a new creature you lose the thing's soul, and the end result is hollow, or malformed (or formless), and the impact isn't just diminished, it's lost. I haven't read the Harry Potter novels, and I'm reasonably sure I never will, but I get the feeling that this is happening here. The fan-enforced painstakingness of translation -- adaptation by committee, essentially -- may be sucking a lot of life and breath out of the work.

I can only judge the movie as-is, as a movie, which is how it is meant to be judged. And so, all considerations of "oh but if you read the book" aside, Half-Blood Prince has some pretty good stuff in there somewhere, but it doesn't seem to know how to get there. Furthermore (and this I think is intentional, but in this case it doesn't help), it's not even a complete story. This is to the Harry Potter series what Empire Strikes Back is to the original Star Wars trilogy. This is "the one where things get dark," and it's also the one where all that tension boils over into romantic entanglement -- by way of easy character development. In fact about half of the story is given over to a lot of really artificial love triangles.

I'm guessing that we were supposed to root for Ron and Hermione to finally "snog" with such passion that every step away from it was meant to be agonizing. Likewise I gather that because Ginny Weasley once came down the stairs excited to see Harry in, like, movie 2 or 3? I forget which -- anyway, because of that we are meant to secretly hope these two will get together. Maybe I'm just too much a cynical thirtysomething dude and not enough of a fourteen year old girl for this, but it all sure feels like forced shipping to me. Anyway, two years ago we had Wizard Prom and the boys and girls were just starting to notice each other. Now, love is really in the air, stinking everything right up. This is part of what feels like a novel to me, because there isn't anything directly linking the continued romantic explorations of these characters to the return of Voldemort and the machinations of his evil ragtag gang of followers. Technically, Potions Class, and potions in general, form the link, but it is a weak link at best. And for the record, not every single scene of this was bad -- in fact, most the actual scenes were well handled (the cast and crew have gotten into a natural groove with each other, and the photography is always very pretty; in general the whole thing's gotten more palatable even when it's a wreck at times) -- it's just that the dynamics at play here feel arbitrary and unearned, and as such I don't actually care much about them. I like Hermione just fine, and Ron is mostly okay, and if they get together I think that's cute, but I don't really care one way or another because it's just as believable that they'd be happy with others as with each other, so it's hard to imagine an hour needed to be spent on who is kissing who and who they'd really rather be kissing. At least when that's not remotely what the story's really about. Anyway, like the film itself, I digress.

In theory, this is the story of Dumbledore and Harry's attempts to stay out ahead of Voldemort and his cartoonish acolytes (led by a cartoonish Helena Bonham Carter... the snob in me wonders whatever happened to that amazing actress I used to admire, but the pragmatist in me realizes that she's getting paid buku bucks to play a horde of fun roles and what's so great about straight-drama?). We "reveal" Snape to be a villain in a scene so direct and unambiguous that, after five films of is-he-or-isn't-he I immediately disbelieve it, which is a shame. They pushed the scene too hard on us, which had the reverse effect of making me read the "second reading" subtext of the scene on my first viewing of it. Even before the final scenes between him and Dumbledore (and despite them leading to [SPOILER?] Dumbly's death), I was ready to bet real money that Snape was an agent of the good guys all along, and that he was going to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring down Voldemort once and for all. It would have been nice to feel betrayed, but Snape was never a character capable of that, because we've gone to that well too many times. We are told so often to mistrust him, but oh wait he's good after all and we were wrong to mistrust him!, that it's pretty clear what endgame we're going for. He's got one note as a character, and so we're playing out the misunderstood-ally role to the very end.

(Oh, wait, I just remembered, I have one other complaint about Snape here. It's revealed at practically the last second that the "Half-Blood Prince," which was apparently important enough to name this story after is none other than Our Pal Severus -- but that's it? It's not a clue to anything, or useful to understanding Snape's role in this or Harry's, or a connection to the past or anything -- it's just a random detail. Harry has a note-covered Potions textbook that belonged to a seeming genius at potions, and it turns out to be the gloomy former Potions professor's. Okay, I guess I can see that making sense, but what the fuck does "half-blood prince" mean?? And what does it mean that Harry found and used his book? Surely it's not just a funny coincidence! Come on guys. Is this something the book explains but the film drops the ball, or what? Somebody explain to me the title here.)

Back to the point of how they've used a character in previous installments undermining how they're trying to use him now: I've got a similar beef with our other so-called would-be betrayer: little Draco Malfoy. Seriously, from the first time we met him on he's been one evil dojo away from sweeping Harry's leg, although before this film every single scene of him being a bully or a prick ends with him cowering or humiliated. He is never given a chance to be anything other than an embarrassing petulant brat with the most stubbornly puffed up sense of self-importance ever. He's never shown as capable or deserving of attention or respect long enough to feel worthy of the scene they thrust upon him here. Neither his intent to murder our story's Gandalf nor his pussing out about doing so are meaningful scenes because this is never a character we took any interest in, seriously, as either protagonist or antagonist. At best he's a comical thorn in Harry's side, at worst he's a heckler from the sidelines. He's always been too small in scale for the kinds of trouble that Harry has per story for him to even register as a villain, and suddenly now Voldemort has picked him? I'm assuming Voldy's recruiting pool is pretty small here, if he thought Draco Malfoy was the man for any job. Then again, maybe the plan all along was to find someone pathetic enough that Snape (of all people! or something) would pity him and get pressured into a binding magical promise to do the job for him. Actually, all kidding aside, maybe that really was the plan all along. Anyway, you can't argue with results.

On a side note, I wonder if I'd have found Dumbledore's death more moving if it hadn't been famously spoiled for me. The truth is, I suspect not, because at least in the movie, it felt telegraphed for the majority of the story. It felt more like a game of when and how than if. But I think I can see how this would be a good hard shock in the books.

So things end here appropriately darkly, that Empire Strikes Back ending. It's more of a cliffhanger than an ending of its own, and since this is an ongoing series after all, I try not to fault it for that. We're six films and something like fifteen hours into the epic story here, so you'll get no complaints from me if you bypass the reset-button at the end of every movie and the start of each next. A lot of stuff happened, which is all fine and good. (I managed to rant about so many things I didn't even talk about how odd it was that Harry's preferred choice of action throughout the story is to lurk... that in fact eight or nine different times he is a peeping tom, an eavesdropper, or an out-and-out spy on a situation he's not supposed to see. It seemed like all he knew how to do was hide and watch people, and that was weird.) But there didn't seem to be a lot of strong themes tying together everything we saw, perhaps because the storytellers were much more excited by what was actually happening. Without unifying themes it's sometimes hard to pull together a single story out of disparate elements, or to compare scenes or relationships to each other and see any bigger picture here.

Instead, this is like the second-to-last episode in a serial television show (and I realize how apt that analogy is), where all the pieces are moved around the board to where they need to be for the climax. Dumbledore is dead; Snape is with the baddies; someone named RAB has a horcrux (I'm unclear if this is the last piece of Voldemort's soul or just one they know is out of their reach); Hermione and Ron have pledged their loyalty to Harry as he plans to forsake the school to continue Dumbledore's quest, and they've also pledged themselves to each other (more or less); and somewhere out there is Voldemort, though I'm not sure exactly what he is up to while Bellatrix runs around doing his dirty work. All these things happened to put people where they need to be to begin The Final Race To The Showdown. Unfortunately, because they were all just a bunch of events, it's hard to say if any of them meant anything or not outside the logistical confines of the story.

People are always reminding me: lighten up, Travis, this is just a story. I don't know how to respond to that because nothing is ever "just" a story, and something this many people feel this strongly about is clearly, clearly more than a mere story. I don't feel the slightest bit out of line hoping it means something. And since this episode was all mechanics, that puts a lot of pressure on the two-part finale.

And for the record, I'm not sure it'll all add up to deserving of the passion it's received, but I remain cautiously optimistic that despite its terribly rocky start, the Harry Potter series just might go out on a good note. Here's hoping!

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