Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

First, a quick confession: I’ve never really been a fan of the Harry Potter books.  I learned about the books well after the first four or five had been released and noted with curiosity the strange titles that occupied the tops of all the fiction bestseller lists, but by the time I began hearing about the pleasures of reading them from colleagues and friends in graduate school, I felt hopelessly behind.  Plus, I had a dissertation to finish and felt guilty about reading anything that wasn’t related to my research.  I’ve never quite understood the sneering, high-culture contempt that these books have sometimes inspired, but I also have no real investment in them.  So, until recently, my primary experience with the Harry Potter world is through what I’ve absorbed in supplemental texts–reading about fan fiction in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture or about the Harry Potter hype in entertainment industry mags.

But thanks in large part to a complete lack of big-screen alternatives–there are, as Jim Emerson suggests, some movies that film critics and/or scholars don’t have to see–I’ve ended up seeing the last two installments of the Harry Potter film franchise.  I’m not that interested in reviewing the most recent film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but will acknowledge that for the most part, the film left me feeling somewhat indifferent, even bored, in a number of places, a response that seems to be shared by fellow Triangle-based critic, Daniel Cook Johnson.  The entire film felt like exposition in anticipation of the final chapters, a two-movie treatment of the final book in the Harry Potter series.  The visual details of the world continue to fascinate me: I like the odd mix of the semi-futuristic, the contemporary, the Victorian, and even the medieval in a fascinating pastiche of (primarily British) literary and cultural history.  Whimsical images of moving photographs on dead-tree newspapers are a nice touch, as are the Chuck Taylors and other contemporary clothes worn by the Hogwarts students, although as I watched this time, I began sensing what might be considered some form of early nostalgia for the 1990s and the first, print, iteration of the Potter franchise.  It wasn’t quite the idea that the Potter franchise is “dated” in the sense that it’s obsolete, just that I found myself, in places, reflecting on the idea that Harry was “born” in the 1990s, a moment that now seems to be part of a distant past.

I also found myself intrigued, especially in retrospect by the interplay between Harry Potter’s status as The Chosen One and other analogues of this figure, including Lance Mannion’s convincing analysis of the ties between Potter and Anakin Skywalker, one that captures an interesting critique of the franchise: the inability to imagine Harry going over to the “Dark Side,” of being seduced into using his powers for harmful purposes.  Lance does unpack Harry’s (and Dumbledore’s) ambivalence about his status as The Chosen One quite nicely.  There’s always a sense that Dumbledore is giving Harry too much responsibility too soon, and yet Harry’s powers prevent him from actually being able to choose not to become involved.  And although the film felt slightly heavy with the weight of exposition, I liked how Half-Blood Prince negotiated the tension between Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s status as teenagers confronting the daily challenges of teen romance and peer pressure with their more serious “calling” in the world of magic.  In fact, those “human” moments thrilled me far more than the CGI-infused action scenes that very rarely offered any suspense or, for me, any truly engaging eye-candy (this was, in part, due to the fact that I own a t-shirt with a fairly prominent Harry Potter spoiler in it–don’t click if you don’t want to see it).

Still, because I was watching the film with my girlfriend, who has read all of the Harry Potter books, I was somewhat more aware of the challenges not only of satisfying both readers and non-readers alike but also of providing casual fans with some form of access to the Harry Potter story-arc without watering down the content too much.  In some sense, that’s the challenge faced by serial TV shows on a weekly basis, whether the “paranoid” narratives of something like Lost or the ongoing character arcs of something like The Sopranos (quick note: Jason Mittell, who has written extensively about serial TV has a very convincing reading of J.K. Rowling’s amazing ability to control the storyworld of her books, something the films, thanks to the nature of the medium have struggled somewhat to do).  This tensionhas led a couple of prominent bloggers, incluing Michael Berube and Amanda Marcotte, to suggest that the complex storyworld of the Potter books would have been better served by a long-running TV series.  And although I appreciate the development of serial TV as a format for presenting complicated storyworlds–and possibly even allowing digressions that would serve to develop a larger narrative–I’m not sure I fully agree.

I think they’re right to point out (as others have) that the latter novels, some of which approached or exceeded 800 pages, would have been better served being chopped up into two or even three installments and that 2.5 hours didn’t seem to do justice to Rowling’s Half-Blood Prince novel while also providing a butt-numbing film that could have used an intermission.  But I think we make a mistake when we see the feature films as discrete objects.  Given the money involved, it was pretty much pre-ordained that all seven Potter novels would be filmed, but given the increasing reliance on sequels and entertainment properties–comic bok or video game characters–feature films have become, in many ways, a form of (serial) television, one that may be reimagined as new directors and stars are introduced to a project.  Note the shift in tone from the Burton-Schumacher Batmans to the Chris Nolan Batman films.  And although drawing out the serial form of the films on television may have helped the storytelling, the event status of the films more closely resembles the event status of the publication of a new Potter novel, which often featured midnight celebrations at local bookstores, with many people showing up in costume, to greet a new book.  In essence, although TV has become more adept at telling big stories (and showing them HD-style), the felt collectivity of seeing the movie on the big screen with other fans seems like something that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.  The Harry Potter books need the big screen, in part because of the dense visual pallete needed to match Rowling’s descriptive prose but also because films remain more readily identified with Event status, with being part of a larger crowd in sharing in the excitement about a beloved narrative.

I’ll emphasize again that I didn’t particularly enjoy last night’s screening of Half-Blood Prince.  It was overloaded with exposition and felt like prologue for something else.  That being said, the film provided just enough for me to remain invested in the series.  More than anything, though, the Potter films help point toward the ways in which Major Motion Pictures may be able to learn from serialized narrative TV in order to tell increasingly complex, long-form stories.

6 Comments »

  1. Nels Said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    This is an example of how it can be hard to write about what you love. I was there at midnight when it opened in the center of the front row. I loved every minute and was surprised by how much I didn’t want it to end. But I can’t really offer an insightful critique, though I’ll probably watch it fifty more times once it’s on HBO. I’ve seen it twice so far!

  2. Becky Said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

    I agree with the above comment. I truly love the Harry Potter books- I’ve read them all at least 3 times, some more than others. I am completly biased as I am a true HP nerd.

    “The visual details of the world continue to fascinate me: I like the odd mix of the semi-futuristic, the contemporary, the Victorian, and even the medieval in a fascinating pastiche of (primarily British) literary and cultural history. ”

    You summed up my thoughts nicely here! I do suggest that you read the books though- they are brilliantly written!

  3. Annie Petersen Said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    I’ve spoken with several people who felt this installment was less “user-friendly” for non-readers. I can see how this would be the case — several major plot points (such as the identity, and importance, of ‘The Half-Blood Prince,’ seem to get short shrift.) But I found myself completely enthralled to this installment — (I’m also a huge fan of the books) — in fact, it now ties for #1 with Cuaron’s brilliant third installment, which is what prompted me to read the books in the first place. I suppose the pleasure of the movies, for me at least, is not so much the narrative twists — after all, I know EXACTLY what’s going to happen — but the way that each filmmaker elaborates on the text visually and through dialogue…thus the brilliant high school ‘moments’ you point to between our main characters (and the immensely talented teen supporting cast..apart from poor Ginny Weasley, alas). And Radcliffe’s performance — whether conjured by him, Yates, or whomever – after taking the Felix Filicus potion was absolutely inspired.

    When I taught these books and their adaptation to junior high gifted and talented kids, we wrangled every week with the tension between satisfying fans and catering to those who wanted to watch the film as a semi-discreet text. I agree with you that the films are serial, not a series, but one thing I’ve always emphasized is how horrendously difficult it must be to balance hundreds of pages of detail with a budget, ability, time constraints, audience expectations, narrative economy, etc. The fifth book, despite its length, was far easier to condense, as so much text was spent on emphasizing what a little bastard Harry was being. This book is, as you again point out, filled with much more exposition and anticipation — part of the reason why it created such an immense anticipation for the seventh book. But apparently that leaves some viewers cold.

    How to satisfy all involved? I look to the film as such a pleasant counterpoint to Transformers 2….and evidence of the happy wedding between high production values, blockbuster/high concept mentality, and pleasurable narrative complexity.

  4. Chuck Said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    Nels, I know the feeling and appreciate why you (and Becky) and others like the films so much. I think it’s difficult to distance yourself from the objects of enjoyment sometimes in fan studies; that’s something I thought about quite a bit when I was writing about blogging as someone who is a “fan” of the genre.

  5. Chuck Said,

    July 23, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

    Annie, lots of good points here. I think you’re right that the issues of directorial authorship are important–I’m glad for example that Chris Columbus is no longer directing the movies–and that the approaches offer an interpretation of the books. My understanding is that Yates underplayed the mounting tension between Snape and Harry Potter, which would be something that non-readers might need, but like you I thought the scene where he took the Felix Filicus potion was great fun and well-played.

    I thin my feeling is that there may have been enough material in this book for two movies, especially if they had built the tension between Snape and Harry better.

  6. sweets Said,

    July 24, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    I fully enjoy half blood prince and i really like harry potter’s book.

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