Thursday, July 16, 2009

M: Half Blood Exposes the Real Beauty of Rowling's Work

The real triumph of the latest Harry Potter film is not that it is a beautiful, remarkable film (which it is), but that it most accurately captures the magic and heart of the novels, a surprise considering that it is based on the least impressive of the books. I am hard-pressed to think of another film adaptation that has ever done so so effectively, especially considering the span and depth of Rowling’s creation.

The film achieves this first on a superficial level, through cinematography, set design, and lighting, filling each and every shot with the lavishness of Rowling’s world. Each shelf, trinket, and exterior is scratched and worn with care, or bright and shining with an inner energy that we can only wonder about as it speeds past in the tracking shot. Each shot is so well composed and evocative, it could be printed and framed; my favorite, a glimpse of Harry underwater as he is struggling against an army of zombies, their bodies creating a beautiful arc as they current flows. Like the books, the attempt feels effortless. I never feel like I’m reading page after page of descriptions, yet I come away totally immersed in a world and picture so clear, I could call it my own. The film also retains a sense of dark gothic fantasy, without feeling overdone or fake, very unlike the experience of watching other visual stunners like Watchmen or 300.

Whether it’s a result of growing up as these characters together or not, the actors are able to keep every interaction entirely unforced, real, and moving. Most critics will entirely disagree with me, but I did not find anyone in the film underrepresented or awkward, unless they were supposed to be. Alan Rickman was perfectly able to show us Snape’s artful duplicity and his distress, and in a big surprise, Tom Felton showed us Draco’s descent into desperation with great skill and sincerity. Michael Gambon again reminded me why he is the only person that could ever really be Dumbledore, switching back and forth between, weariness, eccentricity, and strength. While many critics found Daniel Radcliffe’s performance wooden, I found it engaging, especially as his personality changed drastically due to the consumption of an illegal potion. The producers must be thanking their lucky stars that these children grew into great actors.

Unlike the other Potter films (most of which are some of my favorite movies) this one does not scrap the meaning to cut down on time, it just makes every edit worthwhile. That is the strong point of the film. Each second, scene, and performance is packed full of emotion, each word has meaning.

One of my favorite scenes was the reimagining of the kiss between Harry and Ginny. In it Ginny tells Harry to close his eyes so she can hide his potentially harmful book and kisses him. It is awkward, but then again, it’s supposed to be. They are teenagers, she’s his best friend’s sister, and hey, they don’t know where they stand. But the few lines that Bonnie Wright delivers pack a huge punch. They are seductive in a strangely dark way, and I couldn’t help but read between the lines and think back to how Ginny too had a bad experience with the Dark Lord, with a dark book. While this bond is not really explored in the book with great depth, it’s an important one that the film dealt with beautifully and delicately.

Many fans and critics have also complained that David Yates did the book a disservice by cutting out the funeral of Dumbledore. But while the funeral scene worked on the page, it would come off cumbersome on film. Yates did the right thing by again, streamlining the action, but leaving in the heart. In that scene, we are mainly missing Harry dumping Ginny, telling her that he has to leave, a message that was easily conveyed in his final talk with Ron and Hermoine on the tower instead. When I try to picture Dumbledore’s funeral on film, it comes off as cheesy to me, much like the funeral of Professor X in X3.

The Half Blood Prince is creepy. It is at its heart one of the best horror movies I’ve seen, bringing to the screen all of the best parts of British gothic fantasy. It is haunting and unsettling (I found myself often thinking of my reaction to The Ring, one of my favorite horror films), but it is also hilarious, and touches on many different issues with great depth. It is frightening because underneath the sparkle, the wands, and the good vs. evil, it is really about dealing with horrible things. Who hasn’t had to face the despair of watching someone you trust, someone who is supposed to take care of you, suddenly transfer responsibility to you, as Harry faces in the cave. Who hasn't felt that sort of loneliness? It is this mix of horror and reality that makes the film so perfect, and such a great representation of the original medium.

The film, like the books relies on this ambiguity, and hovers somewhere between the darkness and the light, just as Harry’s world hovers between ours, and the truly fantastical. There is always something lurking in the dark. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you walk right past it. Sometimes you find out its not something all that bad. But it’s in the looking over your shoulder that you find excitement. Voldemort is clearly, 100% satanic evil, but his followers are not. Snape is torn between the two sides of himself and his duties. Draco is torn between his life, and his true nature. He’s not exactly nice, but he’s not willing to kill either. Harry struggles with himself and finds that he is capable of doing things that are not considered out rightly moral. Hermoine struggles with relinquishing her perfectionism; the list goes on, budding sexual tension and puberty only scratching the surface. That is the beauty of Rowling’s work. As Harry grows up, so does her audience, and she is able to capture not only the joys and sorrows of dating as a teen, but also the heartbreaking choices of someone on the brink of adulthood who has faced great trauma. She does not down play that experience, but connects us all to it, young and old. That is the real magic.

5 out of 5 (and not just cause I love Harry Potter)

Read more from M at Bubbly

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