Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Thanks to a media preview screening, I’ve already seen Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which officially opens with midnight showings on Wednesday.

It’s safe to say this film is highly anticipated: Across the lobby, fans already were queueing up for another screening five hours later, at 7 p.m., one of those first-come-first-seated promotional showings. And to be honest, they’ve really been waiting longer than that; the new HBP movie’s opening date got pushed back from last fall. So hardcore Potterheads have had about nine months to crank up their squee levels.

hp6intposter1Number six in the series is the darkest yet, as the boy wizard’s fan base surely knows. It pays a good deal of attention to certain key aspects of the J.K. Rowling book, while other parts of the original story, as always, must fall by the wayside — even with a running time of two and a half hours, something’s gotta go.

Overall, I felt this sixth film compares favorably with the three more recent entries in the series. (The first and second installments of Harry Potter, directed by Chris Columbus, were huge box-office successes — but were blown away artistically by No. 3, Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed The Prisoner of Azkaban, which set the standard for all Potter movies thereafter.)

What will Rowling purists quickly spot as hits and misses in Half-Blood Prince?

Draco in HBP

My major complaint is that I’d have loved to see the book’s opening chapter dramatized. That chapter, “The Other Minister,” discusses a series of disasters in the Muggle world, which are really caused by rampaging Death Eaters, followers of the wizarding world’s evil Lord Voldemort. I was hoping for a couple of scenes with the Muggle Prime Minister (who simply would have to have been played by Michael Sheen, Tony Blair’s cinematic alter ego) and the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour (who will be played in the next Potter film by Bill Nighy).

However, screenwriter Steve Kloves (back after a hiatus from Order of the Phoenix) and director David Yates (returning for his second Potter film in a row) chose to show us, rather than tell about, one of the disasters: a new bridge that inexplicably collapses in a freak storm, thanks to Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and a couple of other Death Eaters, the creepy Carrow siblings.

Slughorn in HBP

And instead of giving us scenes from the hilarious chapter with Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore retrieving Harry from the Dursleys’ home, we get Harry in a railway coffee shop, flirting awkwardly with a comely young waitress before Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) whisks him off to persuade Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) to return to Hogwarts as the new Potions professor.

Another big departure: After Harry is deposited at the Weasleys’ home, The Burrow, a fiery Death Eater attack makes it clear that no place is safe. In the book series, a similar attack happens at a Weasley family wedding. But that event happens not in Book 6, but early in Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So it seems safe to assume the wedding’s not going to happen in the film series, because the bride and groom don’t show up in this movie at all. Neither does the surly house-elf Kreacher, although he’ll surely appear in the movie version of Book 7.

Lovers of Quidditch will be happy to see one last airborne match in this installment. And as in the book, teenage hormones rampage through much of the film, with “snogging” and humorous romantic situations to leaven the increasingly darker themes of death and loss.

Ginny and Harry in HBP

The leading trio of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) are joined by Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), Ron’s sister who has grown up to be Harry’s love interest, and who gets much more screen time in this film than in the previous ones.

Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is happily daft as ever, and the lovelorn Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) is all over her “Won-Won.” There’s a wonderful set-piece with the Weasley twins, Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps), in their amazing Diagon Alley joke shop.  Meanwhile, a solitary Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) lurks miserably about, determined to carry out his secret mission for Voldemort and restore his family’s lost honor.

Other Hogwarts teachers, such as Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) and Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) get a few crucial scenes each, but I felt Snape in particular got short shrift in this film, considering his importance to the series. We never even see him teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, formerly Harry’s favorite class at Hogwarts. (And has anyone else out there ever wondered what it would have been like if they’d cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Snape? He’s the only actor I can think of who just might have out-Snaped the amazing Rickman.)

Voldemort’s craven sidekick, Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew (Timothy Spall), is fleetingly spotted in the “Spinner’s End” scene, which also introduces a badly miscast and horribly made-up Helen McCrory as Draco’s mum, Narcissa Malfoy. (Why, oh why didn’t they get Naomi Watts for that role?)

Frank Dillane

Frank Dillane

In his scenes as 11-year-old Tom Riddle, young Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (nephew of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Voldemort) holds his own with Gambon’s Dumbledore, projecting a youthful malevolence appropriate for the boy who will grow up to be the Dark Lord. It’s also worth noting that Riddle at age 16 is played by another scion of a British acting family: Frank Dillane, son of actor Stephen Dillane (who played Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams miniseries). The two young actors bear enough resemblance to each other that it becomes easy to believe this is the same boy at different ages.

When Harry and Dumbledore journey to the cave where Voldemort has hidden one of his Horcruxes — a personal relic containing a piece of his irretrievably damaged soul — Yates recreates the scene almost exactly as Rowling imagined it. And it is both dazzling and fearsomely scary. Even when you know exactly what’s coming, the moment when an Inferius grabs Harry is still enough to make you gasp.

It does not do to be too much of a purist with these movies; after all, watching a film is not the same experience as reading a book. But seeing what Yates can do with such a powerful scene makes me wish again that he’d had the chance to direct the first two films as well. There were so many moments in this new film where I was completely, happily absorbed in the story — never mind that I know the entire plot inside out. That’s the mark of an adroit director.

Fortunately, we know Yates is shooting the final two Potter movies. Deathly Hallows is already in production and will be released in two parts, in 2010 and 2011. With twice as many hours to tell the last story, even diehard fans may be satisfied that justice will be done to their beloved wizard’s saga.