Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton
2009, Directed by David Yates
“It was Snape. It was always Snape.”
CAUTION: May Contain Spoilers
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about a boy trapped between a code of honor and his own conscience. He is part of a group of wizards who have been under attack by a powerful enemy for several years. Some of them have been imprisoned, and some have had to hide to protect themselves. Only recently has the boy been accepted as a full equal. Now, the leader of the group gives this boy an impossible assignment. To fail could cost him his life and the life of someone he loves. To succeed, he must join forces with a man he knows is aligned with his enemies.
Unfortunately, the boy isn’t Harry Potter. He’s Draco Malfoy.
There’s something a little odd when one of the villains of the Hogwarts cycle engages more sympathy than the titular hero. A lot of the blame, or more accurately, the credit for this problem goes to Tom Felton, the actor who plays Draco. In Half-Blood Prince, Malfoy ceases to be the traditional spoiled bully of boarding-school novels and becomes a man, facing the ultimate consequences of his toxic belief system. Felton expresses Malfoy’s conflict, fear and rage with economy and virtuosity. It doesn’t hurt that he is now over six feet tall. Draco commands attention whenever he is on the screen.
Daniel Radcliffe, in contrast, doesn’t get the showcase in this cinematic outing. Harry is a subdued, obedient soldier to Dumbledore, never questioning, never rebelling; in short, never acting like Harry Potter. He moves passively through this movie, facing no conflict until the very end, and even then, without much emotional reaction.
Some of the problem here is structural. The movie does not have an A storyline, or a plot. The subplot of Draco and his nefarious assignment is the most compelling conflict in the movie, until the end.
In fairness to the film, it’s hard to pull a 150 page through-story out of a 600 page novel. Rowling used this slow book to serve up several large, steaming helpings of backstory. The “plot” of the book largely concerns the dark wizard known as Valdemort, but we get backstory information on Snape and even Dumbledore. In the book, Harry confronts the reality of his father as a teenager and learns, against his will, the reason for the animosity Snape holds for him.
The movie skips over all of that, giving us one scene of the child Tom Riddle. Harry’s charge is to draw an accurate memory from the mind of the new Potions Master, Professor Slughorn. Slughorn collects celebrities and is susceptible to flattery, and long ago had a telling encounter with Riddle, the boy who became Lord Valdemort. To avoid facing the truth of his own carelessness and moral cowardice, Slughorn has altered the memory. Harry, however, spends almost no time pestering him for it. The scene where he finally evokes his mother’s memory, and Slughorn surrenders, is emotional and well-played. It’s one scene in a two-and-half hour movie.
The film is beautiful, the acting just fine and Felton is awesome. The special effects used for the Death Eaters on their rampages is visually compelling, but the lack of true conflict for our heroes meant that I never fully engaged with the movie, even with Dumbledore’s death.
No studio would ever do this, never risk their market share and the ire of their built-in billions of fans, but wouldn’t it have been cool if they had taken a chance on Half-Blood Prince, and made Draco’s story the main one? Felton could have totally pulled it off. Grint, Watson and Radcliffe would have been able to display their acting chops by playing the characters the way Draco sees them, not the way they see themselves. Audiences would have been on the edge of their seats, chewing their nails. “What is he doing? Is he going to succeed? Don’t let him succeed! But I feel bad for him! I want him to have success. Wait, no, I don’t!”
Never happen. Never, never happen. But it would have been so cool.