Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are an interesting role reversal for my personal taste in the series. Ultimately I enjoyed all of the books and all of the movies. That said, the fifth book is my least favourite, while the fifth movie is my favourite. The Half-Blood Prince is my favourite of the books, but my least favourite of the movies.
Even though David Yates directed the fifth film, he wasn’t immediately chosen to direct its follow up. A number of directors were approached to direct Half-Blood Prince while Yates worked on Order of the Phoenix. Alfonso Cuaron, who directed Prisoner of Azkaban, had stated he would love to return to the franchise, but he ultimately couldn’t. Guillermo Del Toro turned down Half-Blood Prince in order to direct Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Terry Gilliam was Rowling’s personal choice to direct Philosopher’s Stone, but they ultimately chose Chris Columbus instead. When they approached him for this movie, he said, “Warner Bros. had their chance the first time round, and they blew it.”
Yates was still working on Order of the Phoenix when they asked him to direct Half-Blood Prince. “They were really delighted with the material that they were seeing.” He started working on pre-production while Order of the Phoenix was being promoted. Early on, he described the story as “a cross between the chills of Prisoner of Azkaban and the fantastical adventure of Goblet of Fire.” He also noted that some of the elements from The Deathly Hallows influenced how they adapted the Half-Blood Prince to the screen.
Another major question mark on this movie was that Emma Watson (Hermoine Granger) considered not returning. That actually turned into quite the story at the time. She eventually decided that “the pluses outweighed the minuses”, and couldn’t bear seeing anyone else playing Hermoine. There are also several notable new cast members for the sixth movie. Christian Coulson, who played a young Voldemort in Chamber of Secrets, wanted to return for the flashbacks in this movie, but at 30, he just looked too old for a teenager. Jamie Campbell Bower wanted the role, but it eventually went to Hero Fiennes-Tiffen, while Bower ended up playing Gellert Grindelwald as a teenager in a flashback. Also, Helen McCrory joins the cast as Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s mother. She was originally going to play Bellatrix, but had to drop out due to pregnancy. Bill Nighty expressed interest in playing the new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, and Yates did confirm that would be his first choice, but he was ultimately cut from the film. He did appear in Deathly Hallows however.
Stuart Craig deserves some credit by this point. He acted as the production designer for every Harry Potter movie, including this one. In addition to updating some of the sets for the sixth movie, he designed new locations including Tom Riddle’s Orphanage, the Astronomy Tower at Hogwarts, and the cave. The cave scene, taking place near the end of the movie, is noteworthy in that the exterior is the only filming location in the series outside of the UK. It was filmed at the Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland. The interior of the cave was entirely CGI, as the cave’s real interior is made up of geometric crystals.
Although the movie uses many of the same sets, Yates actively went for a completely different look with darker lighting in general. It makes the visuals both familiar and strange, while the darker lighting matches the darker tone of the movie quite well. This is balanced out with more colour in specific scenes. Interestingly enough, while I stand by my statement that Prisoner of Azkaban does have the best cinematography in the series, this movie is the only one that was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards, and I’d say it deserved that nomination.
Nicolas Hooper returns for this movie’s soundtrack, after composing Order of the Phoenix. It debuted at 29 on the Billboard 200 chart, making it the highest charging soundtrack in the series. It also received a Grammy Award nomination for its soundtrack.
All of these behind the scene details are interesting, and they do all help improve the movie, but where my complaints lie is in the differences between the movie and the book. There’s no way you could fit the entire book into a single movie, as Half-Blood Prince might actually have the most complex main story of those turned into a single film, but they really focused on the wrong elements. One of the main focuses of the sixth book is on Voldemort’s past. It explores how his birth wasn’t the result of any kind of love, but his mother was obsessed with Tom Riddle Senior. She bewitched and married him, but a year into their marriage, after she got pregnant, her magic faded and he fled. She died shortly after giving birth. A 16-year-old Tom Riddle Jr. would later murder his own father and his grandparents in revenge for his abandonment.
That’s just a small example of what you learn about Voldemort’s past, and learning about what turned Voldemort into the dark wizard he became is the most fascinating part of the book. It also shows both a number of parallels and differences between Voldemort and Harry, which deepens their conflict. The movie skips almost all of Voldemort’s backstory, only showing the moment Dumbledore met Jr. Riddle and the moment Tom asks Slughorn about a very dark form of magic. In the first flashback, there’s a single word changed in a line that makes a huge difference. In the movie, Tom says “I can make bad things happen to people who are mean to me.” In the book, he says “people who annoy me.” That one word change completely changes the context of that sentence, and how you react to Tom as a character.
On that note, they don’t explain what makes Snape the Half-Blood Prince either. It would have taken no more than a minute or two to explain this, and it’s a fairly major point in the book. Yet in the movie, Snape just says “I am the Half-Blood Prince”, and then we’re just supposed to forget about it. In fact, the movie barely puts any focus onto its title plot whatsoever.
The movie instead mostly focuses on the romances, and it’s a very mixed bag. It does a great job at showing Hermoine’s emotional pain of seeing Ron with someone else. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t give Ron any kind of character arc. It doesn’t really show Ron and Hermoine interacting all that much in the movie, even after they officially get together. Even in the final scene, it’s Harry and Hermoine standing side by side, while Ron awkwardly sits in the background saying nothing. This movie did a serious disservice to Ron as a character.
On top of that, the relationship between Harry and Ginny Weasley is just awkward in this movie, whereas it wasn’t the least bit awkward in the book. Both of them show a lot more confidence on the page than they do on-screen. And it’s not like Bonnie Wright wasn’t capable of playing a bold, confident young woman. She showed that kind of confidence in the previous movie, and in the Quidditch tryouts scene. It appears that making Ginny and Harry awkward was purely a director’s choice, and it’s a bad one at that. It almost feels like whoever adapted the screenplay really wanted Harry and Hermoine together, and while there are fans who preferred things that way, that’s not how the books went. Either take a risk and go fully into that choice, or stick to the book.
Even ignoring the fact that this movie focuses on the weaker aspects of the story and handles them poorly, this movie is just too slow, dark and depressing for its own good. Even before I read the books, this was my least favourite movie in the franchise for that reason. It tries to be a romantic comedy, but that’s really not Yates’ specialty. He is capable of creating fun scenes, as shown with the training montage in Order of the Phoenix, but fun and comedic aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Even with all of its cuts, this movie adds several major scenes that weren’t in the book. Harry’s first scene, where she asks out a muggle, wasn’t in the book and seems to conflict with his pining for Ginny. The fight at the Weasley’s house wasn’t in the book, making it completely pointless filler. The Burrow gets burned down in that scene, and it’s never mentioned again anywhere in the film franchise. It’s not even an exciting action scene, as it mostly involves running and tossing spells around in a field where you can’t even see anything. This could have easily been replaced with some of the murdering and fighting in Voldemort’s past, or better yet, the Battle of the Astronomy Tower that takes place at the end of the book. This battle doesn’t happen in the movie.
With all that said, there are some very well done moments in this movie. Everything about Quidditch in this movie is entertaining and fun. The beginning scene with the Death Eaters attacking muggles, from the perspective of the muggles, is a very intense and brilliant way to kick the movie off. Besides that one major line change, when this movie does explore Voldemort’s backstory, it does a fantastic job. Draco is very well handled in this movie, from his emotional struggles of the task Voldemort gave him, to actor Tom Felton’s brilliant, well-rounded performance. And of course pretty much everything about the cave scene is perfectly done, from the raw emotion to Dumbledore’s impressive showcase of his magical abilities even after being severely weakened.
This is also a movie where the deleted scenes are definitely worth watching. There are two in particular that should have been kept in the movie. One adds a couple of lines that really shows how much Dumbledore respects and cares about Harry. The other takes place shortly before the famous “Snake kills Dumbledore” scene that became a meme for a while, with a choir practicing in the background while you the camera circle around Snape. The lighting going from dark to light. It’s a brilliant moment of that hints at Snape’s true allegiances, his past, and also sets up the movies very dark ending in terms of tone.
I know I spent more time criticizing this movie than praising it, but I do still enjoy this movie overall. It’s got a lot of weaknesses, and it’s a terrible adaptation of a brilliant book, but it is still an overall good movie. The brilliant moments involving Draco, Dumbledore, and Voldemort’s past really do outweigh this movie’s problems.
Interestingly enough, the movie was delayed for 7 months despite being complete, just so Warner Bros would have a big movie in the summer of 2009, which they otherwise wouldn’t have had. At the time, a lot of fans complained, and Entertainment Weekly mocked the decision (which they didn’t know about in advance, despite being owned by Warner Bros). This was demonstrated by the fact that they published a magazine promoting its fall 2008 release. Those copies have now become a collectable similar to “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Anyway, it earned $934 million worldwide, making it the eighth highest earning movie in history at that point, and second only to Avatar’s monstrous $2.49 billion initial release in 2009.
Next up will be Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2. I’m going to try to post both of those posts in consecutive days sometime between now and next weekend. Then I’ll look at the two Fantastic Beast movies (I’ve only seen the first one so far). After that, I might look at a couple of odds and ends. At this point, I’m planning to kick off 2021 with Sean Connery month.