Reviewing a film based on a book you haven’t read is always a dicey proposition—you likely missed or misread the winks and nods aimed at the readers surrounding you—but I think an exception can be made in the case of a film that works because you haven’t read the source material. So I begin with an admission: I can’t read the Harry Potter novels. I got through 100 pages of the first three and stopped once I realized that they are, on the whole, terrible; and that when they rise to the level of unsubtle Dickensian grotesquerie (minus the wit), they’re merely awful. But I mostly enjoy the films, which dispense the requisite infodumps in digestable bits and—by virtue of being films—relieve J.K. Rowling of the burden of pretending to be Mervyn Peake.
The best of them is Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but that has more to do with having Cuarón at helm than the quality of the source material, as his filmography consists of superior treatments of the same narratives at play in Rowling’s novels: a tale set in a strict boarding house during a period of great struggle (A Little Princess), about an orphan with an unknown destiny and mysterious benefactors (Great Expectations) who comes of age sexually (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as the fate of the human race is being decided (Children of Men). But even with Cuarón behind camera, the film felt forced—as if the removal of Rowling’s expository indulgence required a labor so great, evidence of it clung to the film like slight stains in the pits of an otherwise smart shirt.
The same cannot be said of the latest film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, in which the narrative excess of the novels becomes a matter of allusion over excision. The result? The first film in the series to have the effect the novels are wrongly purported to: it presents an unnerving and captivating account of a world and moment the audience can't fully fathom. The confusion was compelling: I was drawn into situations whose meaning escaped me, but whose significance was clear, and so I spent the entire film intellectually engaged. In the previous films, all the guns belonged to Chekov, and you appreciated the arrangement of the firing squad or you didn’t—but in either case, you knew which guns would be fired because the overwhelmed screenwriter removed anything that might be mistaken for a decoy.
The earlier films never alluded; they either explicated at length or vehemently pointed at the mystery the movie would explain. In The Half-Blood Prince, David Yates includes scenes whose importance is not established by the mere fact of their inclusion. The narrative wanders, forcing the audience to debate which of the various elements will ultimately be meaningful. Will it be the stroking and stoking of Ron’s ego? The development of Harry and Hermoine’s increasingly complex friendship? The pangs of conscience Draco Malfoy felt upon murdering a bird? Or will it be one of the many other expertly-acted, deftly-directed scenes in which, for the first time, everyone not named Alan Rickman seemed comfortable in their character’s skin? The narrative ambiguity, coupled with a pace that allowed scenes to develop such that motivations were intimated rather than immediately revealed, resulted in a film that was strikingly adult in weight and complexity, to which American critics responded by saying:
A giant two-and-a-half-hour YAAAWN.
This movie went on and on and on and on and on.
Not only did all of those sentences appear in a single review, they appeared in three consecutive sentences:
Boooooooooring. A giant two-and-a-half-hour YAAAWN. This movie went on and on and on and on and on.
Granted, that was Debbie Schlussel, who time and again has proven her intelligence to be inversely proportional to her estimation of it. But she’s not alone. Rex Reed, the very bellwether of popular American opinion on film, thinks that
the sixth and worst installment is two and a half hours of paralyzing tedium, featuring another colossal waste of British talent and a plot a real witch couldn’t find with a crystal ball. The kids at Hogwarts no longer have any relevance. They have never heard of iPods, cell phones or the Internet.
He complains about the gorgeous, subdued cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who previously worked with the notoriously muted Jean-Pierre Jeunet on visually uninspired films like Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, and is the second untalented cinematographer in a row David Yates has chosen to work alongside—the first being Slawomir Idziak, a Polish hack so dumb his director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, had to name his films after the color of the desired palette lest Idziak murk them up. I daresay that anyone who complains about the cinematography of The Half-Blood Prince knows nothing about the medium he or she is paid to write about in, say, the Wall Street Journal:
[The film] may suffer by comparison to visual memories of the first film, which wasn’t all that wonderful but teemed with wondrous images.
The film was so dull and so visually unstimulating that, at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis forgot how families work, writing:
The chosen one, Harry has been commissioned to destroy the too-little-seen evildoer Voldemort, a sluglike ghoul usually played by Ralph Fiennes (alas, seen only briefly this time out) and here played, in his early embodied form as Tom Riddle, by the excellent young actors Hero Fiennes Tiffin and Frank Dillane. There must be a factory where the British mint their acting royalty: Hero, who plays the dark lord as a spectrally pale, creepy child of 11, is Ralph Fiennes’s nephew[.]
Ms. Dargis, if I may, you answered your question about this hypothetical actor factory in the previous sentence. It’s called “the Fiennes family,” and its existence has been known about for the better part of two decades. It seems that when confronted with anything resembling complexity, the popular American critical establishment falls asleep—by which I mean, they reveal themselves to be whatever it is one becomes after spending a lifetime trying to catch up to the lowest common denominator.
If I were a more generous person, I’d note that the reason these critics were bored by the film was because they knew what would happened—it being the plot of the only book they read that year—and wanted the film to get on with it already. Dargis as much as admits exactly that: “[T]he lag time between the final books and the movies has drained much of the urgency from this screen adaptation, which, far more than any of the previous films, comes across as an afterthought.” This impatience with development is a symptom of a collective addiction to novelty in American culture, one which results not only the unwillingness to glory in a studied presentation of the end of adolescence, but in the elevation of incurious, anti-intellectual populists like Sarah Palin to national prominence. Meanwhile, across the pond . . .