Sunday, 19 July 2009

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Superior adaptations of inferior novels (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) 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...

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