Well, for me, at least. Spoilers alert, obviously.
I doubt Half-Blood Prince (HBP) is the first of such case. But, the notion that ‘film adaptations will always suck’ has been deeply ingrained among different fandoms. Understandable considering film studios constantly betray our trust. Unfortunate because it drives us to close-mindedness.
Traumatised by Goblet of Fire and Order of Phoenix, I had a very low expectation of HBP the film. In fact, it is the only Harry Potter film that I watched years after its release, as in years after part one of The Deathly Hallows was released. I first watched it on DVD; obviously, I was blown away. I should have watched it in the theatre.
I will go into details of why I love the adaptation more than the source material. But, first, I am going to briefly explain why I love the film as an entity in its own right.
Unusual for today’s for-profit cinema, HBP embraces a calm-paced and dialogue-driven manifestation of storytelling; it shows how fast-pacing, exuberance and physicality are unessential for engaging the audience. The tinted cinematography perfectly evokes a combined ambience of mystery and serenity, darkness and lightness. The abundant special effects look wonderfully seamless and visually enhance the narrative instead of distracting us from it. Despite the long duration, I don’t feel exhausted watching it. The acting has greatly improved. I think it is the most artistic film in the entire franchise.
And the novel does not have the film’s level of thoughtfulness.
Yes, it also wholeheartedly embraces calmness and dialogue-driven storytelling. But, the blandness is just overwhelming. The mystery does not arouse the curiosity in me. The depiction of the dark side of humanity fails to unsettle me. It does not share the enthrallment of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. It feels like I am just reading meaningless stacks of letters.
Let me first go into details with the Pensieve scenes. If I remember correctly, the film Dumbledore only retrieved two memories; one shows Tom Riddle’s first meeting with Dumbledore in the orphanage and another shows teenaged Riddle asking Slughorn about Horcruxes. The novel Dumbledore retrieved a lot more, including ones that occurred after Riddle’s Hogwarts years and even one that occurred before his birth!
And yet, film Tom Riddle has been way more compelling to me! We all know that adaptations have been plagued with a disease called ‘shallowness’ because they cut out too many crucial elements! But, for some reasons, HBP is immune to it despite doing the same thing and that has been baffling me for years! Right now, I have one hypothesis for why this counter-intuitiveness came into being.
Maybe the cut is the secret. The film successfully insinuates Riddle’s true sociopathic nature through those two memories alone; with a combination of good acting, good dialogues and greenish colour tones (which may symbolises grotesque non-human quality), they are able to capture one of humanity’s darkest manifestations in which immortality is worth the immorality.
The book, on the other hand, fails to evoke the same sinister air. In those two particular memories, young Riddle is also strongly insinuated as a sociopath. But, the other memories overload us with ‘unnecessary’ information to the point of diluting the omniousness. Oh, and mind the air quote on the word ‘unnecessary’.
Judging from some comments I read online, other potheads take issue with how the film omits other memories which not only contain more information about Riddle’s life when he still had a nose, they also contain information regarding the origins of his Horcruxes. They want more exposition from the memories.
Obviously, this is a matter of preferences. As much as data are important for better understanding of the fictional universe, subtlety is the winner for me. I prefer to gain my knowledge of the worldbuilding through subtexts and ambience. The less tangible it is, the better. I love the challenge of exploring what is beneath the frequently void and deceptive surface.
I know this is subject to diverging interpretations. In fact, this makes a work of art and entertainment more captivating for me to study. Besides, it is not like hard data are convincing anyway. For example: many potheads still refuse to call the entire Marauders bullies despite the incriminating evidence in Order of Phoenix. Why? Because they cherry pick the data and refuse to accept that heroes like James Potter, Sirius Black and Remus Lupin are flawed human beings. They cannot accept that you can hate both Snape and the entire Marauders, that you can hate both the greater evil and the lesser evil! For fuck’s sake! Why can’t fans be more reasonable for once?
Now, back to the topic…
Not everyone will agree with the omission of memories. But, I am sure a large portion of the HP fandom would agree with this statement: the film adaptation has more emotional weight than the original source material, especially on two particular scenes. I think you can guess which ones.
One is where Harry encouraged Slughorn to relinquish his Tom Riddle memory. Just in case not everyone can guess.
In the original book version, Slughorn was being his usual selfish self and the only emotion he felt was fear, the fear of being judged. And Harry was extremely odd here; he had a sinister, somewhat threatening vibe. He was not his usual self, acting like a predator drooling over the sight of a vulnerable prey. Maybe it was the liquid luck talking, acting like a mind-controlling parasite. Overall, it is a bizarre and displeasing scene.
Compared that to film version. Besides evoking the same fear, the potion master also felt guilt; he believed he contributed to the death of his beloved student, Harry’s own mother, by unintentionally feeding Riddle’s sociopathy. Beneath the self-serving mask, film Slughorn has a great sense of humanity, so great to the point of claiming responsibility for the murder he didn’t commit! And he was not the only sensitive soul in that scene.
Film Harry was also kinder. Instead of being a psychological predator, he encouraged the potion master to confront and overcome his own demons. It felt like he genuinely cared about Slughorn’s emotional well-being; every single one of his word is laced with heartfelt sincerity. In fact, at this point, it feels like the liquid luck has worn off completely; no longer Harry has his brain contaminated by the potion. Oh, and don’t forget about the emotionally-enhancing symbolism.
Slughorn recalled when Lily gifted him a lily petal that turned into a fish when it sank to the bottom of the fish bowl. On the day of her death, the fish disappeared without a trace. For me, it is a hurtful reminder of how death is the end of our earthly existence; no longer we sustain any forms of physical presence in this world. Eventually, we will exist entirely in fond yet painful memories. Without this symbolism, the expression of Slughorn’s personal pain would be stale in comparison.
Another heart-rendering scene I have in my head is, of course, Dumbledore’s death. Again, I don’t have the precise reason why the film version has the stronger emotional punch for me. But, again, I also have a hypothesis.
In the book, there is no doubt that the characters are struck with grief. But, the story seems to focus less on the emotion itself and more on the matter-of-fact consequences which, in this case, is the decreasing sense of stability and security. Less like the death of a loved one and more like the assassination of a public figure whose presence brings hope among socially-conscious individuals. It is almost like the readers are encouraged to sentimentally detached themselves from the scene.
The film version, on the other hand, does not care much about the event’s social and political impacts on the wizarding world. It believes grief is a very human reaction and it just appropriate to give it most of the spotlight after the earthly departure of a major and beloved character. And yes, the film version of this scene also contains powerful symbolism.
After seeing the sight of the headmaster’s lifeless body, almost every Hogwarts resident in the vicinity was unable to hold back their tears. McGonagall held her wand upward to the sky in respect and others follow suit, each tip of their wands illuminates mournfully. Then, those lights dispersed the menacingly-hovering dark mark. Slowly but surely, it disintegrated entirely, swallowed by the dark night sky. Even in our most harrowing moments in life, love and unity can still outshine hatred and evil. It does sound naive. But, the film makes it sound hopeful.
Unlike the Slughorn scene, I actually love Dumbledore’s farewell in both versions. I love the more emotional approach of the film and the more sociopolitical one of the novel. Ideally, it would be delightful to combine both (even though it is easier said than done). But, if I have to take a pick, it would be the emotional approach.
I am delighted every time a work of entertainment touches on real life social issues; if done right, it can be intellectually intriguing and won’t come off as pretentious. But, I crave the ‘human connection’ even more. I find the completely unemotional approaches to storytelling exceptionally cold and as a reader/an audience member, I feel detached from the characters. I want intimate immersion, I don’t want to be a mere observer.
No more glory
At first, I wanted to group the scene where Harry lets go the potion textbook along with Slughorn’s memory relinquishment and Dumbledore’s farewell. But, I realise that, unlike those two, this scene is more psychological than emotional*. Well, in the film version, at least.
After casting Sectumsempra, novel Harry scrambled to save his ass by hiding the textbook in the room of requirement; he was trying to avoid backlashes from the teachers (and he failed, of course. Seriously, he cast a potentially-fatal spell! What did he expect?). Just like Dumbledore’s farewell, it seems to be mostly motivated by pragmatism. The guilt is faintly present as we mostly see Harry’s frustration with his punishment.
The film does not imply any forms of penalties at all. In this scene, we only focus on Harry’s own psyche. Realising what he had done, he felt tremendous guilt for letting his lust of glory made him harm another human being. Ginny offered a hand by taking him to the room of requirement where they could hide the blasted book. He closed his eyes as told while she was searching for the hiding spot. Then, after storing it away forever, she calmly kissed him on the lips. He opened his eyes to find him alone. He smiled.
Besides guilt, romantic love seems to be one of the main subject matters here. But, from my point-of-view, contentment is the culmination. Contentment of how his loved ones will always help him in his lowest points in life, how they will always be on his side when others will eventually abandon him among the filth. The quietness of the room does not represent loneliness or solitude, it represents serenity that accentuates Harry’s personal contentment.
Once again, I prefer the film version over the novel one. I love the former for revealing how self-aware our hero is of his own vice. The latter’s mostly focus on him getting frustrated for being deservedly punished (and getting constantly pestered by Hermione). It is obvious which version displays maturity.
Oh, I almost forgot about the humour… which I have no problem with. In both versions, it is subtle in nature and modest in quantity. No stupid and forced jokes in sight.
‘It is not canon!’
(A disclaimer: the words below are based on the arguments that happened inside my head. I love having imaginary arguments with imaginary people)
One may argue that the adaptation is not a part of the canon. It does not matter if Rowling approved it herself; she did not write the script and therefore not representative of the official Harry Potter universe. I accept such statement because it is still within reason. But, in this particular discussion (as if this is a direct two-way communication), it is completely irrelevant.
Yes, Rowling established the story idea. But, that does not mean she will always act out the storytelling impeccably. Like it or not, the one who came up with it may make use of ill-suited approaches and may not realise of its full potential. Like it or not, being a part of the canon is not a benchmark of excellence, having a delightful presentation is.
We are dealing with fiction here. If artistic merit is your main concern, don’t focus on the storytellers and idea conceivers. Focus on the storytelling itself!
*’Psychological’ is something related to human psyche in general and ’emotional’ is related to emotion, which is a part of the human psyche. In the context of my essay, ‘psychological’ means it strongly asserts itself through the writings and screen. ‘Emotional’ is similar to that, but you take it to the heart. I know it is confusing. But, that’s the best way I distinguish both from each other.
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