Few brands have achieved the incredible success that J.K Rowling’s world of witchcraft and wizardry has. The books, the movies, the spinoff movies, the play, the merchandise, a bigger part of Universal Studios than Jurassic Park, if you name it, a version exists with all four Hogwarts houses plastered all over it. Everyone has a Hogwarts house (or two, if you’re crazy), and whether or not you prefer the books or the movies, everyone loves Harry Potter.
However, there is one reoccurring criticism, especially of the movies. As deep and wonderful as the Harry Potter universe is, many of the movies just don’t capture the magic, pun completely intended. Frankly, binging the Harry Potter movies ends up being a bit of a chore, because while the books are different, many of the movies feel exactly the same.
Harry has a rough time with the Dursley’s, Harry goes to Hogwarts, something’s wrong inside the hallowed halls of the most prestigious wizarding school in the world. Harry, Ron, and Hermione investigate, usually leading to the conclusion that Severus Snape, the Potions professor with an ax (or a wand?) to grind, is somehow involved. Turns out, it isn’t, it’s that gosh darn Voldemort, who Harry stops, often with the help of his friends.
It changes a little with Goblet of Fire, but the only casualty is (uh… spoilers?) Cedric Diggory, a character we barely know. A book later, we lose (you’ve read the books, right?) the closest thing Harry’s had to family (or at least seen the movie?) in Sirius Black, but even then, the book manages to land on the right foot, albeit with help from Luna Lovegood’s shoes. The movies stick to the same basic formula, and sometimes they run together.
That is, except for the sixth installment, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: A Masterclass in Subversion
The first thing you notice about the Half-Blood Prince is that it doesn’t play around with the audience. There’s not a fun scene of Harry, out of place with his muggle family, nor is there a fun field trip with the Weasley family. The movie opens right before where the last one left off, Dumbledore guiding Harry through a crowd of paparazzi at the Ministry of Magic, immediately after Voldemort’s attack.
Instead of cutting to Harry back at 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, feeding Hedwig or tormenting Dudley, the movie shows us the dark mark appearing in the sky, Death Eaters attacking London. Only two volumes earlier, Harry and friends were going to a Quidditch tournament, and now there are full blown terrorist attacks.
This shows that despite the fact that we’re still living in the same magical happy-go-lucky universe that gave us adolescent Gryffindor students cringing as they ate bogey flavored Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans introduces us to the world where everyone’s worst fears came true. After a decade and a half of refusing to speak Voldemort’s name, their worst fears are confirmed and nobody, wizard or not, is safe.
As viewers, we return to the world of Harry Potter, but things are hardly the same.
Cinematically, this movie pulls off something incredible by taking everything we love about the world of Harry Potter and dimming the lights. The scenes are shot slightly darker, it always seems to be raining or overcast, and even during the scenes where Harry and his friends are just laughing and hanging out like they used to, the storm-cloud of imminent danger never really goes away.
Parents are too scared to send their children away to school, and we have a lingering shot of crumpled newspapers rolling around a deserted Diagon Alley, the place where Harry first really experienced a taste of magic. The same bustling square where Harry got his wand, bonded with Hagrid, and was given Hedwig, is deserted. This always reminded me of Return to Oz, a disturbed re-imagining of something that so many people beloved, holding near and dear.
It isn’t until the young witches and wizards are on the Hogwarts Express that we hear that familiar tune, though actually played slightly slower and out of tune, that we get the feeling of returning to Hogwarts. And as we experience the maturation of the characters, we also experience a taste of lost innocence.
For five books and movies, we were told that nowhere was safer than Hogwarts, not even Gringotts. We’re told that Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard that ever lived, and as long as as he was around, nothing bad could ever happen at this wonderful, warm, magical school. Without ever setting foot on the grounds, just thinking about Hogwarts provides a sense of warm, safe happiness.
Everything we’ve known about the world of Harry Potter is turned upside down in Half-Blood Prince. After Harry insisted that it was Snape trying to steal the Philosopher’s (or Sorcerer’s) Stone, that he was the heir of Slytherin, that he was trying to sneak Sirius Black into Hogwarts, he’s finally vindicated (kinda) with Dumbledore’s murder. After teasing it for five books, everything you’ve ever suspected about Snape is true (kinda).
Towards the end of the movie, there’s a scene where Bellatrix Lestrange destroys the Great Hall. While obviously done to play up Bellatrix’s insanity, it actually means a lot symbolically. Sure, in the cinematic universe, she’s just lashing out at an institution or a world that never accepted her, perhaps projecting some sense of guilt for the horrible atrocities she’s committed onto Hogwarts. But in the movie, it destroys the room where Harry got his broom. It destroys the room where Harry and pals won the house cup, where Harry was sorted into Gryffindor, where Ron and Harry played wizard’s chess over winter break. Of all the rooms in the great castle of Hogwarts, none had as many heartfelt moments as the Great Hall.
The Same, but Different
Without completely disturbing or distorting a universe built carefully over five movies (and the books, obviously) before it, Half-Blood Prince manages to seamlessly put you in the robe and pointy hat of everyone struggling to come to terms with their new reality, the worst case scenario. The movie doesn’t resort to doom and gloom, still giving us the struggles of grades, who is or isn’t on the Quidditch team, balancing who is snogging who, who is crushing on who, and other things that even wizards worry about at age 16.
Unlike many of the other Harry Potter movies, this one doesn’t end on a happy-go-lucky note. Dumbledore is gone, Hogwarts seems broken, and the final showdown between Harry Potter and Voldemort is inevitable. For what is ultimately a film adaptation of a children’s book series about wizards, it takes many ambitious risks and inexplicably pulls all of them off.
If only the final two movies in the series had taken this note, remembering to keep the series grounded in the same magic that millions of people fell in love with 20 years ago while still holding onto the incredible gravity of tracking down a psychopathic wizard’s trickiest trinkets.