Lost in the Movies: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (The Unseen 2009)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (The Unseen 2009)

"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time (spoilers are discussed). The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was #8 for 2009 - the next entry will be published later today.

The Story: Far from the gothic fairy-tale setting of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Scottish Highlands, wicked creatures are attacking ultramodern twenty-first century London. The fanatical Death-Eater cult - who use black magic in a campaign against sorcerers born to Muggles (non-wizard humans) - destroy the Millennium Bridge; no wonder the salty old Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) yanks his star pupil, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), away from a date with a waitress (Elarica Johnson) whom he's just worked up the nerve to ask out. Harry is needed to help save the world; romantic rites of passage can wait. And yet despite these apocalyptic stakes, Harry will spend the next days and/or weeks far from the metropolis calling out for his protection, instead helping Dumbledore recruit (and then spy upon) a former professor (Jim Broadbent), studying an old spell book altered by the mysterious "half-blood prince" in his remote academy, and - after all - navigating romances between and around himself, his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Ron's sister Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright). Distrustful of rival student Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and the imperious teacher Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Harry eventually discovers that their perniciousness runs even deeper than suspected; collaborating to bring down Harry's mentor, they end up killing Dumbledore (with Snape revealing that he himself was the half-blood prince who wrote the spells Harry has been using). Harry concludes that he must hunt down the evil Voldemort - once upon a time the brilliant but resentful Hogwarts student Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin), whom Dumbledore rescued from an orphanage. And Harry's friends insist on accompanying him on this quest.

The Context: In 2009, the Harry Potter literary/cinematic franchise had been going strong (that's an understatement) for over a decade. The first novel was published in the UK in 1997, in the U.S. a year later, and the first film adaptation finally reached screens in 2001. In retrospect, the movie versions seem as much a cultural gamechanger as the literary sources; prior to Potter, most franchises organized themselves into trilogies, usually with each film an individual standalone entry. (The Lord of the Rings series, which launched the same year as Harry Potter, challenged the second convention but not the first.) Eight years into this cinematic universe, audiences had watched the characters - and actors - grow up, which makes it all the more remarkable that Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint weren't locks to return. Indeed, the crucial role of Dumbledore had to be re-cast after the first two films when Richard Harris died, and the flashback nature of Tom Riddle's scenes also required a new actor for Half-Blood Prince. Still, what distinguishes the Potter series from, say, the scattershot Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman tetralogy is the uniformity and continuity of its storytelling, each entry building on the next and largely conforming to a consistent style. In this, the franchise serves as a bridge between early film series and the meticulously organized Marvel Cinematic Universe of the 2010s which got its early start with Iron Man a year before Half-Blood Prince.

That said, Harry Potter does not have a consistent directorial vision. Family filmmaker extraordinaire Chris Columbus oversaw the first two entries, followed by the very distinctive auteur Alfonso Cuaron and prestige journeyman Mike Newell for one film each, and then David Yates to wrap things up by helming half the series, starting with the previous film. Stephen Kloves wrote the screenplay (as he did all but one Potter film) while David Heyman continued his run of producing every entry, in this case with David Barron; he appears to have been the main force behind these adaptations alongside author J.K. Rowling. This particular film met some road bumps in its release; it was postponed despite originally being intended for the fall of 2008 (it even appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview, which the magazine compared to the premature "Dewey Beats Truman" headline from the 1948 U.S. presidential election). Concerned that its guaranteed success combined with the jawdropping performance of The Dark Knight earlier that year would leave 2009 as a weak link for the studio, Half-Blood Prince was postponed until the following summer. After this fifth contribution to the Potter trajectory, two more films (based on a single book) remained: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Parts 1 and 2 in 2010 and 2011, which would break the major franchise records that Half-Blood Prince established.

My Response: Believe it or not, this was my very first Harry Potter film...or complete entry, period. I'd seen some early minutes of the first movie on TV as well as a chunk of one of the middle ones on an airplane (though I can't remember if I wore headphones for it), and scenes from one of the final two played in the background during a family gathering years ago. But as a millennial, even an elder one, I was naturally surrounded by Harry Potter fans for much of my late adolescence and youth. My earliest memories of the book are from sophomore year of high school; my English teacher and classmates were all equally absorbed in its mythology (other bestselling pop culture sensations that made it into classroom discussion at that time were Angela's Ashes and Tuesdays with Morrie, to give a sense of the context). I always had a bit of a contrarian streak when it came to hype; around this same time, I was quite skeptical of the buzz surrounding The Sopranos, Fight Club, and American Beauty, although I ended up enjoying them all (the first especially) once I finally succumbed. But I never succumbed to Potter mania, not even when my circle of college friends dressed up as the characters for Halloween or ran to the bookstore to purchase and then devour Deathly Hallows the day of its release (one of them read all six hundred-plus pages in one sitting and felt sick that night).

From a glance at the first few pages and the Sorcerer's Stone clip that didn't hold my attention, I was satisfied in my hunch that this beloved property was overrated and didn't have a catchy enough hook to lure me in (kids study magic at a boarding school...and...?). Over the past decade, the growing backlash as Harry Potter fans comparing every political and cultural event - including the Trump administration - to motifs of the series (alongside bad blood stirred by J.K. Rowling's anti-Corbyn hysteria and obsessive insertion of herself into the anti-transgender British discourse) seemed to confirm my initial instincts. "I'm begging you to read another book!" became a familiar Twitter refrain; today, while Harry Potter remains an international juggernaut and touchstone for millions, a bit of the bloom has been tarnished by time. But precisely because I avoided it for so long, the mandate of this series demands that I finally give in. This long build-up makes the perfect pretext for a declaration that I was wrong, that after all this time indulging prejudice and snobbery I discovered the wonder of Hogwarts and have launched a deep dive into the literary and cinematic backlog. Unfortunately, my judgement is more anticlimactic; as with The Avengers a few entries back, I thought it was fine entertainment and was left neither completely alienated nor deeply impressed.

Granted, this is not the ideal entry point in the Potter universe: six films into a series whose premises and motifs I only know by osmosis, and with a particular chapter whose reputation appears to be mixed (although it was generally praised at the time). Coincidentally, I was recently listening to a political podcast which digressed from another topic to single out Yates as the weakest Potter director. By contrast, Cuaron's work on Prisoner of Azkaban is often praised as a darker, moodier exploration of this world, although the warm glow of Columbus' first two films has its adherents (especially among those who grew up with them). Harris also appears to be the more beloved Dumbledore, which makes me curious to see how he differs from Gambon, an actor I generally like and whose portrayal here I enjoyed (coincidentally, while I thought he had passed away years ago, Gambon died a few days after I watched this for the first time). My favorite performance in the film, however, was easily Alan Rickman's. I appreciated his infusion of pathos and a kind of ambiguous quasi-chivalry into a character I'd expected to just be a mopey villain. Somewhat surprisingly, I was more engaged with the "ordinary" aspects of the story - how the kids navigate the social complications of their school life - than most of the magical lore, although I was compelled by the very Anakin Skywalker-like Voldemort backstory.

My biggest surprise was the extent to which the world of magic spills out into the everyday human world (I had thought one of the story's conceits was that the wizards and witches kept their parallel existence hidden), and my second biggest surprise, once I realized this would be the case, was that the movie didn't do more to intertwine the two realms. If I catch up with the first two films as part of upcoming "Unseen" coverage (limited to Patreon at that point), and if I end up watching the last two and/or the middle ones apart from any project, I'll be curious to see how they explore that dichotomy. As a final note, since I like to place these movies in my own personal trajectory, at the time this film was released I was preoccupied with covering a series of retro screenings I was writing about for the Boston Examiner website (I earned a penny per hit and abandoned the platform early the following year). I was in my mid-twenties, had just moved to Boston, and was working at a bookstore. On the film's wide release, I'd been blogging for almost a year but the summer of 2009 was a bit slow for me and sandwiched between two periods - late 2008 and early 2010 - when I was (at least slightly) more engaged with new releases than usual. At this moment, pre-Twitter and with no more Potter fanatic roommates or classmates in my vicinity, I was as distanced from the hype as I'd ever be.

Signs of the Times: In fact, Half-Blood Prince was itself a little bit distanced from the height of Harry Potter mania. This was the first entry in the cinematic series to come out after the literary series had wrapped itself up (Deathly Hallows was published about a week into the previous film's run). Despite emerging amidst the end-of-the-millennium optimism (and latent anxiety) of the late nineties, the phenomenon probably peaked around the early to mid-zeroes, against a backdrop of the War on Terror and Iraq invasion, when it blended with other hot properties like Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars prequels whose tales of cosmic good vs. evil battles gelled with the popular mood. By 2009, both Bush and Blair had left office, war-weariness had replaced the paranoia and grandiosity of the post-9/11 world, and a global economic crash ended the sense that Brits and Americans could offload their fears and traumas onto other populations while they went shopping. Half-Blood Prince doesn't engage with any of this overtly - and in fact it was shot before the crash of October 2008 (curiously, the film contains several references to tough times which may have more to do with the fictional conditions than an attempt at topicality). However, its early scenes of spectacular carnage and themes of surveillance do call back to the earlier part of the decade. Whether or not the zeitgeist had moved on, of course, audiences were still as enthusiastic about the series as ever.

The elementary school kids who grew up on this material, wearing witch hats and carrying wands to book launches and movie premieres (imagery captured in Richard Linklater's epoch-spanning Boyhood a few years later), were by 2009 approaching or entering adulthood. In keeping with most of the "Unseen" entries thus far - Guardians of the Galaxy may be the biggest exception - this is a very millennial affair. Even as that generation gets younger while we move back in time, the films keep centering them. In this case, there are no teens or twentysomething behind the camera but, like Scott Pilgrim and Inside Out (with characters about halfway between those protagonists' ages) the film centers itself on a character coming of age and learning to navigate a confusing world. If Harry Potter connected particularly well with people born in the eighties and nineties, it isn't just a matter of timing but also resonance with cultural experience. Surrounded by older adults who carry the baggage of earlier eras into a fraught, explosive present, the young characters onscreen and on the page must deal with the consequences of decisions and conflicts they were never party to in the first place. While this has always been the story of youth, it feels particularly pertinent in the past couple decades given the size of boomer hegemony and the gap between millennial expectations and reality. Who wouldn't wish for magical powers to dispel such a curse?

Other Films: The movie of the year was not part of a pre-existing franchise. With the 3D sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, James Cameron - for the second time in a row, separated by twelve years from Titanic - defied its many skeptics to become the biggest hit of all time while Half-Blood Prince naturally landed at #2 for 2009, just shy of a billion-dollar gross worldwide (it also lost its only Oscar nomination, for Cinematography, to Avatar). A surprising number of the year's top ten were originals or first-time adaptations - 2012, Up, Angels & Demons, and the runaway comedy smash The Hangover - and even the would-be franchises like Sherlock Holmes are a bit offbeat. With an Ice Age, Transformers, and Twilight joining Harry Potter as tentpole sequels it's notable that not a single superhero film appears on this list. There was no Marvel Cinematic Universe entry this year, the last time to date that this would happen (an understatement). Among films that ranked #1 at the weekend box office from January to December, only X-Men Origins: Wolverine waved the comic book banner. This more than anything makes 2009 seem like a long time ago; as does the fact that while digital projection was becoming the norm, most studio films (including Half-Blood Prince) were still being shot on actual film.

Although Avatar received many nominations, Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow guided The Hurt Locker to Best Picture, and became the first woman to win Best Director - although its L.A. premiere qualified it for 2009, this film actually debuted a the Venice Film Festival a year earlier. Jeff Bridges won for Crazy Heart and Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side (both, in a way, indicative of the film industry's interest in "Red America" cultural touchstones at this time), while supporting awards went to Mo'Nique for Precious and Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds. Other notable movies of the year include The Baader-Meinhof Complex, The Girlfriend Experience, Paul Blart: Mall Cop (which beat out Seth Rogen's Observe and Report in the year's mall cop sweepstakes), Coraline, He's Just Not That Into You, Watchmen, Fast and Furious (which is the fourth film in the series, not to be confused with *The* Fast and *the* Furious), The Final Destination (which is also the fourth film in its series, not to be confused with no-"the" Final Destination), The Limits of Control, the Star Trek reboot, Drag Me to Hell, Public Enemies, Bruno, (500) Days of Summer, Thirst, G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, Julie & Julia, District 9, Rob Zombie's Halloween II, Bright Star, Jennifer's Body, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, A Serious Man, A Single Man, Whip It, Zombieland, An Education, Invictus, Up in the Air, Where the Wild Things Are, the CGI A Christmas Carol, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Road, Moon, Enter the Void, The White Ribbon, The Princess and the Frog - Disney's last conventionally animated feature - and remakes of Friday the 13th and Last House on the Left. My pick for Best Feature (when I was composing an "alternate Oscars" a few years later) was Antichrist which I guess is about as far from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as you can get - although one begins and one ends with a dramatic fall from a window.

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