HP6: THE REAL BIG DEAL SUMMER MOVIE
As we approach the end if the Harry Potter franchise it occurred to someone to wonder if there was ever anybody watching the movies who hadn't read the books; and conversely, what someone who knew nothing at all about the series would think if he were plopped down to watch “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”
My guess on the first question would be, probably not.
My guess on the second is that the person would realize that he was watching a carefully thought out and richly detailed fantasy world, peopled by easily-identified archetypes undergoing adventures that resonate recognizably with world folklore, but that he couldn't quite get what was going on.
But even if the plot entirely eluded our putative neophyte, he would know he was watching a hell of an exciting movie. And for those of us who've been with the story from the beginning, all the threads are starting to come together.
The sixth book may be my favorite in the series, because it's the one where we finally get around to learning where Lord Voldemort came from. Under the pretense of giving Harry private lessons, Headmaster Dumbledore guides our hero through several flashbacks disguised as memories witnessed in the mysterious Pensieve. We see Voldemort's parents, as the last female descendant of Salazar Slytherin marries the handsome Muggle, Tom Riddle; we see Dumbledore's first interview with young Tom Riddle at the orphanage, and a teen-age Tom Riddle confronting his last Slytherin relative, and stealing the brute's wand to murder his own father.
But by far the most important of the memories concerns Riddle's discovery of the horcruxes, a nefarious method of splitting up his soul and hiding parts of it in order to make himself immortal.
This most important detail in Voldemort's backstory will resonate with ballet fans, because the villain in Igor Stravinsky's fairy tale ballet “The Firebird” is an old Russian folk tale character called Koschei the Deathless. Koschei cannot be killed by conventional means because his soul is hidden separate from his body inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a hare, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under an oak tree, which is on an island in the ocean. As long as his soul is safe, he cannot die.
This leads us – stick with me here – to James Frazer's “The Golden Bough,” the standard work on magic. Frazer tells tales from all over the world that share this element:
“...in the opinion of primitive people, the soul may temporarily absent itself from the body without causing death...If only the safety of the soul can be ensured during its absence, there is no reason why the soul should not continue absent for an indefinite time; indeed a man may, on a pure calculation of personal safety, desire that his soul should never return to his body. It is not needful that the life... should be in the man; it may be absent from his body and still continue to animate him by virtue of a sort of sympathy or action at a distance... In such circumstances, primitive man takes his soul out of his body and deposits it for security in some snug spot, intending to replace it in his body when the danger is past. Or if he should discover some place of absolute security, he may be content to leave his soul there permanently. The advantage of this is that, so long as the soul remains unharmed in the place where he has deposited it, the man himself is immortal; nothing can kill his body, since his life is not in it.”
And there you have Rowling's concept of the horcrux, which young Tom Riddle learns from Professor Horace Slughorn (the superb Jim Broadbent), a charming but sycophantic Potions teacher who “collects” important (read influential) people, and who tells Tom all he needs to know to split his soul into seven hidden parts.
(This is just to give you an idea of the range of Rowling's research; but if you want to branch out and read “The Golden Bough,” good on you.)
The movie audience does not see all of these memories, because screenwriter Steve Kloves, who has scripted all of the Potter movies except “Order of the Phoenix,” has become increasingly adept at streamlining over the last nine years. In “Philosopher's Stone” he slavishly copied almost everything in Rowling's book except the punctuation. By the time he got to “Prisoner of Azkaban” he and director Alfonso Cuarón were getting the hang of cutting characters and cute details without making it feel like a Reader's Digest Condensed Book.
Now, in “The Half-Blood Prince,” Kloves and director David Yates have perfected a formula that has given us the best movie of the summer, a headlong rush of thrills that takes time for subtle comedy (the Hogwarts kids are succumbing to some really strong hormonal surges) and intriguing character work (Draco Malfoy is becoming the most interesting person in the story). A lot of stuff that feels like padding falls by the wayside. (Will you miss Mundungus Fletcher, or the annoying Peeves? Unlikely.)
J. K. Rowling rejoices in the details of the world she has created, and they are delightful, exciting, and moving, but they sometimes become cutesy and repetitive, and derail the narrative. The film team has produced an entertainment that follows the contours of Rowling's story, but without the distractions, even if it has also left out some interesting plot points, such as Voldemort's parentage.
The look of the films (and of the Warner Brothers logo at the opening) has been getting darker, bleaker, and gloomier with each entry, leading now to the death of a main character (in case there's one person out there who hasn't read it, I won't say who dies), so I'm happy to report that “Half-Blood Prince” also contains the funniest moment of the whole series, when Ron ingests a powerful love potion that was meant for Harry. Rupert Grint has been a stalwart supporting actor, and here he's finally allowed to go over the top in a scene that's easily worth the price of admission.
Warner Brothers plans to split the last book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” into two movies, and fans will have to decide whether it's a noble effort to include more of the book's details, or a cynical ploy to make more money. D'you think it might be both?