At what point did the Harry Potter film franchise become a race against repetition? In J.K. Rowling’s series of popcorn-munching fantasy-lite page-turners, the cycle of familiar events is something that helps power them along. Without the susurrus of new classes, new teachers, school holidays, and the rising and falling of friendships and crushes humming in the foreground, the books would have been lost beneath a crashing din of Rowling’s hyperactive plotting. As fantastical fictionalizing of the dreary retread of school years that march one towards adulthood, the books’ magic was rarely about exploration or discovery, but rather about circling the wagons of home and hearth against the darkness outside. Repetition, in the correct dosage, helped reinforce the sense of normalcy and protection that progressively shriveled from book to darker-hued book.
In the film series — which helped instantly transform the books into just another widget in the corporate multimedia entertainment platform before they could really take on an imaginative life of their own — those same guideposts of repetition become less reassuring, though, than they do overbearing. It’s a fascinating thing, as an audience, to watch a young cast grow through the years in tandem with their quickly maturing characters. It becomes less so to watch them undergo the same kind of trials and tribulations from one film to the next.
In film number six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the threatening overtures of the Dark Lord and his wraiths of doom are gathering swiftly. Meanwhile, at Hogwarts, where new security procedures have been put into place, the students go about their business, albeit more nervously than usual. A round of thwarted romance sweeps through the trio of Ron, Hermione, and Harry, aiming to provide some lovesick cheer amidst the gloom. Where director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves go wrong almost from the start is in how they decide to toggle back and forth between the two spheres of dangerous dark-fighting and high school angst, with the latter seeming to get much more attention.
As the lead characters stumble and stagger into the first blushes of romance (the normal agonies are nicely played, and spiked with the occasional injudiciously applied love potion), the more stock story elements of the book begin to seem even more beside the point. There is yet another odd new teacher to confront, in this case a simpering toady of a potions instructor (played, it must be said, with particularly loony comic élan by Jim Broadbent), additional confrontations with evil acolyte and proto-Aryan Youth Draco Malfoy, inconclusive sparring with Severus Snape, and of course, another weary round of Quidditch.
There are times when the filmmakers appear have a difficult time even pretending to care. A scene in which Harry’s giant protector Hagrid weeps over the death of a huge spider is played as so rote that one has to wonder why it was even included. One of the film’s truly frightening moments — in which a cursed student is suddenly flung into the air, where she floats with mouth agape like a frozen scream — is barely allowed time to sink its fangs in before being concluded.
This may have simply been the result of fatigue on the part of the filmmakers, faced with so much story to power through in two and a half hours, even in abbreviated fashion. By this point in the series, the uniformly excellent cast has become so vast and the story so labyrinthine that a number of fine actors (David Thewlis, Timothy Spall) are practically reduced to walk-ons, and most minor characters have to elbow each other aside for a few bare seconds of screen time.
Maybe the worst of what afflicts The Half-Blood Prince isn’t the dulling repetition of tropes from previous films, but the feeling it imparts of a vast story machinery grinding along with more dutiful, clock-watching efficiency than passion. The announcement that Warner Bros. is stringing along their kid-wizard franchise for an extra year of revenue production by splitting the last book into two films (to be released in 2010 and 2011) may bring some hope, however. With a pair of films to sprawl across, Yates and Kloves can take their time, and access the books’ root of childhood anxieties about the terrifying encroachment of adulthood. And maybe leave the next couple Quidditch matches on the cutting room floor.