Bridging the Gap Between the Underworld and the Ordinary
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the first Harry Potter film I ever saw in theaters. None of the others have fared well by comparison to that first experience. I was visiting my grandparents, who lived just north of Hollywood at the time, for a birthday trip. I had turned fifteen, and for the first time my age was close enough to that of the titular character that I could truly identify with him (as well as most of the other teens in the movie). I saw an evening showing of Half-Blood Prince in the Chinese theater, and all of these things came together to create an amazing viewing experience that still puts a smile on my face. So, whenever I am asked what my favorite Harry Potter film is, there is no hesitation when I answer. It has, and most likely will always be, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I know this site has been filled with reviews lauding Prisoner of Azkaban as the best Potter film, and I’m willing to admit that there is a chance it is slightly better (I have not had a chance to see it recently, it’s on the to-do list), but I will always prefer the sixth film. This got me thinking about the differences between the subjective “favorite” versus the objective “best” debate, and the merits of each, and I think there is no better film for me to reflect on the virtues of the former than this ethereal picture.
Half-Blood Prince is the first, and perhaps only, Harry Potter film to feel like it isn’t trying to be a good “Harry Potter film” and just does its best at being a good film. The seventh film has a similar tone, and Azkaban encapsulates what it is to be a Harry Potter film the best, but my point stands. In the sixth cinematic installment of the franchise, Harry Potter and his friends are ordinary British teens placed in extraordinary circumstances, but instead of focusing on the circumstances, the film chooses to focus on the teens – and is much better off because of it. The opening scenes set the tone perfectly: Harry and Dumbledore are surrounded by cameras going off, Voldemort is alive and his two greatest foes stand resolved yet utterly alone. Death Eaters terrorize Londoners and grab a hooded Ollivander. Cut to the front page of the Daily Prophet, the opening scene now immortalized in black and white, and Harry Potter sitting in a subterranean cafe, flirting with a cute girl.
“Harry Potter, who’s Harry Potter?”
“Um, no one.”
And that, is really what The Half-Blood Prince is about: dual identity. Normalcy atop chaos, and the beauty, comedy, romance, and tragedy it yields. It is a mature and melancholy film like few others – and like no other in the Harry Potter franchise (though Deathly Hallows Part I comes close).
Here we have a film that uses the Fantasy its genre would pigeonhole it with as a means to understand the ordinary, rather than as its subject matter. It’s Jungian, though perhaps not as careful and precise with it as something like Star Wars. We follow Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they navigate the trials and tribulations of late adolescence. As Dumbledore says, “Ah, to be young and feel love’s keen sting,” and indeed, that is what the film focuses on primarily. Hermione, who has been harboring feelings towards Ron for perhaps a couple of years now, is devastated when the ginger-haired bag of hormones becomes attached (quite literally) to Lavender Brown. Likewise, Harry is disheartened that Ginny is “currently dating Dean Thomas,” a “slick git” by all accounts. On the lighter side of things, Cormac McLaggen eats dragon’s balls, Ron points his wand really hard and “makes it snow”, and Harry is asked “So, did you and Ginny do it then?” by said red-headed friend. But behind all this teenage humor and (near)-copulation, Harry and Dumbledore are working together to try and figure out a mystery about the dark Lord Voldemort where Harry has to literally dunk his head into a watery collective consciousness that allows him to experience the memories of others (the pensieve). Mirroring them are Draco and Snape, who are on a dark mission of great importance, but one that is left a mystery for the audience to attempt to figure out.
As is often the case, the meeting point where all of these things come together is at the end of the film. Our protagonist imbibes some luck-potion (felix felicis, not hard liquor), and takes us on an incredibly entertaining journey to Hagrid’s (in what is I believe Radcliffe’s best performance in the franchise). There he finds a dead Aragog (the giant spider from the second one, surprise! its a ring structure), as well as Professor Slughorn, whose memory it is that Harry needs. After a moving monologue from Harry, Slughorn gives up his memory of Voldemort that reveals the dark magic to be that of the horcrux: the splitting of one’s soul and placing the pieces into objects, which can only be done by killing another person. It is then that Harry and Dumbledore go to the place where the latter believes one such object to exist: in a cave by the sea, just about the most Jungian-unconscious-type-place you can get. Now it is Dumbledore who must imbibe a potion, and this one is far less pleasant than Harry’s. After the potion is drunk Harry picks up a locket – this appears to be the Horcrux. Everything has gone smoothly, and it’s just another adventure for Harry Potter, back to the ordinary for another year.
But of course this is not the case. Dumbledore is not okay, he needs water, and Harry has no choice but to give him some from that dark lake in the cave. It is now that the underworld truly reveals itself, no longer is it hiding beneath the mundane, but it is here: countless arms of undead humanoids grabbing Harry and pulling him into the water; Dumbledore swinging his wand, filling the cave with fire; and Harry, nearly drowning, gasping for air and apparating back to Hogwarts (which mirrors the beginning of the film, when Harry apparates with Dumbledore to Slughorn’s abode).
The end of the film reveals Draco and Snape’s mysterious scheme to be the murder of Dumbledore. Death Eaters enter the castle (again, mirroring the beginning of the film with the Death Eaters in London), and the locket is found to be a replica of the original horcrux. The real tragedy is not any of these things, however: it’s that Harry will never get his childhood back. That he was pretending to be a regular teenager, but that he never was one. Not really. And that that in itself, makes him so relatable to your average adolescent: never fitting in, but having an irrepressible urge to do so (and also not to fit in, in order to fit in with the “right” people). It spoke to me at that time of my life, and it still does now, albeit in a different way. To conclude, it’s my favorite because it ties the ordinary to the extraordinary in a way that none of the other films do. And for that I love it.